A Few Reflections on Language and Reality

I’ve argued before that reality is fundamentally linguistic in its nature – for some more of my thoughts and developments on this theme, head here:

So, what are some of the implications of this viewpoint? To be brief, here are some of the ones that come to my mind (note: this viewpoint is not saying that everything is language, or that only language exists – this isn’t linguistic idealism):

1)      Reality, by virtue of being linguistic, is relational. This works with a realist notion of the universe as the totality of all interacting and relating things. Reality is interactive and relational.

2)      A linguistic reality would point to an objectively existing reality – language always points to a reality outside itself.

3)      It is this relational-ness that allows for scientific study – a relational, interacting objective universe can be studied by relational, interacting humans.

With these points in mind, it seems appropriate to me to tentatively call this idea linguistic realism – to sum up, a conception of an objectively existing reality based on relation and interactive-ness. This account of reality is a whole, coherent and interactive account, which is the kind of account required if there is to be any serious scientific inquiry into the empirical universe (see the numerous quotations of Fr. Stanley Jaki for more on the idea of an objective reality being necessary for science).

These are not dogmatic statements, and no doubt have weak points. My goal here is to work through the issues and implications of this thesis and come to at least some coherent conclusions. Perhaps all of this is worthy to be rejected – I certainly hope that if that is in fact the case, the astute readers of this blog will make it known.

Stanley Jaki on a Theory of Everything

‘Herein lies the ultimate bearing of Gödel’s theorem on physics. It does not mean at all the end of physics. It means only the death knell on endeavours that aim at a final theory according to which the physical world is what it is and cannot be anything else. Gödel’s theorem does not mean that physicists cannot come up with a theory of everything or TOE in short. They can hit upon a theory which at the moment of its formulation would give an explanation of all known physical phenomena. But in terms of Gödel’s theorem such a theory cannot be taken for something which is necessarily true. Apart from Gödel’s theorem, such a theory cannot be a guarantee that in the future nothing essentially new would be discovered in the physical universe which would then demand another final theory and so on. Regress to infinity is no answer to a question that keeps generating itself with each answer. Gödel’s theorem means, among other things, that physicists who aim at reading God’s mind will not succeed, because they cannot read their own minds in the first place. A physicist, Paul Davies, who writes a book with the title The Mind of God, should be the object of pity and not the recipient of a prestigious prize for progress in religion. Gödel’s theorem remains a serious assurance to all physicists that their minds will forever be challenged by ever fresh problems. With a recourse to logic they would also know what to think of efforts to derive the very specific constants of physics from non-specific considerations. Insofar as mathematics works with numbers, it will remain steeped in specifics all of which raise the question: Why such and not something else? It is that question which keeps the mind awake, or rather is raised by minds not prone to slumber.’

Pascal on Man’s Disproportion

‘This is where our innate knowledge leads us. If it be not true, there is no truth in man; and if it be true, he finds therein great cause for humiliation, being compelled to abase himself in one way or another. And since he cannot exist without this knowledge, I wish that, before entering on deeper researches into nature, he would consider her both seriously and at leisure, that he would reflect upon himself also, and knowing what proportion there is… Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond an imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short, it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God that imagination loses itself in that thought.

Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?

But to show him another prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and in the last mites, in which he will find again all that the first had, finding still in these others the same thing without end and without cessation. Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption.

For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.

What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end. All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvellous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so.’ (Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensees’, 72)

More on Language and Reality

‘If you take the biblical image of God ‘speaking a universe into existence’ (with all the fuzziness, imprecision, and questions that raises!), then the universe is fundamentally semantic in character. This simply means that the constituents are related to one another as semantic units in a semantic web. The classic part/whole problem, in this model, becomes the text/context problem of hermeneutics–because of the category of an ultimate reference point for predication–and in this personal context of a ‘speakers meaning’ (deconstructionism aside for the moment) allows for an “expert witness” perhaps.

What this means for the discovery process, is at least two-fold. First, that each element of the universe (i.e. semantic unit) provides some information in forming the understanding of the context (like a hologram in which each point contains the picture as a whole, and like the process in which we ‘correct’ phonemes based upon expected sentence meaning), and that second, we (as semantic units within the sentence) have a dialogical relationship to the other units. In other words, we do not ‘extract/extort’ data from our objects, nor do we passively ‘wait for the rocks to speak’; they rather ‘answer us’–if we ask the RIGHT questions…Discovery then boils down to dialogue–a framing of questions for the universe and allowing the universe to tell us to change the questions! (if need be)…

This notion of ‘semantic field or web’ has the personal element implicit in it, and as such allows the semantic units to be ‘revelatory’ of some Speaker (to the extent said Speak intends disclosure.)

It is also important to note that the relationships played by words and sentences and paragraphs within a semantic unit, can be seen as a unifying model for both particle and field theories (at some gross level). Words have specific meanings only within a context (field theories); but context is only composed of discrete semantic ‘atoms’ (particle theories). (I am NOT suggesting that we abandon the microscope in favor of the dictionary, of course, but that we be a little less presumptive and harsh in our claims of scientific knowledge–esp. at the expense of other experienced realities like consciousness).’  (http://www.christianthinktank.com/what.html)

If  the Biblical idea of God speaking the universe into existence is true, then reality is in its essence linguistic, and therefore also personal and dialogic, and by that extension relational . 

Pascal on Thought and the Universe

‘Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water, suffices to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.’
― Blaise Pascal

‘Through space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; through thought I comprehend the world.’
– Blaise Pascal

The Universe and the Mind

‘Clearly, both science and natural theology demand a view of the mind in which justice is done both to the mind’s essential dependence on the body and to the mind’s ability to reach not only beyond its body but the totality of bodies, or the universe. For the conceptualization of such a view of the mind no single work, be it “soul” or something else, can do full justice. It can only be grasped by an unreserved commitment to that very richness which nature displays in man alone. Once this commitment is unhampered by empiricist and rationalist phobias, the thinking man will appear that slender reed which for all its fragility is stronger than all the matter in the universe. While the universe does not know man is able to know the universe, witnessing in more than one sense the truth of the phrase that knowledge is power.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 260)

Science, Metaphysics and the Universe


‘Science is inseparable from that process of comprehending which is a conscious experience tying the real world and the knower into a unity. Once this tie is slighted, one is left either with solipsism or with physicalism. On the basis of the former one can build oneself up but not a world, on the basis of physicalism one will not have a physics which is a comprehension of the world.’
– Stanley Jaki (‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God,’ p. 261)

‘The singularity of the universe is a gigantic springboard which can propel upward anyone ready to exploit its metaphysical resilience and catch thereby a glimpse of the Ultimate and Absolute in the form of a unique inference. Catching that glimpse, or sensing the truth of that inference, is always transitory, nay momentary. Our need and hunger for the sensory quickly pulls us back to things tangible which, when properly touched, will again propel our minds toward the Absolute as the explanation of what is singular and contingent. The alternative to this continual surging upward is to envelop existence in a never-to-be-resolved mystery. Those who prefer this mystery-mongering to an explanation which is a surrender to the existence of the Creator, are right in stating that no surrender is without agony. As to the agony of surrendering to the Creator, it certainly does not have its source in that cosmology which more than any other branch of science showers nature in her powerfully strong, yet beautifully lucid singularity.’
– Stanley Jaki (‘The Roads of Science and the Ways to God,’ p. 278)