Is there a language problem with quantum physics? – fundamentals – 05 January 2008 – New Scientist is a fascinating proposition. David Peat is a theoretical physicist who points out that European languages are bound up with notions of Newtonian physics and classical categorisation. He and the US physicists David Bohm held a meeting in 1992 with the elders of the Blackfoot, Micmac and Ojibwa tribes, who speak Algonquian langauages. The speakers of these languages don’t tend to divide the world into categories of objects but talk about things in terms of processes. They describe things and people as being in a constant state of change, appearing and sinking back into a flowing cosmos. Algonquian speakers even have rituals designed to stop objects from being reabsorbed back into the universe. The physicists were amazed at how close the elders’ way of thinking seemed to mirror quantum processes. Peat suggests that such languages and ways of thought could be what western physicists need to help them create a better framework for discussing problems in quantum physics that might lead to solutions to current problems.
This resonated with my wonderings about where categories come from and how language, culture, and society affect the way we organise our thougths and our things. (I have just started reading Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What catergories reveal about the mind by George Lakoff) but it also reminded me of something Patrick Lambe discusses in his excellent book Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, knowledge and organisational effectiveness where he talks about taxonomies as processes and how they need to flow with changes in organisations and the wider world.