Are Science's Preferred Languages Limiting How Smart Folk Think?

Few see how strongly science's preferred languages shape and limit the thinking of many experts. 

Are Science's Preferred Languages Limiting How Smart Folk Think?


1. A science fiction film about alien languages hints at what real science’s languages tend to alienate.

2. Arrival stars a linguist learning an alien language, thereby dramatizing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (“different language communities experience reality differently”).

3. Sapir-Whorf’s weak form includes color-distinguishing differences (e.g. “grue languages”) and the Inuit snow lexicon (counter-Inuit-ively miscast as contested vocabulary, Whorf intended grammar).

4. Sapir-Whorf’s strong form echoes Wittgenstein’s “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (languages limit what’s thinkable).

5. Few scientists support strong Sapir-Whorf, but the tools of language do, in part, carve, filter, and pattern our perceptions of reality: “Words are thinking tools.” Grammars encode different features, eg modifiers for soft or rigid objects.

6. But a strong Sapir-Whorf variant might limit science itself.

7. Anna Wierzbicka argues social sciences are “Imprisoned In English”—locked into English-language concepts that don’t transparently represent reality (e.g. English’s emotion terms aren’t “biological givens”).

8. More broadly, a stronger Sapir-Whorf-like effect explicitly limits science’s other dominant language, mathematics (often excluding what’s unquantifiable or mathematically inconvenient).

9. Math as a language so strongly shapes scientific thinking that, sometimes, for science to “progress, a new math” is needed (Cesar Hidalgo). Arithmetic, geometry, algebra, calculus, stats, probability, algorithmic-logic, etc, each have their own syntax and vocabulary patterning constraints.

10. Pythagoras's “All things are number” (meaning natural numbers as the universe’s “building blocks”) remains influential. And Pythagorean harmony theory (key ratios define geometric beauty) shaped scholarship into the 1600s (Thony Christie).

11. Many became geometry-intoxicated. Galileo’s claim that “the book of nature is written in mathematics,” meant in geometry. “Falling in love with geometry” was an Enlightenment “occupational hazard” (Anthony Gottlieb).

12. Newton shifted the center of gravity of science’s language from geometry to algebra and calculus (“Geometric mathematics… offered no way of representing” needed factors). This language/method spread widely (even generating “algebraic formulae” for morality).

13. Whorf saw how algebra shifted attention from particulars to certain patterns (he compared sentences to equations, words to algebraic symbols).

14. Algebra’s key move, its core impulse toward abstraction, focuses thinking on certain kinds of sameness and allness—patterns fitting all instances of type X, or all values of quantity Y (e.g. all objects gravitate).

15. But algebra's all-ness works better for X = electrons than for X = people (all electrons behave identically; people?). That drives both algebraic math’s “unreasonable effectiveness,” and its limits (e.g. economics suffers “equation filtering,” + prominent complaints of math models not reflecting stable relationships or reality).

16. Science’s language preferences even shape other fields, leading to belief that algebraic formulas ”for all the future” exist (Stoppard). And that without numbers only a “very dim” understanding is possible (Goldstein). Yet much that matters resists quantification and algebra’s all-ness (justice, or happiness, etc).

17. Why imprison our minds in math? That would alienate us from a kind of knowledge that Hebrew has a word for: “da’at” = knowledge through relationship with particulars (resisting abstraction, and algebraic all-ness-thinking) [+see Two Kinds of Data].

--

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.

What early US presidents looked like, according to AI-generated images

"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.

Abraham Lincoln, George Washington

Magdalene Visaggio via Twitter
Technology & Innovation
  • A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
  • "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
  • It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
Keep reading Show less

Catacombs of Paris: The city of darkness finds its new raison d'être

Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.

Excerpt from a 19th century map of the Paris Catacombs, showing the labyrinthine layout underground (in color) beneath the straight-lined structures on the surface (in grey).

Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain
Strange Maps
  • People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
  • They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
  • Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Keep reading Show less

Baby's first poop predicts risk of allergies

Meconium contains a wealth of information.

Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
  • A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
  • The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

Big think: Will AI ever achieve true understanding?

If you ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's," you won't like the result.

Quantcast