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Cognitive Astrophysics: The language and the limits


by Sarah Scoles

When Dr. Barry Madore began his colloquium with the sentence, "It's about linguistics, and it's about words, and, most importantly, it's about 45 minutes," I knew that those 45 minutes would be 45 interesting minutes. After all, one doesn't hear any of those clauses very often at science talks.
Madore's talk was called "Cognitive Astrophysics" and was about how both the language we use to describe the universe and our brains' neurological limits shape our understanding of the universe, even when we think we're being scientific and objective.
He began with two quotes:
  1. Wittgenstein: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
  2. T.S. Eliot: "If I'm going to talk to you, I gotta use words."
The implications here are that having knowledge is part-and-parcel with being able to express that knowledge, and that the expression of knowledge requires words.
Madore then asked, "How do we use words to talk about astronomy?" which is a good question, and not one that is given much meta-thought.
Corporate-types do it too. Source.
Scientific ideas and discoveries are first expressed in journal articles, usually meant for audiences with at least graduate-level background on the topic, and are laden with jargon specific to that particular topic. The articles, if they are flashy enough to pique public interest, are then translated into sentences that make sense to a lay audience. Some of the jargon, though, is preserved and makes it into the collective lexicon. Big Bang, black hole, dark matter,  relativity, etc. You've heard those, and you know, roughly, what they refer to. Each term is shorthand for an extremely longhand concept or object, and the terms are created so that every time you want to talk about relativity, you don't have to say, "You know, that thing where there are no privileged reference frames? Yeah, that one."
But what do the simple words that we use to sum up complicated phenomena say about us, as humans, and about our assumptions? While it's easy to think that the terms we choose don't matter, and if we called the Big Bang "Spider Monkey," our brains would call up the exact same definition, because the term would refer to the exact same thing, that's not really the way brains work. The words we use affect our perception of the things we're describing. Because, after all, the function of words is to convey meaning.
If I called this a "cold flow," your brain would
have a problem with that. Source.
Madore pointed out that, often, "our descriptions of objects are not just descriptions of what something is, but of what's going on behind it." Astronomy, and science in general, is full of "theory-laden terminology": our interpretation of something is often baked inside our name for it. Like a turducken. Of science.
What is that a picture of? Oh, it's a cold flow. What is what a picture of? Oh, that's a galactic merger. What is that a picture of? Duh--ejecta. The processes that we see behind the image--how we figure that the galaxies got themselves looking so intertwined, for example--are part of how we refer to the image. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, and many of our ideas about the processes are correct.
After all, one of Madore's main points was that "you have to think of what you're looking at as a process, not as an object." When we take observations with a telescope, we are making, for the most part, still images. We get a snapshot of a tiny moment in, say, the life of a massive star. The star had a whole other life before that image, and it will have a whole other life after that image, just like someone you dated who then left you. Even though we may not think we think so, we see an image and think of the massive star as that image, when, really, the massive star is not a thing but a thing that is happening.
"'What role do objects play in the universe?' rather than 'What are these objects?' is the question we should be asking."
But back to words. Having a "theory-laden term" is semantically different from having a new term that has no associations. When you name something after how you interpret it, your brain isn't likely to find a new way of seeing it.
Which is another idea that Madore brought up: aponesia, or the inability to completely forget something. "You will never see a picture like you saw it the first time," he said. While that is true about the picture of that dude you saw on OkCupid, it is also true about a picture of M81.
The last thing Madore discussed was what we are "cognitively closed to." (He opened this chapter of the talk by stating that his dog was cognitively closed to the idea of electrons, just to add some more characterization.)
I am cognitively closed to this. Source.
He showed a picture of what appeared to be a 3D terrain map. He asked if we could tell what the plot was showing. Mountains? The Grand Canyon?
"You can interpret three axes at once, right?" he said.
But then he went to the next slide and showed that the picture was actually a map of the colors and intensity levels of a photograph of a girl's face.
"All the information was there," he said. "But you cannot extract all the information even if all the information is there."
The same is true for astronomical images: there is surely much more information in them than we can parse, and much more information than we even realize is there. And that's what it means to be cognitively closed. But if that's what it means to be cognitively closed, how will we ever know what we are cognitively closed to, since we are cognitively closed to it? And what if we are cognitively closed to aspects of the universe that are fundamental to our understanding of aspects of the universe that we think we understand, and thus our understandings are way off? Again, as I ask in almost every post, how will we sleep at night?
Maybe, he said, computers can figure all the truly complicated stuff out. But the problem with that is that when we plead, "Dearest computer, please explain this to me," the computer could say
  1. Yes, but it will take 3,000 years.

  2. No, just trust me.
So do we trust HAL? Will we take, on essentially faith, a black-box computational interpretation of the universe?
The universe, it turns out, is pretty complex. Our brains are complex, but are they complex enough to figure the universe out? And if they are complex enough to figure it out, or complex enough to build computers that can, can those computers explain, and can we understand their explanation, and can we turn it into words? And what role do our current words play in our current understanding?
You know what, this is a lot to think about. Those are pretty big questions.
Check Madore out here and start a petition saying that everybody who makes a science Powerpoint has to quote Wittgenstein in the first slide.


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Reader Comments (4)

Brilliant post.It also outlines the reasons so many people struggle with scientific nomenclature. If you have no grasp of the greek or latin roots for these words, many can seem completely abstract.

Getting computers to do it for us put me in mind of the Hichikers Guide - Deep Thought spending generations to work out the answer to the meaning of life, then having to design another even better computer to find out what the question was.

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergeologygeek

I really enjoyed this post... In biology we struggle with the same problems, specifically in studying pathogens - we always breakdown our questions to the point that we're not really answering the bigger problem, 100's of experiments do not add up to the big answer, they add up to 100's of experiments.

I lose sleep at night thinking about how we're cognitively closed, I just didn't know there was a word for it :)

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke N.

I enjoyed this article. Plato et al. have been losing sleep over the theory of knowledge for awhile - they express it in terms of the problem of universals and particulars. I hope we can follow Russell instead of HAL: "It may be that ... metaphysical differences can be found that have some relation to these syntactical differences, but, if so, it will be only by means of a long process, involving, incidentally, the creation of an artificial philosophical language. And this language will contain no such names as 'John' and 'James,' and no such adjectives as 'wise' and 'foolish'; all words of ordinary languages will have yielded to analysis, and been replaced by words having a less complex significance. Until this labor has been performed, the question of particulars and universals cannot be adequately discussed." (Russell, The History of Western Philosophy, p. 164) Also, 'long process' and 'less complex significance' suggest evolution - perhaps there exists a type of natural selection for metaphysics and over time it will eventually combine language primitives in a way that opens what is currently cognitively closed.

December 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

"Our brains are complex, but are they complex enough to figure the universe out?" This is a great question, and one that we engaged in my FYS this fall. I described talking to a goldfish, and explaining big bang theory to a goldfish. The goldfish would look back at you, run water over its gills, but never be able to understand a word you are saying. Ever. There are probably things in the universe about which we are like the goldfish. Sad.

December 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris De Pree

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