Wittgenstein, Spinoza, and Rovelli: Language and Intelligibility

As Wittgenstein showed us, there is no one thing called “language.” The term means many things. To illustrate this, he used the metaphor of a game. Just as it’s difficult to offer a comprehensive definition of a “game,” so it is with language. The term covers all kinds of activity, from human speech to physical gestures, from written music to the dances of bees.

Yet at the very bottom, all language is one thing: a relationship of beings, involving information. It is intrinsically intelligible behaviour. By “intelligible,” I mean that it expresses semantic information.

At the level of physical reality, it’s not always clear whether behaviour is inanimate or animate. The concept of a semantics of the inanimate seems paradoxical, since the inanimate cannot have intentionality. The theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli argues in his recent book Helgoland that “there seems to be nothing of [intentionality] in the natural world” (p. 167).

Rovelli’s account of “relevant relative information” distinguishes between the “semantic” definition of information and Claude Shannon’s definition: in effect, the form something has taken due to influences upon it. In Shannon’s sense, and Rovelli’s, the world is literally “informed” by events. For Rovelli, semantic intelligibility arises through the interaction of information and evolution. Certain entities become informed in such a way that the information is able to propagate, and through the selective process of evolution, is perpetuated and extended. The propagation and perpetuation lend the activity of these entities “meaning,” and so semantic information arises.

But Rovelli may be looking too late for the rise of intelligible information. The comprehensibility of relations at the quantum level, in the wave function and its probabilistic interaction with us, shows intelligibility to a high degree of mathematical expression. Through the uncertainty principle and probability, this intelligibility also turns out to be ultimately unknowable and unpredictable.

To the extent that we find any information that turns out to be intelligible, its intelligibility is unlikely to be random. Random action—the proverbial typing of monkeys—does not usually produce semantics, and certainly not of the depth and consistency we find in quantum physics. Only an extremely intelligent outsider looking on could begin to understand the incredible coherence — the staggering mathematical meaning—that we find at the heart of what Rovelli would call “physical” reality.

In this reflection on the intelligibility of Nature, we can recognize the thought of Spinoza.

For the onlooker who discovers this intelligible behaviour, the only reasonable conclusion is that its semantics are already there. The fact that it is fundamentally unknowable and unpredictable further suggests that this intelligibility is an other.

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