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Design, Language and Dreaming

Mundaka Upanishad (ancient Hindu text)

“That which is imperceptible, ungraspable, without lineage, colourless, eyeless and earless, handless and footless, eternal and all-pervading, existing in the heart of all, very subtle, imperishable and the source of all beings, is beheld by men of wisdom.” (Mantra no. 6)

Talmud (ancient Judaic text)

The Talmud said that a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter or book that remains unopened. But if we do not interpret a dream, surely it must have a true meaning ‘in itself’, even though we have not yet discovered it? If so, can we think of ‘translating’, rather than ‘interpreting’ it, in order to make a simple statement of truth? In other words, could we ever be safe in saying what the dream really means? We cannot, according to the Talmud, for ‘the dream is its own interpretation’. This is an astonishing idea for those of us who, from our earliest years, have been steeped in the apparent certainties of mathematics and alphabetical writing.

Pythagoras (560-480 BCE)

Pythagoras' assertion that "all things are numbers" (525 BCE) is provocative because it does not say that everything in the world can be described in numbers, but implies that the reality we experience is somehow numerical. It may be relatively easy to make approximate summaries of the world by counting, but this is always reductive. The ideas that numbers are everywhere is a vision that has haunted us through the centuries. It is the silent figure that saps the imagination and can never be put to death. It is the Golem that the Romans stole from the Greeks. In the Enlightenment era we taught it to walk. Today, it finds its shape in the shadowy romance of science, the bright lights of the Scientific Academies, and in the the subterranean laboratories that conduct research for weaponry, governance, and lifestyle.

Stephen Hawking (1942- CE)

Professor Hawking seems disappointed that we have so far been unable to find a TOE (a 'Theory of Everything'). His quest follows in Einstein's (and perhaps Newton's) footsteps that echo the claim by Pythagoras that numbers can somehow exemplify everything that exists. For simple-minded non-cosmologists, however, it raises a number of questions about what is meant by 'everything'. Does it, for example, include you (who are reading this text right at this moment). Does it include what you can see around you and what you can imagine might happen in the next five minutes. Does it include your own 'dream' of the world? Indeed, does it include your dream of your own 'dream' of the world?

Western alphabetical writing (c. 480 BCE)

In 480 BCE the Greeks adopted and adaptated the Pheonician alphabet. In so doing they made international trade easier, but they also opened the door to the possibility of fundamentalism. For without a language system that creates fixed categories we may have firm beliefs, but it is more difficult to have intellectual certainties that can be claimed to exist in their own right. Without certainties we cannot have facts or axioms. The Greek alphabet was a phonetic system that worked (more or less) additively – i.e. ‘brick-on-brick’. Unlike pictographic writing that has many levels of meaning, it is a reductive system that works simply as a code with virtually no intrinsic meaning of its own. Plato describes the moment when alphabetical writing was offered to the ruler of the day (King Thamus). It is worth remembering that the King repudiated this new invention because it was clear that it would corrupt or distort the essence, the structure, the elements, the connections, the balances, and the tensions of the prevailing culture.

Aristotle (384 to 322 BCE)

In now being able, quite "literally", to prescribe certainty (i.e. a stable truth) the ancient Greeks could now begin to put logic to work. Now that they had more durable relations between signs and what they were assumed to signify, the Greeks could make rules about the existence of things. Presumeably, many verbs became more 'noun-ish'. Aristotle, for example, devised ten ontological categories: 1) substance 2) Quality 3) Quantity 4) Relation 5) Where 6) When 7) Position 8) Having 9) Action 10) Passion. His method has been hugely influential in developing the modern culture of factual belief that is made increasingly ‘real’ via dictionaries, encyclopaedias, bureaucracy, digital computers, and databases, etc. However, the emphasis on (fixed) categories appears to deny the logic we often experience in dreaming. Nor does Aristotle’s theory tackle the implications of how the observer and her/his role might influence what, where, or when something is deemed true or otherwise.

