The Magic of Meaning

Get yourself a tea, and some biscuits. You happened upon Scarlet Letters, Part II. Given the time that has passed, it’s only loosely connected to the previous entry and will montage again a lot of interesting things, you’ll see… It turned out pretty big and perhaps compensates for the long wait.

Part of the fun of writing is that I have to look closer into my own thoughts and order them  – a little – in ways that are hopefully intelligible to other humans. I was searching for some way to convey that humans inhabit two different “realms” with a continuum of intermediary states between them. To sidestep unintentional connotations I will simply call them Out There™ and In Here™. 

atheist

Out There™

The realm on one end of the continuum is the physical reality “out there”, which is entirely unknowable und indescribable to us and which seems to be some sort of fuzzy field. I could as well claim it was populated by machine elves singing intertwined rainbows into existence. We have no idea how it is like. Then again it is not entirely arbitrary, we know for sure what it isn’t. It is not made of cheese, for example. And there we are in the middle of the problem: this reality “out there” is so far outside of our senses that it it is really not a cozy place where we dwell on. Conciousness altering substances or meditation may change perception by shaking our biochemistry up a little, but we do not come closer to it, as we still rely on our senses and faculties that interpret the information.

This reality is populated by what Semioticians call “referents”. It is a bit dubious to describe things that are practically indescribable but is good enough as an approximation and some more on Referents and Semiotics went into the section I cut off (and will be featured soon). With that I mean to say, it is not entirely a fiction. If you stepped on some lego brick barefoot (try it), it certainly does leave an impression, at least at the underside of your sole. We can reasonably assume something is there and the reaction of your body evolved to deal with that stuff.

We can also reasonably assume we are ourselves stuff in that reality despite the complication that everything we ever know, see, hear, or feel, happens all in our body coming together in our brains, which evolved to be very good at discerning patterns in that reality “out there”. Which is then, of course no longer “out there”, but “in here” with the intermediary states in between. There is really no distinct place where “out there” turns “in here” and such demarcations are also a product of our way of interpreting things.

Yes, it is a lot like that.

Yes, it is a lot like that.

The translation into information usable by the brain is partially remarkably Rube Goldbergian. Just as there are intermediary states along a continuum so is the distinctions between brain and non-brain, or body and not-body not that clear. There are little hammers in your ear reacting to vibrations, and a substance in your eye sensitive to light gets destroyed, thereby setting free electrons that then travel along your nerves.

Daniel Dennett, who rejects as I do the notion of Essentialism, introduced the “sorta” operator to talk about things that are somewhat like the thing, but fall short as way to dabble with continua (or continuums). Something we humans are notoriously bad at (I’ve seen some criticism of the sorta operator, but didn’t find it persuasive).

For example, we can arbitrarily declare a particular tint as “red”, and some other shade a little different would then become sorta-red; not quite the red we declared but somewhat like it. The next shade might still be sorta-red, but less so, and so forth until we no longer think it has what we declared red. The sorta-operator softens the demarcation a little and might also suggest an element of arbitrariness of declaring something a “thing”. If we happened upon some other shade first we previously called sorta-red, and declared this as red instead, we would call the previously red shade as sorta-red. Dizzying?

Robert SapolskiEdit: I happened upon this excellent lecture by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford Univerity explaining it more vividly. He begins right here @8m24, the relevant section is a few minutes (he eventually goes to other topics).

One of the areas where this problem is evident is speciation in evolution, that is, how new species emerge. Creationists seem especially unable to wrap their mind around it. All the intermediary species dug up in the meantime are, of course not really intermediary. We are just very bad at dealing with gradual changes (in evolution from generation to generation over millions of years – no species magically turns into another) Since we are so bad at continua and gradual shifts, we navigate it by setting points and then have some idea what happens in between. Evolutionists get around some of these problems by insisting that once developed characteristics stay with the description. We are still apes, and birds are still dinosaurs and we have common ancestors that were vertebrates, so we are also vertebrates.

Serra da Capivara cave painting, Brazil

Serra da Capivara cave painting, Brazil

To put differently, a wolf never gave birth to a dog, yet we declare some species as “start” and “end” points and then declare that whatever happens in between are not really “things” in their own right, more like sorta-wolfs and sorta-dogs. And by extension, we make up a class in this case the canidae that contain both wolfs and dogs (and foxes, coyotes etc.) But inventing classes just move the issue one step further, as the first member of the class canidae was not born from parents that weren’t part of canidae. It is again, a gradual shift (in Evolution of course over millions of years) and our human minds impose the categories where we see fit.

