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The Role of Language in Science

Alan Ford(a) & F.David Peat

A text only version of this essay is available to download.

Foundations of Physics Vol 18, 1233, (1988)


It is argued that language plays an active role in the development of scientific ideas. A research project is outlined which will investigate this hypothesis and, in addition, focus on such questions as the role of mathematics in science and the status of the genetic code.

"Nothing is more usual than for philosophers to encroach on the province of grammarians, and to engage in disputes of words, while they imagine they are handling controversies of the deepest importance and concern." David Hume


In essays and lectures Neils Bohr was constantly emphasizing the role played by language in science and in our understanding of nature. Scientific investigations, Bohr pointed out, are not exclusively formal, mathematical affairs for they also involve informal discussions in which key concepts are explored and understood. In Bohr's words, "We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down"1. In the case of quantum theory his views on language formed an essential component of the Copenhagen Interpretation " ...the unambiguous interpretation of any measurement must be essentially framed in terms of the classical physical theories, and we may say that in this sense the language of Newton and Maxwell will remain the language of physicists for all time."1

More recently David Bohm has made a thoroughgoing analysis of the role of language in science and in thought. Writing with one of us he has also explored how particular world views are enfolded within the ways scientists use language and shown how fixed forms and the insensitive use of language can lead to blocks in scientific creativity. In particular,2 Bohm has made a perceptive analysis of the famous break down in communication between Bohr and Einstein which he traced to the different values and meanings that were placed on certain words and concepts.

In his proposal for a new language, the Rheomode,3 Bohm has also drawn attention to what he feels to be a defect of our common language in that it enfolds what could be called a mechanistic view of the world. But this appeal for a new language comes into conflict with what linguists feel to be the essential limitations of artificial and so-called improved language systems. How, therefore, is it possible to reconcile Bohm's particular views on the Rheomode within the wider context of his general philosophy and the particular views that are currently held in linguistics?. Our answer is to propose an empirical investigation of the role and use of language within science and, in particular, scientific literature.

Language and Science

The object of this project, which represents the result of many years of discussion between us, as well as discussions with David Bohm, is to study the role of language in the description and practice of science, in its various disciplinary manifestations. A traditional view of language in science is that it plays a passive role, that it is simply the vehicle whereby meaning and information are conveyed from one speaker to another. Attempting to express an new scientific idea becomes merely a matter of "trying to find the right words". Such an attitude is an extension of the common presupposition that the essential role of language is to transport a cargo which is variously described as meaning or content. In such a light, scientific writing has, as its objective, the conveying of scientific knowledge to the reader in a clear and economical way.

The physicist will recognize this view of language as having something in common with Information Theory, in which "bits" of information are transported via a channel from transmitter to receiver. A related notion has also entered physics in the concept of a "signal", which occupies a key position in the Special Theory of Relativity. Bohm, however, has pointed out that Einstein's conception of a signal does not cohere with the corresponding "quantum" context of physics, for it implies "a certain kind of analysis which is not compatible with the sort of undivided wholeness that is implied by the quantum theory"4

We call this "transport view of language" into question. The writings of Bohr and Bohm have made it clear that, in the evolution of scientific thought, language is playing a more active role than is implied by a passive vehicle which merely conveys information. In the context of communication theory, linguists themselves have also pointed to the inadequacies of this traditional viewpoint, for it is clear that the listener is as active as the speaker in elaborating the content of the message. Indeed Fauconnier5 has gone as far as to say that it is never possible to communicate anything that the listener doesn't in fact already know!

The idea of a mental space is most clearly understood in the case of vision in which much of what we see is built out of what we already know. Visual scanning of an exterior scene is not so much involved in conveying "bits" of information to the brain as it is a part of an active and ongoing process in which certain clues are sought for and visual hypotheses are put forward and confirmed or modified.

Some intimation of what is going on can be appreciated by looking at the drawings of an artist like Matisse, or the sketches of Rembrant. In these cases there is a considerable economy of marks upon the page, when compared with the works of many other artists, yet the final drawings are particularly satisfying. On the basis of the "information content" conveyed to the brain by these marks it would appear that such drawings are particularly impoverished. Nevertheless they arouse considerable activity within the mind, for each mark on the paper can be completed, or complemented, in a very rich way by the visual imagination of the viewer. Indeed such drawings could be said to involve a play upon the many complex visual strategies we use to fill in and complete what we see. These strategies advance hypotheses, take us in new visual directions and generate a whole dynamical feeling of space, form and movement.

