Thursday, October 18, 2012

Our handles on reality

I just realized that my last two posts have been about symbols. The first was about a symbol that I have found very useful, while the second was about a symbol whose usefulness I was questioning. There's a reason I think so much about symbols - they've proven to be very important. They're the handles we use to get a grip on reality. I'm pretty sure a vast majority of our scientific advances would have been impossible without our ability to conceive, understand, and manipulate symbols. I would say a significant portion of scientific work is playing around with symbols. The earliest study of biology was largely naming all the organisms and all their components. If you want to explain chemistry to someone, you show them some balls connected by sticks. Physicists would be lost without their mathematical expressions and diagrams. Sometimes focusing on just the right symbol can make the difference between choosing to put in the necessary effort to do something important or sitting down and saying, "Why bother?" When I questioned the usefulness of a certain symbol in my last post, I was by no means questioning the usefulness of symbols in general.

This got me thinking - what is the difference between a useful symbol and a counterproductive symbol? I think I have an idea about that now: a useful symbol gives your mind access to a broader portion of reality (like helping you confront things that make you uncomfortable and you might prefer to avoid), while counterproductive symbols limit your access to reality (like encouraging you to avoid things that are "inappropriate" to your gender).

I would be very interested to hear other people's thoughts on the subject.

Next post: Monday, October 22