Heraclitus (540 to 480 BCE)

Heraclitus was born before Aristotle, and less than a century after the introduction of alphabetical writing within Greece. He drew attention to the complexity and interplay between everything and everything else. He asserted that because nothing remains the same, we cannot find an enduring truth, except for the possible truth of this realisation itself. This argument suggests that all meanings are transitory because they depend, in part, upon their relation to other things. Heraclitus suggested that unless we become more aware of the ‘fluent logic of meaning’ (my interpretation for ‘logos’) we are likely to live our lives ‘as though in a dream’. This metaphor implies that dreams are somehow inferior states of reality. Perhaps we might reflect upon the shamanic existence in that it attends to what is currently happening, at all levels. Perhaps, then, Heraclitus was a shaman who remained more attuned to the subtle shifts of meaning that might not be noticeable to those who see the world in terms of fixed categories. One of the best known sayings of Heraclitus is that "we step, and yet do not step, into the same river". It is a reminder that language cannot hold certainties for very long before they melt into contradiction.

Cratylus (** to ** BCE)

Cratylus was a pupil of Heraclitus who later taught Socrates. He is probably best known for taking his master's logic of 'flow' one step further. Where Heraclitus had said that we cannot put our foot into the same river twice, it dawned on Cratylus that we cannot even put our foot into the same rive once. Whether the psychological shock brought him into hysteria, or whether he made an intellectual not to speak it is not clear. However, he is reputed to have spent the rest of his days pointing at things. Sometimes, the dream cannot be revealed in any form that currently exists. As Wittgenstain (1889-1951) said, "That which can be said we can say clearly. That which cannot be said we must pass over, in silence."

Chuang Tzu (369 to 286 BCE)

Taoist master Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke it occurred to him that he could not be sure whether he was a man who had just dreamed of being a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. In comparison with Aristotle’s logic of categories, this kind of thought process generates much confusion and ‘noise’ in the system. Much western philosophical thought has tended to seek as much certainty and ‘truth’ as possible. One way is to ignore the totality of a given question in its full context. This often makes it easier to reach clear conclusions. At first glance, simple number systems are usually impressive for their capacity to demonstrate unequivocal propositions.

The Matrix (1999)

This film depicts a set of mirror worlds that <?> may become reality.

The Qur'an (570-632 CE)

A beautiful line in the Qur’an may remind us that the use of numbers for measurement may be a risky process. "...He coils the night upon the day and He coils the day upon the night." (sura 39, verse 5). Arguably, the phenomenon of change is always best represented by a continuous process, rather than as an interrupted sequence (as offered by any system of discrete numbers). 'To coil' or 'to wind' seems, as in the French translation by R. Blachere, to be the best way of translating the Arabic verb kawwara. The original meaning of the verb is to 'coil' a turban around the head; the notion of coiling is preserved in all the other senses of the word. Q: How sharp are/were the gradients on the edge boundaries of the ‘numbers’ we might use to measure intervals of time or space?

William of Ockham (1330)

In the west, the importance of verbal logic was kept alive by the legal and education systems that had used the grammar of the Greeks and the Romans. An important step in the evolution of the modern era of globalised, technocentric, trade and power has been an increasingly tight set of relations between numbers and the way we act and 'perform'. The logic of argumentation is a key part of this process. 'Occam's Razor' was the technique, by William of Ockham, that we should never make more assumptions than the minimum needed. To put it another way, that one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything. This approach can be seen to have led to many developments that are key to the way most modern businesses, technologies, and 'lifestyles' operate. It therefore can also be seen as a kind of early prototype for the advent of 'instrumentalism' that typifies the most powerful nations of the world.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650 CE)

