In a notebook I chanced across while doing some serious Fall Cleaning, I came across some brief writings—I called them notes. Lordy. I have notebooks upon notebooks just like the one I found—a lifetime’s entirely private effort of making sense of reality and/or capturing insights, never intended for readers. I will reproduce one from April 2005 here. Until today, no one has seen this; but I did read it to Brigitte just five minutes ago.
Carriers of Meaning
Formal systems do not carry meanings—but fairy tales do.
I assume that worlds full of meaning are actually real—in the conventional sense of the word, tangibly: touch it, taste it. By worlds I mean not only this one, but this one is a sample. I mean the others as well: heavens and hells, choirs of angels, vast imaginal landscapes and oceans of spirit with white ships and billowing red sails.
By formal systems I mean Aquinas’ Summa or Kant’s Critique. For that matter I also include quantum mechanics and Einstein’s two relativities, as mathematical formalisms. And so on.
All formalisms produce a kind of satisfaction, but no sooner do I feel the satisfaction than the formalism coils back on itself and causes me to question it; my satisfaction turns uneasy. My mind begins to probe the logic. Thoughts rise and flicker with exceptions. Invariably something won’t properly fit.
On the other hand the grand epics live on. They shimmer in memory like the events of my own life or true events of history. Tales are good carriers of meaning, but the meaning remains diffused. When I try to concentrate it, I start to build a formal system. Then, with Ross Perot’s vividly put “great sucking sound,” the life departs from it.
Formal systems are static. Reality is dynamic. To capture that dynamism, algorithms are simply not enough.
Our inner life is a constant swaying between polarities: the static certainties of structure and the dynamic movements of myth.
This is in part a comment on these very notes. They are effective because they’re organized disorganization. They are a net that captures meaning without formally reducing meaning to a system.
Much of this dilemma is due to complexity. We are capable of comprehending it as story, but it loses its coherence as a listing of relationships. I describe living by starting somewhere. Blood circulation, say. The heart seems central. I delve deeply into the muscles of the heart, the electrical triggering of the contractions.
I go on and build the whole system—the vast highways of arteries, the reflux of veins. I have to explain in turn lungs and respiration, capillaries carrying oxygen to feed the cells.
I go on. I am still at it, detailing various organs and then organ systems. Then I detail how they relate. I weary myself describing the central and the secondary nervous systems, the autonomic and the central one which gets its stimulation from “out there.” The eyes take me a day, the skin, the olfactory organs.
He took her on a walk, that first time. There was a park nearby. It was toward evening, but not quite dark yet. Fresh. It had stormed that afternoon but the sky was now clear and bright. They stood by the lake for a bit, hand in hand, and she told a funny story about the time when her Dad had carved a boat. It had a little mast and a sail fashioned of a silvery container top. And how the boat, being uneven, listed ever to the side. And how her Dad was down there on all fours, blowing at the little boat, but it wouldn’t go anywhere. It was too heavy… And he, with her, looked at her as she was telling this story, and she was all full of light and merriment, her eyes shining.
And they were out there, waiting for the sun to sink. And the lake got darker and darker, and the horizon bright, the trees and houses like black silhouettes across the lake, the sun sinking behind them.
This scene, described as system, as sensations, as hormonal movements, as the firing of trillions of brain cells, as blood circulating, as skin sensing a light breeze, as metabolic states mirroring brain messages and brain cells responding by triggering deep sighs, as uncountable sense impressions flooding in, as heat issuing from uncountable pores, gushing from ears and mouths and other openings, would describe nothing of meaning. Yet all of this, this vast machinery, is there. To understand it is important.
It is a puzzlement. That which permits us to understand something in close detail destroys the phenomenon. That which we experience hides the details. We have a devil of a time disentangling the vehicle and that which it carries, form and substance, structure and function.
The map is not the way and not the destination, but you cannot get there without a map. When you get there, the destination is a big brick structure painted white in reality and on the map it is a red star on the screen and a black star on the print-out.
And this all makes perfectly good sense.
A cosmology—an orientation—is like a map. And little more than that. A really great map has artful figures at the corners, the four winds; their lips are puckered up to indicate that they are blowing. And in the map’s artfully drawn oceans frolic unlikely dolphins spouting bright streams.
In other words the map is trying to tell a story by way of excusing its own inadequacy of being a mere formalism.