Emergent meaning

If something else had happened, life would mean something different now. But what happened is in the past, and the past can’t be changed. I have to accept what is.

Most of the time, we hear this as a truism. When we emotionally grapple with certain past events and their consequences, however, it’s a major personal victory when at long last we take a deep breath and resign ourselves to the realities.

Imagine I turn my vehicle left at an intersection and suffer an accident. My arm is broken. The car is totaled. My passenger is dead.

I might wonder what would have happened if I had turned right instead of left. Those thoughts might be intrusive, even obsessive. I will never find out the answer to What if something else had happened?

Some game pieces are still in play, and I can change those outcomes. I bounce back financially; I get a new car; my arm heals; survivors forgive me. But other outcomes are already set in stone. The old car, reduced to twisted pieces of metal, isn’t worth fixing and is sent to the scrap heap. The dead person does not come back to life. The meaning of these events is distressing; I resist the meaning, which leads me to resist the reality of the events that produce this meaning. I “know” the events were real and can’t be changed, but I wish that weren’t true and I search in vain for another workaround. The ultimate solution may be simply to accept what is.

In this hypothetical example, I am considering meaning as an emergent property of material reality. Emergence means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A certain confluence of events in my life doesn’t leave me only with the events themselves, but it also yields meaning: psychological, social, financial, and so on. Wanting to change the meaning means wanting to change the realities on which the meaning is based. If I’m stuck with the relevant realities, I may be distressed at finding that I am stuck with the meaning, too.

Book cover: C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con. Edited by Gregory Bassham.

I recently heard this described using the example of a mosaic. (It happened to be a mosaic of Darth Vader, which is appropriately dark.) David Kyle Johnson says in “Naturalism Undefeated” in the anthology C. S. Lewis’s Christian Apologetics that “it makes no sense to suggest that you could subtract Vader and yet leave all the individual frames of the mosaic alone. If the tiles are arranged just as they are, Vader necessarily exists.” Johnson is writing about the mind arising from the physical brain. I’m applying the same idea to deriving meaning from the world, a more popular daily concern. The world has given us a bunch of mosaic tiles and we see that they form an image. Sometimes we don’t like the image. If we can rearrange some of the tiles, great; but if all the tiles are glued and dried, we’re stuck with what the overall image means to us.

“Emergence” (or, similarly, “supervenience”) is an academic term, but it yields a practical insight for dealing with emotional distress:

If I want to change what my situation means to me, I have to take action and do something differently.

If I can’t or won’t change my situation or at least allow in new information and experiences, then I have to accept that the meaning isn’t going to change, either.

Challenges to Science

English: A game of Tug of War during College R...

English: A game of Tug of War during College Royal at the University of Guelph. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wrote this paper about 30 years ago for the HiC magazine. I welcome comments on it now. Has anything changed over those many years?

Next week I want to consider some of the current problems we face: climate change deniers, beginning and end of life issues, distribution of scarce resources, and others.


Humanist in Canada, Summer 1983; by Bob Lane

   – ©2005, 2007 Bob Lane

Over the past two hundred years science has proved itself to be the most powerful intellectual method yet devised. The “scientific method” has become the paradigm for all disciplines which deal in empirical fact. Observation, generalisation, falsification, repetition of experiments have become orthodox methodology which is rarely questioned and not often understood.

Today there are several challenges to science. In the United States, and to some degree here in Canada, one of the centerpiece theories of contemporary science — evolution — has come under strong attack by a group of fundamentalist Christians who call themselves “creationists”. They are trying to get creationism taught in the school system as a scientific theory on equal footing with evolutionism.

A second challenge comes from those who believe in paranormal phenomena: ESP, out-of-body travel, clairvoyance and the like. The tremendous interest in this area of “psychic” phenomena is witnessed by the procession of movies, books, television shows, and newspaper columns devoted to the mysterious powers of people who can, seemingly, bend spoons with mind power alone, predict events before they occur, and, in general, are tuned in to some dimension of reality that the rest of us, bound by our five senses, can only vicariously experience. Are any of these phenomena real? Or are they merely hoped for evidence of some spirit world that promises us immortality? Or are they, more seriously, hoaxes perpetrated on a gullible audience for very non-scientific reasons, like greed?

