Wittgenstein Weighs In on the Higgs Boson

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.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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