It’s never a very good idea, I know, when witnessing a regular saloon brawl, or when two large dogs, all bristle, slobber and grin, are noisily asserting unspecified territorial prerogatives, to come injudiciously betwixt, among and between the contenders in order to call a truce and tend to the wounded.
Nevertheless, I would like to intervene, if I may, in the many feisty, on-going and by-now tediously predictable semantic jousts in this-here genteel forum, in particular between Massimo and some of his regular readers, those who from time to time, perhaps in spite of themselves, appear to feel, be it overtly or covertly, somehow existentially implicated in all the dust, sweat and feigned brow beating.
Not another insufferably pretentious essay on the meaning of meaning? No. Not even one of those ‘post-modern’ attempts to say something new? No. I am not, for what it’s worth, yet another bored academic. But I am at least as motivated, I think, by an earnest desire to remind you, gentle reader, of what I know you surely know already. For whenever I watch ordinarily intelligent people freely mobilizing so interchangeably words like ‘mind,’ ‘consciousness,’ and ‘awareness,’ as if such are universally understood as synonymous, I hope I shall always want to remind you, but especially my ‘self,’ of what they are doing.
Humans appear to be the only species that have evolved the ability to shape vocal sounds into so-called “intelligible speech.” And we can believe that only if we are content to accept that the sounds animals make are not intended, nor therefore to be understood, as some sort of cognitively coherent, independently verifiable and intellectually defensible, semantic code.
Therefore, we as humans feel exceptionally entitled to believe, based as all belief is based on grand assumptions, that “what I say obviously makes sense.” And I’m here to remind you that ever since Neolithic Homo sapiens consented to cohabit, cooperate and parley, that particularly ubiquitous, conveniently comforting conceit is patently false.
We are well accustomed to using nouns as though these essentially arbitrary semantic artifacts could somehow ‘represent’ concrete, discretely discernible objects. Even notoriously ambiguous words, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness,’ which function so well within the narrow confines of every grammatically correct narrative, are only too easily read as somehow representative of common experiential phenomena, like regular objects found on the street. Hence: “the pursuit of happiness …”
Thus, instead of imputing our own inherently subjective, perceptual deficiencies to each articulate observer, we blithely ascribe the objective quality of discernibility to mere words. And because we do this all the time, without a moment’s hesitation or discomfiture, we never notice that we treat all nouns this way. We simply must implicitly believe whatever we see is really what’s there and whatever we say is really what we mean. There is no alternative. Knowing all the while that this clearly ain’t so.
Hence the inevitable, hopelessly equivocal results so glaringly obvious in all these deep and meaningful on-line discussions. Not to mention international conferences, business meetings, press conferences … Wherever people gather to converse, debate, resolve, all fervently believe “we will reach a consensus.” Which, in all of human history, has undeniably never yet happened. Love and war are made of this.
So a guy says he’s an atheist. Why? Because he believes he’s entitled to expect that everybody knows what an atheist is. And he’s right, of course. Everybody does know, or thinks s/he does, what an atheist is. There’s only one problem. In a veritable minefield of intractable problems. There simply is no way of establishing, to the satisfaction of all, that what each person says means the same thing to everybody.
One obvious answer is, an atheist says there is no God, therefore does not believe in God. Which opens at least a dozen other cans of worms. Such as, if “there is no God,” where is there no God? Everywhere? So, do we have a fix on the true dimensions of the entire box and dice? Besides, what God? Not who’s God? But whose God? What is the precise nature and definition of this alleged Big Thing that is said, like the little man upon the stair, to be not there? To simply declare, “God is dead” is just praying for philosophical gridlock.
If the necessarily linguistically defined meaning of “truth” is supposed to apply equally throughout “The Universe,” a French speaker knows no equivalent for “there is.” A French atheist cannot say, “there is no God.” In France, if you’re so persuaded, you have no choice but to say, “God does not exist.” Which is not quite the same thing as saying that God is “not there.” Not where? Who/what does not exist where?
In German the common expression is, “Es gibt keinen Gott.” (Yes, the upper case G is obligatory. Not out of dumb respect for the non-existent Omnipotent, but because all German nouns are capitalized.) The literal English translation is incomprehensibly, “there is given no God.” Given by whom? (What’s for dinner comes out as, “was gibt es zum Abendessen?” Literally, what gives there for dinner.) Given by whom? If no God, what gives? Besides, the whole notion is patently absurd of course. If God is not given (taken for granted), what about all that innocently boiling blood spilt all over “The Reformation”? What was all that about, if not some sort of fictitious God or what-not-there-be? And yes, you bet it matters.
The word ‘atheist’ is just one of hundreds of examples of adjectives being pressed into service as nouns. Such as American. “S/he is an American.” What does that say about a person? In and of themselves, the words say nothing at all. But they might be taken (if you’re prepared to do the work) to mean s/he holds an American passport and/or is in fact an American citizen. Or at least claims to be so. Which is certainly not the same thing and infinitely more difficult to differentiate. All language involves trust, based on grand assumptions, as the world turns and time goes by. Conclusion: the adjective, American, is useful to identify a person’s documentary evidence of nationality. Nothing more.