Nature doesn’t care about our neat labels. When we dig up a fossil and we slap a label on it and call it a newly discovered species, we regard it as fixed point and describe it – well, as a species. Then we find another fossil from the same lineage that lived some million years earlier and have the other point in time, represented by this other fossil. Everything in betweem, unless widely different in form would be intuitively seen as intermediary. However, you see it is quite arbitrary. We could have happened upon another fossil from another point in time first, and built our taxonomy from there.

We may see that our representation and construction of our reality is in some sense arbitrary, but then it isn’t arbitrary as in “everything goes”. In his case the relation between species is the vital information, not the labels given to any form. The polish-american philosopher Alfred Korzybinski coined the phrase “the map is not the territory” which deals with some of these issues (a friendly reminder that I welcome feedback and critique, whenever I’m wrong or too inaccurate).

Another example: When you see a mountain, ask yourself, where the mountain actually begins. Is there some sort of line in the sand that demarcates mountain from not-mountain? Likewise there is not really a demarcation between us and our environment either (and certainly not through evolutionary time between humans and non-humans). Recognizing objects isn’t entirely arbitrary of course. If you think that, try setting up another Lego brick experiment by asking a housemate to place the brick somewhere towards the bathroom at night, without telling you. the sensation can be greatly enhanced when you least expect it.

We evolved to perceive things in a way beneficial for our survival, thus there are things “out there”  that kind of “suggest” themselves to be perceived by us in a certain way (there are Gestalt Laws and perhaps Apophenia that could serve as examples of what happens there. Some more on that in the next parts).

As we see, the whole affair is generally a very thorny topic as constructing realities from stuff out there can mean, and is understood in a million of ways, but we get an idea that is hopefully a bit more than the trivially true notion that humans only perceive some limited spectrum of the stuff “out there”. What is more interesting for my purposes it the other extreme end of the continuum, and unlike the stuff “out there” intimitately familiar to us. In fact so familiar that we take it for granted.

In Here™

In contrast to the physical reality “out there”, the other realm on the other end of the continuum could be called (symbolic) “culture”. This is, to me, a complex mess of interwoven meanings represented by symbols. This realm of meaning is in some sense related to the “artificial”. Artificial is everything we perceive as produced by humans. I would go beyond that and would include the things that we regard as human-like, such as other lifeforms or enties that are on a human (or above) level of conciousness. What seems unneccessary as there are no intelligent aliens around, has the purpose of capturing the whole realm of imagined entities that populate myth and religion, or imagined aliens. Humans assume they exist and thus assume they could leave artifacts with meaning.

We are probably the only species that inhabits this symbolic realm all the time, while we certainly do have access to the “simpler” sensations shared with other animals. As a mental construction we can think of the brain as having different layers evolved at different times (again not really layers, more continua, you get the idea). Our hairs still go up when we are scared, and I believe that these visceral feelings are probably like what animals do feel in similar situations. But there is a layer on top that is conscious, and so it seems, the more conscious, the more it operates with symbols (mental representations).  We do have thoughts without representations, too, as Steven Pinker illustrates here, but for my purpose, by definition aren’t part of what I described as symbolic culture.

The idea could be mistaken for the older nature versus culture divide, which then evolved into the nature versus nurture debate. It is not entirely different, but it is better regarded as a completely different angle that is going to confuse more than it is helpful. I do not mean education (versus genes), and do not mean only artificial (as in artificially created versus the natural). I’m getting at a realm of meaning, a strange realm of language, of concepts and ideas against a backdrop that is meaningless.

An Inuitive Distinction?

In this distinction, we sort intelligent agents, such as fellow humans or supernatural forces on one side, and rocks, outer space and all that immaterial stuff on the other other side. Other animals, or things we know don’t have agency (such as “the weather”) are intermediary cases, but intuitively relegated to be more like automatons. There is a noticeable, intuitive line, it seems, that separates humans, gods, culture, everything that has purpose and meaning from everything else. Which may show the symbolic workings of our minds. Our pattern seeking mind thus wanders around in a lifeless universe and on occasion stumbles across patterns, which produce the sensation of having meaning, and thus belong to this symbolic realm. In other words, the intuitive distinction seems to split apart our world into the meaningless and the meaningful, again with states in between, and the meaingful things are represented with symbols in our minds. And since we are “in here” all the time, they are around us at all times and in that sense “real”.

