Ordinary and Scientific Views of the World and the Nature of Language

by Mark English

I have been engaged in some private and public discussions recently about the extent to which a scientific worldview relates to our ordinary non-scientific view of the world, and I want to pull together some provisional thoughts on the matter, especially as it relates to language.

Science and ordinary thinking

As I see it, there is no clear borderline between science and ordinary thinking. Some kinds of thinking are clearly non-scientific; some kinds of thinking are clearly scientific and a long way from ordinary thinking. But we often do bits of science-like thinking in the course of ordinary life; and scientists even in the course of their work utilize ordinary day-to-day thinking as well as more rigorous forms.

Historically, science arose out of ordinary thinking. You could see this in terms of the development of various kinds of technology. Descriptive and experimental science in the modern sense came later.

Our perceptions are very much a reflection of our sensory capacities. What we perceive is inevitably limited and “slanted” from a scientific point of view. Nonetheless, one of the first steps in the process of scientific thinking could be seen to involve making the most of our perceptions, by making as complete and dispassionate a description as possible of whatever it is we are interested in. As an initial exercise, an old high school chemistry text required students to describe a burning candle. Just observe the candle and describe what you see. A very interesting and challenging exercise.

As any science develops, we get a fuller picture which is often somewhat at odds with an intuitive view. Color is a simple example. The physics and psychology of color take us a long way from our immediate perceptions.

Research in social psychology and other branches of cognitive science has thrown up many counterintuitive results, and being exposed to this material has changed the way I experience the world in significant ways. The split brain/confabulation material is especially notable, I think. But even knowing simple facts about how our eyes and visual processing systems work (filling in gaps in the “picture” and so on) changes one’s experience, at least in subtle ways. (We become less trusting of what we “see” when we realize that our visual systems are generating a picture rather than operating as a camera does.)

When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.

Wilfrid Sellars talked about this in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”:

I [might] seem … to be saying that man’s conception of himself in the world does not easily accommodate the scientific image; that there is a genuine tension between them; that man is not the sort of thing he conceives himself to be; that his existence is in some measure built around error. If this were what I wished to say, I would be in distinguished company. One thinks, for example, of Spinoza, who contrasted man as he falsely conceives himself to be with man as he discovers himself to be in the scientific enterprise. It might well be said that Spinoza drew a distinction between a ‘manifest’ and a ‘scientific’ image of man, rejecting the former as false and accepting the latter as true. But if in Spinoza’s account, the scientific image, as he interprets it dominates the stereoscopic view (the manifest image appearing as a tracery of explainable error), the very fact that I use the analogy of stereoscopic vision implies that as I see it the manifest image is not overwhelmed in the synthesis.

And nor may it be. There is a sense in which our experience of ordinary life stands as it is, not needing scientific validation. Ordinary pleasures, for example. And if you want to know what it is or was like to live in a particular place or time, science cannot really help you. But a writer of fiction might.

On the other hand, there is often, I would say, a lack of congruence between a naïve or intuitive view of certain things and a scientifically informed view. Sellars seems to concede this when he talks about the manifest image competing with and not being overwhelmed by the scientific image in the stereoscopic synthesis of which he speaks.

I am uncomfortable with the metaphor of stereoscopic vision. Implicit in the analogy is the assumption that some kind of real synthesis (leading to a better or deeper view) is possible. In the above quote, Sellars concedes that the analogy carries implicit claims. And in some cases, such a synthesis may be possible. But I see no a priori or other reason to believe that a “stereoscopic” vision is always or even often possible. (Take the case of the examples cited above: experiencing pleasures, or what it is like to live in a certain time and place. Science, social or otherwise, doesn’t really help us much.)

Without going as far as Spinoza, I would say however that there often is a tension between a ‘natural’ (for us) and a scientific (decidedly unnatural for most of us) way of seeing the world. There is no reason to think that a perfect balance is possible – or even that this way of putting things (“perfect balance” etc.) makes sense. It is a metaphor, not unlike that of stereoscopic vision. I would say that some people lean towards a scientific way of seeing things (where that is appropriate, and sometimes where it is inappropriate); others have no time for science or science-like thinking. Most of us, I would suggest, alternate between completely unscientific modes and more scientific ways of thinking, depending on what it is we are dealing with at the time.

