Return to site

The Language of Quantum Theory

Distinguishing the map from the terrain

Language is our most primary technology, a symbolic representation, a way to model and thus manipulate reality. This makes it central to the human experience. And yet as a fish is oblivious to water, most of us are oblivious to language. This is most likely the line of thought that led to Niels Bohr's strong intuition that addressing language was important to quantum foundations.

What is it that we human beings ultimately depend on? We depend on our words. We are suspended in language so that we do not know what is up and what is down. - Niels Bohr

He recognized that in a very real sense our reality is made of language. That as intellectual explorers we can only go as far as our linguistic scaffolding will take us. And in this sense, we are both empowered and limited by language. On an explicit level by word choice and on an implicit level by the form of language itself. Sentence structure which implies objective causality and a Newtonian world view. Subject, verb, object. Bill walks home. The electron collides with the proton.

The notion of a permanent object with well defined properties can no longer be taken as basic in physics … Rather, it is necessary to begin with the event as a basic concept, and later to arrive at the object as a continuing structure of related and ordered events. - David Bohm

It's for this reason that Bohr resisted any attempt at forming a physical intuition of quantum theory. He recognized that language carries implicit assumptions about how reality works and creates intellectual momentum incompatible with the more precise mathematical description. That said, our language has since changed. Not necessarily in form*, but most certainly in content. The most relevant areas being information theory, computing, dynamic systems, chaos, and complexity. One can only imagine how different our conception of reality might be if the fathers of quantum theory had an understanding of information theory. It's this general line of thought that points towards a new physics. Now we only need a few brave explorers to explore this new terrain.

The general idea explored here has previously been expressed (much better) by Heisenberg:

The two mental pictures which experiments lead us to form -- the one of particles, the other of waves -- are both incomplete and have only the validity of analogies which are accurate only in limiting cases... the apparent duality arises in the limitations of our language. It is not surprising that our language should be incapable of describing the processes occurring within the atoms, for , as has been remarked, it was invented to describe the experiences of daily life, and these consist only of processes involving exceedingly large numbers of atoms. Furthermore, it is very difficult to modify our language so that it will be able to describe these atomic processes, for words can only describe things of which we can form mental pictures, and this ability, too, is a result of daily experience. Fortunately, mathematics is not subject to this limitation, and it has been possible to invent a mathematical scheme -- the quantum theory -- which seems entirely adequate for the treatment of atomic processes. For visualization, however, we much content ourselves with two incomplete analogies -- the wave picture and the corpuscular picture." - W. Heisenberg, U. Chicago Lectures, 1930

*Updating the form of our language is a more radical undertaking and hints at what David Bohm attempted with the rheomode. The essential idea is to emphasize process. We'll dive into this idea another time.

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!