Besides, for all we know, s/he might be a nasty piece of work. Or a candidate for canonization. And any one of 300 million-odd other possibilities in between. ‘American’ is an adjective that is only useful for identifying a legal document. That’s it. And yet, the whole world talks about what “The Americans” are doing, have done, will do, think and believe, on and on. Knowing all the while that this is pure media hype.
Statement after statement about countless convenient collective entities we’ve never seen in the flesh and bear no relationship whatsoever to experience. If a rowdy tour group should happen to come your way consisting entirely of nominal American citizens, you might prefer to be somewhere else. But of one thing you can be damn sure. They do not all believe the same thing, think the same thing, like the same things, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, nor even speak the same language.
Some of the discussions at Scientia Salon remind me of a dilemma that has beset every known civilization: the testosterone-driven confidence of youth. All native tribes everywhere have always had to ensure, for their very survival, that, metaphorically, “the young men must not hunt and kill the alpha male.” Go seek your truth, young man, go look for the formula for everything, the Holy Grail. Just do not expect to find it. As Russell Stannard implied , we might need a Hadron Collider the size of the Milky Way to get anywhere near a proper handle on particle physics. It was ever thus. Kill the alpha male of the Bison and the tribe is doomed.
Every pioneer of wisdom who said “Eureka! I’ve got it!” from Socrates through Chomsky has failed to accommodate one essential and notoriously perverse human quality. Namely, whereas the cerebral hardware and its unlimited potential seems identical, the capacity for translating and assimilating the unrelenting welter of raw, conflicting and competing sensory data, by which we make coherent linguistic sense, is unique to each person who has ever lived.
That is to say, what we are witnessing now, given the speed of modern technological development and the associated abandonment of long-held traditional belief systems, ‘the young and the restless’ feel ever more empowered to believe implicitly in their own unquestioning infallibility and that ‘The Truth’ lies just around the corner. There is a pervasive sense, certainly in the Western hemisphere, that we are finally in command of our own destiny, that ‘Reality’ is clearly visible all around, that all the big mistakes have now been made and that ‘Science’ will finally save us all.
My thesis is this. There is no ultimate truth. There is no such thing as effective communication. Language is far from a reliable means of exchanging information. Each human brain is unique. What I see is not only not what you see. There is no way for us to verify that what I see is in fact in any way similar to what you see. We can never say what we mean. What I mean is never what I say and what I say is never what you understand. Knowledge is belief disguised as dogma. I could go on.
Because we all know that one plus one is two, we believe implicitly that such hopelessly inadequate ephemera bear any kind of direct material relationship, let alone any serious significance, to experience. All experience is instantaneous and fleeting. What we are left with is an historical account, based on flawed memory, of “what happened” in the swiftly receding past. Necessarily expressed in words. All knowledge is confined to a language. Such as Math. Numbers are metaphors, not descriptors of reality. Mathematics cannot describe reality. No language can describe reality. We each build our own reality from early childhood, ever since we first learned to say words in association with experience.
Reality is not a given, such as Doctor Johnson’s rock, which he famously kicked to rebut Bishop Berkeley’s sermon on the doubtful materiality of what was then confidently spoken of as reality. It seems to me, what you and I call “the material world out there” is nothing more or less than a convenient and eminently adequate collage of what your brain and my brain has laboriously learned, ever since it began to assemble memory even before we were born, to cobble together from the available raw sensory data.
There are two things to be said about this. First, while what you see may appear similar to what I see, you and I have no way of verifying what I see is in fact what you see. Second, what I see (a vast array of discrete significant objects and events) is not my reality and what you see (a similar assemblage) is not your reality. Realities are not simply collections of discrete objects and connected events in a box, but an elaborate, apparently coherent anthology of never-ending stories.
Each of our highly individual realities, assembled during a lifetime of looking, listening and learning, together with a whole raft of ancillary, jarringly disparate, seemingly quite incongruous, circumstantial jig-saw pieces, consists of historical narratives, a not necessarily coherent but tangled web of stories, abstract situational scenarios, concerning all the intricate relationships each brain intuitively weaves, by ‘connecting the dots,’ in all sorts of imaginative, often irrational and illogical ways, to end up with a kind of unique, essentially personal, highly individual, quite dazzling tapestry of “my” life experience. A fascinating fabrication, whose warp is the substance of a notoriously unreliable and necessarily selective memory and the weft all the occasional, intensely private and prejudicial, diversely applied meanings.
We know that experience is fleeting and quite inaccessible to precise narrative definition. All we manage to assign to memory is the history, the inaccurate and fragmented accounts of “what happened” after the fact. The moment we call “now” has no dimension. All we have is what we remember as each present moment rapidly recedes into what we call “the past.” Which then becomes that tangled web of narratives and intrigues that, even as it is continually edited and amended, informs “me who I am.”
Sal Scilicet (subtext: Dico, ergo sum) sometimes see himself as a rabid iconoclast. Then an instinctive Pyrrhonist. This changes with the weather. Sal holds a degree in linguistics (1983) and another in Social Work (1992). He is familiar with four languages and a number of derivative dialects. Physically and ironically, he lives in Australia; emotionally and ideologically, he most emphatically does not.
 Russell Stannard, The End of Discovery, 2010.