Temperamental factors inevitably play a role here. This, I suspect, is unavoidable. For example, I confess to having a certain sympathy with and affinity for Spinoza’s way of seeing things. But I would certainly not go as far as rejecting as false the manifest image (as Sellars represents him as doing). This would be an extreme – and untenable – view.

Language

Very rarely do you come across a set of ideas that is truly exciting. One such set of ideas – which altered my younger self’s view of the world, and which continues to affect the way I see things today – concerns the way that language relates to thought and to the world. There is also the question, which has only relatively recently become amenable to scientific investigation, of how language is generated in and processed by the brain. The common theme here is that the forms of language do not necessarily reflect non-linguistic realities.

It is a feature of intellectual history that developments in scientific disciplines allow us to see certain general ideas in a new light. Not only that: in so doing, they winnow the theoretical wheat from the chaff.

Not all ideas are equal. Ideas which have a bearing on science need to be tested against the science of the time (unlike moral notions, say, which are tested in other ways). Some ideas will survive this process, some will not. Sometimes, of course, discarded ideas will be rehabilitated as the science in question develops.

The idea I am discussing here concerns the nature and role of natural language and its capacity to help us see and articulate important general truths. There is no doubt about the importance of language as a social and cognitive tool. Language clearly enables many forms of social interaction which are impossible for non-linguistic creatures. The effectiveness of linguistic communication in practical terms is not in question, when it comes to facilitating various forms of social interaction, for example, or making simple assertions about the physical world.

Language also modifies and enhances our cognitive capacities in ways that are yet to be fully explicated. But what it does not do is provide a window into reality. We may use it to help us discover truths about the world but language per se does not reflect or embody these truths.

Religious and philosophical writers with a mystical disposition have long understood that their attempts to capture their total vision, their view of the world, in strings of words were doomed to failure. The best that could be hoped for was a certain amount of ‘brush-clearing’ (clearing up of misunderstandings, etc.) coupled with very provisional assertions. The proposed metaphors and models, claims and doctrines necessarily fall short. The reader/listener always has to take the last step and see for himself or herself. Unless one is dealing with simple and limited and ultimately practical statements about how things stand, what is seen or understood – the Gestalt, if you like – can never be put into words.

At least since the 19th century, certain thinkers have had a sophisticated understanding of how we can be misled in our thinking by natural language. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose academic training was in philology, believed that an implicit – and inevitably misleading – metaphysics may be discerned the pattern of the grammar of any given language.

Questions about the nature and limitations of language can be approached in many different ways, some intuitive, some more intellectual and scientifically informed. In the 1980’s, Paul Churchland and others put forward a radical position on this and other matters which attracted a lot of attention. Arguably his views were/are extreme, and they have been savagely criticized by philosophers in the Sellarsian tradition. (Ironically, Churchland himself was influenced by Sellars who was his dissertation advisor.) But, as William Ramsey points out in his account of Eliminative Materialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Churchland’s approach takes on a different aspect if it is seen in the light of the research program with which it has always been closely associated. It may be justified in pragmatic terms.

One virtue of eliminative materialism is that it liberates our theorizing from [a] restrictive perspective. Thus, the relationship between Eliminative Materialism and science may be more reciprocal than many have assumed. While it is true that eliminative materialism depends upon the development of a radical scientific theory of the mind, radical theorizing about the mind may itself rest upon our taking seriously the possibility that our common sense perspective may be profoundly mistaken.

I certainly don’t want to defend a particular metaphysical position here, but any conceptual framework which removes unnecessary constraints or limits from the scientific enterprise seems to serve a useful function. I know from experience that harmony between our pre-theoretical intuitions and perceptions and scientific findings does not always prevail, and so we always need to remain open to the possibility that at certain points our perspectives may need to be revised, even perhaps radically.

I have some problems with eliminative materialism, as it happens (even apart from the fact that the word “materialism” has a very 19th-century feel to it). But my focus here is language, not metaphysics. And my intention is simply to articulate what I believe is a very important insight about language, an insight which came to fruition in a particular strand of 20th-century thought and was shared, in slightly different forms, by a surprisingly wide range of thinkers. As I see it, the insight has two aspects and involves two main claims.

One claim is that language, given the central role that it plays in our lives, misleads us into thinking there is something in our brains which reflects or mirrors the forms of language (those strings of sounds or characters, sentences and so on). Sure, the processes of the encultured brain (that is, the properly-functioning brain of a person who has grown up in a particular linguistic community) generate the linguistic forms which manifest themselves in spoken and written language, and the brain can process and interpret these forms. But these forms are not ‘in the brain’ as such. They are social. They are cultural. They are practical, a kind of technology. They do what they do. (Basically, they facilitate social and cultural life, and modify our thinking.)

