SATURDAY, AUGUST 27, 2022
"Muddled thinking" / "linguistic illusion:" Yes, we took Brian Greene's book along on the week's three-day trip (see yesterday's report). We've long been fascinated by this early, highly instructive passage:
GREENE (pages 24-25): It is perhaps surprising that the essential concern of special relativity is to understand precisely how the world appears to individuals, often called "observers," who are moving relative to one another. At first, this might seem to be an intellectual exercise of minimal importance. Quite the contrary: In the hands of Einstein, with his imaginings of observers chasing after light beams, there are profound implications to grasping fully how even the most mundane situations appear to observers in relative motion.
Intuition and Its Flaws
Common experience highlights certain ways in which experiences by such individuals differ. Trees alongside a highway, for example, appear to be moving from the viewpoint of a driver but appear stationary to a hitch-hiker sitting on a guard rail. Similarly, the dashboard of the automobile does not appear to be moving from the viewpoint of the driver (one hopes!), but like the rest of the car, it does appear to be moving from the viewpoint of the hitchhiker. These are such small and intuitive properties of how the world works that we hardly take note of them.
Special relativity, however, proclaims that the differences in observation between two such individuals are more subtle and profound...
In this early part of The Elegant Universe, Greene is attempting to outline the basics of special relativity. As he starts, he offers the highlighted statement about the differing experiences of 1) the driver of a car, and 2) a hitch-hiker the driver is motoring past.
Even at this early point, Greene describes that difference in language which seems to have been drawn from somewhere on or near the dark side of Mars.
Already, we've moved perhaps a hundred yards off a clear, well-lighted path. In our view, the clarity quotient heads downhill from there.
"What difference does it make?" obedient reviewers will cry. "We all know what Greene meant!"
And yes—as we noted yesterday, we all do (pretty much) know what he must have meant. But as such slippages in clarity continue to occur, we move farther and farther away from that clear, well-lighted path.
Why don't we see that we're lost in the woods? One thinks of Warren Zevon's description at the end of his 1977 hit, "Werewolves of London:"
I saw a werewolf drinkin' a piña colada at Trader Vic's.
His hair was perfect.
The werewolf's hair was perfect! This may have distracted observers in London from noticing that everything else about the werewolf was wrong.
Or so Zevon seemed to suggest. But so too with our "Einstein made easy" books!
As Greene continues, his sentence structure is perfect, much like the werewolf's hair. This may keep us from realizing that, at some fairly early point, we don't have the slightest idea what he's talking about.
Sadly, the later Wittgenstein had little skill at the basic task of explaining what he himself was talking about. Still and all, Professor Horwich tells us this—at the New York Times, no less!
HORWICH (3/3/13): Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed, the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.
This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on—and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?
If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking....Therefore, traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate.
Greene isn't "doing philosophy" in the passage we've posted. He's simply trying to explain special relativity in a way general readers can understand.
But he wanders off the path of clarity as soon as he begins. And he wanders farther afield, in successive small steps, as his book's pages fly pass.
According to the later Wittgenstein, this same tendency toward "linguistic illusion and muddled thinking" has always dogged classic academic philosophy at its highest ends. Horwich goes into more detail in the full text of his short essay.
That said, such errors of clarity also dog our nation's "political discourse." We humans tend to reason very poorly, and this tends to lead on to very bad ends.
We've long been fascinated by the way this works at the highest ends of the spectrum—for example, when Einstein tried to explain his own revolutionary work in a way general readers could understand.
In his 1916 general interest book, Einstein offered an explanation of "the relativity of simultaneity" which transparently didn't make sense. He was trying to explain the same topic Greene is dealing with in the passage we've posted.
Transparently, Einstein's explanation didn't make sense—but so what? A hundred years later, there it was, that same explanation, lying at the heart of a tribute broadcast by the high-end PBS program, Nova.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep—but we humans are strongly inclined to trap ourselves in linguistic illusions and attendant muddled thinking.
No, Virginia! The trees along the side of that highway didn't "appear to be moving" to the driver of that car! That was Greene's first small step off Clarity Road, with other such steps to follow.
Brian Greene knows tons of physics. Stating the obvious, Einstein did too. But explaining physics to us general readers is a daunting task.
So is dealing with the basic topics which drive our political discourse. At present, our nation is dividing into tribes, and tribal war draws on.
Indeed, the latest of our species' many wars seems to be upon us. One thinks of Gene Brabender, saying this to Jim Bouton this in the classic book, Ball Four:
"Where I come from, we only talk so long. Then we start to hit."
Jumbled logic rules our discourse. Eventually, as pressure builds, our tribes begin to hit.
We humans! We've built a complex technology, and it actually works. Everywhere else, we're strongly inclined to build conceptual chaos.
In the very basic ways Wittgenstein clumsily tried to explore, we reason very poorly. We know how to go to the moon, but in matters which aren't technology / engineering-based we tend to have a very hard time getting from here to there.
Other examples of linguistic illusion / muddled thinking / conceptual chaos: Mathematicians who say they believe in "mathematical Platonism," which can (fairly) be described as an incoherent theory about where the number 2 lives.
No one could be so dumb, you insist. And we're sorry, but otherwise brilliant mathematicians keep proving that your sensible assumption is wrong!
They get tangled up in forms of language which lead them far away from Clarity Road. They believe they're engaged in Very Deep Thought as they voice absurdly muddled "ideas."
Even so, their hair is perfect! They're known to be brilliant mathematicians, so reviewers follow along!