Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #167                                                  March 15, 2007
                   A Publication of The Nature Institute
             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Editor's Note

The Language of Nature (Part I) (Stephen L. Talbott)
   The world, as speech or text, resounds in us


About this newsletter


The following is Part I of a three-part essay; the next issues of NetFuture will contain the second and third parts. An earlier version of this essay was published in the winter, 2007 issue of The New Atlantis (


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Stephen L. Talbott


To judge from some of the ancient creation narratives, the world arose as a visible manifestation of speech. "In the beginning was the Word". First there was formlessness and chaos, and then the divine voice flashed forth like lightning in the darkness. "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light". The world began to assume visible, comprehensible form.

Whatever we may now think of the old visions of creation, we can remain sure of one thing: without the speaking of the Word - without language - we would have no science with its striking power to illuminate the world. This observation may seem trite; no one will deny that we must use words in order to achieve and record our scientific understanding, or to pass it on to future generations. But once we stop to reflect upon the fact that science is always a science of speech, a remarkable thing begins to happen. We find ourselves transported to a richly expressive realm of scientific meaning that is as far removed from cramped, traditional notions of science as the first day of creation was from the primeval chaos.

The truths capable of revolutionizing our understanding can sometimes be so close to us that we fail to notice them. So it is with science and language. The crucial point is easy to miss: it's not only that we humans happen to need words in order to talk scientifically about a world that in its own right has nothing to do with language. Rather, it's that our need for words testifies to the word-like nature of the world we are talking about.

I realize that this last statement will provoke surprise and skepticism in many readers of our day. And yet, as long as there has been science, leading scientists have routinely referred to the "language