Secondly, not only do these linguistic structures not reflect brain structures (as a naïve view might imagine they do), they do not reflect the structure of most other aspects of the world either.

These are (in my view) important truths and their implications are potentially quite profound for how we see ourselves and the world. But spelling things out in anything like a satisfactory way – and I’m not sure that you can ever be completely lucid and explicit in this area – would have to include a certain amount of science (e.g. basic neurophysiology).

For early (philosophical and psychological) behaviorists the brain was – necessarily – a ‘black box’. But in the latter part of the last century we began to get an understanding of how the brain actually operates. This new knowledge had a profound effect on many areas of research, one of which was linguistics where connectionist – and specifically neural network – models were developed to replace (or at least supplement) the rule-based models which had been dominant until the 1980’s. The crucial point here is that it was realized that, though language operates in what appears to be a rule-based way, the actual processing which produces these linguistic forms is not linear or based in any way on high-level rules. The forms (and “rules”) of language emerge from more basic processes.

This leads us, I think, to see language in a new way. And it lends support to those who argued (for other reasons) that we should not assume that linguistic structures reflect – or can articulate in a satisfactory way – the underlying structures of reality.

75 Comments »

  1. Also, it seems that neuroscience and behaviourism are more relevant to rhetoric than they are to reasoning. In rhetoric we wish to get the audience to assent to certain propositions or to be in a certain frame of mind, without necessarily caring that they understand why they are true or even if they are true.

    So if neuroscience tells us that certain words, combination of words, repetitions, or rhythms will deliver certain chemicals to certain receptors and that this will increase the probability that the audience will find themselves in agreement with the speaker or writer, then the rhetorician would certainly use this information to his advantage.

    After all rhetoricians have been doing the same thing by trial and error for millennia.

    But reasoning, in its purest form, must provide reasons to believe the proposition that are independent of any underlying mechanism by which they are believed.

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  2. davidlduffy

    “… “Chrucky distinguish[es] a Common Sense Image from the Manifest Image, and hold[s] that the Common Sense Image recognizes the existence of absolute processes which also act as models for the theoretical posits of the Scientific Image.” I don’t think there are nice joints here.”

    Thanks for your views and the references. If ever I attempt a proper analysis/critique of Sellars’ framework, I’ll have a close look at them.

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  3. ejwinner

    “The world *is* a dangerous place. No amount of logic or science or social science, no governmental policy, will change that. The best we can we get is a close community with which we can communicate honestly […] or abstraction into separation from any community as I have had to experience… This harsh reality has led me into the latter. I hope your own reality has led you into the former… In any event, have a very good New Year.”

    That close community you refer to remains elusive but close connections here and there keep me hopeful.

    Happy New Year to you too – and all.

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  4. So it seems that reason, for all its admitted limitations, is still there playing a key role.

    That is amply confirmed by the fact that that there people trying to deny the importance of reason by employing reason. The very act of making the argument defeats their argument.

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  5. I don’t think it matters that language doesn’t reflect the underlying structures of reality, whatever they turn out to be.

    It doesn’t matter that language is not linear and doesn’t operate according to high level rules. Most people never assumed that it did.

    If language cannot articulate the underlying structures of reality in a satisfactory way then we would just have to settle for articulating those structures in an unsatisfactory way because it is really the only game in town. Whatever framework we adopt, Eliminative Materialism or anything else, we will have to express it in language.

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  6. When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.

    I see this tension every time my wife cooks. She will bring water to the boil and leave it boiling vigorously during the cooking. She rejects my claim that a gentle boil cooks just as fast since the temperature will not rise higher. She trusts her senses(the sight of vigorously boiling water) more than my theory laden explanation.

    And if I discuss it further she will produce her winning retort – so what? Scientists don’t know everything!

    I hesitate and stutter before replying and her slow smile of triumph ends the argument. She lives in a value laden world, suffused with meaning and purpose. Good, bad and suffering are real and ever present. Beauty is all around. Some things are worthy of awe and reverence. We have a duty to do good, feel compassion and help the suffering. She loves her family and friends deeply, intently and completely. She reads a great deal of fiction and this confirms her experience of life. Science seemingly has no bearing on the major part of her experience of life.

