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Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Emptiness of the Language Universe


As we know, the universe if pretty much empty. There is nothing there, really. The 1080 or so atoms that constitute the total amount of matter available to us are spread around in a vast universe of infinite emptiness, sometimes concentrated in stars and planet.  In the most remote parts of the universe the chance of finding an atom is actually as remote as finding a needle in the ocean. There is emptiness at the cosmic scale, but also at the atomic scale. Every one atom is a universe of emptiness in itself. We have the perception of solid matter: the elasticity of my skin if I pinch myself, or the hardness of a marble tabletop. But that’s just an illusion created by the forces that keep the electrons orbiting around the nucleus and those keep the protons and the neutrons together. The reality is that in the electron orbits there is absolutely nothing, emptiness so to speak. Each electron is a universe away from the other and from the nucleus.  Everything else is emptiness. If I were insensitive to the forces inside the atoms, I could penetrate through the walls, like a ghost; because there is nothing really there.

Actually the thought of the emptiness of the universe came to me in relation with an analogous emptiness:  that of the universe of language.   Borges’ library of Babel is a vast emptiness of nonsensical books, an universe of empty gibberish where only a tiny fraction of the books are actually readable. That fraction is way tinier than the actual density of matter in the universe. 
Let's not even talk about books (each book in the Babel library has exactly 410 pages), but just a single page. Let's not even think about the whole Shakespeare, but just one sonnet that can comfortably fit in a double spaced page. Let’s say we have 30 characters in all: all the letters, punctuation, and space, and let’s say we can fit 1000 characters in a page. The number of possible pages of text obtained as all the possible random permutations of the 30 characters is 30 to the power of 1000 which is a number with a thousand zeros, more or less. A disproportionally huge number even compared with the number of atoms in the universe, which is only ten to the eighty. There won’t be enough atoms in the universe to print all these pages and not even to store them digitally.  And only a teeny-tiny fraction of them actually make some sense, is somehow readable.  That’s at the page or book scale. But language is empty at all scales, like the matter in the universe from the cosmic to the atomic one.  At the lexical level, if you consider the actual words of your language, they are only a tiny fraction of all the possible words you can build with the symbols of your alphabet. At the syntactic level, the combinations of words which are actually grammatically correct are only an infinitesimal fraction of all the possible combinations of words. Same at the semantic level: among all of the syntactically correct sentences, those that actually make sense are just a tiny fraction. Like the universe and the atoms, the language we actually speak and write is only just a small, infinitesimally small, fraction of sense lost in a vast empty combinatorial universe. Everything else is emptiness.

1 comment:

Jerry Carter said...

This is true. The same statement can be made for any special configuration in a highly entropic space. Perhaps more interesting is that the brain is so configured to look for patterns that the matches don't need to be perfect. Much like seeing shapes in the clouds, humans are good at recognizing near (or even not so near) matches and extracting meaning.