We would argue that there are strong parallels to be drawn between the way in which the visual world is created and the way in which language is used to create our mental spaces. We therefore see that language can play a particularly subtle and active role in the way scientists communicate with each other and the ways in which new ideas are developed, or can be blocked. It will also be of interest to pursue the relationships between vision and language in greater depth and to investigate, for example, the role of meaning as it applies both to words in a language and to visual elements in a scene.

In the light of our proposal, that language plays an active role in the development of science, we feel that an empirical investigation of the role of language in science is called for and, at the same time, an examination of different situations in which the supposed inadequacies of language have led to "improvements" or substitutions for existing language with a view to rendering it more serviceable for the purpose of expressing scientific concepts and theories. In proposing such an investigation we welcome comments and reactions from physicists who have given thought to these issues.

Language and Thought

The question we are investigating can, ultimately, be posed as:"Do we speak (have language) because we think, or do we think because we speak?"

The classical view takes the former position which can clearly be seen in what have been referred to as the transport theory of language, in which language is considered as a passive vehicle used for the conveying information. (In linguistic circles it can also be seen in the prototype theory of categories of Givon, and articles on generative semantics like Lakoff's "Classifiers as a Reflection of Mind".)

The latter view, which acts as a stimulus to our investigation, is clearly more in harmony with Bohm's writings. It can also be found in Wittgenstein"s "family relation Principle"6 and Saussure's notion of "arbitrary sign".

The main field of our investigation will therefore be that of the evolution of scientific thought. One view of science is that it evolves through technological innovations, be these telescopes, particle accelerators or the calculus. But we can also ask why science sometimes blocks, runs into obstacles or turns around in circles. Our hypothesis, and that of Bohm too, is that the origins of these blocks may partially lie in language. Of course the proponents of such systems as symbolic logic have also taken this point of view and sought to repair what they take to be defects in natural language such as ambiguity, irrational deductions, paradoxes etc. But this can never be satisfactory since these pseudo language systems don't work as language. That is, they lack the full expressive and communicative power of our common or natural language.

Our project will begin by examining the recent history of at least two sciences (physics and linguistics) to indicate how natural language properties have contributed to confusion, dilemmas and the creation of artificial problems that only a proper understanding of the workings of natural language mechanisms could have avoided. It is our opinion that natural language is a perfectly adequate instrument for the expression of scientific ideas. Only abuse of its properties, by the imposition of artificial constraints, prevents its functioning and leads to serious breakdowns in communication.

Meaning and Language

In particular we will be looking at the changing use of certain words within science since it is our hypothesis that a change in the use of the word is indicative of a change in theory. Some of these words will include: reality, order, space ,movement, process, field, reason, thought, knowledge, universal, random, discontinuous theory, insight and creativity which also crop up in David Bohm's writings.

During a radical change in scientific thinking, what Thomas Kuhn has called a scientific revolution, it is generally the case that the meanings of key words will change. Yet the words themselves, the linguistic symbols so to speak, remain the same. For example, while the concept of energy underwent a profound development as a result of the science of thermodynamics the word itself continued in common use. But in itself can become a barrier to further scientific development when it gives rise to difficulties in communication. Since the form of the word remains the same it is possible for different scientists to believe that they are all talking about essentially the same thing. In some contexts the world will be used as before while for others it will have acquired a number of subtle new senses.

It is of the nature of language itself that these difficulties should arise. Indeed it is these very issues which require the most alert attention on the part of physicists and, for that matter, philosophers for, we argue, they cannot be resolved by appeal to any specialized or artificial language.

Nowhere has this state of affairs been more graphically illustrated than in the development of quantum theory. It was Bohr who argued that words like position, momentum, spin, space and time refer to classical concepts which have no place within quantum theory. Einstein for his part argued that it should be possible to develop new concepts that are more suited to the quantum domain. However Bohr maintained that, since our language of its very nature is grounded in our day to day commerce with the large scale world, it will not be possible to modify or change it in any significant way. In other words, an unambiguous discussion is only possible at the classical level of things, that is when it is about the results of quantum measurements made with laboratory scale apparatus. But to ask what actually happens at the quantum level of things makes no sense.