    My wife’s simple and intuitive reply – Scientists don’t know everything – is right on the mark. It has no explanation for those aspects of life that are most real and vital to her. Nor does she want the explanation since that would drain meaning from her experience of life. She understands that these aspects of life require no explanation because they are complete and sufficient in themselves. They are their own justification.

    The reductive mechanisms of science drain meaning from these concepts and they add nothing. I don’t say this to my wife because I am still trying to persuade her to use less energy while boiling eggs. I had better go easy on that score because she is likely to reply by advising me to boil the eggs.

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  7. Robin and labnut

    Robin Herbert wrote: “Sometimes I think that people make too much of the limitations of language… A good analogy here is from communications technology. If you have an unreliable communications channel, you can still set up a reliable communications channel over it. Although it sounds paradoxical it is true. It is more or less true of language too… If I have an idea I wish to convey to someone and they understand the idea I meant to convey then I have used language successfully, whether or not they agree with what I said… Also, if they did not understand the idea I meant to convey and I am able to establish, by further conversation, that they did not understand what I meant to convey then, again, I have used language successfully. Either I can try again in a different way, or perhaps there was something wrong with my own understanding of the idea. Or perhaps they aren’t interested enough to engage… In all these cases language has done its job, for all of its imperfections. Even if I want to convey and idea and I don’t know whether or not they have understood, then language has still done its job. Where it goes wrong is where I want to convey an idea and I am under the impression that they have understood, but really they have not. We can’t expect perfection but these cases can be kept to a minimum if the subject is important enough.”

    There are a couple of possible responses here. Much of what you say seems to fit pretty well an instructional or teaching situation, but it may be problematic as an analysis of other types of context.

    I endorse what labnut said:

    “You are talking about the presence of an error correcting channel, common in physical communications systems. But in the messy world of human interaction this is uncommon where we are plagued not only by corruption of the channel but by gaps in the channel, chief of which are contextual and background assumptions that speaker assumes, for reasons of economy, need not be spelled out…”

    But I think I would want to go even further and critique the very idea of “conveying” an idea or a message.

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  8. Robin Herbert

    “I don’t think it matters that language doesn’t reflect the underlying structures of reality, whatever they turn out to be… It doesn’t matter that language is not linear…”

    I may be being a bit pedantic here but, given how confusing and difficult it is to discuss these questions, I think we need to be. Language *is* linear; but it is generated by a non-linear process or set of processes.

    “… and doesn’t operate according to high level rules. Most people never assumed that it did.”

    Not so sure about that. I think it matters how we conceptualize language and syntax etc.. There is a natural tendency to hypostatize abstract concepts, for example, to believe there is necessarily some thing “behind the word” as it were. And we are often misled by the structures of language also (as Nietzsche believed).

    These issues are not clear-cut but my view of language and linguistic communication has changed over the years. I am more aware – partly through experience, partly through literary reading and partly through more scientific reading – of the complexities and pitfalls than I used to be. I have become aware of the way linguistic communication “papers over” huge discrepancies in how the interlocutors see things. So I see it as more of a “surface” phenomenon than I used to.

    There is a footnote in one of Aldous Huxley’s essays about a huge gulf suddenly seeming to open up between himself and someone he was chatting to by the fireside on a cold winter’s night. He was making a similar point to the one I am making. Huxley was a bit of a mystic, of course, but also very much engaged with science.

    “If language cannot articulate the underlying structures of reality in a satisfactory way then we would just have to settle for articulating those structures in an unsatisfactory way because it is really the only game in town.”

    Yes and no. There are non-linguistic modes of understanding and expression also.

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  9. Dan

    “The essay’s purpose is now *less* clear to me, *after* all this discussion, than it was before… Ah, well.”

    You were referring to my explanations but I think you would agree that the general discussion has been excellent.

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  10. Brian Balke

    “Science is a method by which we develop languages that model objective reality – that is to say phenomena that others can experience for themselves. What is characteristic of such phenomena is that they do not involve choice – the participants will not change their behavior arbitrarily. They lack choice; they lack “personality.” Electrons, metals and baseballs are examples of such participants… As a consequence, science has eschewed the deeper questions about the nature of human experience because they involve personality. People, faced with exactly the same experience, will change their behavior if in one case they know that they are part of an experiment. Even more, when categorized and subjected to systematic control, people will choose self-destructive behaviors rather than submit…”

    You seem to be talking about a strong form of “free will” here. I am agnostic on this question, tending to reject the concept. So, needless to say, this approach to delimiting science’s scope doesn’t work for me.

