TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW


 

Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being.  (Heidegger)

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him?  (Zhuangzi)

 

Preface

To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality.  It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture.  Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe.  It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years.  This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality.  This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are.  It is not a case of what we think, but how.  This is such a simple statement to make, but a  much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.

I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place.  Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year.  McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.”  And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today.  Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson.  I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s.  It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.

The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh.  Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall.  The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life.  Eisenstein says:

 

Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control.  Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite.  This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.

 

What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books.  A few disclaimers:  I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible.  It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation.  Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked.  Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly.  My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion.  I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.

 

Adam John Miller
20th December 2018


Continue reading “TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW”

Advertisements

NUMBERS & THE MAKING OF US

Image result for caleb everettPatterns in language yield patterns in thought.  Extensive research has now demonstrated that differences between languages can yield differences, often subtle ones, in the cognitive habits of their speakers.  This finding, commonly referred to as linguistic relativity, has now been supported by dozens of studies on topics like spatial awareness, the perceptions of time, and the categorisation of colours.  For instance, “where” the future and past “are” depends on the language you speak.  Similarly, the manner in which you recall and discriminate colours is affected in sublte ways by the basic colour term inventory of your native language.  Our tour of the numberless worlds ultimately led to the conclusion that numeric language also yields difference in how people think.  Number words, present in the vast majority of the world’s languages (though not all of them), certainly influence quantitative cognition.  Only those people who are familiar with number words and counting can exactly differentiate most quantities.  The presence of numbers in a language does not just subtly influence how we think about certain quantities, then; it also opens up a door to the world of arithmetic and mathematics.  The first step through that door is the realisation that quantities, regardless of size, can be precisely differentiated.  But how exactly do numbers first open this door?  And what happens after we walk through it?

The findings from numberless worlds suggests plainly that we need numbers to really “get” quantities in ways that are uniquely human, but, this raises a paradox.  If we need numbers to appreciate most quantities precisely, how did we get numbers in the first place?  How could we ever name the amounts in particular sets of items, if we could not recognise the amount?

Given the apparent intractability of this paradox, some have concluded that humans must be innately predisposed to acquire number concepts.  But, if we are predisposed to recognise different set sizes as separate abstract entities, then what is the limit to this predisposition?  Are we naturally predisposed, for example, to eventually realise that 1,023 is not 1,024?  This seems fairly implausible.  Framed differently, nativist views on numbers just delay the point at which we reach the paradox.

James Hurford noted that number words are names for the “non-linguistic entities denoted by numbers.”  That is, the number words label conceptual entities.  In a related vein, Karenleigh Overmann recently suggested that “quantity concepts must surely precede their lexical labels, or there would be nothing to name… A method of invention cannot presuppose that which it invents.”  This latter stance is understandable, but it arguably trivialises the extensive evidence, according to which, words for quantities beyond three do not simply label pre-existing concepts, because these concepts do not exist for most people until they actually learn numbers.

In my view, this is the key to resolving the paradox: words for quantities beyond three make concrete the precise numerical abstractions that are only occasionally and inconsistently made by some people.  Some of these people may eventually invent numbers, but if they do not, their fleeting abstractions are not transferred to others.  The naming of such ephemeral realisations is what eventually enables people to consistently show the ability to make a simple but powerful realisation, the realisation that sets of quantities greater than three can be identified precisely.  This simple realisation has led, in all likelihood more times than could be documented, to the invention of symbols for such larger quantities.  These symbols are chiefly verbal in nature, judging from the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world’s cultures have words for such quantities though most cultures traditionally lack written numerals or elaborate tally systems.  Some people invented number words to concretise the potentially transient recognition of the existence of exact higher quantities.

Does this mean that number words simply serve as labels for the concepts?  Not really.  The truth seems a bit more nuanced than the forced dichotomous choice assumed by the paradox.  Number words are not simply labels, yet they do describe conceptual realisations that some people make some times.  The term ‘label’ implies that the words simply denote concepts that we all think about: concepts all humans are born ready to appreciate (at least eventually), regardless of their cultural environment.  But clearly not all humans have such concepts at the ready even as adults, and likely most people would never make the relevant realisations that can be described via numbers.  Just as clearly, though, some people have made those realisations, even if inconsistently.  In those real historical cases in which people managed to describe that realisation with a word, they invented numbers.  The concept they named was subsequently recognised by other members of their culture through the adoption of the relevant word(s).  Number words are conceptual tools that get passed around with ease, tools most people want to borrow.

Caleb Everett, Numbers and the Making of us:  Counting and the Course of Human Cultures