In practice it could look like this. Some rocks are meaningless, but if they have a certain shape, they suddenly have a meaning and are profoundly different. The special rock is singled out and gets a symbolic representation (such as a name). I believe that this conjuncture could built a bridge why humans began to create meaning by producing the sort of artifact that other human minds would regard as meaningful, too. Now there is someone who carves the rock so it looks unnatural and thus changes reality in such a way that this new rock would “suggest” itself as meaningful to a wandering eye of another human. This is like a one sided form of communication and probably cryptic (as the other human would be left wondering what the strange looking rock means). It becomes really interesting when they agree on what something means. This is what language is about.

Other animals have limited forms in their communication. From their perspective, most noises are meaningless, but some aren’t and they recognize them as meaningful to them, such as courtship songs (since even insects reach that level, we can assume the basic forms of sorta-meaning, can be constructed comparably simple). The ramp into meaning using artifacts can be seen a little when animals e.g. mark territories, which are also, in a way, symbolic.

What do you mean by meaning?

Symbols are an awesome “invention” and very fantastical when you think about it. Some stuff in our minds is represented by something distinctive we see in the world (like a uniquely shaped rock) , which can be passed around and understood by another human who has then presumably similar thoughts. This is our way to pass around meaning and that human ability, I am arguing here, might be the root cause for all the supernatural beliefs (and probably everything uniquely human), and indeed, human communication. Words are nothing else than that uniquely shaped rock (and you see, far more complex, and spontaneous). Why this is will be detailled in a future update on Semiotics.

Astrology Signs: Looking for meaning in galaxies and stars lightyears away.

Astrology Signs: Looking for meaning in galaxies and stars lightyears away.

Meaning has a social component, too, as such a symbolic culture can only arise when a community agrees on what the representations actually mean. In other words, they have to synchronize their conciousness in some form by agreeing that some external thing represents a similar content of conciousness. And this has an element of negotiation and isn’t fixed. They also have to sort out what is meaningful to them and what isn’t, which roughly equates to “taking seriously”.  Suppose I brought to you that I think  “you are awesome and I really mean it!”. Maybe you blush a little. But when I told you that this sentence was randomly generated by a machine, you would suddenly feel much less flattered. Meaning seems to have something to do with relevance. What a machine produced randomly isn’t as relevant, as what some person thinks. And you see here that your response can be very visceral.

Magic of Meaning

“Indeed, to cast a spell, is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness.” – Alan Moore

What happens there seems like magic and must have appeared as such to our ancestors, who lived in times where thinking about thinking and meaning was nearly unknown. Of course I don’t believe that magic actually exist. However magical beliefs are a historical fact. Understood in that sense, the art of manipulating symbols to change consciousnesses is like magic. We know we can be terribly hurt by words. And a pep talk and some nice words can be incredibly uplifting. With all the belief systems and superstitions in place, how would it feel like if someone cursed you and really meant it – perhaps because you just sentenced them to death and you really believed their words are going to have some sort of effect on you? As with the example of the random generated message, it depends on taking things seriously. If you do, response will be “real” (visceral etc. keep in mind at the time you would be surrounded by other humans who also take it seriously, too).

Wouldn’t it make sense to panic at the prospect of being hunted by a supernatural force, when the same system that gives meaning to it, is used to ascribe agency to real predators? It saved your ancestor’s skin many times, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. I think words, once they enter the complex machinery of our brain, and signalize that something is after us, would stir up the same circuits in the deeper, unconscious parts of our brains in much the same way as seeing a predator in a bush would.

Grimoire

A grimoire (1740), seen on this site.

I think what happens is very close to traditional descriptions of “magical spells”. The first literate people were probably the first magicians and their art must have seen really strange to everybody else. They interpreted some symbol and then suddenly have an idea, a thought. They could then manipulate it and conjure up the sensation of being threatened by some supernatural predator, but since it’s all in our heads, there is no actual representation in the world (that is, there is no referent). Since there is no referent, but the sensation is very real and shared by a community of humans, a realm of the supernatural emerges that is populated with these things. You know the train that goes up to Hogwarts and the big hall with the floating candles? To us it is normal to talk about places that are fictional, but to earlier humans that must have seemed very fantastic. And isn’t it strange that the place really doesn’t exist, but seems to be a place we all can know and perhaps can even measure out?  This could be achieved by writing and other advanced forms of storing information, and meaning.

