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How much does language weigh?    (A thought experiment)

Imagine that you are sitting in a hotel room one week in to a visit to a city somewhere in the world. You have spent the whole week exploring the city: north, south, east and west. There is nowhere on the map that you haven’t visited yet. You have even been up the skyscrapers and down the subways in your efforts to explore this city.

In your hand you hold a device. I won’t say what this device is at the moment but you can probably guess. As you open up this device suddenly a secret passage (a fifth dimension) opens up in front of you and you are able to move through this passage and continue exploring the city. (Think of this passage as akin to platform 9 ¾ in the Harry Potter series if you are familiar with this.)

This secret passage doesn’t run north, south, east or west. It doesn’t run upwards or downwards. In fact it takes up no space in the space-time continuum that we assume the fabric of the universe is made of. However the passage allows you to explore the city in ways that you could never do physically.

Language: The fifth dimension

The device that you hold in your hand, of course, is a book and the passage, or fifth dimension, is the language that is imprinted on to the face of each page. At this point you may be thinking that this thought experiment is a bit of a con. Surely we read language in books and on paper every day and we don’t normally perceive an extra dimension opening up each time we do this?

But I’d like you to consider how language enables us to divide up the universe in ways that cannot be seen and which don’t appear to be part of the physical world. Consider for example the man in the picture below. We have seen in a previous blog how it is difficult to actually refer accurately to objects in the physical world using language. The term ‘man’ has all sorts of connotations; it is really just a metaphor for what we appear to see. We could refer to the man as ‘a collection of body parts’ or maybe ‘a particular arrangement of atoms’. But let’s stick with the term ‘man’ for the moment.

A man running?

We can now make certain statements about this man using language, statements which do not appear to be part of the physical world. For example we could say what action the man appears to be doing:

The man is walking
The man is running
The man is jumping

Note how each of these sentences divides up the physical world in ways that the physical world itself cannot do. In no sense does the man, or the particular collection of body parts (or, if you prefer, the particular arrangements of atoms) know anything about walking, running or jumping. We could go to a more abstract level in our description of the man in the picture and talk about the purpose behind the man’s predicament.

The man is escaping
The main is begging for help
The man is having a nervous breakdown

But whatever we say about this man, it seems that the physical world does not encode any of these ideas. The physical world does not know whether the man is walking, running or jumping. It cannot say whether the man is escaping, begging for help or having a nervous breakdown. There is no sense that the physical world understands what the man is doing, or even that he is a man at all. He is just a collection of body parts. And not even this. He is just a particular arrangement of atoms.

This is what I mean when I say language is able to divide up the physical world in ways that the physical world itself cannot do. Language in this sense is another dimension that allows us to ‘travel’ in ways that are beyond the realm of the physical world. I don’t want to imply by ‘travel’ that this is some sort of mystical, out-of-the-body experience however. It is simply the case that language doesn’t fit in with the physical world and it is better to view it as an extra dimension outside of the space-time continuum. Why don’t we normally experience it as this? Well we are not normally aware of space and time unless we step back and think about them. We have become so accustomed to moving in space and seeing time pass that we don’t think twice about what they are. Similarly with language we have become so used to using it that we rarely sit back to think what it actually is. Hopefully this post is helping you do this now?

How much does language weigh?

It might seem an odd question to ask how much language weighs. (Or how much volume it takes up for that matter.) It seems that language cannot be considered anything tangible like matter in the physical world. Language does depend on the physical world. Letters require ink to be printed on a page; speech requires air to transmitted from ear to ear. But it is not the physical ink on the page that constitutes the language but the arrangement of ink. Does a book weigh any less for example if the book is printed smudged so that it cannot be read? Does the air in a noisy room weigh any more than the air in a quiet room?

In fact, we could argue that the physical world depends on language to some extent for its existence. If the word ‘man’ did not exist in the English language for example would the object exist in the real world? Did ‘galaxies’ exist before mankind had any understanding of the stars? Where was the ‘Higgs boson’ before it was discovered? It seems like it is very hard to really say what is out there in the physical world. Everything we know about it depends on the language we choose to describe it. In the end it might be better if science found a different way to describe the things it wants to talk about. Language doesn’t seem to be cut out for the job.

Does science need to find a different language to talk about the things it wants to talk about?


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