Thursday, October 29, 2009


It is a modern dogma that claims that mental phenomena – and a fortiori, metaphysical beliefs – exist only because of the phenomenon of language. This dogma is in essence nonsense. Sequential, methodical thought, and public sharing of such thought, may only exist because of language; but thought of this kind is very different from intelligent self-awareness, which is where metaphysics begins. Where sequential thought is essentially the manipulation of a particular formalism, the cranking out of conclusions according to rules, and therefore algorithmic, intelligence is, by contrast, primarily the generation of new form out of undirected reflection on awareness. We could characterise these two types of mental function roughly as rationality, in the first case, creativity, in the second. Intelligence has from the dawn of human history generated the forms in which human culture has evolved. Intelligence creates form in order to achieve presence in the world. The history of human culture has been driven forward by creative intelligence and not by thought: thought is conservative, bound to the everyday; intelligence is revolutionary and generates the future. Thought, particularly rational thought, is a secondary ability that merely applies and exploits the formal properties of what intelligence creates. Thought manipulates the syntactic rules and semantic vocables of language as if they were the most authoritative aspects of the mind; but it is generative intelligence that creates these to give itself presence. Our culture is obsessed by rules and laws – a hangover from our belief in a lawgiver deity. This indicates the extent to which convergent, language-structured thought is dominant in our civilization and real creative intelligence is not prized. We imagine that the only valid thought is thought that is mandated normatively by this or that set of rules (logic, maths, grammar), rules considered by the unwary to be absolute. It is for this reason that we fantasise about machines one day becoming ‘intelligent’. It is for this reason that we also fantasize about a correct observance of the scientific method one day arriving at the final truth about reality. It is for this reason that our so-called ‘intelligence-tests’ pick out for the award of ‘high IQ’ only a particular type of obedient individual.

Starting with the so-called ‘laws of nature’ and finishing with the so-called ‘laws of thought’ we imagine that every operation of the mind, including our very experience itself, can ultimately achieve the status of epistemic validity by virtue of conforming its mode of expression to an accepted canon of formal validity. Knowledge and understanding, those obsessed by rationality presume, come from following the rules. This is manifestly in error, since both clearly originate in creative insight. We dream of framing the ultimate sentences. We imagine that this procedure is the exclusive guarantee of epistemological warrant. We are mistaken in this, since it is of the essence of intelligence in general and human intelligence in particular to be intrinsically beyond any mode of expression that it may adopt in order to achieve presence within a particular context. Gödel proved this mathematically. Whereas thought is essentially repetitive, intelligence, by contrast, is essentially innovative. Intelligence is not culturally determined as thought is; it is of a piece with the indeterminate ground of reality, from which the phenomenal world of our experience arises by natural creativity. This phenomenal world does not arise mechanistically as we used to suppose. It arises from quantum processes that are forever beyond out power to predict. The articulation of intelligence is at the frontier between the indeterminate and the determinate. But intelligence itself is of a piece with indeterminate, form-generating Being. It is at the heart of the universal process of perpetual innovation that we call the world and that we could legitimately call ‘Creation’. Our attempts to keep up with this process of uninterrupted creativity that we perceive around us is now the prime motivator of our desire to speak.

The notion that humans will one day achieve definitive understanding by means of the right application of the rules of discourse is so crazy as to be close to psychosis and it is high time we realised that it not only shrivels reality to a pitiful tissue of half-truths, it also diminishes us. Reality is infinitely protean, eternal, unpredictable change, and there is no alternative open to us, as aspects of that reality, than to change along with it.

The ordering of reality by humans takes place in language via pattern-recognition and the creation of categories, classes of being, embodying the perception of significant similarities and significant differences. In traditional societies, these ordering categories were believed to have a connection with the order of the universe as a whole and preserving them preserved that order. Something of that primitive attitude survives in scientific orthodoxy and in the mental rigidity of certain scientists. The creation of new categories requires a leap of the imagination, a creative new synthesis that can only come about in an undetermined manner. This is the essence of intelligence: the perception of new possibilities of order and the ability to incorporate the new order into the existing order or to transcend and recast the old order in terms of the new. The notion that the laws of nature could one day correspond completely with the laws of thought in some definitive body of formally valid propositions negates the nature of language which appears to be infinitely creative and therefore to open up new levels of understanding without limit.