From a similar perspective, writing and divination were probably not that different as it seems to us today. The shaman, magician or seer assumed something had a meaning provided by supernatural forces that made their will known through symbology. Put differently, once you have a supernatural realm in place populated by beings (ultimately symbols) and your monkey brain sees meaning in meaningless things, it will conjure up what these forces possible want to communicate.

As in the example with the compliment from a machine. When those supernatural forces are regarded as relevant, what they have to say is meaningful. It will stir up some feelings or thoughts that seem to come from somewhere. In fact, a lot of people still believe supernatural forces communicate or communicated with humans using symbology, such as through language and scripture. Of course, today it is completely unreasonable to believe in supernatural things but at the time when people had no idea what storms are (and what they mean), the whole affair must have seen truly magical.

For one, human brains find patterns all the time, so there is a good precondition to find a symbol or something that looks “unnatural” which again touches on the definition of culture as things that were created artificially, or that belong to a different realm than the meaningless things that just are. Steven Pinker illuminats some aspects of the process of ascribing agency to things in this segment…

Another component already alluded to might be our subconsciousness  in the wider definition: thoughts that aren’t consciously available to us, but suddenly appear when provoked. You see some blotches in a Rorschach test and suddenly some associations come up. But only if are forced to take the blotches serious enough (assuming they have meaning). I find this interaction between some stimuli, say from Tarot cards, and a response that is half unexpected and seemingly relevant to the person very interesting. In that sense, the supernatural could be linked to the subconsciousness.

Now the strange idea that tea leaves could have a meaning isn’t that strange after all, since we readily accept that some lines on a sheet of paper can have meaning, too. Writing has of course meaning because it was created by another human. But when a human used tea leaves and arranges them in some way, we could use it just as well as lines on paper. With the assumption that supernatural forces exist, reading in tea leaves doesn’t seem that strange anymore. And let us not forget that a sizeable amount of humans still belive that the supernatural forces actually exists and communicate using – unsurprisingly – symbology. Gods helping to write books isn’t any less eccentric a belief than thinking some other force arranging tea leaves, cards, or makes birds fly in patterns in order to communicate.

The idea of symbolic realms would have their naïve counterpart in human history and would be deeply intertwined with human civilisation.  Many a belief system and mythologies assumed a supernatural realm in a literal sense, which either was highly symbolic or could be manipulated using symbology. And people believed in omens, which are simply symbols themselves that mean something.

Religious Symbols

From Wikipedia,
Latin Cross, Star of David, Omkar (Aum)
Star and crescent, Cross pattée, Yin-yang
Khanda, Ayyavazhi, Triple Goddess

The supernatural otherworlds of Indo-European beliefs give us some examples; strange places populated with deities and events that occur in magical numbers. We encountered Triple Deities on this site before, and even cultures rather known for axe wielding and skull splitting had numerological beliefs. I think this is not by accident.

In the earlier Jewish traditions, knowing a “true name” gave someone control over supernatural beings, even over JHWH, Yǝhōwāh, Yahweh (also known as Tetragrammaton). The belief was common when the Christian cult emerged and it was regared as forbidden and dangerous to name the name.

For that reasons the Christian deity is named just “God”.  I suspect this impersonal nature perhaps exerted some pressure on the belief to come up with a more personal deity and thus Jesus rose in importance and Christianity as we know it emerged. It would combine the best of both. One on hand hand there is “God” who is so awesome that he can’t be named, and who appears detached from human affairs, pushed to the very edge of the symbolic realm. Given the framework, it seems plaubsible why humans are mesmerized by the idea. It is a god that is proto-physically “out there” (and that could mean, in the less concious parts of the brain) while at the same time, being a symbol without a referent. On the other hand, there is Jesus who is an optimized form of deities that have personal relationships to their followers. Throw in the Holy Spirit for the Greek philosophy enthusiasts at the time, and you’ve got an appealing Triple Deity concept for free. It may be strange for us, but probably wasn’t for the people at the time, who knew plenty of triple deities or profound things appearing in threes.

