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Do Linguistic Expressions Incapacitate the Effectiveness of Scientific Methodology and Understanding?

TONGNIAN WANG (MAIARA)

Contents

 

Abstract

3

 

Introduction

4

 

Definition of Variables

6

 

Literature Review

7

4.1

Scientific Definitions and Laws

7

4.2

Limits of Linguistic Expressions

7

4.3

Manipulation of Linguistic Expressions

10

4.4

Whorfianism

11

4.5

Anthropocentrism

12

 

Discussion

14

5.1

Regarding Definitions

14

5.2

Manipulations

17

5.3

Cognitive Bias

18

 

Conclusion

20

 

Bibliography

21

Abstract

Living in the Post-Enlightenment era, science is the overarching theme across all human desire for knowledge. All scientific communications are dependent on language – this is an imminent flaw that is often overlooked. Through extensive evaluations of philosophical theories, past and present, it is evident that language inevitably impedes the effectiveness of scientific communication and development. The implications of this refute the validity of all scientific knowledge and express the urgent need for a more accurate and reliable system for communication.

Introduction

In the Post-Enlightenment era, science plays an undeniably significant role; it is the trusted source of knowledge with indisputable credit. As A.C. Chalmers addressed:

‘The naming of some claim or line of reasoning or piece of research ‘scientific’ is done in a way that is intended to imply some kind of merit or special kind of reliability.’ 1

Both philosophies of science and language have been prominent areas of discussion since the development of analytic philosophy. With philosophers Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein leading the philosophical investigation into language, a lot has been discussed concerning language, reality, and truth. Whilst on the other side, Philosophy of science has been an impassioned area of discussion since the revolutionary paradox between Quantum Mechanics and Einstein’s relativity in the 20th century.

The role of Mathematics as a universal communication tool for science is indispensable; its accuracy and reliability is widely recognized, though Bertrand Russell did express ‘concern with the foundations of mathematics’ 2 – we shall ignore that conviction for the purpose of this dissertation, since the exploration of that problem will take another dissertation. Language is the major contributing component of scientific communication, as Heisenberg states, ‘Every description of phenomena, of experiments and their results, rest upon language as the only means of communication.’ 3 Unsettlingly, linguistic communication is more liable to error; considering factors such as translation errors, personal interpretations, problems with definitions, assumptions, axioms, etc..

In this progressively globalized world, scientific development is heavily dependent on communication, not only within the same language but also across multiple languages – it is a necessary tool, just like Mathematics. Current scientists seem to take the reliability of language as a given and assume the 100% accuracy and effectiveness of our scientific communication; or often give language the benefit of the doubt. This is a popular belief, yet to me it is unjustified.

Whilst exposed to the wave-particle duality in Physics in school, it seemed unjustified that electrons are labeled as ‘particles’, yet they exhibit wave-like characteristics. The lack of a mutually exclusive nature seems to undermine the accuracy which science strives for. The problem of naming an entity and its relevant definitions impacted and troubled me, and subsequently led to a lot of thinking and questioning: Are objects/occurrences in nature named by its characteristics? Why do we humans have the power to decide on names of objective existences? How does this influence our scientific development and understanding?

It may seem a pedantic topic to discuss, but miscommunication in science, an academic field with intricate emphasis on detail and accuracy, can have detrimental effects in its understanding and development; specifically with the recent emphasis on the education of STEM subjects to the wider population. Hence, given its growing importance, it is crucial to critically evaluate the validity of science from different perspectives; instead of blatant ignorant trust.

Despite the in-depth studies of the philosophies of language and science separately, very little has been practically applied to the analysis of the scientific method, concerning the overlapping fields. I wanted to explore the role which language plays in scientific methodology and understanding, to investigate whether science is as reliable as the public accredits; or contrastingly, if language impedes our scientific understanding. It is my desire to look for any alternative tools which would reduce the possibility for error, or simply a more effective and accurate way of communication. Concludingly, this dissertation aims to answer the question: Does language as a communication tool positively contribute to the development of science in understanding nature?

Definition of Variables

Due to the philosophical nature of this dissertation, I believe it is crucial to establish some premises and definitions to avoid ambiguity.

‘Linguistic Expression’ – In the context of this dissertation, this phrase will be used to address all forms of language with a purpose to communicate, without consideration of its form (ie, written, spoken, etc.). This definition has been inspired by the definition below:

‘A Linguistic Expression is any physical form (sound, visual image or sequence thereof) used to represent a linguistic unit. A linguistic expression may be spoken, written, or signed. A linguistic expression is distinct from the actual process (speaking, writing, signing) that produces the expression.’ 4

*In the dissertation, ‘linguistic expressions’ will sometimes be referred to as ‘utterances’ 5.