Descartes is undoubtedly a latter disciple of thinkers such as Aristotle and William of Ockham. His invention of the dual-axis grid is used in almost all geographical maps that divide up a terrain into an 'X' and a 'Y' axis. Descartes is said to have had the idea whilst lying in bed and watching a fly crawl up a wall. He visualised a grid of lines surrounding the fly and realised that its position on the wall could be described by assigning letters and/or numbers to the coordinates on the grid. However, just as alphabetical writing offers a completely arbitrary code for connecting us to the world, so the Cartesian grid is also an alienating 'tool' that emerged from a kind of fanatical scepticism. By reducing the question of his own existence to a single decision ('how can I know that I am really here?'), Descartes achieved lasting notoriety. Echoing the question posed by Chuang Tzu almost two thousand years earlier, Descartes wrote in his 'Meditations': “Indeed! As if I did not remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about it more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.” (from the First Meditation). However, many see this as a rather solipsistic inquiry that does not really take us any further.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

It is heartening to find that one of the most highly respected thinkers of western thought was sceptical about the tendency to follow reductionism to the point of absurdity. Kant responded to Occam's Razor by adding a counter argument, that "the variety of beings should not rashly be diminished." This is an important idea in that it begins to redress the imbalance caused by a long quest for certainty and power at any costs. Unfortunately, Kant nevertheless took Aristotle's logic of categories to, frankly, absurd levels by putting forward a fundamentalist argument for moral conduct. By taking categorical (i.e. literally and logically) truths to be undeniably 'true', he made a binary distinction between 'good' and 'bad'. This meant that - using this discourse - there would be only 'black and white' distinctions, and therefore no 'greys' in between.

George Boole (1815-1864)

He devised a linguistic type of algebra, the three most basic operations of are AND, OR and NOT. It was these three functions that formed the basis of his premise, and were the only operations necessary to perform comparisons or basic mathematical functions. His concept was also based on the method of processing questions and answers as either a ‘0’ or a ‘1’. Provocatively, his 1854 paper is entitled 'An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on Which Are Founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probabilities'.

Gotlob Frege (1848-1925)

He famously suggests that if a concept does not have precise boundaries then it is simply not a concept.

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907)

See Alfred Jarry (external link) website. His invented science Pataphysics (external link) sought to see each and every entity as completely unique, and subject to its own laws

Karl Menger (1902-1985)

His 'Law Against Miserliness’ addressed which took one of two forms: "Entities must not be reduced to the point of inadequacy" and "It is vain to do with fewer what requires more".

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Wittgenstein was intrigued by the nature of language. He first believed that he might be able to design a 'perfect' language. He had presumably been taken in by a Pythagorean belief that mathematical consistency can be mapped onto a mathematically inconsistent world. He became more aware of the emergent nature of language by attempting this task. He said: "Everyday language is part of the human organism, and no less complicated than it" (1922). He was also aware of the strongly categorical and instrumentalist nature of rule-based systems: "When I obey a rule I do not choose. I do it blindly" (1953).

Ross Ashby (1903-1972)

Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety (1956) was defined in accordance with theories of systems. It can therefore be applied in many different ways to a range of events or conditions. It states that, within a system that needs to maintain its own stability, the regulator must have as much, or more variety, than the system it regulates. An interpretation of this is that we should not impose external limits on the number of criteria used to regulate a given course of action. We might apply this to human situations. Unless we are directly engaged in a process of judgement or decision-making, we are probably unqualified to reduced the criteria through which we remain sensitive to the situation.

Is Sense beyond Number?