Christian Tetragrammaton

Petrus Alfonsi’s early 12th-century Tetragrammaton-Trinity diagram, rendering the name as “JEVE” (taken from Wikipedia article, Tetragrammaton)

More numerology can be found in the Jewish Kabbalah, which assumes hidden knowledge in important texts of Judaism (such as Torah and Talmud), made possible as Hebrew letters correspondent to numbers. Practioners can use the numbers to compare words,  calculated with them, and translated them back, hopefully revealing some divine truth to the believer.

Let us recall tea leaves again, or curses that all have the duality between something that seems to have meaning independent of us, yet in some way interacts with us and stirs up associations and feelings. Here, numbers can be used to link certain words and humans who take it serious enough (believe the connection is meaningful) will find meaning, as thoughts are provoked that wouldn’t be provoked otherwise. It is the very same principle used for Tarot, or Bible exegesis.

From the first magical beliefs to the invention of the printing press, it is probably no coincident either that shamans, priests and other professions dealing with the supernatural were among the first whose work was about imagining themselves into different times and places, often aided by drugs and other consciousness changing techniques (such as meditation). And probably no coincident either that their work is highly symbolic, whether its rituals and dances, or involves scripture and recanting texts and magical formulas. Amen.

[edit: found another gem by Prof. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, where he explains more numerology (in various Orthodox beliefs) and links them to Obsessive-compulisive disorders, and also links Shamanism to partial Shizophrenia known as Shizotypy. He argues how people, when in just the right setting can impose their disorders onto society, where they manifest in beliefs (Shizotypo) and rituals (OCD), and a lot more.

Age of Superstitions

It in the early modern period, the age of the Puritans (Calvinist reformists) and the Scarlet Letter (1640s); the age of Guy Fawkes (1570—1606) was a time when occultism and magical beliefs became fashionable again. The Catholics rather liked to keep literacy at a minimum and were against translations of the Bible into other languages, which was one of the reasons of the Reformation, kicked off by Martin Luther in 1517. Not incidentally, books filled with symbology and magical beliefs became fashionable when the printing press (invented 1450) came into common use. The first book to be printed was the Bible.

The availability of so much meaning had a profound impact on humanity, perhaps only paralleled by the advent of the internet (I think the situation today has some curious commonalities with the 17th century). One could maintain that supernatural forces were important to everyone and thus when literacy slowly reached the masses, it sparked a rise of supernatural beliefs, as intimately connected to symbology. And circulation of non-canon or heretic ideas, especially in times when people lost trust in authorities could be seen as a contributing factor.

But how about turning it on its head. What if the exposure to symbology was the factor that made the supernatural forces seem more real, more present and caused such a terror? What if that terror played a role in the rise of rationalism as a remedy? If you were surrounded by an enormous amount of rubbish, which would be terrifying if it was real, wouldn’t you naturally want to find a way of sorting it out, so that the deeper parts of your brain – still in panic – can calm down again? It would not be enough to just pretend that you don’t believe in one thing but not the other. Again, you’d have to sort out which belief has meaning, and which has none (is merely rubbish). Could this have sparked an urge for some sort of certainty, something that was really better than just believing and not-believing?

To contextualize a little:  James I. who made the Gunpowder plot conspirators nervous, wrote a book on witchcraft before he entered the throne. The belief was real enough to burn some 30,000 people in this age and the misery coming from a small Ice Age, and diseases such as the “Black Death” didn’t instill a sense that one’s chosen supernatural protecting power was terribly potent. In other words, it certainly provoked to think about which symbols and beliefs have meaning and which are meaningless. As I continued this series, there is more in the future updates, like “Mark of the Witch” (please see “Scarlet Letters” on this overview page)

Sigils from a Grimoire

An excerpt from Sefer Raziel HaMalakh, featuring various magical sigils (or סגולות, seguloth, in Hebrew), taken from Wikipedia’s article on Grimoires

At the time Grimoires came into use. These books were filled with magical formulas and spells, and instructions on how to create magical objects (i.e. more symbolism), often with the intention to ward off some of the terrors.  The name shares the same root as grammar (from french grammaire, referring to classical learning of Latin books, which goes back through Latin and Greek all the way to proto- indo-european to *gerebh-, to scratch – think about altering rocks,  adding something “artificial”, mentioned above) and suggest another connection between magical beliefs, symbology and meaning.

