Friday, March 27, 2015

Looking for God Between the Syntactical Trees and the Semantic Forest

Or, between words and meaning; or more generally, symbols and symbolized. Consider: "It is possible to know every word in the dictionary," "and yet be unable to write a living sentence, or even respond to the life in the writing of other men" (Sheed).

The trouble is, every word has a particular meaning, but this meaning must be subordinated to the meaning of the sentence -- and then sentence to paragraph, paragraph to chapter, chapter to narrative, etc.

I remember once reading in a Scientology pamphlet of L. Ron Hubbard's advice to his clones on how to approach a difficult text. To the extent that you don't understand it, just look up each unknown word in the dictionary, then put it all together. Voila! Meaning.

I've never tried the method, but it would probably be impossible even for simple sentences, because you'd just end up with more autonomous parts without getting any closer to the integral meaning.

I'm tempted to try....

Okay: "I live in a house."

To streamline this, I'll just use the first definitions.

"Someone possessing and aware of possessing a distinct personal individuality am alive -- i.e., have the life of an animal or plant -- in a location or in space or in some materially bounded object, in this case a structure intended or used for human habituation."

But then you'd have to look up possessing, distinct, individuality, materially, structure, etc. Thus, the Hubbard Method just makes things more convoluted, not easier. Plus -- like the dictionary itself -- it is ultimately tautologous. That is, words just refer to other words, in a closed logoverse. For example, my Oxford dictionary couldn't even define "in" without using the word. Ultimately you probably couldn't say a thing without literally involving the whole dictionary.

More generally, knowing the meaning of words is an entirely different function from using them well in a sentence. In fact, using them well often involves using them incorrectly. I recently read a biography of Wodehouse, in which the author wrote the following very Wodehousian sentence: "To this day, even as a peacetime museum, it broods menacingly over the tower of Huy..." If you were to deploy the Hubbard Method to deconstruct the sentence, you'd be left with the impression that inanimate buildings are subject to moods and intimidating gestures.

Wodehouse habitually tossed in bizarre personifications, e.g., As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing..., or He uncovered the fragrant eggs and b., and I pronged a moody forkful..., or Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing gloves, etc. There are hundreds if not thousands of these.

This is a long way of asking the question: how would it even be possible to understand scripture if we didn't already understand it?

A more basic problem, it seems to me, is how words -- and language more generally -- get outside themselves? Again, if words just refer to other words, then they cannot refer to God, except in the form of another word.

The short answer is of course provided by the pneumanaut with the umlaut, Gödel. He proved once and for all that any logical system contains assumptions that cannot be justified by the system. Rather, we need the assumptions to get off the semantic goround.

As we've discussed before, postmodernists completely misunderstand this to mean that there is no possibility of real meaning, but Gödel's whole point -- at least according to Goldstein -- is that there are truths that cannot be proved logically. He didn't intend to abolish truth but preserve it.

It also means that, whatever our minds are, they cannot be digital computers, because they always transcend the digits. His theorems "don't demonstrate the limits of the human mind, but rather the limits of computational models of the human mind (basically, models that reduce all thinking to rule-following)" (Goldstein).

Otherwise, Gödel's theorems would disprove Gödel's theorems. As we mentioned a couple of posts back, man breaks out of his animal form and opens out to the infinite, "beyond the circumscriptions of personal experience to gain access to aspects of reality that it is impossible to otherwise know" (ibid.).

So language, in order to get beyond itself, must be a vertically open system in which something from beyond the system is able to infuse the words with a meaning and a Life which they alone cannot convey.

Gödel -- unlike positivists at one end and deconstructionists at the other -- "is committed to the possibility of reaching out... beyond our experiences to describe the world 'out yonder.'" This yonder world is a reality "of universal and necessary truths" to which we are mysteriously -- and sometimes mythteriously -- able to gain access. As a result, we may gain "at least partial glimpses of what might be called... 'extreme reality.'"

Yesterday, out of the blue, my son surprised me by reeling off pi to eight or ten decimals. What does it mean that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is a deeply irrational number that goes on forever? The circle has always been considered the "perfect" form, so it was troubling to the ancients that pi brooded so menacingly over them.

Schuon often deployed the geometrical circle as a point of reverence to make theometrical statements about God. For example, if God is the center of the circle, we are at the periphery. Looked at this way, the center is surrounded by concentric circles corresponding to this or that worldspace, e.g., life, mind, matter, angels, archetypes, etc. Some worlds are necessarily closer to or more distant from God. Evil is way out there.

But it can also be used the other way around, such that the world is within the circle and the infinite God surrounds it (like the mysterious "man in the donut" in the sidebar).

To put an impatient kibosh on this scatterish post, "The man who does not believe in God must read Scripture differently from the man who does.... a discussion between them as to the meaning of the New Testament is as though one were discussing marriage with a eunuch" (Sheed).

24 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

If you were to deploy the Hubbard Method to deconstruct the sentence, you'd be left with the impression that inanimate buildings are subject to moods and intimidating gestures.