    “… [S]cience itself acts in opposition to profound facts, for reasons related to the nature of language Mark raises above. As Kuhn discussed in his treatise on Scientific Revolutions, languages are a means of maintaining consensus in the service of political organization.”

    Yes, language, with its persuasive and manipulative functions, operates in the scientific sphere as in other spheres of life.

    I haven’t really read Santayana and, from what I know, would probably not agree with him on much but he was, I grant you, an interesting thinker.

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  11. labnut

    I have not responded to your descriptions of our intuitions and how they are reliable in some ways and not in others (with respect to statistics, for example – or boiling eggs!). Nothing jumps out that I disagree with. Note that in both of the examples mentioned we are dealing with maths (or at least numbers) as well as words. My views are more or less in line with yours on science I think.

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  12. Mark,
    You seem to be talking about a strong form of “free will” here. I am agnostic on this question, tending to reject the concept. So, needless to say, this approach to delimiting science’s scope doesn’t work for me.

    I think you dismiss his idea a little too easily. Brian, it seems to me, has hit on a rather profound distinction.

    Science is concerned with the behaviour of fields and particles in a strictly deterministic environment of cause and effect as delineated by the laws of nature. Given any initial condition(configuration of fields and particles) at time n, given the attendant laws of nature and a sufficiently powerful computer, one can compute the configuration at time n+m. Science, in the main, is concerned about forming hypotheses about laws of nature and testing these hypotheses through observation, so that we can calculate the configuration at n+m.

    Human behaviour just cannot be analysed in this way for the simple reason that humans posses agency independent of the laws of nature. There are no laws of nature that dictate human choices, thus human choices(and therefore behaviour) are not calculable, no matter how powerful the computer.

    Returning to your original claim:

    When the scientific view is at odds with our ordinary, intuitive view you could say that there is a tension between them.

    Missing from this statement is the object of “our ordinary, intuitive view“. A view of what?

    If it is a view of the objective, external world outside of us, whatever tensions may be found are the result of imperfect knowledge and biased perspectives. These tensions are always capable of resolution, in principle, through research and education.

    But if the object of that statement is ourselves and the internal working of our minds(not our brains), there is an irresolvable tension. It is an irresolvable tension because science cannot explain choices made by free agency. It cannot explain choices made by free agency because free agency acts outside the domain of the laws of nature.

    You say you are “agnostic on this question[free will], tending to reject the concept“, however tending to reject the concept is most definitely not being agnostic.

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  13. I don’t think that language alone encompasses our understanding of any issue at all, even if language is necessary to that understanding.

    We understand what a circle is, but can you actually use language to describe one?

    You might say – easy, the set of points on a plane equidistant to another point on that plane.

    But what is a plane? A point? What does it mean to say that two things are equal? If you say “not larger and not smaller” then what do you mean by those terms?

    Yes, we all know what they mean, but those meanings are not reflected in language. Not even magnitude or precedence are reflected in language.

    We agreed on “larger” and “smaller” by saying “for example this is larger than that and that is smaller than this”.

    We did this with a sufficient number of examples so that we knew what concept was being picked out.

    So we can talk about points, planes, distance, equality, inequality, circles and so on with sufficient precision that we each know what the other is talking about. Moreover we can use language to reason about these things with some precision.

    So, supposing that we can have a satisfactory understanding of the underlying structures of reality at all, I don’t see why it would be a problem using language to reason and communicate about this using language, just because this reality is not reflected in language.

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  14. That last paragraph went wrong, should be:

    *So, supposing that we can have a satisfactory understanding of the underlying structures of reality at all, I don’t see why it would be a problem using language to reason and communicate about it, just because this reality is not reflected in language.*

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  15. If any scientists wanted to tell us that any beliefs we have about our own agency is refuted by science, they would have to first translate that belief into technical terms, while keeping it recognisable to us as the belief we hold, and then they would have to show us the technical reason that refutes the belief.

    I don’t think I have yet seen a scientist do this. Often (and I am thinking of Coyne and Carroll in particular here) they express a kind of intuition that some people hold beliefs that would involve a breaking of the laws of physics, or else they make kind of general statements that amount to “any kind of free will which contradicts the laws of physics, contradicts the laws of physics”.

