Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
In my family someone, older and wiser than I, likes to argue that school knowledge in words and symbols is canned knowledge, stifling the mind and preventing us from getting to the real knowledge afforded to us by our own experiences. This person finished college in a profession, although he was kicked out of several private schools for his antics in his younger years. Since when older he’s been quite successful in life and business, I felt compelled to pay close attention to his opinions. I concluded that the book knowledge taught in our schools is feeble, impotent, and of little use to anyone desiring success in any creative field, maybe even an obstacle to one in pursuit of original work in the arts, sciences, or humanities.
Are we then to ignore all the accumulated knowledge of humankind, so painfully and laboriously gained by clever individuals working in nature, laboratories, and on desks? No, I don’t suggest that we do. Isaac Newton wrote that if he saw as far as he did it was because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Other giants like Gauss, Maxwell, and Einstein followed Newton in the centuries between Newton and us.
Bertrand Russell, mathematician, philosopher, Nobel prize-winner for literature may help us clarify our dilemma. In his famed treatise, “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits,” Russell separates private knowledge from public knowledge and explains the difference. Private or personal experiences give us capabilities which we cannot get from words or signs in books or lectures. In many cases these experiences cannot be put into words or symbols. That’s why schools provide laboratories for students to get hands-on experience with phenomena in physics, chemistry, or biology. From what we see in the lab we draw inferences of our own, which may be different from those of our teachers.
Russell also wrote that whatever we know without inference is mental. No doubt many mental objects are of great value, such as mathematics, built up over the millennia, starting with simple digits in arithmetic, then on to algebra, calculus, probability and statistics, and now computational mathematics. We could not design modern buildings, bridges, aircraft, or electronic devices without mathematics, the symbols of mathematics and the theorems of mathematics. Neither could we do these designs without the private experiences of engineers and scientists testing and trying forms in laboratory and field with much trial and error. How far would aircraft designs go to get planes off the ground without the wind tunnel, and actual flying checkouts of all systems?
A medical student goes through a vast number of courses at the University, absorbing an overwhelming amount of word knowledge about the human body and its processes. Then he may specialize in surgery and observe other experienced surgeons operate on actual patients in a hospital theater. Would you trust a young surgeon with your body if the surgeon has little in his record of surgeries successfully completed on his or her own? Nothing in words or symbols can take the place of personal experience in surgery. An experienced surgeon goes through the right motions without even thinking consciously about what to do. The surgeon is guided by a rich unconscious experience of reality: what is and what is possible on the operating table.
Russell again from “Human Knowledge”: “I do not believe that I am now dreaming, but I cannot prove that I am not. I am, however, quite certain that I am having certain experiences, whether they may be those of a dream or those of waking life.”
Notes of music on a piece of paper are symbols too; when played on a musical instrument they render to us experiences of deep meaning, thrilling us to our core. Words have objects in our experience as referents; notes have notes, standing waves, as referents. So much of the musical experience, however, depends on the player, known as the interpreter of the musical composition. What is this meaning in music? The music may bring tears to our eyes from a stirring emotion or get us on the floor dancing with legs, arms, and body. The thoughts and feelings, often spiritual, are not expressed in the symbols, but in the playing of it by a fine artist, unless like the deaf van Beethoven you can read the symbols and hear the music from memories of tones. Music such as Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” comes to us like a memory from another place, another time, far more perfect than today’s earth. Were we able to play the violin well with Barber’s notes, we would appreciate even more the magic in his score.
Notes or words on paper reflect past experiences. New experiences, always private, new discoveries, always by individuals, become public knowledge when we attach to them new words we think up or get from Greek-Latin roots, especially in science. But the public will never get the true meaning of the symbols unless they travel the same road of personal experience as the discoverers.
Scientific knowledge has other limits too. Science deals with phenomena which are repeatable by others, and cannot deal with extremely rare events, or events which occurred long ago once, such as the appearance of living things on earth. I am deeply interested in physics and mathematics; the symbols representing objects in motion, including atoms and sub-particles, forces and energies seem to be meaningful to me, but how true are the phenomena they depict?
