Processes and objects

There are two fundamentally different ways of picturing the world around us. One is as a collection of objects – and we learn from our earliest moments that we are surrounded by things that we pick up or bump into.

But an alternative approach is to see the world as formed out of processes – actions and experiences. We switch focus from the food we pick up to the process of eating, from the chairs we bump into to the process of exploring the room.

In our modern material Western world, objects are to the fore, and we look to the world to be solid and stable and as unchanging as possible. But for older societies, who live by hunting and gathering, change is an integral part of life. The world is a continuous flux, and the picture of the world is in terms of processes.

So for a situation in which we might say, ‘It is a dripping spring’ – the Apache language would take a word for ‘being white’, a word for ‘moving downwards’ and a word for ‘to’, to get something like ‘whiteness moves downward’.

We can see that this is a fresher and more vivid description, coming from a time when people lived much more in the flux of the natural world than we do.

We, by contrast, turn the abstract processes of our mind into things. We ask if a friend ‘grasps’ an idea, as if it were a bottle of beer that we pass across the table. We say that we have a ‘point of view’ – like a place where we sit to watch the sun go down. We even see someone else’s point of view, just as we see a picture on the wall.

We speak of Time in the same way. It is a highly abstract concept, so abstract that debate has continued for several thousand years as to its nature. But that doesn’t prevent us from ‘saving’ it like money in the bank, or ‘giving’ it to people like sweets from a bag.

A dialogue in Alice in Wonderland warns us to take care with this kind of language.

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.

‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never even spoke to Time!’

‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.’

‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

(‘I only wish it was,’ the March Hare said to itself in a whisper.)

Verbs and nouns

We have a fundamental grammatical difference in our Western languages between objects and processes. Objects are nouns and processes are verbs. These grammatical structures have been with us for a long time, and people have been writing about them since the Greek philosopher Plato first highlighted them 2500 years ago.

The rigidity of our language contrasts with the fluidity with which we develop science, and sometimes language and science can be out of step. For instance, we regard light as a thing. We say that ‘it’ flashes. That’s not very good physics, since we currently understand light to be a process, a dynamic interaction of electric and magnetic fields that spreads rapidly through space. You can’t pick ‘it’ up like a dropped sweet, indeed you can’t give it a push to make ‘it’ travel faster. As far as the knowledge goes that has been gained over the centuries about light, the appropriate way to refer to light is definitely not as ‘it’. But of course, that way of speaking locked into our day-to-day language.

The Hopi people handle the situation better than us. In their language, the word ‘light’ is a verb – as is ‘wave’, ‘flame’, and indeed also ‘meteor’.

The Nootka people of Vancouver Island go even further. In their language, all words seem to have verb-nature. They would say that ‘a house occurs’ rather than speak of a thing called a house. And if we think over a long enough timescale, we can see that a house is indeed a process, one that starts with building and ends with demolition. In fact, we can see ourselves as a process from birth to death, a process of change in which any single photograph is not the totality of ‘me’ but simply a single frozen slice of the flow.

The Celtic languages

Now when we come to the Celtic languages, there are nouns and verbs, as in English – but their relative importance is different. The verb comes at the start of the sentence. Gaelic would say:

Tha an cat mor
(Is the cat big)
The cat is big

Tha mi a’ dol
(Am I a-coming)
I am coming, I come

Tha mi a’ tighinn
(Am I a-going)
I am going, I go

We of course in English turn the word-order round and start with the verb when we have a question to ask, but this Gaelic form is for the basic structure of a statement.

The same pattern is there in Welsh:

Yr wyf i yn mynd
(There be I a-going)
I am going, I go

Yr wyf i yn canu
(There be I a-singing)
I am singing, I sing

So while physics has been moving to a process-based picture of the world about us – a picture which is built in to various older languages – Western languages have been moving away from it. We in the West like to think and speak in terms of a world of solid objects. Could this mindset be at the root of our conceptual difficulties with areas of modern physics like quantum theory which picture the world in terms of processes rather than things?

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