Monday, July 23, 2007

Book Review: The Tyranny of Words

The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase (ISBN 0-15-692394-7) raises an interesting issue. The author points out that for most words (the exception being words that denote things to which one can point), everyone has their own idea of what each word means. As an example, ask a few people what freedom means to them. The problem with this is that if you say something to someone, because they have their own idea of what each word means, they won't understand you, but because they think they do, they won't ask for clarification.

As an example, if someone were to say "They hate us because we're free," a listener who thought of freedom as meaning the right to do whatever one wanted as long as no harm was done to other people or their property would have a different understanding of what was said, as opposed to a listener who thought of freedom as meaning that we (as a nation) don't have to take orders from any other nation. The two listeners would each believe that they understood the statement, but would have very different ideas about what the statement meant, and wouldn't even know that they understood it differently.

Now why does this matter to us? Those of us who have read anything by Plato will agree that this was a known issue even back then. Of course the age of Plato was the same time period when many classic works, including the Bible, are thought to have been written. Since the ancients knew they would be misunderstood if they tried to convey their wisdom in literal terms, they needed an alternative method of getting their message across. Metaphor, simile and allegory have the advantage of being able to use words that refer to things that can be pointed at. A writer could say "the Israelites escaped from bondage in Egypt and wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the promised land," and the literal meaning wouldn't change much over the years. As a result, the metaphorical meaning wouldn't change either.

So my theory is this: any writing dated before the 19th century which appears contradictory, impossible, or immoral taken literally may in fact have a symbolic meaning that makes sense. Our job is to find that meaning.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Materialists Anonymous

Hello, everyone. My name is Larry, and I'm a recovering materialist.

If you are also a materialist and want help, "A Beginner's Guide to Reality" by Jim Baggott (ISBN 1-933648-04-X) is a good place to start. The book covers three questions: 1) Is Money Real? 2) Are Colors Real? 3) Are Photons Real? The answers may surpise you.

The author of this book is also a materialist, but that may just be because he thinks the only choices are materialism and dualism. For that reason, if you are a materialist when you start the book, you will still be one when you finish, but you at least will have a better understanding of the issues involved. You can then move on to the other books I've discussed, or you can read books by some of the philosophers referenced in Baggott's book: Plato, Aristotle, Berkeley, Hume and Kant. An interesting exercise would be to read those philosophers under the theory that they know something that they are either unable or unwilling to express explicitly, and therefore use metaphor extensively in their works. (By the way, you should also try this exercise with Dante's "Divine Inferno.")

Saturday, July 7, 2007

An Oversimplified Model of the Universe

For this exercise, you will need a blank sheet of paper, a compass and a ruler. First, draw a circle of any size on the paper. Next, draw a point at the center of the circle. Finally, draw a line connecting the center of the circle to any point on its circumference. You have now drawn an oversimplified model of the universe.

The center of the circle represents the source of all things. Call it God if you want, or the infinite, or zero point. The circumference of the circle represents the physical universe. The line connecting the center to the circumference is you. An adequate model would involve at least 4-dimensional space, but you get the idea.

For more details, read "Jesus and the Lost Goddess" by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (ISBN 0-609-60767-7). Check your literalist interpretation of Christianity at the door.