(It is worth noting that in the original research title, the phrase ‘semantics and pragmatics’ was used alternatively. Throughout the research process, the alteration was made to allow a broader area for consideration and research.)

‘Scientific Methodology and Understanding’ – The nature of Scientific Methodology has been the center of heated discussions since Galileo, from Karl Popper’s Falsification Principle to Imre Lakatos’s Research Programs to Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ 1. No one structure is utilized by all scientists, but for the majority, contemporary scientific methodology follows several similar stages. In this dissertation, I will address ‘Scientific Methodology’ with an intricate focus on definitions, hypotheses, axioms (those with linguistic features). To answer the question: Are scientific definitions and explanations compatible with the objective truths of nature?

‘Effectiveness’ – To reach a valid, comprehensible conclusion, there must be a standard for judgment. An error will be the binary judging standard in this dissertation. Where errors are defined as:

‘ … differences between observed values and what is true in nature.’ 6

A further clarification: by ‘observed values’, it implies values that have been expressed by the observer assuming the observer expresses what he/she perceives. Therefore for the purpose of this dissertation – in order to tie in a closer link to linguistic expressions, the definition of error above has been altered to be defined as: ‘… differences between the observed and expressed values and what is true in nature.

Literature Review

In this section, I will be reviewing and evaluating the different theories and claims about the philosophies of language and science; which will then be used to support my argument in the Discussion section.

4.1 Scientific Definitions and Laws

Frege believed that ‘science articulates nature’ 7, whereas ‘philosophy articulates truth’ 7. Scientific definitions and laws are the most common forms of communication of science; it is through definitions, laws, and theories that scientists express their belief of what the nature is like. These structures are in place to articulate the ‘effect, continuity, dependence, independence, priority’ 8 relating different objects – according to Stanley Fish, these are the sole purposes of language.

Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein held contrasting views concerning definitions. Frege was a firm believer in his theory for Definitions of Necessity and Sufficiency, which he outlines clearly in his innovative work, ‘On Sense and Reference‘. To summarize briefly, below is his theory:

‘Definition is traditionally understood as whatever meets the conditions for both necessity and sufficiency;

Necessary condition is what is needed for X to be X.

Sufficient condition is something that is enough for X to be X, but it’s not required for that thing to meet that definition.’ 9

He was the first philosopher to make the distinction between Sense and Reference, which would then become the origin of Direct Referential Theory of Meaning. This theory is appealing prima facie, as it accurately denotes our common use of definitions, but was heavily refuted as the philosophy of language developed, most significantly by Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein spoke strongly against definitions and Referential Theory as a valid way of communication. For him, definitions simply ‘do not work’ 9 because of their ambiguity and inaccuracy. He stated that for any definition: ‘counter-examples, excluded-examples and contradictions’ 9 can be found, therefore the necessary and sufficient definitions are not accurate. Especially in the academic area of science, where precision is crucial, Frege’s theory of definitions is not viable.

4.2 Limits of Linguistic Expressions

To start with an optimistic tone, the founder of empiricism, Aristotle, was a firm believer in the capability of language. He comments on language in his work, Metaphysics, stating:

‘although they are human products, they were nor deliberately devised by any human beings. It is therefore a matter of the most stubborn difficulty to know and to explain at what points and in what respects our language does and does not directly represent the world that it is used to explain.’ 10

From this paragraph, Aristotle shows the man-made nature of language but does not suggest any concrete distortion which language brings about; though he does cast doubt on the interpretation of the real world through language, as seen in the second half of the abstract. From this, it can be seen that the distortion which language brings to our understanding of nature has been suspected since the beginning of philosophy. Yet this doubt did not suspend Aristotle’s pursuit of the truth; he still held a firm belief in human’s capability of understanding:

‘start from what is most intelligible to a man and then to make what is naturally intelligible intelligible to him’ 10

A lot of problems confronted by the human race can be extracted from this quote. Firstly the concept of the ‘naturally intelligible’; this expresses the notion that there are concepts that can be understood by the human race by intuition and innate knowledge. However, by explicitly stating the ‘naturally intelligible’, Aristotle implies the existence of the opposite, that there are concepts that are not ‘naturally intelligible’, not accessible by the human intuition. The existence of the concepts not naturally intelligible is discouraging for the human pursuit for knowledge, as it poses an inaccessible limit that cannot be overcome; if by logic, we cannot fully know everything about the universe, the validity of our known knowledge is questionable.

Secondly, the notion of the ‘intelligible’; Aristotle proposes the method of introducing new concepts by utilizing the known concepts. This notion is also problematic, as it involves assumptions and presuppositions. If the ‘intelligible’ is then proven wrong, that will subsequently revoke any concepts which have stemmed from that.

