Friday, October 10, 2014

Semantics

All this time I've been talking about how ideas shape our world but I neglected to discuss a key piece of this phenomena. Ideas alone can't do much. In order to have an impact on physical reality, they have to spread from person to person. The topic of this article is not the ideas themselves but rather their vehicle: words.

Words are symbols that represent concepts, notions, feelings, and meaning. When I say the word "chair," an image instantly materializes in your mind: a four-legged contraption with a flat section for your ass and a piece to support your back. The chair in your head probably looks different from the chair in mine but that's to be expected. Cosmetics will vary based on past experience and memories but the core concept, the essence of "chair," is the same.

Simple ideas are more easily carried by words than their complex or ambiguous counterparts. When dealing with simple or static ideas, language exceeds its mandate. When dealing with nebulous concepts such as "truth," "reality," or "God," misunderstandings emerge. Disagreements become more frequent because definitions vary from person to person.


It was my use of the word "sin" in this article that convinced me to write about semantics. When I shared the above piece in a Stoic message board online I got the following feedback from a user named TheWhiteNoise1:
Not too bad except: "For most people, the knowledge of sin is nothing more than an opportunity to practice denial and willful ignorance" is absurd to me because sin is not a reasonable concept to me and therefore not in line with stoicism.
Clearly TheWhiteNoise1's definition of "sin" differs from mine. My guess is that he/she reacted to the Christian connotation of the word, which is unfortunate because the context of my article was distinctly un-Christian. My reply went as follows:
Don't get hung up on semantics. You're letting words have power over you when it should be the other way around. We own words, we make of them what we want. Call it flaw, weakness, whatever, the idea is the same.
Thing is, I get into these types of misunderstanding all the time.  It's fully my fault, too, because I insist on using words as I see fit, definitions be damned!


We have to remember that we invented language. Words work for us, not the other way around. We rule them. We determine what they mean and how we use them. If they were rigid or absolute, their definitions wouldn't change over time. When old words are used in new ways, their meaning changes by consensus. Language is fluid and we direct its flow whether we know it or not.

Language evolves, just like everything else in the universe.

I enjoy taking charged words and making them my own and I don't mind switching between different words to describe or express the same idea. It's my belief that concepts such as "God," "soul," "sin," "salvation," and "fate," among others, all have valid counterparts in modern language that work in concert with our scientific understanding of the universe.

Let me give you some examples.

When our ancestors wrote about the human soul, they were merely describing human consciousness. What is consciousness if not the essence of the Self, the knowing, observing entity lurking behind your thoughts and driving your decisions and actions? Science still can't explain what human consciousness is or how it emerged so it's not like we're contradicting an accepted definition here, just using a different label to describe the same mysterious thing.

When our ancestors wrote about heaven and hell, what do you suppose they were talking about? As the poet John Milton once wrote, "The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven." In other words, heaven and hell are internal conditions of the mind, not actual places you go to after you die.


A mind rooted in the hateful, bitter, jealous, paranoid, anxious, and unhappy manifests for its owner a world fully furnished with dangers and painted in sombre colors. On the other hand, a mind rooted in love, joy, compassion, hope, patience, and humility manifests for its owner a world of stunning beauty furnished with awe-inspiring miracles and permeated with the infinite Love of God.  

Which brings us to the G word itself.

When our ancestors wrote about God they were talking about the highest power they could conceive. The barbaric God of the Old Testament represents the cutting edge of Hebrew imagination at the time. Yahweh was literally the greatest being these people could dream up, and they painted Him with all of their hopes, fears, biases, and grudges.

What is the highest power conceivable to a modern, scientifically literate person? Is there something that is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful, and whose existence can be fact-checked?

When I use the word God, I mean the sum of all things--all matter and energy--along with the seemingly intelligent laws that govern it. If you've been following along, this is more or less the pantheistic God of Seneca, Aurelius, Jefferson, and Einstein, among others.

You are not a single unit: you are the sum of your limbs, organs, fluids, and intellectual capacities. Your liver isn't you, but it's a part of you. Likewise, the individual parts making up the whole are not God, but a part of God.

When taken together as a whole, these parts constitute the ultimate power, the unity of all things, infinitely divisible but to which nothing can be added.

God is the sum of existence, the Alpha and Omega, the self-created and eternal Universe.

This is usually the time when someone objects, saying: "We already have a perfectly good word for the universe. Why call it God?" To which I would let Paul Harrison, president of the World Pantheism Movement, reply:
To call the Universe "God" or "divine" is not at all meaningless. Although it does not tell us anything extra about the Universe itself,  it expresses the powerful emotions that pantheists feel towards the Universe.
Intelligent design is evolution. Salvation is self-improvement and fulfillment. Fate is the external world you inherited from your ancestors, the result of cause and effect stretching back to the Big Bang itself. Free-will is freedom of choice.

I could go on but I'm quickly surpassing my 1,000 word limit so I'll summarize my view on words with this quote from the late Alan Watts:
The menu is not the meal.
/rant over
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