The changing meanings of words can also be seen in those terms which have to do with spatial relationships such as space, position, locality, non-locality and even interaction. They have undergone far reaching changes in the developments which led from the Aristotelian to the Newtonian and finally to the general relativistic and quantum mechanical picture of things. Yet because the same word "space" is used in each case it is possible to create the illusion that different scientists are sometimes talking about the same thing. Particular difficulties can also be found in discussions about the significance of Bell's Theorem and the meaning of non-locality in physics. Of course working physicists perfectly understand the difference between quantum theory, relativity and Newtonian mechanics, nevertheless there are many particularly subtle differences in meanings associated with a word such as space and it is often the case that the old and new meanings co-exist side by side. In other words scientists may employ the same word in subtly different ways within the same conversation. It is the actuality of our situation as human beings that we must employ language in order to communicate and, for this reason, we must pay careful attention to both the power and the limitations of language.

Since physicists may not be familiar with the general methodology of linguistics let us, by way of illustration, enquire into the meaning of the word language. What can be said about it?

That language is a word. And should first be seen in this light. But, to paraphrase Juliet: What is a word? A word has three necessary properties.

  1. A phonological form.

  2. A syntactic category.

  3. A semantic use7.

On the basis of this notion of word, a language becomes:

  1. A lexicon. This is the set of words used for linguistic intercommunication by a group or at least two people, along with some form of implicitly ordered relationship to other words. Commonly this ordering is assumed to be in the form of a syntactic tree, but could we venture to hypothesize a form of implicate ordering?

  2. A grammar. That is, the set of strategies used for intercommunication by those who possess a common lexicon.

Linguistics is the study of the use and organization of language with particular linguistic theories differing in their views on how a and b are organized, or,if you like, how they are acquired and used psychologically. One particular approach which will be advocated, claims that a grammar contains the following components:

  1. A lexicon. That is, a set of words along with what we are referring to as their implicate order.

  2. A morphology, . A set of strategies for constructing words.

  3. A syntax or set of strategies for constructing sentences.

  4. A phonology or set of strategies for pronouncing sentences

  5. A semantics, a set of strategies for interpreting sentences.

  6. A text compiler. That is, a set of strategies for combining sentences into larger units.

The above corresponds to what may be brought to a linguist's mind by the world language. Another useful tack is to think of some of the ways in which this word is used. In the English sentences below a French translation is also provided:-

The English language. La langue Anglaise.
Watch your language. Watch ton langage.(In Quebec)
Language and speech. Langue et parole.
The origin of language. L'origine d'langage.
Language reform. Le reform du langage.
The Language Bill Le project de lois sur la langue.
Bad language. Sacre.

A useful test to show that words have different uses is to translate them into another language for usually they do not come out in an uniform manner. For an English word like language, French has at least two words langue and langage.


David Bohm, has frequently referred to meaning, particularly when talking about his recent experiments with dialogue groups in which "a free flow of meaning" is encouraged. This whole question of meaning, and what we mean by it is clearly of importance and, in particular, the question "What do you mean by language?"

C.K. Ogden and I. A. Richards's classic The Meaning of Meaning8 provides a useful introduction to such questions. Following Odgen and Richards the work of Ludgwig Wittgenstein had made a particularly significant contribution to the notion of meaning in linguistics.9 According to his dictum: Don't look for the meaning, look for the use. Essentially this can be interpreted as saying that meaning is a generalization that doesn't correspond to anything that is actually available in language behavior. What we actually rely upon are individual uses which are themselves interrelated according to a pattern of family resemblances. In this sense words could no more be said to "possess" an intrinsic meaning that is independent of their use than, in Bohr's view, could an electron be said to "possess" an intrinsic position or spin.

Some Fundamental Questions

The research project we have begun is also directed towards answering a series of questions, amongst these are:.

What is the role of mathematics in science?

The topic of superstrings has caused some physicists to question the increasing important role that abstract mathematics is playing in science. What are we gaining and what are we loosing by placing such reliance on mathematics? And, to reiterate a question first asked by Wigner, why should mathematics be so extraordinarily effective in science? Why do all our insights and discoveries in science so naturally lend themselves to mathematics?

