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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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Narrative of Helen Keller

November 30, 2018

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

Recently, I read The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. (I have already expressed my appreciation for the way she describes language in a previous post.) I was also quite taken with her reflections on nature, which played a large role in her education and entertainment. She also speaks eloquently about the excitement and challenges of travel and college. During university, Keller notes the difficulty in finding some of the college-level texts in braille. She often had to wait for resources to be translated or shipped. In addition to school, however, she enjoyed art, literature, travel, and conversation. During her travels, Keller spoke to many celebrities, artists, and scientists. As a way of greeting, she often touched their face or to read their lips. In turn, they waited patiently for translators and interpreters. With strong will and curiosity, Helen Keller defied unimaginable odds to overcome her disabilities. Of course, her family had the means to seek and provide these resources. They found teachers and sought help from celebrated scientists, educators, and politicians. The combination of her own personal endowments with that of her family’s wealth and sacrifice create an incredible story well worth the short time it takes to read.

Today, however, I want to focus on Keller herself and the way that a person becomes textualized. Having proclaimed my appreciation for The Story of My Life, I do also see her narrative as a reflective, nostalgic view of life. As with all texts, I enjoy the ability to discover both hidden truths and falsehoods. Perhaps she has romanticized elements of her story. Perhaps her story is no more noteworthy than so many others sitting on today’s bookshelves. Over the years, however, some of Keller’s works have been banned, which begs the question: what makes her story unique and worthwhile? Why should we continue to read her words?All things considered, I tend to agree with History.com which claims: “Widely honored throughout the world and invited to the White House by every U.S. president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson, Keller altered the world’s perception of the capacities of the handicapped. More than any act in her long life, her courage, intelligence, and dedication combined to make her a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”

The Story of My Life was written during Keller’s college years. The fact that she later became a voice of socialist movements has been well-documented. Though socialist agendas do not show up in this early memoir, she does give a hint of frustration with the world in Chapter XXII. She writes, “It seems to me that there is in each of us a capacity to comprehend the impressions and emotions which have been experienced by mankind from the beginning. Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations. This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense - a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one.” Clearly she connects with the cosmos, with nature, and with other people who remain ghosts to everything but her hands. She continues, “The sun and the air are God's free gifts to all, we say; but are they so? In yonder city's dingy alleys the sun shines not, and the air is foul. Oh, man, how dost thou forget and obstruct thy brother man, and say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ when he has none! Oh, would that men would leave the city, its splendour and its tumult and its gold, and return to wood and field and simple, honest living! Then would their children grow stately as noble trees, and their thoughts sweet and pure as wayside flowers. It is impossible not to think of all this when I return to the country after a year of work in town.” This voice echoes Walt Whitman. It has been reinforced by her particular brand of religion. It also echoes socialist ideas which she embraces later in life.

Even so, her letters, essays, and books help give depth and understanding to the era of both World Wars. During this time, she corresponded with many famous and influential people, which itself alone merits reading. What is it, though, that makes any story worthwhile? I have to believe that Keller, like so many others, writes in order to understand what life is, to speak her story, and to preserve her memory. I wonder if the desire to leave something lasting pressed upon her because she lived in a tangible, but invisible world? In The Story of My Life, she describes the joys and frustrations of communication without hearing or vision. What must it be like to take everything on faith, to depend upon others for everything? She must, of course, resort to the written word as a natural path of communication.

As I think about this story again, despite its faults, I find no reason to remove the reading. Others disagree, however, and even this year the state of Texas has proposed removing Helen Keller from their curriculum. (She has been overshadowed in the media, though, due to the possibility of Clinton’s removal). I wish that I had been included in those conversations because having read Keller’s works, the removal of them makes me wonder: Why do we read if not to discover a world of ideas, some of which may challenge our own? If we seek to remove Helen Keller’s works, then have we not artificially textualized them? It seems to me that any singular or explicit definition of her work has replaced Keller with text. In other words, in removing context, we have also removed the person.

This is something that I am still coming to terms with myself. In reading through the Great Books it is easy to forget that Dante or Hume or Homer was a person. Plutarch carefully reminds the reader again and again that Rome was ruled by people, not giants. Certainly, history offers any number of problematic authors, but we are skillful readers. We ourselves are curious and intelligent, interested in the world, and to me, that means that we are capable of pursuing problematic texts for ourselves. And if we seek to encourage critical thinking skills in others, then we must provide opportunities. This post is not intended to be a defense of Helen Keller, but rather a defense of the idea of exploration. There are few women in history who have provided us with so many writings, not just her own memoirs, but letters to (and from) many influential people of note. I think it serves us better as educators and students to flesh out this person of interest rather than discard her as a firebrand of little worth.

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Socrates: A Sophist?

October 26, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

With his head in the clouds, Socrates, as portrayed by Aristophanes, is a figure of mockery. Not only that—he is a sophist. One who comes to The Clouds only after reading the Platonic dialogues may be startled at this discovery. He may ask, Are we even talking about the same person? That Aristophanes considers Socrates to be a sophist is most shocking. Certainly, public figures are often subjected to mockery, and though Socrates has been a celebrated thinker after his death, he was not so celebrated in life. But that he should be considered a sophist? Unthinkable. It is almost inconceivable that Plato, who in The Sophist considers the sophist to be something of an anti-philosopher, should have studied with and revered a sophist. Moreover, the Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is pitted against the sophists, particularly in Protagoras, Euthydemus, and Gorgias. How is it, then, that Aristophanes could think that Socrates was himself just another sophist? Yet, Aristophanes’ perception may not be inexplicable when one notes the similarities between Socrates and the sophists as they appear in Plato’s dialogues.