The limitations posed by language should be explored from the origin of the philosophy of language, with the Direct Referential Theory of Meaning. The theory states:

‘linguistic expressions have the meanings they do because they stand for things.’ 5

And ‘words are arbitrarily associated with the things they refer to.’ 5

The strengths of this theory are obvious, as stated by Lycan, it is ‘attractive and commonsensical’. In daily communication, it is the natural interpretation of words; ie. when one talks about a ‘dog’, one would automatically relate the word to a ‘dog’, the furry mammal that barks, because that is what the word denotes. This theory is utilized heavily not only in daily interpretation but also in scientific communication. For example, when one talks about ‘the sun’, it would automatically denote that to the giant sphere of plasma which the earth orbits around. This theory represents the ‘most familiar relation between a word and the world’ 5, however, inevitably it has a lot of weaknesses.

The first weakness is significant: ‘not every word does name or denote any actual object’ 5. The majority of the sentences that are uttered on a daily basis are ‘subject-predicate’ sentences; the predicate is the description of the subject. It is obvious that the ‘subject’ of the sentence can denote an object, but the same could not be said about the ‘predicate’. By the Direct Referential Theory, that would mean the ‘predicate’ has no meaning, but that is clearly not true. Moreover, the Direct Referential Theory limits words to denote objects that are perceivable by our senses, this creates a huge problem for scientific language. The discovery of electrons in 1897 by J.J. Thomson poses a huge problem to the Direct Referential Theory, implying there is no meaningful way to speak about subatomic particles, as humans do not have a way of directly perceiving them. Similarly, unobservable entities with definite existences struggle under the Direct Referential Theory, for example, forces, fields and time. Concludingly, this theory is immature and contributes very little as a linguistic system to modern language.

Bertrand Russell was a strong critic against the Referential Theory and he established his ‘Name Claim’ as a response, it states:

‘proper names are semantically equivalent to descriptions.’ 5

Though this claim seems plausible at first sight, it is heavily flawed. Below is a strong objection presented by John Searle:

‘If proper names are semantically equivalent to descriptions, then for each name there must be some particular description that it is equivalent to.’ 5

Realistically, it is impossible to find an exact description that exclusively describes a proper name, or a proper name that only denotes one description in all contexts; therefore Russell’s theory is nonviable. Alternatively, Searle offers the ‘Cluster Theory’, which allows more flexibility in the application of proper names:

‘a name is associated, not with any particular description, but with a vague cluster of descriptions … a sufficient but vague and unspecific number (SBVAUN) of descriptions.’ 5

This theory is more plausible, as it allows more flexibility, and is the practical reason as to why names are more commonly used in communication rather than descriptions, especially in scientific communication. Names are not used as abbreviations of a description, but rather, ‘a peg’ 5, on which ‘hang descriptions’ 5. This mirrors Aristotle’s understanding of using the ‘intelligible’ to explain new concepts. Though it seems preferable, famous philosopher Saul Kripke criticizes Searle’s Cluster Theory as too ‘vague’ 5 and ‘implausible’ 5.

Decades later, the Entity Theory of Meaning became prominent, especially through the advocation of Ideational Theory by John Locke, where he states:

‘meanings of linguistic expressions are ideas in the mind … the mental states in question are actual states of particular people at particular times’ 5

This seems like a conceivable explanation, but is also refuted. Firstly, an ‘idea’ as the basis of this theory, cannot be clearly defined – one might question: What exactly is an idea? On top of that, lots of meaningful words such as ‘the’, ‘is’, ‘are’ struggle to correspond to an exact ‘idea’, yet they are still meaningful. The most noteworthy objection is that ‘meaning is a public, intersubjective, social phenomenon’ 5, refuting the validity of an individual’s idea as a meaningful construct without a perceiver. The implications of this theory on scientific communication will be explored in the discussion section.

Lastly, the theory with most resemblance to scientific communication seems to be the Proposition Theory, which concludes that sentences have meaning because they express a ‘proposition’. The strength of this theory lies in its explanation of a ‘proposition’; which presents an objective truth that can be explored and expressed through language. The Proposition Theory states:

Propositions are ‘language-independent’, ‘people-independent’, ‘abstract, general and eternal’ 5.

This description of propositions ostensibly strips it of any association with human and language, removing the ‘distortions’ 11, but it exposes further flaws of the use of language. Gilbert Harman5 objected to the value of this theory, as he suggested that Proposition Theory simply re-expresses the meanings, rather than explain the linguistic system. On top of that, Proposition Theory seems to address language as a static system, without connections to ‘human behavior’ 5; yet many would insist language is evidently a living social phenomenon closely related to humans. Moreover, Ambiguity, according to the Proposition Theory, is when utterance S expresses both propositions P1 and P2. Synonyms are when two utterances S1 and S2 both express P. Similarly, the implications of this will be discussed in the following section.

