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Thinking Things Out!

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Posted by Richard D. Stafford, Ph.D. on April 17, 2003 23:11:10 UTC

Hi Aurino,

It is a very primitive position to think that words have meaning in and of themselves. Words only have meaning to the person using them. It is one of the most arrogant assumptions made by most everyone on earth that the words they use have those same meanings in the mind of the listener.

I am a very strange person. Long before I entered school, I was very well aware of the fact that adults lied to children. My father's answer to most questions I asked him (before I stopped asking him questions) was "figure it out for yourself - that's what god gave you brains for". I never took it as malicious; just good fatherly advice. He seemed to have a very low opinion of most people. At any rate, I spent most of my time trying to figure out what part of what people told me I was supposed to believe.

One of the most important events of my life occurred in the third grade. The teacher told us that it was against the rules to use a word in its own definition. The first thought that occurred in my mind was, suppose you don't know one of the words in the definition? The rule would essentially require the definition of that word to exclude the original word. It was very clear to me that the dictionary had to be circular at some point.

Now, being an ignorant child, I wondered how far one would have to go before running into that problem. So, I went to the front of the room (where the big dictionary was on a pedestal) to see far I would have to go (at the time, I didn't comprehend the difficulty of the problem I had given myself). Since (in my head) it didn't make any difference where I started, I started with the first entry in the dictionary. I was utterly astonished by what I saw: "a - the first letter of the alphabet; a pronoun ...".

The rule had been violated in the very first entry! I went back to my desk firmly convinced that the teacher had just thrown us a "gullibility check"; why else would she have said something so easy to disprove? But the experience set my thoughts off in another direction. Clearly, the meanings of words could not possibly be obtained from a dictionary; and, if that were true, how in the world did we come to know what words mean?

That, Aurino, is the single most significant question which can be asked. And I have never met anyone in my whole life who has ever even taken the trouble to ask it. Everyone just leaves the issue to their subconscious: i.e., they "know" what the words mean and don't worry about it at all.

The only rational answer is that "we guess". So long as our guesses seem to form a reasonably consistent relationship with the usage we experience, we conclude that we "know" what the words mean. Sometimes people go to great lengths to maintain the belief that they "know"; even so far as to conclude that the speaker doesn't know what he or she is talking about (think about that one a little bit).

The only rational approach to the problem is to admit the possibility exists that our subconscious has constructed a house of cards: a guess, based on a guess, based on a guess ...! That there exists other collections of guesses which might fit the problem better (if we understood these other possibilities we might understand what the other guy is trying to say).

This brings us back to exactly what I have been saying all along! On a conscious level, I do not have the intellectual capability to even begin to fully understand the construct my subconscious has created, much less comprehend the existence of alternate possibilities. All I can be consciously aware of is the fact that universe my subconscious puts before me could be (and probably is) an illusion based on a whole bunch of invalid assumptions. (At least this position is consistent with the historical record.)

On the surface, that fact leaves us in an intellectually precarious position: thinking on a conscious level is almost a worthless effort as anything worth knowing is utterly beyond conscious comprehension. That is why everyone (and I mean everyone) leaves thinking almost completely to their subconscious. For the most part, conscious thought only confuses the issue. In many respects this is exactly the heart of the matter of eastern philosophy.

But, counter to Harv's position, there is something which can be done! Thought, on a conscious level, can achieve some useful results. The problem is very analogous to the problem of the Gordian Knot. A detailed examination will never solve it as it is far too complex to even consider. However, one can simply avoid looking at the details and just look directly to the desired result: analogous to Alexander's cutting of the knot.

What difference does it make what the words actually mean? If the universe could ever be explained in a way which could be communicated to us, that explanation could be seen as a collection of numbers (mere labels on the concepts we must learn the meanings of). My definition "reality is (a set of numbers)" is no more than a restatement of "reality is ..." where the ellipsis stands for the correct description (unknown to me and unimportant to my opus).

The issue I am speaking of is very simple: even with utterly no idea about what "..." stands for, I can still say some things about it. However, one must understand mathematical notation in order to understand what I am saying.

You say that what I am saying is unimportant. Well, if you find it unimportant than don't pay any attention to it. I certainly hold that life outside what I can say about "..." is far more important than anything contained in that presentation; however, I still hold that there exist many people who consider the issues talked about there very important while at the same time hold the exact same issues utterly not worth thinking about! All I say is that they are confused.

To quote myself:

What I have to present should at least be taken seriously. My complaints concerning the current scientific approach toward understanding the universe are either without foundation or they have some basis. One way or the other, only total ignorance of rational thought can justify the scientific failure to even consider the issues I put forth.

Have fun - Dick

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