May 03, 2007

From Robert Burt:

Re: Is reality a misunderstanding? (April 29): These are matters of language. There is no invalidity inherent in the world. But there are numerous incapacities in human languages to describe the world. Math is a language. So is music. English too. Numbers seem to represent reality, but they are capable of accurately representing only a particular type of reality. Humans mistake this capacity as extending to all types of realities. Math is not capable of representing all aspects of reality. Neither is English, or Chinese, or Russian, or any human language. That objective is not incorporated into languages of any sort. The only accurate description of the universe is the universe. English cannot describe it. Neither can mathematics.

But English speakers can think that English is capable of describing it, just as mathematicians can think that mathematics is capable of describing it, just like composers can think that music is capable of expressing the human soul, or even the universe’s soul. Consider this. In English it is possible to say, “The positer of ethics lies in negative summations compacted from successively smaller degress of implied symbolicism, together with rubrics derived from the partial spellings of exponential potentialities, except when component rasterizations are inhibited.” Is that reality? In a sense it is. But really it’s just words. It’s grammatically correct, though careless. And it causes our minds to generate images, though the images mean nothing. And someone could probably base their doctoral thesis on it, if they wanted to. They might even be able to get the government to fund their scientific enquiries into the matter. A univeristy somewhere might name a department after them. They could build a big machine that would explain the passage of time on the basis of it, or at least a small percentage of that phenomenon, always looking to derive the conclusive definition somewhere down the road on the way to the ultimate destination: complete and perfect knowledge. In the meantime they could draw a pretty good salary. And nobody else would be able to compete with them, because they would be the only person who knows what they are doing, or so it would appear.

English is good for saying things like, “It’s time for lunch,” “The fish are biting,” “Some taxis are yellow.” It’s absolutely not any good at all for saying things like, “God created the world,” “Democracy is the best system,” “Reality is strange.” It is time that we humans grew up and stopped pretending that numbers can explain -or describe, or express- everything. Fact is, when you get down to the minutest possible observation, everything else seems to be thrown out of whack, no matter what the observation focuses on. Philosphers recognized this a long time ago. And at least two poets have remarked upon it in poetic works. Physicists need to be alert to this phenomenon. It is an aspect of reality also.


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