4.3 Manipulation of Linguistic Expressions

Language is a man-made product, subjected to the human will; we have the ability to manipulate language to achieve the desired outcome. In this section, I will examine the manipulation of language and its use in science.

Both synthetic and analytic statements are used frequently in science and daily communication. A synthetic statement is one which ‘the statement’s truth or falsity depends on evidence which has to be collected’ 12; there is no ‘intrinsic’ 12 proposition to the subject. On the other hand, analytic statements are when the ‘concept of the subject is contained in the predicate’ 12, implying there is an intrinsic predicate contained in the use of the subject, and it cannot be logically proven false. The use of analytic statements is similar to the use of axioms in scientific communication, where an axiom is:

‘an immediate truth that no Greeks would have questioned’ 13

Postulates are used similarly in science:

‘a postulate is a statement that we assume to be true.’ 13

The use of ‘axioms, postulates, definitions and hypotheses’ are routine in scientific methodology, however, its ability to manipulate results is often ignored. The use of analytic statements implies there is a logical impossibility for some statements to be true. A simple example would be: ‘a triangle has four sides’; since the analytical nature of the word ‘triangle’ denotes a Euclidean geometrical shape with only three sides, the statement would instantly be taken as false. In this situation, the axiom is true, therefore it is reasonable to reject the statement. In some cases, the axioms result in the statement being logically impossible; this then leads to a huge problem. Contrastingly, the axioms can also produce a sentence that can only be true, to result in the desired outcome.

Karl Popper rejects the analytic nature of language in science, on the ground that by using analytic language ‘the truth and falsity of any sentence is decided as soon as the words which occur in it have been given their meaning.’ 14 The analytic approach to science abandons any connection of our scientific understanding to the objective nature and relies solely on language. Thus, Popper introduces his theory of Falsification, whereby ‘a hypothesis must be falsifiable’ 1 to be viable. Falsificationism provides interesting problems for scientific theories. Psychologist David Trafimow once claimed that ‘there are no unfalsifiable theories’ 15, refuting Popper’s Falsification. He states that: ‘if one is sufficiently creative about auxiliary assumptions, it is always possible to have tests of seemingly unfalsifiable theories.’ 15. This demonstrates the potentiality of language, especially the use of assumptions. Falsificationism also challenges the validity of all theories concerning unobservable entities, especially the subatomic world. As it is impossible to directly perceive subatomic particles, it is therefore logically impossible to falsify any statements made about them.

The other problem raised relating to Popper’s Falsificationism relates to the classical concept of ‘tertium non datur’ logic – the Law of Excluded Middle. The Law states that ‘either that proposition is true or its negation is true.’ 16; ‘a third possibility does not exist’ 3. When projecting this logic on the use of scientific language, it implies either the predicate is true, or the negation of the predicate is true. ‘tertium non datur’ logic not only rules out the possibility of a state between the two, but also lacks a viable linguistic expression which describes this ‘in-between’ state. This logical system limits the potentiality of scientific understanding, by ruling out the possibility of the ‘middle’ – the Excluded Middle; this is reflected in Quantum Mechanics, through the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment. Quantum Entanglement and superposition show the possibility of a third state, neither positive nor negative, is possible, just not natural to our human intuition.

4.4 Whorfianism

Benjamin Lee Whorf developed the theory of Whorfianism, more commonly known as the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. The theory states:

‘the structure of human language affects the way in which an individual conceptualizes their world.’ 17;

A more recent development, Neo-Whorfianism states that:

‘language independently influences thought.’ 18

Some psychological experiments have been conducted in attempts to justify this theory. Two groups of children, one from English-speaking backgrounds, and the other from Japanese-speaking backgrounds were gathered and they were asked to categorize a group of objects. The experiment supposedly demonstrated that children from different language backgrounds have differing psyches and think differently, as they arranged the objects into different categories. However, this psychological experiment seems to provide very little credible evidence to justify Whorfianism.

