Wittgenstein Weighs In on the Higgs Boson

More

While pondering the ongoing debate about whether the human mind is capable of truly understanding the Higgs boson, I was reminded of section 114 of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

Just kidding. In truth, my degree of conversancy in Wittgenstein doesn't permit passages from his oeuvre to spring aptly to mind. I was actually reminded of section 114 not while ruminating on the Higgs boson but while reading my Twitter feed. The tweeter known as@jj_siler said my previous post on the Higgs boson reminded him of section 114.

This led me to download the (free! ) PDF of Philosophical Investigations and read all of section 114--which, fortuitously, is only three sentences long. The final sentence is this: "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it."

Based on my limited knowledge of Wittgenstein, I'll take this to mean something like: We look at reality through the prism of language, and language isn't capable of capturing reality perfectly.

Now, the fact that this interpretation is probably wrong (as some wiseacre Wittgenstein-conversant commenter may well point out) isn't that important, because I'm just using it as the jumping off point for a question: Is the difficulty we have capturing the Higgs boson via non-mathematical language, and via intuitive thought, just a special and vivid case of a more general inability of language and thought to capture reality with perfect precision?

In other words, maybe we're never really getting the picture, but as we move from the macroscopic reality that natural selection designed us to navigate, into the microscopic reality we weren't designed to navigate, the gap between the natural instruments of thought and communication, on the one hand, and reality, on the other, gets larger and more glaring.

In this view, describing the Higgs boson is an intermediate case: way harder than describing a tree (which, actually, gets kind of hard if you try to do it with enough precision), but not nearly as hard as describing the weirdest instances of quantum physics, the ones that suck us down into the rabbit hole, getting some physicists to seriously posit things like the "many worlds" interpretation in an effort to draw a picture of reality consistent with the mathematical description of it.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies?

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In