Language is an infinite system. Its grammar has the capacity to generate an infinity of different sentences and its vocabulary can be expanded infinitely. It is an order of infinite degree, but this does not mean that it is random – on the contrary, it is the very opposite of random. It has an infinity of meanings that can be predicted by no known method. Yet these meanings, if they are to be retained, will be incarnated in sentences that cohere formally with the existing system either by respecting existing rules or by expanding their formal power and recasting them on a higher level. Yet this does not mean that all innovation both within the formalism and of the formalism itself is ultimately random. An order of infinite degree is only apparently random when viewed by us. We must never forget that language, far from being a static system of rules, is a living process by means of which the intelligent apprehension of a reality achieves presence in the world.

Language is the specifically human mode of expanding access to the multi-dimensional conundrum of reality. Something of the rich dimensionality of the universe opens up to human beings by virtue of their ability to speak and saves them from being bound by instinct to a narrow slice of it. If consciousness constitutes the first major level of the self-reflectivity of the universe achieved by life on this planet, and self-consciousness the second, then the linguistic realm, the realm of meanings, constitutes a third. We do not know how many levels of reflectivity are possible in the universe, their number may be infinite; but we know that we have access to these three. It is on the linguistic level that expansion of the self-conscious awareness of the point of view that we call the ‘individual’ first begins. It is language also that reinforces the illusion of the first person singular, of a substantial ego. In reality there is only the world, as the unfathomable given, and the levels of self-reflection of the world. For us humans, this is equivalent to saying that there is only mystery and history, only the unknown and the narrative.

The illusion of the substantial ego is the result of the linking of self-reflectivity to a narrow and restricted point of view defined by the human body and its needs. This point of view then turns into a body of ‘truth’ about the universe, ‘owned’ by the ego in question, as each individual shares his or her linguistic insights about his or her point of view and builds a consensus. Fundamental to this process of accumulating consensus is the ability possessed by the self-reflecting self-awareness to compare disparate experiences provided by consciousness and to connect them by means of the concept ‘like’. Language relies upon essential repetitions: universals as nouns, verbs, prepositions etc. denote the belief that certain processes, things and relations repeat themselves. It is of the essence of being human to classify experiences that seem to resemble each other, either as repetitions or, more subtly, by means of metaphor. Thus language both opens up the world, as we espy pattern and regularity, and also freezes the world into classes of object and rules for their behaviour. In itself, the world may have none of the structure we impute to it by language. But for us, it has the structure it has because of language.

No doubt language began to evolve from the simple equation of items in the experience of primitive man with noises, perhaps onomatopoeic noises. Once this trick had been discovered, the insight that every item of experience can have a name, the name of either a universal or a particular, must have developed with extraordinary rapidity. Word-lists must have blossomed very quickly. No doubt the whole grammatical paraphernalia of highly developed language took rather longer to develop as methods for sharing new concepts developed. The ability to say when and where and who or what was doing or would do what to whom, must have required a very great number of separate creative insights and creative acts of intelligence. But it seems obvious that underlying this process of creation would have been the ability, within language, to connect disparate elements of experience from different frames of reference within one single frame and from there to generalise inductively with yet more concepts. We can see now from our elevated vantage-point that language is a realm of reflection that is sui generis. Its essence is comparison – the sunset is like a dragon swallowing the god, the ultimate filaments of matter are like strings, or whatever – and that comparison is, in itself, an indication of a level of self-referential, self-reflection that is far above the simple mirror-like reflection of mere consciousness. The ability to compare like with like by means of signs is supplemented by the ability to compare like with unlike: this is the origin of symbolism. In poetry, religion and related linguistic phenomena, symbolism has blossomed intelligently into the representation in sensuous form of the supersensory, into the representation in terms of sense-experience of what is experienced in non-sensory ways.

It follows from this ability to espy pattern and to connect pattern with pattern, of course, that the goal of coming upon the ultimate reflection, the ultimate metaphor, the ultimate model, whether scientific, mythological, poetic or whatever, is a complete illusion analogous to the illusion of the substantial self, since, quite simply, language will never be the universe itself, will never stand duty for the universe itself. Language is, after all, only one medium at one level of self-reflectivity of the universe, a universe moreover which we must assume to be vastly more complex than any human experience of it suggests. Even the most exact scientific theory is in essence no more than a metaphor in which the resemblance (to human eyes) between the image and the associated experience has been pushed to an extreme limit of precision with the aid of mathematics. We can incarnate this theory in items of technology; but in both the theory and the technological realisation of it, we have simply made machines that, while they may be new realities within the universe, say nothing essential about that universe as such. To a certain extent we can push things further, but when our comparisons are cut loose from sense-experience or technological realisation, we lose the ability to be sure of the precision of their resemblance and we start to practise metaphysics. This has happened, for example, in string-theory, however precise its language. It may be, however, that in metaphysics we have the first stammerings of our nascent awareness of a yet higher level of the self-reflectivity of the universe.

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