Famous linguist John McWhorter spoke critically against Whorfianism with many objections. The most significant was ‘language features do not correlate with what their speakers are like’ 19. McWhorter addressed this theory not only as inaccurate, but also ‘dangerous’ 19, as it has the potentiality of suggesting false prejudice against races and stereotypes. He offers an alternative explanation for the differing psyche from different language backgrounds: McWhorter believed that instead of language influencing the psyche, as Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested, the relationship is in reverse, where the psyche and culture influence the structure of the language. For example, in the Australian dialect, compass orientations (ie. North, South, East, West) are used as indications for directions, whereas is it not used in most other countries. This is because the geography of Australia is very flat, where it is easy to identify the direction of North, South, East, and West; whereas, in the Amazon Rainforest, that would be impossible as the tropical conditions with dense trees would inhibit one’s ability to navigate. This example shows that it is the culture and context that pragmatically shapes the language, not the reverse as Whorfianism would suggest.

4.5 Anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism is defined as:

The ‘philosophical viewpoint arguing that human beings are the central or most significant entities in the world.’ (Britannica) 20

Rather than analyzing this ancient viewpoint directly, which is flawed (backed up by various evidence – for example, the Earth is not the center of the universe), I will be addressing some other features of society and science which are anthropocentrism in disguise.

Firstly, this common occurrence is reflected in Plato’s famous analogy, the Analogy of the Cave. The following lines from his work, the Republic, will be analyzed in the following paragraphs:

‘And if someone even forced him to look into the glare of the fire, would his eyes not hurt him, and would he not then turn away and flee [back] to that which he is capable of looking at? And would he not decide that [what he could see before without any help] was in fact clearer than what was now being shown to him?’ 21

This is a realism analogy, where Plato described one’s understanding of truth through symbolism. In this analogy, ‘someone’ refers to the prisoners in the Cave (humans in society), and ‘the glare of the fire’ symbolically represents the ‘truth’. This extract is presenting the idea that humans would reject and ‘turn away’ from new ideas and truths that are not compatible with their intrinsic common understandings; they would favor those common ideas already known to them. Though this text was written over 2000 years ago, the rejection of new ideas is still a common theme even in modern society. For example, the introduction of Quantum Theory by Max Planck was a contentious discovery in the 20th century. There was concrete evidence for the abnormal behavior of subatomic particles, which contradicted the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and more controversially, the discrete concept of energy was not compatible with the Classical Mechanics developed by Isaac Newton. There was a struggle in society to accept this new ‘law’, even Planck himself; but most significantly, Albert Einstein famously commented, ‘God does not play dice’ 22 in rejection of the probabilistic nature of Quantum Mechanics.

The second feature of ‘Anthropocentrism-in-Disguise’ stems from Howard Sankey’s objection to Naïve Inductivism, in which he states:

‘… in order to collect data it must already be known which domain of phenomena is the relevant focus of study … science cannot begin with pure observation and only afterwards proceed to the theoretical level.’ 23

The quote shows the importance of ‘relevant focus’ 23 and he also mentions the dependency of scientific judgment on ‘previous knowledge’ 23. Both of these features expect contribution from the scientist, who will provide his subjective judgment and decide which ‘domains’ and ‘previous knowledge’ are considered ‘relevant’.

Discussion

In this section, I will establish and justify my argument through the evaluation of the theories mentioned in the section above. There will also be an examination of the implications of the theories, ones that are applicable to the research title.

5.1 Regarding Definitions

Blatant and ignorant trust has been put into the validity of language communication, especially in education. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’ – this ‘weapon’ is unreliable, flawed, and has the potential to damage the world as it is negatively influenced by language. I believe language misrepresents reality and distorts the objective truths about nature.

Definitions have been a controversial feature of the scientific academic world. According to Scientific Realism, science investigates the ‘mind-independent existence of the world’ 24. Therefore, the reality which science investigates is objective and exists independently. Science puts significant emphasis on ‘process objectivity and product objectivity’ 25 – it is good at removing theories from ‘contingent social and ethical values and the individual bias of a scientist’25. However, linguistic features are a product of the human mind, therefore subjective. Communications of observed facts are also subjective – it is extraordinarily difficult to carry out a purely objective observation in experimentation. How is it viable for humans to investigate objective facts through a subjective medium? There seems to be constant error and ambiguity surrounding definitions – this is due to the limits and language and many other factors, which I will address in the following chapters. One famous example used by Werner Heisenberg to portray ambiguity and inaccuracy in language is the word ‘simultaneous’. For which he states: ‘when two events are simultaneous for one observer they may not be simultaneous for another observer’ 3. This example highlights the subjective nature of scientific communication. The meaning of ‘simultaneous’ depends on the context and the speaker – this again shows the inevitable error in language.

