July 2, 2011
Try this… Repeat a word over and over out loud until you can no longer be sure you are saying it correctly. Notice how, when isolated and repeated, the word seems formless and totally disassociated from any meaning.
With the exception of onomatopeia, the sounds of words do not resemble their meanings, nor do the shapes of letters resemble their sounds. Because they are not representational, words and letters signify by virtue of being distinct from one another. When repeating a letter over and over again, the homogenity of the sound renders the letter impotent. Unable to distinguish itself from one another, the sounds are nothing more than pure audible form, meaningless and redundant rather than specific.
While most words specify, “BLAH” is all things, anything, nothing. Like a Joker in a deck of cards, it takes the place of more “meaningful” words, garnering meaning from its surroundings or its physical appearance. In its conspicuous lack of substance, “BLAH” is the consumate formless word: a blank slate or, like all words and letters, a vessel for meaning without any meaning in and of itself.
June 22, 2010
What a pertinent New Scientist article… Especially after everything that’s been posted recently here at polynomial.me.uk… I’ve said as much in as many ways as I could… And I’m just presently glad to see others saying the same thing now. We certainly need to understand that truths are nothing more than personalised beliefs that suite our own schemas and memetic make ups. Until we grasp this simple principle, and let the importance of our ‘self’ dissipate in varied stances of shifting perception – shifting like the sand dunes of the Sahara, with new daily landscapes uncoiling in the dry desert winds of reason – where we will be afforded many varied and compassionate mindscapes of egoless wonder, we will only grasp at delusions of self imposed, rigid and taught/taut modes of discourse.
As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” Here, within this ‘certain’ construct of human education a sort of deluded Hollywood romanticism is appearing… A romanticism that seems to allow people to understand their educational upbringing is not subject to modification or reinterpretation. In my humble opinion, it is this un-dynamic view of knowledge that cripples the very essence of all our scientific endeavours, as well as science’s educational system itself… If we encourage this fallacy, it will only cause us to scream at every eventuality that we were not prepared for and distrust all we have learnt, rather than simply updating our Operating Systems, as any good computer ‘bod’ will know to do regularly to keep things running smoothly. I know it’s not easy to never be certain of anything. But as Kung Fu Tzu once said, “A scholar who loves comfort is not fit to be called a scholar.” Without this continual updating of our mental schemas and memetic constructs – where we ‘weed’ those erroneous ideas and/or modify them to fit better what we see/observe in actual fact – we can never hope to find that greater perspective that every Taoist sees writhing in the world around us… A perspective of uncertainty; one that complements the natural and inbuilt chaos/nonlinear dynamics inherent within this universal flow… For without this perspective, we can never truly live harmoniously through the Tao.
Just bear in mind one thing before reading this article… Do yourself a favour and don’t get bogged down with Dorothy’s placing hope in the scientific truths we will come to know — after she says that we can never arrive at a truth. This means exactly what it means… Science will show us many aspects of our world, mainly via understanding the patterns unfolding within our dynamic universe… These patterns, while they change and evolve over time, will be repeatable and will show us a functional truth behind their unfolding, one that we can use to understand the world in which we live better. But to ultimately devise a single truth from these patterns – a truth that can only ever satisfy your own schema and memetic self-centred world view – is to lie to yourself. This is not a contradiction… One must see this important point, or we will lose sight of what logic is, and misuse it to trip ourselves up.
Liar, Liar: Why Deception Is Our Way Of Life
How did we get ourselves into this mess? Continual wars and conflicts, climate change and economic crisis loom at the international level, while as individuals we continue, generation after generation, to inflict pain and suffering not only on other people but on ourselves. Why do we have such difficulty in learning what we most need to know to mitigate our most destructive behaviours?
Throughout history there have been a few individuals whose insight into what goes on inside us is as clear as their understanding of what goes on around them, yet with what looks like self-induced stupidity most of us have been wholly unable to learn what they have been telling us.
Take the Stoic Greek philosopher Epictetus. He commented on human behaviour this way: “It is not things in themselves that trouble us, but our opinions of things.” In other words, it is not what happens to us that determines our behaviour but how we interpret what happens to us. Thus, when facing a disaster, one person might interpret it as a challenge to be mastered, another as a certain defeat, while a third might see it as the punishment he or she deserves. Crucially, the decisions about what to do follow from the interpretation each person has made.