What is mathematics and what is its role in science? One could almost reiterate the questions asked about the role of language. Is mathematics simply the vehicle or tool of science or does it does it play a more positive and active role? There is an argument for suggesting that mathematics is actually "driving" some of the present research on superstrings,for example.

And is mathematics somehow more or less than a language? Are there things that can only be done and thought in mathematics and not in language? Are there methodologies in mathematics that do not exist in language? Or is it simply that mathematics allows certain operations to be performed in a more compact and efficient way? In what ways is mathematics less general than a language and what does it loose by this lack of generality?

A particular characteristic of mathematics which appears in one aspect to differentiate it from language is its appeal to visual thinking. Of course geometry and topology make direct appeal to visual conformation and to short cuts in thinking that require manipulations in a sort of mental visual space. But visualizations also occur in branches of mathematics that are not directly connected with the properties of space. Mathematicians claim that some of their thinking is quite different than that which uses language. Einstein himself appears to have been aware of a level of thinking which involved muscular tensions within the body and an almost tactile experience of space. In this sense therefore mathematics would appear to be both more and less than a language for while being limited in its linguistic capabilities it also seems to involve a form of thinking that has something in common with art and music.

What is the nature of Artificial Languages?

Forms used in logic, artificial intelligence, computer science and in semantics are variously viewed as being improvements on natural language or as defective forms of natural language. It is important to investigate those properties that are claimed to be improvements and see what they are really doing. For example, is it possible to do better logic with the computer language PROLOG, and what about the sorts of things that cannot be done with PROLOG but can be performed in a language like English? Are there limits upon the current approaches to artificial intelligence that result from a reliance on artificial languages? In other words: Is what is gained by the use of an artificial language in proportion to what is lost?

What are Primitive, Technical, Sacred and Super Languages?

What is the status of these supposedly different forms of language. At one time it was assumed, for example, that the native languages of Australia, Africa and the Americas were in some way primitive for they were supposed to be incapable of meeting the demands of our modern world. A limitation of this kind, if it truly existed, would open the possibility that the languages we speak may also reach some form of limit as science enters into ever new realms. But, in fact, it appears that native speakers can do as much with their language as can we in, for example, English. Again the so-called technical languages of law, medicine and theoretical physics are nothing less that ordinary language which, linguistically speaking, have nothing particularly special in the properties of their lexicons beyond certain restrictions and extensions. The supposed special status of superlanguages, like Esperanto, as well as sacred languages will also be examined.

Is the genetic code really a code?

It is generally assumed by biologists that DNA is the physical representation of an underlying genetic code which can be "cracked" like any other code. But what exactly are the commonly accepted linguistic properties of codes? It is generally agreed that a code is a written form of a natural language, employing some particular form of orthography. At first sight the genetic code looks quite different, for it has little in common with a natural language.

But suppose that we advance the hypothesis that it is indeed used like a natural language! It then becomes possible to project onto the structure and processes of DNA and the cell itself all that we know about the properties of natural languages. By experimenting with this notion, that the cell may have available to it all the richness of a natural language, we may be led to new insights in biology--or alternatively to a rejection of our hypothesis.


a Department de linguistique et philologie, Universite de Montreal, C.P. 6128, Succ. A, Montreal, Quebec, H3C 3J7.

1N.Bohr, in A. Peterson Quantum Physics and the Philosophical Tradition. (M.I.I. Press, Cambridge, Mass 1968.)
2 D.Bohm and F.David Peat, Science, Order and Creativity. (Bantam Books, N.Y., 1987)
3D. Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, Boston, 1980.)
4D. Bohm, Quantum Theory as an Indication of a New Order in Physics, in Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. B d'Espagnat, ed. (Academic Press, N.Y. and London, 1971.)
5G. Fauconnier, Mental Spaces:Aspects of meaning construction in natural language. (Bradford/M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1985.)
6Alan Ford, Category theory and family resemblances in Quantum Implications: Essays in Honour of David Bohm. B.J.Hiley and F.David Peat, eds. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1987.)
7Alan Ford, (To be added in proof.)
8C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 10th edition, 1966.)
9See for example, L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. (Blackwell, Oxford, 1968.)

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