Aristotle, as the originator of the scientific study of life, a revolutionary philosopher who contributed to ‘almost all aspects of epistemology’ 26 through his works, even he questioned the validity of human language. He wrote extensively on the relationship between human and reality in his work ‘Metaphysics’, stating that ‘language is the necessary medium’ 10, yet ‘great perplexity’10 emerges when one tries to find a clear distinction between language, thought and the world. Aristotle’s view here suggests that language contributes negatively to our human understanding of the universe; as the first empiricist, he believed there is a dependency of human knowledge on our senses, yet they are not flawless and provide limits. From the second abstract quoted in section 4.2, it can be clearly seen that to Aristotle believes there are certain knowledge that are innate to human understanding, and the negation is also true – there also exists knowledge that are not innate to humans; this Aristotelian teaching takes an optimistic approach stating that almost all knowledge can be comprehensible to humans, however, there is a dependence on other concepts. Firstly, this puts into question the validity and accuracy of knowledge established in this way. The connection made between concepts seems to be a decision made by humans, with no guarantee of its actual connection in nature – this method allows extensive amounts of human interaction and manipulation of language regarding reality. Secondly, this establishes a clear limit of the capacity of human understanding – there are concepts existing independently, not an extension of other concepts – therefore, these concepts cannot logically be explained through other known concepts. To conclude, Aristotle presents language as a limiting factor for scientific communication with obvious weaknesses.

The Direct Referential Theory of Meaning appears to be a strong theory in favor of the use of language in science, it states: ‘linguistic expressions have the meaning they do because they stand for things.’ 5 This theory suggests a direct link between linguistic expressions with objective existence, without human interventions – ie. The word ‘dog’ stands for the independent existence of the mammal dog which humans can perceive. This theory is plausible at first sight but is heavily refuted for many reasons. Firstly, it only provides an explanation for the meaning of nouns, and no explanation for the meaning of ‘predicates’ (all other linguistic expressions that are not nouns, eg. Verbs, adjectives, etc.). Secondly, it fails to meaningfully present meaning for the unobservable, eg. Subatomic particles, as they cannot be directly perceived. By removing the subjective human intervention, this theory seems plausible for the use of naming certain objects, however, it provides very little justification for the varying types of language.

The Entity Theory of Meaning is another popular, yet flawed theory of language. According to this theory, meanings of linguistic expressions are ‘ideas in the mind’ 5, suggesting that humans communicate (or say) what they think and believe. Though this is a prevalent understanding of the use of language, it is implausible in the field of science and posits threats to the validity of scientific understanding. This theory implies that scientific communication conveys the observer’s perception, not necessarily the objective truth. Famously portrayed by the thought experiment of Descartes’s Demon, human perception can easily be deceived, and we can never be certain of what we receive a posteriori. Human error is a prominent error when considering uncertainties in scientific experiments, for example, the human eye is susceptible to optical illusions which leads to a false representation of reality. The error in human perception is prominent, therefore this questions the validity of scientific knowledge obtained in this way.

Science is significantly dependent on definitions and laws, however this dependence has proven to be an obstacle in the development of science. According to Stanley Fish, meaningful language is in place to articulate relations between subjects, ‘effect, continuity, dependence, independence, priority’ 5 inclusive. This view seems viable at first sight, however these 5 relations posit a limiting factor on the usefulness of language. There may exist a relation in nature that cannot be articulated through those categories, and therefore cannot be articulated at all. Some may object to that view stating it is impossible to prove such a relation exists – is that not due to the limitations of language, as all proofs have to be articulated through language?

Frege’s Definition of Necessity and Sufficiency provides an ambiguous and inaccurate use of language in science, here I will explain the problem through the example of Wave-Particle Duality. Frege claims that both the necessary and sufficient conditions will qualify an object/occurrence to a definition independently. The necessary condition is relatively undoubted, whereas the sufficient condition is more problematic. In experiments of the Photoelectric Effect, light (an Electro-Magnetic Wave) exhibits characteristics such as one-to-one interactions, discrete quantities of energy (quanta), and a threshold frequency for interaction – all of which are exclusively particle behavior characteristics. Therefore according to Frege’s Sufficient Definition, which states a ‘sufficient condition is something that is enough for X to be X’ 9, light waves, in this case, qualifies to be defined as a particle. Frege’s definition fails to provide an answer in this case to what distinguishes particles and waves. This leads to ambiguity in naming and defining phenomena, hence language impedes and limits our understanding of the world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein rejects Frege’s use of definitions and all uses of definitions. He states that definitions are never completely accurate because ‘counter-examples, excluded-examples and contradictions’ 9 can always be found. In this case, the Photoelectric Effect is a counter-example to the definition of waves, thereby refuting the validity of the definition of waves. Whilst striving for accuracy and details, science is still dependent on its definitions – how can these be achieved simultaneously if definitions are so susceptible to error?