For me, this uncertainty lies at the heart of what we need to know if we are to understand ourselves and behave differently. And yet throughout history we have denied this truth because what it tells us about ourselves is that, while we are not responsible for most of what happens to us, we are always responsible for how we interpret it. And we seem to dislike taking responsibility for ourselves as much as we dislike uncertainty.
Over the last 20 years or so, neuroscientists have shown that Epictetus was right – and given us important clues about our neuropsychology. They have found that our brain functions in such a way that we cannot see “reality” directly. All we can ever know are the guesses or interpretations our mind creates about what is going on. To create these guesses, we can only draw on basic human neuroanatomy and on our past experience. Since no two people ever have exactly the same neuroanatomy or experience, no two people ever interpret anything in exactly the same way.
This is frightening. It means that each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. Moreover, if everything we know is a guess, an approximation, events can, and often will, invalidate our ideas.
“Each of us lives alone, in our own world of meaning. This is frightening…”
Can you bear to remember that time in your life when you were going along feeling secure and thinking, “This is me, this is my world, that was my past, this will be my future,” when suddenly you found that you had made a major error of judgement? When you realised that many of the ideas underpinning your whole sense of being a person – that sense of “I”, “me”, “myself” – had been invalidated by events?
Have you ever had the sensation of falling through infinite space, shattering, crumbling, of being about to disappear like a raindrop into the ocean? Perhaps you knew that what was falling apart was not your sense of self but some of your ideas. You knew that you now had to go through a period of uncertainty until new ideas emerged.
But if you did not know this, you would have been utterly terrified, so terrified that you would do anything never to go through such an experience again.
Psychiatrists and psychologists have either ignored this experience, maximised its significance as a full-scale “breakdown”, or minimised it as a “panic disorder”. Yet this feeling of falling apart is an essential part of our lives and of most of our narratives. In The Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy and her companions emerge wiser and strong from the invalidation of their idea that the wizard could solve their problems, while paradoxically Othello is destroyed by the invalidation of his belief that his wife Desdemona had been unfaithful.
We first experience the terror of being invalidated when we are small children, but by the time we are 3 or 4 we have learned a way of avoiding it: we have learned how to lie. From then on, whenever we glimpse the faintest possibility that our “selves” might be threatened with annihilation, we lie.
First of all, we lie to ourselves. Why? Because we fear that we do not have the strength and courage to face the truth of our situation. We even lie about lying, preferring to call our lies anything but a lie. We say: “He’s in denial” or “She’s being economical with the truth”.
We lie in our private and work lives, to friends, family and colleagues. Often we tell them what we call “white lies”. Some of us do so because we need people to like us: our greatest fear is of being abandoned and rejected. Others tell white lies to avoid the chaotic feelings they get from seeing other people being upset by the truth: they know the world is a chaotic place, and to survive in it they need a personal island of clarity, order and control.
At a public level, we lie about nearly everything, from the true level of corporate wealth to expenses and evidence that humans are responsible for changing the climate.
When it comes to such global-level events, you might think finding out what is true would be a top priority, especially as we start out neurologically blindfolded. But it is not. For all of us there is something more important than finding the truth. We are too frightened to confront the facts because doing so means confronting the danger that most of what supports our sense of who we are could disappear.
Unlike lies, truths require evidence to support them. But no matter how much evidence we accumulate, our truths will always be approximations and absolute certainty will exist only in our fantasies. Lying gives us the temporary delusion that our personal and social worlds are intact, that we are loved, that we are safe, and above all, that we are not likely to overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know.
We can never escape uncertainty: it is part of our very being. Scientists struggle daily to accept uncertainty, and still search for “evidence”. In our personal, professional and collective social lives it looks as if we may have no choice but to confront uncertainty if we are to survive – and survive well.
So we will need to be very careful in future about choosing the situations in which we lie. All lies have networks of consequences we did not expect or intend. The lies we tell may well protect us and our personal – or collective – sense of self in the short term, but in the long term and in a linked-up, complex world, the consequences can be truly disastrous. After all, when we lie to ourselves and to others, we multiply a thousandfold the inherent difficulties we have trying to determine what is actually going on inside us and around us.
