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Bohr's Use of Language

December 14, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s blog.

At the end of the fourth chapter of Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature, Niels Bohr writes, “Besides, the fact that consciousness, as we know it, is inseparably connected with life ought to prepare us for finding that the very problem of the distinction between the living and the dead escapes comprehension in the ordinary sense of the word. That a physicist touches upon such questions may perhaps be excused on the ground that the new situation in physics has so forcibly reminded us of the old truth that we are both onlookers and actors in the great drama of existence.” I love the stage analogy that Bohr uses. I picture a camera forever panning backwards. When the scene begins, we are looking at a stage, but as the camera moves backward the audience is on the stage. Included in my visualization is that both the stage and ourselves become increasingly smaller. This is important to the way that I see Bohr’s argument. Bohr suggests that even if we can claim to know pieces of the whole, we will never see the complete picture at one time. This is not to say that we cannot connect pieces in the way that we do a puzzle, but that no single piece can stand as significant of the whole. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature explains that the future of science will be (and already is) beyond our senses. Instead of seeing reactions and experiments, we must rely upon a variety of tests, the accumulation of which will grant a picture of the whole. At no one time, Bohr reminds us, will we be able to actually see the whole, however. In both this piece and in “Discussion with Einstein on Epistemological Problems in Atomic Physics,” Bohr explains how his view differs from Einstein. Unlike Bohr, Einstein believed that at some point we will have a complete picture of atomic physics.

A recent discussion of these readings sparked my curiosity about the things which validate science, such as observable data. I am also interested in the way that Bohr compares atomic theory to classical philosophy. By this, I mean that he understands that there are unknowns in atomic theory. Finally, I also want to know more about the way he emphasizes that the scientist is a part of the experiment. In Atomic Theory he writes, “The resignation as regards visualization and causality, to which we are thus forced in our description of atomic phenomena, might well be regarded as a frustration of the hopes which formed the starting-point of the atomic conceptions. Nevertheless, from the present standpoint of the atomic theory, we must consider this very renunciation as an essential advance in our understanding. Indeed, there is no question of a failure of the general fundamental principles of science within the domain where we could justly expect them to apply. The discovery of the quantum of action shows us, in fact, not only the natural limitation of classical physics, but, by throwing a new light upon the old philosophical problem of the objective existences of phenomena independently of our own observations, confronts us with a situation hitherto unknown in natural science. As we have seen, any observation necessitates an interference with the course of the phenomena, which is of such a nature that it deprives us of the foundation underlying the causal mode of description.” As with classical philosophy, we are at a crossroads. This new path is filled with unknowns, and not only that, but unobservable unknowns. Despite this complication, Bohr asks scientists to depend upon established terms which maintain a sense of cohesiveness, but also give us some concrete foundations for theoretical science. This technique hearkens back to the beginnings of philosophy as humans grappled to find language suitable for metaphysics.

The “old philosophical problem of the objective existences” outside of our own hearkens back to the roots of philosophy. In fact, as science moves forward, it must address many of the same questions that began as early as 2000 years ago. To address some of these unknowns, Bohr demands precise language without straying from classical vocabulary. Both Atomic Theory and “Discussion with Einstein” address the difficulty of language for the scientist and for the public. He explains that unknowns do not equal a lack of knowledge or a scientist’s uncertainty about the validity of their research. Rather, an unknown is in itself useful. He labels this dilemma an “intricacy of language.” Bohr writes, “[Q]uantum theory presents us with a novel situation in physical science, but attention was called to the very close analogy with the situation as regards analysis and synthesis of experience, which we meet in many other fields of human knowledge and interest. As is well known, many of the difficulties in psychology originate in the different placing of the separation lines between object and subject in the analysis of various aspects of physical experience. Actually words like ‘thoughts’ and ‘sentiments,’ equally indispensable to illustrate the variety and scope of conscious life, are used in a similar complementary way as are space-time co-ordination and dynamical conservation laws in atomic physics. A precise formulation of such analogies involves, of course, intricacies of terminology, and the writer’s position is perhaps best indicated in a passage in the article, hinting at the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” The imprecision in language exists in all fields, and grows as the field grows. Bohr’s insistence upon utilizing classical terminology is twofold. First, He asks that we use exact, well-defined terms so as to limit misunderstandings. Second, he wishes to avoid further abstraction of an already abstract subject.

Bohr’s focus on the language debate reminded me of a recent article on modal verbs, or verbs which predict rather than describe simple facts. The article claimed that scientific papers often get buried or dismissed because they include words such as “might,” “could,” “may,” “ought,” or “will.” Of course, these verbs reflect the fact that scientists do not have all the answers, and each experiment leads to further unknowns. This dismissal is something that Bohr feared and a reason for his insistence upon classical terminology. Incorporating existing terminology with atomic physics, science remains valid and as independent of the scientist as possible. Again, I am reminded of the fact that, according to Bohr, the scientist is a part of the experiment as much as they are observers. Therefore, if the scientist were to also alter terminology in a way that best suits their vision, they would further insert themselves and their view into the experiment. Furthermore, modal verbs signify opportunity for further experiment. They also reflect Bohr’s insistence upon the fact that we cannot know the whole picture anymore. As we interact with and learn from the world, the complexities in science grow larger. However, while uncertainty can be off-putting, uncertainty in science should be celebrated.

Bohr’s focus on language makes me think that there are opportunities for educators here too. In teaching science (to both scientists and non-scientists), we should include a better understanding of the specificity of language. We can also explain the benefit of things like modal verbs. Perhaps this will better enable us navigate complicated theories and unobservable data. We could also better educate young scientists with writing skills. Integration of these fields seems inextricably tied together. Bohr speaks of the writer’s dilemma which he calls, “the mutually exclusive relationship which will always exist between the practical use of any word and attempts at its strict definition.” In some senses, the scientist is now also a writer. In other words, language is of extreme importance for the future of science and we would do well to also teach according to these principles.

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