Similarly, Bertrand Russell puts forward his theory of Name Claim, where he states ‘proper names are semantically equivalent to descriptions.’ 5 This theory can be refuted under the same grounds as the use of definitions, as there is never one particular ‘description’ 5 that is applicable for all uses of the word. Moreover, when concerned with the use of words under different scenarios, the same word can have different meanings. Wittgenstein would later support this theory, only with the addition of a ‘restricted domain’. This suggests that the context of communication provides a ‘restricted domain’, therefore it limits the meaning and description of a particular word to that domain. Although the use of proper names in the scientific domain will limit the range of its definitions, this theory of meaning still provides certain ambiguity in the use of words.

Lastly, I will address the most problematic theory of them all – The Proposition Theory. At first sight, this theory is reliable, as propositions are described as ‘language-independent’ 5 and ‘people-independent’ 5, exhibiting a resemblance to the objective truths which science seeks to explore. However, this theory highlights the futile and disrupting role which language plays in scientific communication. According to the Proposition Theory, synonyms are described as when two utterances S1 and S2 both express proposition P; disagreements and supposed conflicts in science can be explained in this way. Two different theories may both express proposition P, but use two different utterances and different vocabulary, therefore linguistically, it may appear as if there is a conflict between the theories, but realistically, they are conveying the same idea (proposition). This problem is addressed as ‘the most troublesome of all’ 27 by Francis Bacon in his revolutionary work addressing contemporary science, Novum Organum. Bacon refers to this phenomenon as ‘Idols of the Marketplace’ 27; he describes it as ‘the intellect is hindered by wrong or poor choices of words’ 27. He heavily criticizes the use of language in all academic areas, as it significantly obstructs the development of all academic areas; he states: ‘when learned men engage in high and formal discussions they often end up arguing about words and names’ 27. This problem outlined by Bacon shows the inevitable flaw of language communication, as developments in intellectual knowledge are often sidetracked by ineffectiveness and ambiguity of language. To conclude, language may not be fatally damaging to scientific communication, but unquestionably, it incapacitates the effectiveness of developments in academic areas.

5.2 Manipulations

Language is a human product, therefore receptive to all types of manipulation for desired results; this is indisputably a weakness of linguistic communication. Science utilizes this intricately through its axioms. There is inevitable use of ‘axioms, postulates, definitions and hypotheses’ in scientific methodology – and this is the main stage where manipulation of language happens. As Francis Bacon states, the use of language can be ‘wilful and wayward’ 27, with a negative connotation.

A common type of manipulation is the use of analytic statements; however it is not to say that the use of analytic statements is only to bring about desired outcomes, it can also be an obstacle in the way of scientific development – it can work for humans, but also against. (It works in a way similar to the use of axioms and postulates in scientific methodology.) For example, Einstein’s famous theories of General and Special Relativity are largely dependent on its postulates. For the Special Theory of Relativity, it depends on the postulate that the observers are not accelerating; whereas the General Theory of Relativity deals with accelerating observers. Without going into too much detail, it is the postulate (whether the observer is accelerating or not) that distinguishes between the two theories, and are used to explain drastically different phenomena with completely different equation (special relativity – small scale velocity; general relativity – big scale acceleration/gravity). The use of analytic language is also seen in the Theories of Relativity: it is stated that ‘the speed of light c is a universal constant the same in any inertial frame’ 28. The revolutionary concepts of time dilation and length contraction are extensions of this statement. There seems to be no way to prove the validity of that statement, as humans do not yet have the technology or knowledge to verify whether anything can exceed the speed of light. Meaning of analytic language is often founded on and stems from contemporary knowledge and understanding, hence the conflict between the definition for time and space between Newtonian Mechanics and Relativity. By altering the postulates here, Einstein has caused a ‘paradigm shift’. This paradigm shift has changed the contemporary understanding of reality, making it no longer compatible with the use of analytic language in the past.

Popper’s Falsificationism is popular in the discussion about scientific methodology, as it appears to be a bulletproof verification system for testing the validity of hypotheses. However, his theory is vulnerable under the manipulation of language as Psychologist David Trafimow pointed out. It is not to say Falsificationism is invalid, but rather language has the power to overcome these tests. For Trafimow, ‘there are no unfalsifiable theories’ 15 because with enough ‘auxiliary assumptions’15 all theories can be falsified and tested in some way. This claim was first made by Trafimow to refute Falsificationism as a theory, but it also clearly reflects the potentiality of language. With the use of auxiliary assumptions, all hypotheses can be made valid, even if it is not valid. This again challenges the validity of existing hypothesis and theories, whether there has been a manipulation of language for these theories to have been proven falsifiable and therefore valid.

