Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #168                                                  April 13, 2007
                   A Publication of The Nature Institute
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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The Language of Nature (Part II) (Stephen L. Talbott)
   What sort of causation is at work in a world of speech?


About this newsletter

Stephen L. Talbott

The following is Part II of a three-part essay; the next issue of NetFuture will contain the concluding part. An earlier version of this essay was published in the winter, 2007 issue of The New Atlantis ( The text below has been substantially expanded from that earlier version.

You will find Part I of this essay at

Abstract of Part I. The world is word-like - it speaks! - and the scientist is always trying to speak faithfully the language of nature. We all experience nature's speech, but we tend to dismiss it as no more than the voice of our own subjectivity. We can effectively conceal the world's objective, word-like character from ourselves by choosing to attend only to the grammar of the speech while ignoring its expressive meaning. We end up with something like pure mathematical logic, which is not about anything. This explains why the bizarre speculations by physicists concerning the nature of the world are often more levitated than the wildest speculations of medieval metaphysicians: there is not enough reality in the parameters of this science to constrain interpretation. It also explains why the computer, whose admired logic gives us virtually no understanding of the physical device we marry the logic to, has become our reigning model for understanding the physical world. As scientists seek an ever more complete withdrawal from the world's self-expression, they can scarcely help filling the void with crude anthropomorphisms, conceiving the world, for example (like physicist Steven Weinberg) as farcical and hostile.


The emptiness of scientific language, just so far as it fulfills the reigning quantitative and logical ideal, is scarcely open to dispute. It has been recognized, as we have seen, by prominent scientists and philosophers. If you still want to declare the world cold and impersonal, indifferent to human hopes and feelings, relentless and implacable in its mindless obedience to physical necessity - well, that is certainly your privilege. But the one ground least available for your contention is the ground where you celebrate the mathematical precision, certainty,