Saturday, June 18, 2016

Language, Science, and the Infinite Complexity of the Universe

What a title, am I right?

I'm awful at titling things.  Titles are supposed to draw you in, they're supposed to give you enough that you can taste it, but not so much that you'll spoil your dinner.  But that's not how I like to title things.  I like to call things what they are.

I made this pot in high school:

You know what I called it?  "Green and Yellow Pot."  I think Mrs. Yousey took off points for that.

Believe it or not, this blog post will be about language, science, and the infinite complexity of the universe.  I'll probably give a nod to history as well, but I didn't want to include that in the because screw history.

The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.

Language is a tool that we use to externalize our thoughts.  At the most basic level, we do not think in words, we do not think in a language.  My favorite fiction series growing up was The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini.  This series consists of four books, the protagonists of which are a boy and his dragon, Saphira.  If you've seen the movie Eragon, wipe your mind of it (if you haven't already) and go read the book.  Anyway, one of the coolest features of the relationship between dragon and rider in Paolini's world is that their thoughts are intermingled.  Eragon does not always use language to communicate with Saphira, he often shares images or feelings with her through their mental connection.  

We can't do that.  We're stuck with language: an inherently insufficient means of expressing our thoughts.  I say inherently because the insufficiency is inherent!  There is a degree of complexity and exactness that is lost when we try to take an idea and turn it into a word.  The word "butterfly" does not capture the beauty and the grace of one, nor do the millions of other words that have been used to try and capture the creature in a literary net because they too are insufficient.  I cannot perfectly communicate anything that I see, feel, or think.

Don't get me wrong, more often than not, words are good enough, language is good enough.  But not perfect.  If I could share my mind with you and you, yours, with me: that would be cool.  I believe that's why the writers I like the best are the ones who can really make me feel or see something.  Mind you, it's not the same thing they felt or saw, but it's something.  I see a wordsmith as truly accomplished in his or her craft when they have the ability to impress something on me that goes beyond language (see "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" by Donne).  

But you see my point, I hope (though I can't perfectly communicate it).  Words are self-limiting.  They're the best tools we have for transferring data from my hard drive to yours, but there is always something lost when an idea passes through the channel of language.

The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

Uh... fine.  That's kind of a mouthful, but fine.  Science is the process through which we try to understand the way existence as we know it works (I say "as we know it" here for the multiverse people, not because I want to sound stuffy).

But I fear we're on a different ship crashing into the same rocks we did with language.  Is it really possible to take our universe, which is infinitely-complex, and shrink it down into something we can actually swallow?  If someone asked me that, I'd give them a hard no.  Even if I knew for a fact what the exact radius of a perfect circle was, I couldn't tell you the circumference without truncating pi at some point.  

Just as thoughts and ideas are too complex for words, creation is too complex for science.  We can do well enough to send a man to the moon, but there's really no hope of developing an understanding of existence that is perfect and complete.  

In fact, nature puts limiters on what we can observe, making science as a system (recall: "The intellectual and practical... of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment) inherently insufficient.

There are things in this world (I don't mean world here, but I've already used creation, universe, and existence...) that we cannot see, hence science, just like language, is inherently insufficient for its own purpose.

Confession time.  Normally, I would just take the history thing for granted and skip over it.  But, I have to admit, this one's actually pretty interesting, so I'll briefly go over the third parallel.

The study of past events, particularly in human affairs.
The whole series of past events connected with someone or something.

The reason the history one is interesting is because there are two reasons history is hopeless:

One, we cannot record any event in its entirety.  I could scribble down that George Washington was the first president of the United States, but I could not capture his every shift in pose and take of breath as he gave his first speech to the American people.  It couldn't be done!  Not only would language limit me, I couldn't even observe everything I would have to write down.  

(See how we cannot study history perfectly because we can neither communicate nor observe perfectly? Hmm...)

Two, even if technological and biological advances took place which allowed us to communicate and observe at the level we would need to to document an event completely, there are events which we would have already failed to document in this way (such as Washington's inauguration) as well as current events that either aren't important enough or are too well hidden to be documented.  

The idea of a "complete history" is an oxymoron (aside: I couldn't remember the word "oxymoron," so I Googled "big shrimp hot ice" to find it).  In reality, we only cover the most important details of the most important stuff, which, by the way, is kind of dumb, since what's important to me is not the same stuff that's important to you.

In all three of these examples (and in many others you could easily come up with), we see our limitations as humans.  We can neither externalize (language) nor internalize (science) perfectly the time and space around us (history).  But there is one who can.

Probably my favorite quality of God is his that he is not finite as we are.  He exists outside of time and permeates all space.  He was before and he will be after (the alpha and the omega, anyone?).  He is all-knowing and completely sovereign.

And it comes as no surprise to me that we, created in his image, strive for that even though we know that inherently we could never accomplish it.  We cannot see all that he sees, and even if we could, we could not capture it with language and bind it all up in some complete set-- only God has the "whole series" of events, and he wrote them "before" time even existed.

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