The Word and What Is

I often get stuck in the gap we rarely notice between the word and what the word is meant to signify.   Do we really understand what word and symbol actually do?  Or, even more to the point, can we see what the body is accomplishing in the evolution of these cognitive tools?

In a film I saw recently about Alaska we were told that a people native to the area once said that the northern lights were the spirits of children before they were born.  The narrator of the film went on to describe our understanding of the lights.  He began with the phrase, “scientists say the northern lights are…..”  In my own mind, I saw this physical account of the lights as an organization of ideas (of the words photons, atoms, solar wind, etc. and their associated meanings).   I saw it as the modern naming of what we see, given the depth and precision physics has brought to the senses.  I wasn’t challenging this description, just taking note of its reliance on our scientifically refined analysis of sensory information.

I had a similar experience when I read the article which motivated this post.  The article, Back From the Future, was published online by Discover on August 26 and it is a discussion of research in quantum mechanics designed to establish that information can flow back from the future, i.e., that in quantum mechanics, the arrow of time is symmetric.   There are so many ordered thoughts here…time, information, arrows, direction, flow, let alone the complexity of the mathematics of quantum mechanics.

It seems the term arrow of time made an early appearance in 1928 in the book The Nature of the Physical World.  The author, British astronomer Arthur Eddington states:

Let us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space.

The emphasis is mine.

The Discover article describes how quantum mechanical ideas have confounded some of our earlier views of the physical world and, in particular, how they altered the deterministic view of things.  The work described is driven, at least in part, by a desire to save a deterministic view of the universe.  About this new model of quantum mechanics, the article says:

It could produce all the same treats as the standard form of quantum mechanics that everyone knew and loved, with the added benefit of explaining how information from the future could fill in the indeterministic gaps in the present. But while many of Aharonov’s colleagues conceded that the idea was built on elegant mathematics, its philosophical implications were hard to swallow.

An article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy highlights the role of mathematics in quantum mechanics:

Quantum mechanics is, at least at first glance and at least in part, a mathematical machine for predicting the behaviors of microscopic particles — or, at least, of the measuring instruments we use to explore those behaviors — and in that capacity, it is spectacularly successful: in terms of power and precision, head and shoulders above any theory we have ever had. Mathematically, the theory is well understood; we know what its parts are, how they are put together, and why, in the mechanical sense (i.e., in a sense that can be answered by describing the internal grinding of gear against gear), the whole thing performs the way it does, how the information that gets fed in at one end is converted into what comes out the other. The question of what kind of a world it describes, however, is controversial; there is very little agreement, among physicists and among philosophers, about what the world is like according to quantum mechanics.

Our dependence on mathematics in physics seems to widen the gap between the words (or symbols) and what they signify.  The words used in a description of the northern lights are much more consistent with more common sensory experience.  But the mathematics of quantum mechanics and the physical concepts these relationships generate are bewildering, despite our confidence that they do reflect the nature of the world around us.  Maybe the evolution of word and symbol, or their emergent growth, has exceeded our understanding of how they operate in us, what they bring or, more specifically, what the body accomplishes when it creates these representations.  And this leads to the odd sensation that we can’t quite comprehend what our own symbols are telling us.  While this may seem to not make sense, given that so much of the brain’s activity happens outside of our awareness, perhaps it can be considered.

2 comments to The Word and What Is

  • I visited your site. Lo siento que no puedo escribir en espanol muy bien pero…. I believe that what you are saying is that in quantum physics the observed and the observer are held together, and that this is more natural, more ‘intuitively’ correct than what seems like the objectification or isolation of the brain in neuroscience, even from the body itself. But I would add that a refinement of our understanding of the brain will likely lead us back to the body or the ecosystem as you call it. It seems clear that, to a very large extent, the body lives outside the confines of our conscious direction of it.

  • Quantum Physics is phenomenological discipline, as it is inclusional and both, the observer and the world are included. 20th century Neurosciences are not inclusional neither phenomenological, just for them, the “Brain Island” would be seen as the “ultimate Nature treasure”. You know. Body is who think, and not the brain. An embodied brain embedded in ecosystem. As common sense dictates. Quantum physics is not “counterintuitive”. Not. Mechanicism is counterintuitive…