Yesterday's post about sensation reminded me of a concept you haven't used in a while, but explicated it far better in my brain for some reason: "the terminal moraine of the senses."

Way back when, it was one of those things that I understood initially, then for some reason it slipped my grasp, so I decided to try making sure I still understood what "terminal moraine" meant. Thus, I came up with something like "[the pile of rocks at the snout of a glacier] at the end of the senses. The Hubbard method )though I didn't realize that was what I was doing) is worse than useless for understanding even concrete ideas. For abstract ones, it pretty much just implodes thought.

Funny experience, though.

3/27/2015 09:51:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

I remember that one. Sometimes it is necessary to write beyond oneself in order to stop making sense and get out of the dictionary world. I suppose that's the whole point of poetry....

3/27/2015 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

In other words, there are times even I don't know what I mean, but another part of me tells me I do, so I leave it be...

3/27/2015 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Probably wise.

I was just reading an article the other day about popular songs that don't mean what people think they mean. I would submit that in many cases, even if the artist himself doesn't know what he's saying or claims that it's meaningless, he may well be wrong...

3/27/2015 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...


That happened with Hey Jude. McCartney had composed a "dummy lyric," the movement you need is on your shoulder. When he wanted to change it into a real lyric, Lennon said "don't you dare -- it's perfect!" Whatever it's supposed to mean.

The lyrics to I Am the Walrus are perfect nonsense.

3/27/2015 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Yes, exactly. Probably why my kids like Jude, but aren't fans of the Walrus. The first clearly means something, even if they don't understand, while the second just turns into nightmare fuel.

3/27/2015 10:09:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Very trinitarian: I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

3/27/2015 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Good point; I've always been too thrown off track by the refrain to try and consider what any of it means.

3/27/2015 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger mushroom said...

Using the Beatles for nursery rhymes. The first time I sang
"Yellow Submarine" to my granddaughter she joined right in. She already knew it. My wife sang it to our daughter, who sang it to her daughter.

Traditional nursery rhymes are sometimes a good example of what you're talking about, too. The pictures they conjure up for a child probably have very little to do with their origins and original meanings.

3/27/2015 10:39:00 AM  
Blogger John Lien said...

pi is Trinitarian. You have the big 3 on one side and then an infinite number of us on the other side of the decimal point.

Well, sorta.

3/27/2015 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"Yesterday, out of the blue, my son surprised me by reeling off pi to eight or ten decimals. What does it mean that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is a deeply irrational number that goes on forever? The circle has always been considered the "perfect" form, so it was troubling to the ancients that pi brooded so menacingly over them."

You don't hafta fully understand pi to enjoy it.

3/28/2015 02:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Skully said...

So instead of 'shut yer pi hole' it should be 'open yer pi whole.'

3/28/2015 02:27:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

"I Am the Walrus" becomes an example of utter lucidity compared to this:

"How is queer intellectual design an intrinsic part of transnational knowledge production in the cultural sphere?"

3/28/2015 06:45:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

That sentence sounds like it was put out by a postmodern bullshit random generator. But that's true of everything they write.

3/28/2015 07:05:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

A geography prof who "seek[s] to interrogate the question of health: What it is; who it’s for, and who decides?”

Everyone knows geography professors don't decide what health is; rather, community organizers.

3/28/2015 07:11:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

A music prof whose work "grapples with music disability and social justice in the 21st century."

Easy: give the musically disabled jobs as music professors.

3/28/2015 07:16:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

That's just sad.

In my experience, the vast, vast majority of music teachers are (well, were in generations past) as respectable as the average STEM professor. Playing music well requires that one be in touch with the reality of how it sounds. But, being also an art, I guess it can't forever remain immune from the ugly and stupefying effects of the social justice movement.

3/28/2015 07:27:00 AM  
Blogger USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Ha ha! IRT that Powerline link, it's obvious those perfessers are a bunch of losers tryin' to appear smarter than they really are.
I wonder how long it took them to make up all that BS.

Incidently, Paul has a better sense of humor than I imagined.

3/28/2015 01:43:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

"As we've discussed before, postmodernists completely misunderstand this to mean that there is no possibility of real meaning, but Gödel's whole point -- at least according to Goldstein -- is that there are truths that cannot be proved logically. He didn't intend to abolish truth but preserve it."

It's the same with their habitual ritual of ignoring Aristotle's first rule of logic and syllogism, that before you commence to dazzle us with your 'If this, then that's, your premises must first be true, or it is all meaningless. Of course as Meaninglessness is their goal to begin with, their deconstruction must be sure to be begun without that. Best just to huddle down within their fears, and revel in what they'd like them to be.

3/29/2015 08:55:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

... and giving new meaning to Pi Wholes, check out this image of Pi graphed out to the 10,000th digit. Kinda cool.

3/29/2015 09:18:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Cool! Thanks, Van.

3/29/2015 09:21:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Or as Jethro Bodine once said, "pie are round, cornbread are square."

3/29/2015 09:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Homer said...

Mmmmm... cornbread...

3/29/2015 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

No time for a post this morning...

3/30/2015 08:36:00 AM  

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