A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My response to a question posed by Mortimer Adler and Max Weismann

Response to #599 “Words and Meanings”

I would approach “Words and Meanings” from a slightly different angle than Adler and Weismann.  I would simply ask, how are words, things, and meanings related?  Then, I’d close with a question that naturally follows, why are words important?

My exposition requires a postulate: given a thing and a mind capable of understanding the thing on one or more levels, words relate the thing to the mind capable of understanding the thing on one or more levels.  The relationship between the thing and the mind can be simple or complex, just as things and minds can be simple or complex.  Words are tools that manage the relationship between things and minds, however simple or complex.  Words connect things to minds, generating a variety of representations in ways analogous to how DNA encodes for protein synthesis. Based on everything I know, I would conclude that words function as intermediaries that carry little if no other value outside that limited role.

The power of words to connect minds to things can be strong or weak.  Weak words imply weak connections to things.  Strong words involve multi-level connections including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic representations and feeling responses; strong words connect minds to things in a variety of ways, and on a variety of levels, generating mental schemas to various degrees.    Further, I’m sure strong words generate strong neural connections that can on some level be mapped.  Great writers use images, allusions, and concepts that endure because of the power of their words to connect relationships of space, time, and feelings.  Shallow conversations, on the other hand, involve imprecise words that relate to little or nothing and are quickly forgotten.  The words people use to converse in speaking or writing reflect the quality of their thinking.

Just as there are many kinds of things and minds of various capabilities, there are many kinds of words which serve a variety of functions.  Just as things and minds can change, so can words.  Etymology involves the study of word origins, and a good English dictionary will show Germanic or Roman/Greek roots, reflecting the evolution of the English language.  Functional relationships are encoded in words to varying degrees.

Some things are not subject to change; these are called absolutes.  For example, mathematical words that describe observable patterns such as the Fibonacci sequence or the golden rectangle describe observable unchanging absolute numerical relationships.  Statistically, a one-to-one correspondence can be observed between the numerical relationship and the things described by it.  Similarly, the idea of Platonic solids are rooted in unchanging space-time numerical relationships.  I think Plato’s argument can be boiled down to a simple observation:  there are absolutes and we can find evidence of absolutes in nature.

Other things involve unchanging social/moral relationships that generally become too complex in practice to be easily quantified.  A just relationship is just such a thing; whether a relationship is just or not is not subject to change, however, since the relationship itself is inherently just or unjust.  Fair share division problems provide a simple model of a just relationship.  Constitutional framers generally have strived to design institutions in ways intended to maintain just relationships, understanding that minds are capable of understanding justice on a variety of levels, but are incapable of apprehending justice directly.  Wasn’t that the idea of Plato’s the Allegory of the Cave?  Thus, words that connect minds to the thing we call justice continue to evolve, just as our institutions evolve.

If words are merely intermediaries between minds and things, why are words important?  Words encode the progress of human thought like DNA encodes our proteins.  Words lower the amount of energy needed to achieve higher levels of thinking.  Powerful magic, words are.