Which is fantastic in its own right. In German there is the concept of the “Darstellungsfläche”, a surface which is used to show/illustrate something, which is any surface used by humans to externalize their thoughts. A cave wall can be such a surface, or a sheet of paper, a rock, or a cheek, or a slate in which something is scratched into: symbols that mean something to other humans and that might have the power to change their consciousness. Therefore, the Tarot cards, tea leaves, and all that are such complex surfaces where a wandering human mind looks for meaning (and they are more complex than just a random pattern, as they built on meaning-building-blocks), which in turn is a way to stir up thoughts from the subconciousness, that are then mistaken to come from the supernatural.

Meaning of Meaning

We are surrounded by symbols and “meaning”. But what is meaning? What does it tell us about humans? How does it work? And how it this relevant for those who most likely read my blog site? Let me briefly summarize some of the recurring themes and see how they might fit in, without giving away everything that is to come.

Hester (Scarlet Letter)I chose the Scarlet Letter as a pivotal metaphor that illustrates many of the concepts described here. A letter is a symbol, which stands for something. The Scarlet Letter’s meaning is left unclear and various communities negotiated what it means. In Hawthorne’s novel of the same name, discussed in part one, the Puritans place the protagonists on a stage. They singled someone out, so their target could be recognized and could be described (like the surface), thus meaning is added to them. In case of the novel the meaning is “watch out, an adulterer”. Reader Matt Cavanaugh has pointed out that the “A” was sometimes even branded on someone’s cheek. In the novel, Hester tries to make the best of it, and gives it another, positive, meaning while the symbol is left unchanged. This touches on “owning” of labels or insults, changes of meaning.

The “Out” Campaign by the Richard Dawkins Foundation For Reason and Science (RDFRS) gave the Scarlet Letter yet another meaning. It now means “Atheist” and became the label that won out against humanist, secularists and many other labels. But now we deal with a lot of questions about what Atheists actually means aside from rejecting theistic beliefs. One side claims “dictionary atheism” wasn’t enough and here we are discussing what Atheism and the Atheist Movement really entails. And then there is Atheism Plus, too.

The Early Modern Period, the Reformation and the Puritans are not only fit the season very well, it was also a time where systems of beliefs clashed in large-scale wars with each other. It was a time when symbolic cultures, whole “supernatural” realms and thus meaning rose and collapsed for almost everyone, and where new ideas emerged.

One incident in the greater conflict between Catholics and Reformists was the Gunpowder Plot, which I set in contrast to modern-day terrorism. The most known conspirator was Guy Fawkes who wasn’t a terrorist, yet at the time the reaction to the Gunpowder Plot was not entirely unlike “War on Terror”. Again, some event becomes a new thing called “high treason”, against a symbolic entity of the “state”. Today we encounter this phenomenon with “terrorism”.

“The discrepancy between the panic generated by terrorism and the deaths generated by terrorism is no accident. Panic is the whole point of terrorism, as the root of the word makes clear: “Terror” refers to a psychological state, not an enemy or an event. The effects of terrorism depend completely on the psychology of the audience. Terrorists are communicators, seeking publicity and attention, which they manufacture through fear.”  – Steven Pinker, Terrorism (emphasis mine)

Unlike 9/11, the Gunpowder plot failed and actually nothing happened, but it had a significant meaning ascribed to it by interested sides in order to elicit reactions. When many consciousness are changed by describing some attempted plot as particularly heinous, it does create, in a sense, a new reality. People are perhaps more afraid than before, reminded of their mortality which, according to the Terror Management Theory (which seems to have some merit) makes them give up all sorts rights. In some sense, the alleged presence of terrorists who are after us is like an updated version of the belief that demons and other supernatural forces are after us. It certainly makes no difference to you whether you are struck by a falling tree or by debris from a bomb.

Guy Fawkes became an idea, a spectre of British history symbolically burned in the fires of the bonfire nights comparable to Halloween until today. I think many of these elements can be seen in the various dramas in the atheist community, too. For example around shunning and shaming in Puritan style, the meaning of criticism (harassment?) up to anonymity. Anonymity is about not recognizing and in contrast to the person on the stage that is singled out with a Scarlet A. You can guess that I really like to get this part on the 5th of November for some reason.