How many external senses do we have? This is an old issue that it seems impossible to resolve using discrete numbers. Plato assumed there to be five, although these were not quite the same five that we identify today. Both Plato and Aristotle acknowledged or implied that some senses are intermingled with others. Thinkers after Aristotle have often followed his emphasis on finding 'canals' through which bodily communications (e.g. as in 'metabolic pathways') takes place. The influential thinker, John Locke (1632-1704) also assumed there to be five senses, but depicted the process as a rather mechanical one. However, this approach may have misled us further into thinking that it is safe to find a specific number of, say, 'channels' via which our senses inform us. This is a crucial issue because, whether today we believe there to be five, six, or more than seventeen senses (see Ingo Swann (1994) (external link)) it is important to identify how these faculties interact with one another. If we were to consider that our senses are better described using wave-based models, rather than an atomistic model, we might realise that numbers are unhelpful if they are only used to characterise the sensory world in the way that a plumber would define the heating system of a house. However, perhaps number systems may be of some assistance in defining the way that waveforms intermodulate to produce unified, dynamic conditions that cannot be represented using terms of reference (i.e. discrete numbers) that are less complex than themselves. Here, we must address the fact that a waveform can never be fully defined by anything less than an infinite string of numbers, especially since its emergent characteristics are defined within a context that can, and will, never be repeated.

Edward Lorenz (1917- )

Lorenz made an enormously important discovery when he was exploring weather forecasting. His initial work (1960-61) was to show that, like many systems, the future states of a meteorological system are too sensitively dependent on its initial (i.e. first monitored) conditions to be computed. He therefore suggested that the weather would remain unpredictable. Lorenz's work led to a broader field of research into what is now called 'chaos theory'. A popular figure used to iillustrate his argument is that of the 'butterfly effect', whereby we might conjecture that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world could, conceivably, trigger tiny turbulent effects in the air that would, in turn, trigger larger and larger effects that lead to a hurricane on the other side of the world.

George Spencer-Brown (1923- )

simplest imaginable form/structure is a ‘distinction’

Francisco Varela (1946-2001)

making a ‘distinction’ is an organism’s primary act of cognition

Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002)

He distinguished between first order cybernetics and second order cybernetics as 1) the study of “observed systems” and 2) the study of “observing systems”. He invites the observer of systems to “enter the domain of his own descriptions” and accept responsibility for being in the world.

Humberto Maturana (1928- )

Maturana offers a biologically grounded, constructivist (external link) account of how cognition, language and consciousness interact without clear boundaries between them. It therefore endorses the ancient views of Heraclitus and Cratylus and raises important questions about how 'modal' thinking can mislead us. He says: "Living takes place in the now, in the moment in which it is taking place. Living is a dynamics that disappears as it takes place. Living takes place in no time, without past or future. Past, present and future are notions that we human beings, we observers, invent as we explain our ocurrence in the now" (1995).

Jacques Derrida (1930- )

Answering a criticism by pragmatic philosopher John Searle, Derrida made the surprising statement that, 'unless a distinction can be made rigorous and precise it isn't really a distinction'. Why is this so surprising? For one thing, Derrida has seemed to have made a point out of resisting making a definitive point. Derrida invented methods such as 'différance' (a combination of respectful 'deference' to the Other and a 'deferral' of meaning in time). However, although it appears to be a kind of garrulous obfuscation, or fuzziness, it emerged from Derrida's post-Marxist concern for a gradual gathering of meaning that would emancipate everyone. In this sense, European languages are so abrupt, particular, and explicit that they may appear rude to native speakers of, say, Japanese or Korean. By maintaining (deferring) meaning, perhaps the dream can be shared and sustained for a little longer. Derrida's idea of 'différance' signifies respect for the listener's right to interpretation. He was once asked to explain the point of a lecture he had just given. His reply was that he had explored a particular riddle within a novel by Franz Kafka. He had sought to do just that. His task was not to explain the riddle, but to elucidate it.

Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939)

Our dreams represent wishes, some of which are traceable to infantile desires that might wake us up if the mind did not censor and hide their significance from us. This process occurs via one or more of the following four methods:

Condensation (fusing different ideas and images into a single image)
Displacement (potentially disturbing images or ideas are replaced by something connected but less disturbing)
Representation (the process by which thoughts become visual images)
Symbolization (when a neutral object stands for something embarrassing or troubling to the dreamer)

to be continued...

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