[N]othing has meaning except it be seen as in some context. [...] Without context, words and actions have no meaning at all. [...] It is the context that fixes the meaning. (p.14ff)
There is a parallel confusion in the teaching of language that has never been straightened out. Professional linguists nowadays may know what's what, but children in school are still taught nonsense. They are told that a "noun" is the "name of a person, place, or thing," that a "verb" is "an action word," and so on. That is, they are taught at a tender age that the way to define something is by what it supposedly is in itself not by its relation to other things. Most of us can remember being told that a noun is "the name of a person, place, or thing." And we can remember the utter boredom of parsing or analyzing sentences. Today all that should be changed. Children could be told that a noun is a word having a certain relationship to a predicate. A verb has a certain relation to a noun, its subject. And so on. Relationship could be used as basis for definition, and any child could then see that there is something wrong with the sentence " 'Go' is a verb." (p.17)
Science sometimes improves hypotheses and sometimes disproves them. But proof would be another matter and perhaps never occurs except in the realms of totally abstract tautology. We can sometimes say that if such and such abstract suppositions or postulates are given, then such and such must follow absolutely. But the truth about what can be perceived or arrived at by induction from perception is something else again.
Let us say that truth would mean a precise correspondence between our description and what we describe or between our total network of abstractions and deductions and some total understanding of the outside world . Truth in this sense is not obtainable. And even if we ignore the barriers of coding , the circumstance that our description will be in words or figures or pictures but that what we describe is going to be in flesh and blood and action-even disregarding that hurdle of translation, we shall never be able to claim final knowledge of anything whatsoever. (p.27)
Knowledge at any given moment will be a function of the thresholds of our available means of perception. The invention of the microscope or the telescope or of means of measuring time to the fraction of nanosecond or weighing quantities of matter to millionths of a gram all such improved devices of perception will disclose what was utterly unpredictable from the levels of perception that we could achieve before that discovery. [...] Science probes; it does not prove (p.29)
All experience is subjective. (p.31)
The division of the perceived Universe into parts and wholes is convenient and may be necessary but no necessity determines how it shall be done [...] Explanation must always grow out of description, but the description from which it grows will always necessarily contain arbitrary characteristics. (p.38)
If I throw a stone at a glass window, I shall, under appropriate circumstances, break or crack the glass in a star-shaped pattern. If my stone hits the glass as fast as a bullet, it is possible that it will detach from the glass a neat conical plug called a cone of percussion. If my stone is too slow and too small, I may fail to break the glass at all. Prediction and control will be quite possible at this level. I can easily make sure which of three results (the star, the percussion cone, or no breakage) I shall achieve, provided I avoid marginal strengths of throw.
But within the conditions which produce the star-shaped break, it will be impossible to predict or control the pathways and the positions of the arms of the star.
Curiously enough , the more precise my laboratory methods, the more unpredictable the events will become. If I use the most homogeneous glass available, polish its surface to the most exact optical flatness, and control the motion of my stone as precisely as possible, ensuring an almost precisely vertical impact on the surface of the glass, all my efforts will only make the events more impossible to predict.
If, on the other hand, I scratch the surface of the glass or use a piece of glass that is already cracked (which would be cheating), I shall be able to make some approximate predictions. For some reason (unknown to me), the break in the glass will run parallel to the scratch and about 1/100 of an inch to the side, so that the scratch mark will appear on only one side of the break. Beyond the end of the scratch, the break will veer off unpredictably.
Under tension, a chain will break at its weakest link. That much is predictable. What is difficult is to identify the weakest link before it breaks. The generic we can know, but the specific eludes us. Some chains are designed to break at a certain tension and at a certain link. But a good chain is homogeneous, and no prediction is possible. And because we cannot know which link is weakest, we cannot know precisely how much tension will be needed to break the chain. (p.41)
[G]radual growth in a population, whether of automobiles or of people, has no perceptible effect upon a transportation system until suddenly the threshold of tolerance is passed and the traffic jams. The changing of one variable exposes a critical value of the other.
A pure description would include all the facts (i.e., all the effective differences) immanent in the phenomena to be described but would indicate no kind of connection among these phenomena that might make them more understandable. For example, a film with sound and perhaps recordings of smell and other sense data might constitute a complete or sufficient description of what happened in front of a battery of cameras at a certain time. But that film will do little to connect the events shown on the screen one with another and will not by itself furnish any explanation. On the other hand, an explanation can be total without being descriptive. "God made everything there is" is totally explanatory but does not tell you anything about any of the things or their relations.
In science, these two types of organization of data (description and explanation) are connected by what is technically called tautology. Examples of tautology range from the simplest case, the assertion that "If P is true, then P is true," to such elaborate structures as the geometry of Euclid, where "If the axioms and postulates are true, then Pythagoras' theorem is true. " Another example would be the axioms, definitions, postulates, and theorems of Von Neumann's Theory of Games. In such an aggregate of postulates and axioms and theorems, it is of course not claimed that any of the axioms or theorems is in any sense "true" independently or true in the outside world.
Indeed , Von Neumann, in his famous book, expressly points out the differences between his tautological world and the more complex world of human relations . All that is claimed is that if the axioms be such and such and the postulates such and such, then the theorems will be so and so. In other words , all that the tautology affords is connections between propositions. The creator of the tautology stakes his reputation on the validity of these connections.
Tautology contains no information whatsoever, and explanation (the mapping of description onto tautology) contains only the information that was present in the description. The "mapping" asserts implicitly that the links which hold the tautology together correspond to relations which obtain in the description. Description, on the other hand, contains information but no logic and no explanation. For some reason, human beings enormously value this combining of ways of organizing information or material. [...] An explanation has to provide something more than a description provides and , in the end , an explanation appeals to a tautology.
Now, an explanation is a mapping of the pieces of a description onto a tautology, and an explanation becomes acceptable to the degree that you are willing and able to accept the links of the tautology. If the links are "self-evident" (i.e., if they seem undoubtable to the self that is you), then the explanation built on that tautology is satisfactory to you. (p.81ff)
Information consists of differences that make a difference. If I call attention to the difference between the chalk and a piece of cheese, you will be affected by that difference, perhaps avoiding the eating of the chalk, perhaps tasting it to verify my claim. Its noncheese nature has become an effective difference. But a million other differences-positive and negative, internal and external to the chalk remain latent and ineffective.
Bishop Berkeley was right, at least in asserting that what happens in the forest is meaningless if he is not there to be affected by it.
We are discussing a world of meaning, a world some of whose details and differences, big and small, in some parts of that world, get represented in relations between other parts of that total world . A change in my neurons or in yours must represent that change in the forest, that falling of that tree. But not the physical event, only the idea of the physical event. And the idea has no location in space or time---Only perhaps in an idea of space or time. (p.99)