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  16. The laws of nature are a most perplexing thing.
    1) they operate everywhere;
    2) they permit no exceptions;
    3) they do not change;
    4) they are can be described with great precision using mathematics;
    5) they are a unified system(unless you talk to MP);
    6) they are rational and orderly.

    Why should this be?
    Where do they come from?
    What sustains them?
    Why should a particle obey a law of nature?
    What gives the laws of nature their prescriptive power?
    Why should the laws of nature be exceptionless?

    We don’t know the answers to these questions, nor do we have any clues. To make the problem worse, we don’t know how to go about answering these questions. It a profound mystery that goes to the very heart of the nature of existence. In fact it is the most profound mystery of all.

    An equally profound mystery is the ability of the human mind to make choices, freely direct thoughts to any subject, to form future intentions and to create new ideas that are not predetermined by the laws of nature.

    What gives the human mind the ability to escape the prison of the strict determinism of the laws of nature? We don’t know and some dodge the question by claiming that we don’t really possess free agency. This flies in the face of the evidence, especially that of our vast and growing cultural output.

    Building on my earlier comment, I suggest this is the real source of the tension between ordinary and scientific views of the world. The ordinary view of the world is centred on human agency while the scientific view of the world is centred on strict determinism. These are genuine views of the world, but they contradict each other, hence the tension mentioned by Mark, resulting from our attempts to reconcile them..

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  17. Here is another kind of example of the tension:
    Germany starts enforcing hate speech lawhttp://www.bbc.com/news/technology-42510868

    A most valued expression of our free agency is free speech. Technology(a derivative of science), as evidenced by the Internet, promised to entrench our free speech rights but what is happening instead is that technology is becoming a more effective way of limiting our free speech. Our liberator is wearing the uniform of a prison guard. This is just one way that technology, and therefore science by implication, is increasingly seen as a threat. A good example of this is the so-called Great Firewall of China.

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  18. Robin: If any scientists wanted to tell us that any beliefs we have about our own agency is refuted by science, they would have to first translate that belief into technical terms, while keeping it recognisable to us as the belief we hold, and then they would have to show us the technical reason that refutes the belief.

    Any such claim would invalidate science. The ability to do science depends on agency.

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  19. labnut: The laws of nature are a most perplexing thing.

    I prefer to call them “scientific laws”. They do not come from nature. They come from scientists studying nature.

    The laws, themselves, are pragmatic human conventions. And that pretty much explains your 6 reasons for being perplexed.

    What gives the laws of nature their prescriptive power?

    They are prescriptive to scientists. They are not prescriptive to nature itself (if nature can be said to have a self).

    Why should a particle obey a law of nature?

    Among other things, the scientific laws prescribe to scientists, what they should take to be a particle.

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  20. Robin

    “I don’t think that language alone encompasses our understanding of any issue at all, even if language is necessary to that understanding.”

    Or at least necessary for expressing it. I agree that language alone doesn’t encompass our understanding of anything.

    “We understand what a circle is… [C]an you actually use language to describe one? … [W]e can talk about points, planes, distance, equality, inequality, circles and so on with sufficient precision that we each know what the other is talking about. Moreover we can use language to reason about these things with some precision…”

    Yes, sure. But note how we are moving away from normal, everyday, or for that matter literary (which could be seen as a heightened form of the ordinary and everyday) ways of using language. We are in the process of developing a special form of a language (involving an accepted set of terms with clear and unambiguous meanings) for a special kind of language game such as is typically associated with empirical and/or formal disciplines. I talked before about educational and instructional contexts fitting in quite well with what you were saying, but other, less intellectual-discipline-oriented contexts do not fit so well with your (earlier) claims.

    “So, supposing that we can have a satisfactory understanding of the underlying structures of reality at all, I don’t see why it would be a problem using language to reason and communicate about it, just because this reality is not reflected in language.”

    As you say, we have no choice but to use language, but the language we use in scientific etc. contexts is often specialized language with its own specialized terms and conventions; and it is usually supplemented with symbol-systems and models and so on which are not associated with natural language at all.

    Medieval science was natural-language-bound and lacked this other dimension; it was vastly inferior to modern (and even ancient Greek) science. (The old Roman number system didn’t help either.)

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  21. Don’t underestimate the power of the natural language science in medieval times to lead to conceptual breakthroughs.