One day, neuroscientists may be able to describe the damage we do to our brains when we lie to ourselves and to others, when we create confusion about knowing something that we deny we know. Let’s hope that by then we can start to believe – and to use – the scientific truths we will be telling ourselves.
by Dorothy Rowe
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
May 2, 2010
Language… Meaning… Understanding… It’s all about higher concepts ‘globing’ together to create the aspects of cognition, via modes of analogy, that we all use in our everyday lives to impart meaning to, and thus construct, the world that we ‘know’ around us.
Here in this talk, Hofstadter pertinently demonstrates his encyclopaedic knowledge about the development of human language and how the meaning behind words manifest, as concepts develop from their base level ideas, for example “ball,” into higher levels of complexity, as new words are developed to further complement and describe these basic parental precepts – perhaps stemming from new inventions which are driven by new discoveries, from both the empirical and non empirical fields of cognition – into aspects of “roll,” “wheel,” “car,” “moving,” “hovercraft,” “floating,” “flying,” etc… In this endless game of semantic development and lexical evolution, we begin to glimpse at the inherent emptiness behind the words we all so readily use in our lives, and, thus, see how they are really nothing more than eloquent “grunts” that contain mental images of meaning that allow us Human Ape men/women to understand one another and get our ‘points’ across to each other.
In many ways this is a good point of entry for us to see and to begin to understand how words and their meanings come about… From there we can then see that mental categories begin to shape the axiomatic world in which we live. Once we can understand this, we might have a better chance to really grasp the fundamental aspects that lie behind both the Buddhist idea of “Emptiness” and Kurt Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems.” *
Interestingly enough… As Hofstadter discusses “word blends” and “phrase blends,” I think we can begin to see a pertinent analogy between feedback loops of all sorts i.e. language here randomly mutates into simple amalgamations of “originality,” much like “video feedback loops” create modified patterns of slightly iterated imprints of what was only just on the visual screen.
Regarding language… This evolution and development of lexical complexity stems from seemingly random conjoining of phonemes, subtle phonetic variances and little – or even crass – syntactical errors, which mostly stem from when two ideas intermingle within the mind of the speaker and are thus ejected into the conversation stream without too much consideration. This process allows a rich source of new etymological meanings to flourish and develop within – initially – small social circles of friends/colleges… Or if particularly ‘catchy,’ they might then spread across wider groups as successful “memes” via infectious minds through any form/medium of social communicability.
In many ways it is this type of evolutionary self-similarity that keeps language alive and “thinking” on its toes – always forcing it to move forwards into new realms of functionality to suite the current semantic landscapes of our ever-changing, ever-evolving social networks and scientific/technological habits. Within these linguistic and memetic structures we may even find multidimensional configurations where complex patterns modulate old ideas into modern modes of ever more complex types of understanding… Old frameworks of thinking are slowly battered into new designs, and then the two co-exist in a sort of symbiosis with one another. And ever iterating forms of lingual cunningness flow from out lips… Just as the Mandelbrot set increases in complexity the further we zoom into its boundary, so language seems to increase in complexity the further We – as human beings – progress in developing ideas, our knowledge database, our inventions and with new observations… In many way these two particular types of pattern i.e. aural language and visual fractals, run parallel to one another in similar veins of iterative novelty. One is mimicking the other… Except it is not an “exact” replica… It is merely uses the same iterative mathematical ideas to regenerate and reorganise itself with.
Here Hofstadter describes a process where two ideas are torn apart and allowed to intermingle in the speaker’s own fractal mind, thus recombining/assimilating into an endless array of sometimes intentional, but probably mostly unintentional, hip analogies. Analogies are all about self-similarity. Hence, in my mind I become some strange feedback loop, reiterating what I have already heard and seen in my life thus far, remixing, recombining and experimenting with neoteric verbal adage to describe new modicums and meanderings concerning my experiential existence… And thus, through my will alone, my “I” become a Möbius strip of etymological and memetic reform, playing with all of you – my iterated equals – in evolution and natural selection’s ancient game.
To find out more about Douglas Hofstadter, please click here.
* This exposé about the illusion of self and the delusion of most types of knowledge – in the light of the Buddhist precept of “Emptiness” and Kurt Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorems” – is coming in a future blog…
December 7, 2009
When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.