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Words

‘I GOTTA USE WORDS’

by Bob Lane

“Talking does not make the world or even pictures, but talking and pictures participate in making each other and the world as we know them.” Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art:  An Approach to a Theory of Symbols has pointed correctly in this statement to the inevitable association between works of art and the language used to talk about those works. In the last century, it was believed that the exclusion of subject matter (landscapes, people, family scenes) from painting would disentangle the image on the canvas (or the words of a poem) from literary associations and clear the way for a direct response of the eye to optical data. The hope was to reduce art to speechlessness. An “Art of the Real” exhibition recently at the Museum of Modern Art described its selection as chunks of raw reality totally liberated from language. “Modern art,” writes one recent critic “has eliminated the verbal correlative from the canvas.” Perhaps. But if a work of today no longer has a verbal correlative, it is because its particular character has been dissolved in a sea of words.

At no time in history have more words been written in defence of art, in explanation of what it “really is,” in defence of its “uniqueness,” in the production of manifestoes of explanation and genesis. To describe a striped canvas and a striped tablecloth in the same terms is to commit an artistic faux pas of great proportion much like the child who, because he didn’t understand the rules of the game, remarked that the emperor was naked. The language of art criticism today is a subtle and abstract means to create the idea of art works in conceptual framework of theories instead of in the perceptual framework of the senses. Recently two young artists in Latin America contrived a Happening that was reported in detail in the press but never took place, so their “work of art” consisted of their own news releases and the resulting interviews, accounts,, and comments. Here the “work of art” was only what was said about it. There was no “picture” only “talking”.

Other “artists” are using nature as a canvas. By rearranging rocks (or grinding up bottles to cover a B.C. Island) and making trenches in the dirt, they hope to show that there is no real distinction between a work of art and natural objects. But, like the child in the “Emperor’s Clothes” this is to function without knowing the rules of the game. “Art” implies artifact. Its Indo European base is from “ar ” which means to join, fit together. Certainly Goodman is right when he says that talking does not make pictures (or by extension any work of art, except, of course, in the obvious way that talking makes, e.g. oral poetry, where the act of talking is the art form) but participates in making them. One need only look at any history of art book to note the way in which words about pictures are used to classify and categorize those pictures. But the pictures are real. The works of art are there in time and space, have an existence of their own carved out of the flux of that time and space. Talking and pictures are married, but form allows the marriage.

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Three Important Lessons my Kids Taught me

 

Three kids and LarryBy Bob Lane

When our first son was about four he went to play school one day and immediately went over to an easel and stood there holding a brush ready to start painting. The teacher came up behind him and said, “What are you going to paint?”

“God,” he said.

“And do you know what God looks like?”

“I will when I finish the painting,” he said as he began to paint.

Isn’t that an amazing picture? And isn’t that an amazing insight? Why do I find it important?

We do indeed give form and meaning to concepts and ideas in works of the imagination that we create including paintings and stories. We are the meaning seekers. We are the creators of meaning. The bible, for example, means by means of its stories. Think for a moment of the Christian hero, Jesus. There is a sense in which Jesus is a model for human beings to follow. He was a man of his time who held the assumptions and beliefs of his era. He is portrayed as a charismatic man who lived with intense purpose and drive, who had an existential thrust to his life, who cared deeply about human beings, and who wrestled with profound questions of ethics. The stories that grew up around him have affected the world for two thousand years and have touched the deepest parts of our humanity with their simplicity of image and their promise of “salvation”. [Lane, Reading the Bible]

I think of the Biblical Gospel writers as being like my young son.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; Do you know Jesus? “I will when I finish my story.”

The second lesson came from our second son. As I was sitting in the living room after classes one day reading the newspaper, I heard a an argument on the front porch and after some harsh words a scream from our daughter. I went outside and she reported that her brother had pushed her off the porch. She was not hurt; just angry.

I looked at her tormenter with my harshest look and said to him, “If I were you I would NOT do that!” He apologized to his sister and they went on playing. I went back in to finish reading the paper.

After a few minutes he came in and looked at me, and when he had my attention he said, “But Daddy, you are wrong; if you were me you would have done what I did.”

The law of identity! I had to explain that we humans are not always to be taken literally and that what I had uttered was a threat.

Third, I learned about the importance of point of view, not from my graduate classes, but from our little daughter in a stroller. As I grow older I find my mind circling back on a few vivid memories from the past. One of my favorites is of a time when our family went to the zoo in Seattle for a Sunday visit. Our daughter, Margaret, was a little girl, still riding in a stroller. We went to see the apes and the lions, the monkeys and the polar bears.

“What do the monkeys say, Margaret?” “Monkeys say, uhhn, uhhn uhn!”

“What does the bear say?” “Bear says, rrroaar, rroaarr.”

