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Why Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science

Neil Thomas
Photo: A medium exuding "ectoplasm," by Harvey Metcalfe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: We are delighted to present a new series by Neil Thomas, Reader Emeritus at the University of Durham, “Why Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science.” This is the first article in the series. Professor Thomas’s recent book is Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design (Discovery Institute Press).

My professional background in European languages and linguistics has given me some idea of how easy it is for people in all ages and cultures to create neologisms or ad hoc linguistic formulations for a whole variety of vague ideas and fancies. In fact, it seems all too easy to fashion words to cover any number of purely abstract, at times even chimerical notions, the more convincingly (for the uncritical) if one chooses to append the honorific title of “science” to one’s subjective thought experiments. 

One can for instance, if so inclined, muse with Epicurus, Lucretius, and David Hume that the world “evolved” by chance collocations of atoms and then proceed to dignify one’s notion by dubbing it “the theory of atomism.” Or one can with Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and Peter Atkins1 conclude that the universe and all within it arose spontaneously from “natural law.”  But in all these cases we have to be willing to ignore the fact that such theories involve what is known grammatically as the “suppression of the agent.” This means the failure to specify who the agent/legislator might be — this being the sort of vagueness which we were taught to avoid in school English lessons. A mundane example of this suppression of the agent is the criminal’s perennial excuse, “The gun just went off in my hand, officer, honest.”

A Universe by an “Agentless Act”

As I have pointed out before,2 it is both grammatical solecism and logical impossibility to contend with Peter Atkins that the universe arose through an “agentless act” since this would imply some form of pure automatism or magical instrumentality quite outside common experience or observability. In a similar vein one might, with Charles Darwin, theorize that the development of the biosphere was simply down to that empirically unattested sub-variant of chance he chose to term natural selection.3 Since no empirical evidence exists for any of the above conjectures, they must inevitably remain terms without referents or, to use the mot juste from linguistics, empty signifiers.

Empty Signifiers in Science

Many terms we use in everyday life are, and are widely acknowledged to be, notional rather than factual. The man on the moon and the fabled treasure at the end of the rainbow are trivial examples of what are sometimes termed “airy nothings.” These are factually baseless terms existing “on paper” but without any proper referent in the real world because no such referent exists. Nobody of course is misled by light-hearted façons de parler widely understood to be only imaginary, but real dangers for intellectual clarity arise when a notional term is mistaken for reality. 

One famous historical example of such a term was the substance dubbed phlogiston, postulated in the 1660s as a fire-like substance inhering in all combustible bodies; but such a substance was proved not to exist and to be merely what we would now rightly term pseudo-science just over a century later by the French scientist Antoine Lavoisier. Or again in more recent times there is that entirely apocryphal entity dubbed “ectoplasm.” This was claimed by Victorian spiritualists to denote a substance supposedly exuded from a “medium” (see the photo above) which represented the materialization of a spiritual force once existing in a now deceased human body. Needless to say, the term “ectoplasm” is now treated with unqualified skepticism.

Next, “The Man on the Moon and Martian Canals.”

Notes

  1. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinov, The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life (London: Bantam, 2011); P. W. Atkins, Creation Revisited (Oxford and New York: Freeman, 1992); Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (London: Simon and Schuster, 2012).
  2. See Neil Thomas, Taking Leave of Darwin (Seattle: Discovery, 2021), p. 110, where I point out how that expression is a contradiction in terms.
  3. Darwin in later life, stung that many friends thought he was all but deifying natural selection, came to concede that natural preservation might have been the more accurate term to use — but of course that opens up the huge problem of how organic innovation (the microbes-to-man conjecture) can be defended in reference to a process which simply preserved and had no productive or creative input.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.

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airy nothingsAntoine LavoisierbiosphereCharles DarwinDavid Humeectoplasmempty signifiersEpicurusevolutionLawrence KrausslinguisticsLucretiusman on the moonnatural selectionneologismsPeter Atkinsspiritual forcespiritualistsStephen Hawkingsuppression of the agentuniverseVictoriansWhy Words Matter: Sense and Nonsense in Science (series)