In 2011 at CERN and Fermilab physicists think they have cornered the Higgs boson. They think some fluctuations of energy indicate its presence within a degree of confidence of two standard deviations; but that confidence is not enough in physics to declare something as true. Experiments continue to establish its presence with a confidence of five standard deviations. If the existence of the Higgs boson is ruled out, it is said particle physics theory will have to be rethought in its entirety and recast. So what happens to all the so-called knowledge we have accumulated for a century?
Sometimes I prefer the certainty of mathematics, a world of mental phenomena, assumed to be true or following logically from axioms. Einstein, an excellent physicist and mathematician, said, “as far as mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” Centuries before him Rene Descartes, seventeenth century Belgian philosopher and mathematician, sought to discard all beliefs from his mind that he could not rely on with certainty except mathematical theorems, like that of Pythagoras on right triangles, and the existence of his own mind and of God.
Our Christian faith teaches the unity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is said to be of one substance and must be accepted without proof, a mystery, but true for all believers. In the past you could get into a lot of trouble, including being burned at the stake, for having a different opinion of the Trinity. Wars were even fought over the Trinity. I would rather put my faith, like Descartes, on the right triangle, that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other sides. I can prove the truth of this statement in many ways logically using geometric axioms or I can measure the sides of many right triangles of different shapes to establish it by inference.
Yes, I was taught these facts in school, but I can see for myself they are true. Teachers are good souls and mean to help us, but those who teach usually can’t do anything. They are replicators, replicating canned knowledge.
Our best knowledge is innate; part of our endowment as human beings, from sources unknown. Plato in his dialog of Socrates “Meno” demonstrates this. Socrates poses a series of questions to an illiterate slave boy who served the watered wine at the symposium. The slave boy arrives at the truth of a non-trivial theorem in geometry with his answers without any prior knowledge of geometry that he was taught.
The slave boy possessed what Russell calls universal as opposed to inferential truths, which we form from our experiences. One of these is that two plus two equals four. We can express these with words or symbols.
How do we express, however, an experience people associate with God or Heaven? We do it with much difficulty and in poetic terms, like Rumi in “Signs of the Unseen.”
Still, it’s worth recording in words what we have experienced and passing on what we have discovered to generations down the road of life. What a tragedy for human culture that Ancient Greek music was not inscribed in notes! The Ancient Greeks attached much importance to music in their culture, but without the record of notes or recordings of the actual music, we know very little about it. If their music and painting equaled their literature, sculpture, and architecture, they must have been magnificent.
Knowledge of Ancient Greek laws has come down to us from their literature too. Laws written down by authorities are said to be codified. Then there are laws which evolve in the courts by decisions made, cases known as common law when written down. But there also laws of society not written but duly observed by any people, their native culture and customs, also evolving, like our customs in Greece, good, bad, or indifferent.
Other nations can say bad things about the Greeks these days, but “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never hurt us.” Or can they?”
The power of words or symbols (like the swastika) lies in what they communicate to others. You can communicate with gestures too, bodily posture, or sign language like a mimic, foreigner, or deaf and dumb person. How can we discount the power of Charley Chaplin in his silent films?
As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Marshall McLuhan said the same thing with his “the medium is the message.” When we put something into words or symbols we’re abstracting something in the outside world or inside our minds. The abstraction, useful as it may be, is something less than the actual thing it represents. We depend on our memory of prior experiences in detail to interpret the symbol. Without the experiences in our background, the symbol lacks much meaning.
Moreover, words and symbols, sequentially placed, one after another, linearly, are good for logical analysis and proof, not so good for the non-linear world of invention and discovery of new ideas. To invent and discover new things we need to draw from the stores of our subconscious mind in a state of calm and commotion. Consider how many ways there are for saying the words “I love you.” A consummate actor can come up with thousands of different feelings in these three words.