We then were walking along one of the many paths, pushing the stroller and trying to keep Margaret’s older brothers from climbing into the fields with the ruminants. At one point we saw a water buffalo grazing in the field just on the other side of the fence that the boys kept looking at as a challenge to be overcome. As we stopped by the fence we watched as the water buffalo walked towards us, curious, I suppose, about this group of non-water buffalo. As it came closer Margaret was equally curious perched there in her stroller at the height of the first strand of barbed wire. It came right up to the fence. Its broad nose was almost touching Margaret as it smelled her to determine, I guess, if she were friend or foe, or food. The five of us stood there looking at the beast for several minutes. If finally made whatever determination it needed to make and continued its grazing in the field.

“What does the water buffalo say?” “Says, woof, woof, woof.”

“Oh, no,” I laughed, “that’s what a dog says.” “No,” she insisted, “ bufflo say woof, woof.”

I thought about that for a moment and then I came to realize an important lesson about reading the world. So much depends upon point of view. From Margaret’s point of view, down there close to the bufflo’s nose, it did indeed say “woof, woof” – the sound of its breathing through those big silky nostrils. To my ears, four or so feet above hers, there was no such sound, and I also had some preconceived idea of what a bufflo should say! But Margaret simply reported what she experienced. She didn’t know what bufflo were supposed to say, only what that one on that day did say.

Later when I went on to graduate school to study literature I came to realize the importance of that lesson. Literature taught me again, what Margaret taught me that day in Seattle, point of view is important.

Just as a narrative structure is necessary for the story of Margaret and the water buffalo so is a structure necessary for any story. And stories, like other experiences, are both told from and “read” from a point of view.

A talk at the Nanaimo Unitarian Church

TELL ME A STORY

By Bob Lane

In monasteries, seminaries,

retreats and synagogues,

 they fear hell

and seek paradise.

Those who know

the mysteries of  Life 

never let that seed

be planted in their souls.

Over the years I have talked with your congregation on several occasions. I have talked about the Bible, about contemporary literature, and about absurdist philosophy, and had fun doing that. Today I want to tell you a story. Today’s story will be about story. I have come to believe that story is of basic importance.

Long ago and in a romantic faraway place my life was changed forever. Outside a Lutheran Church I met the woman who, some 62 years later, is still helping me to tell our story as a family. A second story was found in the works of Albert Camus – specifically the first two books he wrote: The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger. The ideas that had such an effect on me? The Absurd. And the absurd hero.

The ideas behind the development of the absurd hero are present in the first three essays of The Myth of Sisyphus. In these essays Camus faces the problem of suicide. In his typically shocking, unnerving manner he opens with the bold assertion that:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. (p. 3).

He goes on to consider if suicide is a legitimate answer to the human predicament. Or to put it another way: Is life worth living now that god is dead? The discussion begins and continues not as a metaphysical cobweb but as a well-reasoned statement based on a way of knowing which Camus holds is the only epistemology we have at our command. We know only two things:

This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction. (p. 14)

And the rest is construction” – Camus argues that there is no meaning to life. He disapproves of the many philosophers who “have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living.” (p.7) Life has no absolute meaning. In spite of the human’s irrational “nostalgia” for unity, for absolutes, for a definite order and meaning to the “not me” of the universe, no such meaning exists in the silent, indifferent universe. Between this yearning for meaning and eternal verities and the actual condition of the universe there is a gap that can never be filled. The confrontation of the irrational, longing human heart and the indifferent universe brings about the notion of the absurd.

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.21)  and further:

The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together…it is the only bond uniting them. (p. 21)

People must realize that the feeling of the absurd exists and can happen to them at any time. The absurd person must demand to live solely with what is known and to bring in nothing that is not certain. This means that all I know is that I exist, that the world exists, and that I am mortal. Doesn’t this make a futile pessimistic chaos of life? Wouldn’t suicide be a legitimate way out of a meaningless life? “No.”

“No.” answers Camus. Although the absurd cancels all chances of eternal freedom it magnifies freedom of action. Suicide is “acceptance at its extreme”, it is a way of confessing that life is too much for one. This is the only life we have; and even though we are aware, in fact, because we are aware of the absurd, we can find value in this life. The value is in our freedom, our passion, and our revolt. The first change we must make to live in the absurd situation is to realize that thinking, or reason, is not tied to any eternal mind which can unify and “make appearances familiar under the guise of a great principle,” but it is:

…learning all over again to see, to be attentive, to focus consciousness; it is turning every idea and every image, in the manner of Proust, into a privileged moment. (p. 20)

My experiences, my passions, my ideas, my images and memories are all that I know of this world – and they are enough. The absurd person can finally say “all is well”.

I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone. (p. 41)

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