The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is most renowned for his method of inquiry, Socratic questioning. In order to test the wisdom of certain figures and in order to clarify his own ideas, Socrates asked his interlocutors a series of questions, a particular form of dialectic. Despite its name, however, it is quite likely that this was not his invention. Plato gives no indication that this form of questioning was unique to Socrates even though other characters express exasperation at his questioning. Indeed, characters other than Socrates use the same method or one quite similar. In Euthydemus, the sophist brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus also employ questions as part of the dialectic process, a practice that appears natural to them. And, in one of the later dialogues, a young Socrates does not ask the questions but receives those given by Parmenides, after whom the dialogue is named. This suggests that what is called Socratic questioning actually precedes him and was a tool of sophists. To an outsider, contemporaneous with Socrates, it might then appear that Socrates’ disputes with the sophists was not a repudiation of sophistry but an inter-sophistical dispute.

Nor might his method be the only perceived similarity between Socrates and the sophists. In Plato’s portrayal of the sophists, the sophists crave acclaim. Applause punctuates their arguments and speeches in Euthydemus and Protagoras. They love an audience and they love playing to an audience. Socrates can be contrasted to them in that he does not seek the approval of an audience, not in Plato’s version of him anyway. Nevertheless, he does gather an audience. Various characters do root him on in the dialogues. And in The Apology, Socrates mentions that young men like to follow him around for the sake of being amused. As he roams through Athens challenging various authorities to prove that they actually do possess the wisdom they profess, he proves them to be lacking. This act of revealing authorities to be fools—or, if not fools, pretenders to expertise that they do not in actuality possess—is unsurprisingly found to be entertaining by some. To an outsider, it might look like Socrates was trying to make a name for himself, just like a sophist might.

The source of this amusement was different, but even that might look the same to an outsider, especially one who only knew Socrates by reputation. Euthydemus and his brother also make fools of others, but that is because they build absurd arguments that make their interlocutor appear to have said something foolish. It is as if they tricked him. They treat argument as a sport, playing word games to prove such absurdities as that a man’s dog is his father. They are facetious and mocking, and they leave their interlocutors frustrated and sputtering, fearing to answer lest that answer be twisted and used against them. Socrates may have shared a similar reputation, as he also left his interlocutors speechless. In Meno he describes himself as a torpedo fish that leaves others stunned. But an important difference separates him from Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. He is not playing word games; he is looking for clarity. He asks people to define terms that they take for granted, and to their great consternation, they often discover that they cannot. A well-known example of this appears in Euthyphro where Socrates leads the eponymous priest to the realization that he cannot properly define piety. After discussing the question for some time with Socrates, the priest hurries away, uncomfortable with the conversation. But never did Socrates play a linguistic trick upon Euthyphro. Never did he seize on an ambiguity in language to make a fool of the priest, turning the conversation to mere jokes.

Many of Plato’s Socratic dialogues end unresolved, which speaks to another difference between Socrates and the sophists. As represented by Plato, the sophist teaches others how to win arguments, unconcerned with whether the argument is correct or not. (See, for example, Gorgias.) Whatever the point is to be argued, the sophist will be able to prove its truth. But Socrates’ goal is not to win an argument. He desires to find the truth. The sophist asks leading questions in order to get an admission from his interlocutor. Socrates uses questions to better understand the arguments of others, to challenge them—yes—but not necessarily to overthrow them. It is the truth he is after, not victory. Argument is not a contest to him, but a means for inquiry. So, at the end of a dialogue, Plato does not show Socrates on the field of verbal battle having won the day and turned back all comers. Socrates is much more likely at the end of a dialogue to announce that, though no answer has been discovered to the question being discussed, still he and the interlocutor must not stop seeking after the truth.

To an outsider, perhaps it would appear that Socrates was just another sophist, asking endless questions to make fools of others, seeking fame, and winning an argument at all costs. Perhaps, he even started out that way, first learning with sophists and only later going his own way. But the similarities between Socrates and the sophists is ultimately superficial. Socrates, at least as portrayed by Plato, was not concerned with winning arguments at all costs. He would have seen that as a truly pyrrhic victory. He used the same methods as the sophists to achieve a different end: truth. In this way, Socratic questioning is properly named after him, because he used it for shared inquiry, not to lead others into verbal traps. If Plato’s portrayal of Socrates was closer to the truth, it is a tragedy that the comedian Aristophanes did not see it.

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Language in the Words of Helen Keller

October 19, 2018

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

I often study the idea of Language. I am curious about how language comes to be meaningful, communicative and permanent. Yet, at the same time, language is so flexible and manipulative. This elasticity allows it to grow, change and expand to incorporate new ideas and influences. Yet, language can also restrict in unseen ways. One thing that is often forgotten, however, once one becomes proficient in reading and speaking, is the power of learning how to communicate. In order to experience this, we can witness the curiosity of young children in the learning process. Rarely do we remember this process ourselves. But we have been gifted with the wonderful, powerful story of Helen Keller, who writes eloquently about her own dawn of language. The rest of today’s blog contains two long quotes from The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, which demonstrate the magic and beauty of language, communication and connection.


From Chapter IV:

“The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r." Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and that "w-a-t-e-r" is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.”


From Chapter VI:

“I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.

I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, "love." This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, "I love Helen."

"What is love?" I asked.

She drew me closer to her and said, "It is here," pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.

I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, "Is love the sweetness of flowers?"

"No," said my teacher.

Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.

"Is this not love?" I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. "Is this not love?"

It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.

A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think."

In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.

For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for "love" in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.

Again I asked my teacher, "Is this not love?"

"Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out," she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: "You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play."

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”

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