Thursday, August 14, 2008

Equivocal Language and Univocal Science

It is fascinating to watch the never-ending struggle as language and scientific method develop side by side. The process is always the same. The scientist seizes upon a word originally made by the common poet, and enceavours to restrict it to a single, definite meaning which shall be the same in every context. The physicist, for instance, takes a word like "force" or "energy" and uses it to denote a particular factor in physics that can be mathematically expressed. To his horror, the general public refuses to restrict the word in this manner, and innumerable misunderstandings occur. Not only does the common man continue to use the words in metaphorical meanings which they cannot bear in scientific contexts: he also reads those meanings into the scientist's expositions of physics, deducing from them all kinds of metaphysical conclusions quite foreign to the physicist's intentions. Or, if the scientist does succeed in capturing a word and restricting its meaning, some other word will arrive and take over all the former meanings of the original word; so that the same pair of words may be used in successive centuries to mean totally different things, and may even become substituted for one another, without anybody's noticing what has happened.

Dorothy Sayers, "Creative Mind," Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids: 1969) 86-87. I don't know how general it actually is, but I've noticed this a few times myself. It also happens with words used to describe not just what science studies but the practice of science itself; when a scientist describes the scientific method, you can't always assume that the words have the same meaning to the scientist that they do to you, because oftentimes the word is being used not because of its colloquial meaning but because of something else. I've had scientists (more than one, independently!) tell me that of two theories one was better than the other because the two were indistinguishable; what they meant was actually quite coherent and illuminating, but I don't think I ever managed to convey to them how utterly confusing it was to put the point like that, and that 'indistinguishable' is never in ordinary language used asymmetrically. That sort of thing just takes a bit of vigilance, though; it's rather more tricky when we are talking the actual details of biology and physics.

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