5.3 Cognitive Bias

Recipients of scientific information are humans, as a result, a cognitive bias is unavoidable. One example of this is the human intuition which aligns with the ‘tertium non datur’ logic (The Law of the Excluded Middle). Human intuition values the existence of binary judgments, ie. Positive and negative as the only answers to a question and also mutually exclusive, and rejects the idea of an answer in between. This leads to a bias towards clear binary answers; a bias which Quantum Mechanics struggled with. The Schrodinger’s Cat Thought Experiment presents the idea of a Superposition State; existing in this state means it is in neither one of the binary states, but rather, in between, and it has a 50% probability of being in either. This thought experiment provided such a disturbing philosophy implication contrary to common understanding, that its original developer Chad Orzel completely abandoned his investigation in Quantum Mechanics and turned to Biology instead. 29 In this case, language has failed to overcome this logical structure, and cannot represent reality accurately.

Secondly, there is often a difference between speaker-meaning and the interpretation of the listener. It is impossible to guarantee perfectly effective communications. Omnes mentions the issue in his book, Quantum Philosophy, stating that there is a ‘tendency to read what we expect rather than what the author wanted’ 13. In these situations, cognitive bias affects negatively in scientific communication, as the interpretation of the listener may distort the original speaker-meaning..

Similarly, Humans prefer ideas that are comprehensible and more common to them. This explains the violent rebuttal of Einstein’s Relativity when it first went public in 1916. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity abolished the common understanding of a fixed, absolute coordinate system of time and space, which was violently refuted on many grounds on respect of Newtonian Classical Mechanics, some even resulted in more personal attacks against Einstein, calling his theories ‘Jewish Science’. The public rejection of his new theory is clear evidence for the social attitude against new concepts; in this case, new concepts that refuted the validity of their well trusted Newtonian Classical Mechanics. Concepts outside contemporary knowledge are more often doubted and rejected – this poses a great obstacle in scientific developments and limits the potentials for ‘paradigm shifts’ 30 .

Another aspect of cognitive bias seems to stem from an expectation of Symmetry and an aesthetic aspect of scientific theories. This stems from an obsession with circles, the Golden Ratio, and the apparent beauty of Newton’s Second Law: F = ma. The symmetry (and simplicity) of Physics are sometimes significantly appreciated by scientists, however, these ‘aesthetic equations are only approximations’ 31, and do not fully represent nature. This appreciation of beauty and symmetry seems to have a theological origin, where the universe is a creation of God, therefore it must be aesthetically pleasing; Signs of it can be seen in Buddhist art, where it is described as ‘overwhelmingly symmetrical’ 31. In science and mathematics, it is also seen, where there is an ‘attraction of certain geometric figures’ 13 that can be explained by their ‘multiple symmetries’ 13. This preference leads to a faulty perception of ‘consistency and beauty’ being directly correlated to accuracy, however this is often not the case. Moreover, it leads to rejections of equations and theories that are not so aesthetically pleasing, even when they might be right. This cognitive bias towards aesthetics is fatal and significantly disrupts the developments in science.

Conclusion

To conclude, language incapacitates the effectiveness of scientific methodology and understanding. That does not imply it is thoroughly unworkable, language as a system just provides significant room for error; consequently, it is incapable of conveying objective truths meticulously and efficaciously. The implications of this conclusion are significant – if errors are susceptible through language, there emerges a demand for a more effective and accurate way of communication in order to reach and seek the objective truths. Education of science is prominent in contemporary society, it is expedient to find an alternative method of education, which eliminates this innate tendency of language towards error. For example, mathematics as a ‘universal language’ is significantly less vulnerable towards error and human intervention, however still not flawless. There is an intrinsic human desire to seek for more knowledge relentlessly – currently, this is done through science. In order not to limit this journey to find the truth, this inevitable error in language needs to be recognized and we need to overcome this pressing issue.

Needless to say, this dissertation is in no way perfect, countless limitations have emerged along the way. Most significantly, the dissertation was constructed under a tight time limit, which meant an insufficient number of resources and philosophers were considered; this dissertation only considered certain perspectives, not all – this is another definite weakness of this dissertation. On top of that, there is a heavy focus on more ancient philosophical theories. Language is a living, social phenomenon; in further research, it would be beneficial to consider more contemporary philosophers and theories. In addition, this dissertation is unquestionably largely theoretical, therefore its implications in daily practice are limited. To reach a more substantial conclusion, a further field study or practical research of the liability of language towards error would be extremely beneficial.

[word count: 7,073]

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Biography:


Maiara grew up in Shanghai, China. At the age of 13, she ventured into a completely foreign country and attended an English boarding school – Oundle School. Her interest in STEM subjects has been prominent since a young age, but she has also developed a fascination with philosophy. The field of philosophy of science has since been of particular interest. 

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