The Language Trap
Plato started the discussion with his idea of reality being shadows on the walls of the cave. We can’t know the event, the object or thing that produces the shadows; we only see the effects. Seeing nature as it really we’d see the contrails and the plane. We can only see the contrails. Contrails in the absence of plane is the realm of Philosophers, poets and prophets who fill the gap. This is the role assigned to gods. Religion constructs the contrail to god to complete the cause and effect circuit.
Neil Bohr, the famous physicist, said we can’t know what nature is. This sounds like Plato to me. Bohr goes on to say what we can do is describe what nature does. In other words, the project of scientific discovery is one of investigation as to what nature does and how that doing effects the relationships manifest in the events, objects and things. This process of inquiry has allowed us to build incredible technology. With our measuring tools we’ve explored at ever deeper levels what nature does and have use that knowledge to engineer machines and software to make computer, cellphones, lasers, ultra-sound, weapons of massive destruction and the rockets that have taken mankind to the moon. We don’t have to know what nature is to devise better explanations and predictions to figure out what nature will likely do next.
The outer limits of our understanding is language. Language arose from inside our human experience realm. Our experience of the world is confined to a narrow silo. All of our language has been manufactured from our silo experience. We lack the ability to understand the world outside of language. That means what language tools we have were specifically tailored for interior silo work. When we think we can detach language from the silo of human experience is where things go badly wrong.
Language is an artifact of the material world as we experience. it. When we transport it as poetry, philosophy or religion to the metaphysical world, we are caught by the paradoxes. Kurt Gödel wrote “All generalisatons — perhaps except this one — are false.” Gödel also wrote that “The more I think about language, the more it amazes me that people ever understand each other at all.”
That’s what makes the spiritual world of language difficult. The material world invites the sense of wonder and awe of what lies beyond what we can perceive. But this is an invitation we can never accept. We brush over that issue as if it is minor problem. This where Wittgenstein made his mark. “The limits of my language mean the limit of the world.”
Wittgenstein wrote: “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him” — As Gödel warns that we have great trouble understanding each other is we can safely assume that given a lion’s world is so different from our own understanding and meaning would fail to be transmitted.
Can what we experience expand beyond our language to understand it? Wittgenstein thought not. If we have reached the limits to where language will take us, what is the right response? Early Wittgenstein said we should remain silent. But in a book published after his death, Wittgenstein had a change of heart from the man in his 20s who wrote Tractatus. He later changed his mind. The appropriate response was not to go silent but to ‘play’, to express ourselves in the hopes it might lead us to find a small crack in that human container of experience.
James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games established the framework and the conditions of play. Both Carse and Wittgenstein point to ‘play’ as part of the infinite game. The play of poets and writers engaged in the infinite game is, in Wittgenstein’s universe, a way “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” The fly metaphor is revealing. To participate in Carse’s infinite game, the players realize that the fly’s fate is like that of Schrödinger’s cat — the fly is both in the bottle and not in the bottle, and the bottle is here and there and everywhere.
We contemplate these possibilities before reverting back to what we experience — the fly in the bottle bouncing off the cork stopper. As Albert Camus concluded that in the absurdity of this action, the fly, Sisyphus and us rather than giving into despair must find happiness in this endless cycle of trying against the weight of the knowledge of never escaping the cage of experience.