Part of the fun of writing, and returning to the opening thoughts, is finding interesting material in that ballpark.  I was struggling to find something on this symbolic culture, even though it seems – to me – a fairly important idea which I don’t regard as trivial at all. Perhaps it is obvious to us, who grew up with the internet that may be the “symbolic realm” in its most realized form.

Symbolic Culture

And so I thought I come to an end when I just ask that symbolic realm itself what it understands under “system of symbols culture”, I happened upon a Wikipedia entry on Symbolic Culture. I haven’t hunted down yet if it really describes what I mean in every way, but it might be an approximation.

“It was once thought that art and symbolic culture first emerged in Europe some 40,000 years ago, during the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition – often termed the ‘symbolic explosion’ or ‘Upper Palaeolithic revolution’. Some archaeologists still adhere to this view. Others now accept that symbolic culture probably emerged in sub-Saharan Africa at a much earlier date, during the period known as the Middle Stone Age” Symbolic Culture, Wikipedia

Unlike the claim in the lower section, I don’t find the idea “unsettling and philosophically unacceptable”. Quite the contrary. I believe it is central to understanding why our ancestors believed in magic, religion, spirits or demons and I will set more supernatural beliefs in relation to it.

And why similar views are still with us, dressed up in new fancy clothes. Since history is full of such beliefs, I think it would tell us a lot about how humans tick, back then and now. Perhaps, it is uncanny to scientists and science-minded Atheists to discuss such matters as magic, woo, esotericism and pseudo-science are just around the corner. And then, discussing it may step on religious feelings, too, and many scientists rather avoid it.

Perhaps many of the things described above are sorted off into some other theory or concept and I’m very happy to hear about them. We encountered one aspect in the Terror Management Theory, and essay and lecture by Sheldon Solomon that touches on a couple of similar ideas, and there seem to be some tidbits in Shermer’s “Believing Brain”. I am curious to learn if those writers take a similar road as I did. Thus I leave you with an interesting lecture and a snipped by Sheldon Solomon.

We are exceptional in our capacity for symbolic thought, for pondering the past, planning the future, and transforming the products of our imagination into reality. We are also uniquely aware that death is inevitable and can occur at any time, for reasons that cannot be anticipated or controlled. That gives rise to potentially debilitating terror, managed through the creation of culture: humanly constructed beliefs about reality that deny death by affording the sense that we are valuable members of a meaningful universe, eligible for immortality.”Sheldon Solomon, Death (emphasis mine)

And with that, I think it’s a good point to end this part here. Now that I’m back at writing, I like to release the next entry already tomorrow (or today, depending on your timezone). I leave some comments below and would love to hear some feedback or a vital sign from you if you who found this cross-country exploration remotely interesting.

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8 thoughts on “The Magic of Meaning

  1. Whew, I could probably keep rewriting it. Since I am doing this to get better at writing, I like to share some things I’ve learned so far. The first thing I noticed is that I like my first pass better, for most of the time. The more I revise and rewrite, the less flow the text seems to have. However, I like the content of the later revisions better. Now I am trying to find out how to combine both. Perhaps the trick is to write one draft, then forget about it and write it again.

    It is also still too long than I would like. I could write on some shorter subjects, but somehow they weren’t that interesting to write on, so far. And the more important or more central the thoughts are to me, typically the far more connected they are. This proved difficult for me. In this case, the whole point on magic, beliefs and superstitions wouldn’t really work with the Out There and In Here ideas. Perhaps I could write them with more brevity, but then I was afraid that they were confused with similar views and the baggage they bring in. Likewise, without some explanation, magic and woo is a weird topic for a science minded, atheist, audience. Thanks for reading. 🙂

  2. I can’t comment on the entire entry since I’m still reading it, so I’ll just nit-pick about spelling. I had to look up the word “Aphophenia”, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I think you mean “Apophenia”. Good word–cousin to Pareidolia!

    Back to reading, but first, thanks for blogging. You seem to have a deeply rooted sense of fair play plus a firm grasp of reason and logic, which makes you someone I like to learn from. Not only that, but you provide links to great videos! Keep
    up the good work!

  3. Thanks for pointing me to it, I’ll fix and also add the link. And thanks for the flowers. 🙂

    Edit: I’m amazed how much I did rewrite parts to make them clearer. So note to me, I need to put more time between finishing writing and editing, so that I see the glaring issues better. Some parts were truly terrible to understand with a day of detachment.

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