    The three great thought experiments of the 14th century – “What would happen to a rock dropped into a hole bored through the centre of the earth?” “What would happen to a rock poised exactly between two worlds, would it fall to one, or the other, or remain poised directly between them” and “Imagine being in the cabin of a ship on a still sea, how could you work out from the behaviour of objects around you, such as dripping water, if the ship was or was not moving?”.

    These three pretty much led to the end of Aristotelian thought, to the extent it persisted and marked the beginning of a cosmology based on the “many centres” model. A century later Cusa, although not a scientist, added to the “ship” thought experiment by asking us to imagine we are an inhabitant of any star or world and that we would see ourselves as the centre of everything and each other body as moving around us. From this he concludes that, in an infinite universe, there is no centre, except relatively.

    Incidentally I wouldn’t say medieval science was “vastly” inferior to Greek science. In many ways it was superior, I would cite Buridan, Oresme, Albert of Saxony, as well as the Oxford Calculators. In other ways (embryology for example) the modern world had not caught up with the Ancient Greeks even by the 17th century.

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  22. I am puzzled why in this discussion the distinction between concepts and assertions seems to play no part. I would suppose we can’t get to first base without that distinction. Mark, you talk of “forms of language” and “linguistic structures”. I confess I don’t know what you mean.

    As I see it, concepts assert nothing; they make no claims; they entail no ontology. They are, as you seem to say, tools we use for various purposes, in the various practices we have created, including the practices of science. So if by “language” you mean our conceptual repertoires, then indeed “the forms of language do not necessarily reflect non-linguistic realities”. I’d say they are quite independent of non-linguistic realities. Our “linguistic universe” in no way determines our ontology — it might contain all sorts of things (gremlins, quidditches, shadows, souls, etc) without ontological commitment to those things. I think this is your view too, but I’m not sure why you don’t say it in the way I would.

    Ontology, I assume, is a very different enterprise. It involves propositions, assertions, beliefs. The propositions we use to express our ontology do in some sense aim to reflect reality. And questions of truth and falsity apply to those “forms of language”, where they don’t apply to concepts. But they are very different forms of language from the forms that make up our conceptual repertoire, even though we need those concepts to form the propositions.

    Alan

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  23. Alan

    “I am puzzled why in this discussion the distinction between concepts and assertions seems to play no part. I would suppose we can’t get to first base without that distinction. Mark, you talk of “forms of language” and “linguistic structures”. I confess I don’t know what you mean.”

    I thought that I made it clear that I was talking mainly about the grammar (syntax, etc.) of natural language.

    “As I see it, concepts assert nothing; they make no claims; they entail no ontology. They are, as you seem to say, tools we use for various purposes, in the various practices we have created, including the practices of science.”

    You could say that concepts are tools but, as I recall, I talked about *language* as a tool or set of tools.

    “So if by “language” you mean our conceptual repertoires…”

    I don’t. The *lexicon* is a key part of a language, however. (By the way, you seem to be conflating concepts and concept-words.)

    “… then indeed “the forms of language do not necessarily reflect non-linguistic realities”. I’d say they are quite independent of non-linguistic realities. Our “linguistic universe” in no way determines our ontology — it might contain all sorts of things (gremlins, quidditches, shadows, souls, etc) without ontological commitment to those things. I think this is your view too, but I’m not sure why you don’t say it in the way I would.”

    Possibly because I am getting at something slightly different from what you are getting at. And, by the way, somewhere I mentioned our tendency to hypostasize abstract nouns, but only in passing.

    “Ontology … involves propositions, assertions, beliefs. The propositions we use to express our ontology do in some sense aim to reflect reality.”

    The propositions we use to express our ontology? Like explicit existence (or non-existence) claims or more ordinary sentences like “Nice day” or “The cat is in the garden”?

    Such (ordinary) sentences do indeed aim to reflect reality, and (within limits) they succeed. In the essay I wrote: “The effectiveness of linguistic communication in practical terms is not in question, when it comes to facilitating various forms of social interaction, for example, or making simple assertions about the physical world.”

    But then I go on to say that the Gestalt can never be put into words.

    This is where we seem to disagree. I am emphasizing that these sequences of sounds/characters are not necessarily what they seem; that natural language is very good for doing some things and not so good for other things.

    “… [Q]uestions of truth and falsity apply to those “forms of language” [propositions], where they don’t apply to concepts. But they are very different forms of language from the forms that make up our conceptual repertoire, even though we need those concepts to form the propositions.”

    Sure there is a distinction to be made between concept-words and propositions (or sentences). As I say, my focus was on the latter.

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