Living through Language

Do we live through words or do words live through us ?

Every conceivable assertion concerning individuation and singular possession of unique identity is made through the logical sequence of symbols and grammatical rules of language. In this system of information formulation, compression and transmission, meaningful statements serve first the purpose of replicating and validating the structure by which those messages are encoded in human language. While experience and perception are the ground of our existence, the filter and logic of symbolic communication is the method and tool set by which we render this existence intelligible. Unconscious, unstructured or prelinguistic states of mind are conceivable, perhaps inevitable, but it seems that in some way once a viral system of information encoding organically emerges, is adopted or acquired – it performs a mischievous act of deception. It is through language that we reflexively identify our own selves but in so doing, both internally and externally with others, we replicate the logic and structured sequence of the information encoding itself. We inhabit language but it equally and inversely inhabits us.

Any counter-argument is also formulated through structured thought and an associated private or public language. You can not *not* participate in the replication of a viral system of language and communication. Is language innate in the brain or purely a learned system ? It doesn’t matter – the primary purpose of any self-propagating information or energy pattern is that of autonomous self-replication and the method by which the structure reproduces itself is less important than the self-validating fact of that continuity. A self-propagating soliton is merely a materially happy coincidence of energy and context and we too, for all of our deeply narcissistic attachments to unique self-importance, are also (for the most part) merely happy concidences of self-propagating patterns and structure in matter and energy.

It is a genetic, axiomatic and foundational fact of our minds, our science and our technology: we live through words and structured self-replicating patterns of information and energy live through us.


The Challenge of Communicating Complex Concepts


The above image is a scale indicating the readability of text based on a standard calculation of the “Flesch–Kincaid readability test“. Higher scores indicate greater ease of reader comprehension. Even a casual cultural commentator or critic of human behaviour can see a pattern emerging here.

The information most easily consumed is also that which is most prevalent in our cultural and communications systems. While issues such as education level are likely to be a factor in this, the extent to which information and communications messaging is successful appears to be a consequence of topic popularity. Topic popularity is also undoubtedly influenced by ease of comprehension through text or concept simplicity.

Cultural and popular communications centrality and influence is a measure of the relative measure of simplicity of the associated communication method. This suggests a statistical correlation between what is written and the ease and speed with which that information is understood. I realise that this is something of a “no-brainer” but consider the consequences of this.

If simple messages are more popular, then political messaging finds itself lashed to the mast of aspiring to serially simple and uncomplicated representations of complex realities. The most easily understood messages are those which feature simple, repetitive sentences akin to sport and entertainment reports. Seeking and keeping audience share in political messaging then becomes a matter of the public juggling of four or five easily remembered and understood concepts.

The effect is that complex political, strategic and social issues become reduced in the popular imagination to ontological Lego, to a colourful crayon set with which to sketch pictures on the perennially blank walls of severely malnourished attention spans. The reflexive flip-side to this is that policy creation rapidly becomes a race to the bottom, a lowest-common-denominator montage of simple sentences and ideas. Powerful political incentives are set in motion in which the simplicity of a message (“build a wall”, “leave Europe”, etc.) becomes its key measure of successful propagation.

The challenge at this point becomes one of intelligent messaging and communications brevity or efficiency. If the reality of the world is that it is complex, interdependent and interconnected in fundamental ways and that this actual structural sophistication almost entirely invalidates the simplistic conceptual building blocks of an isolationist or (radical) nationalist agenda, what are the plausible methods by which popular messaging of this reality can be conducted ?

A first step might be to disassemble and disentangle the dependence of political tenure upon the cultivation of gullibility in a target audience. Beyond that, the task becomes one of negotiating an ocean of information and proliferating simplicities by introducing new narratives, myths and easily understood abstractions for popular consumption. The world is complex but the methods by which the facts of this complexity are conveyed need not be difficult to understand. This is one of the greatest challenges we currently face but it also represents an opportunity.


Pleasure or Happiness ?

There appears to be a general cultural confusion of emotional-state identity between “happiness” and “pleasure”.  This confusion can not plausibly be attributed solely to the cleverly manufactured fantasies of so many advertising firms and other entrepeneurially opportunistic salespeople.  The pop-cultural psychological marketing ploys, mind-games and brute-force repetition of commercial messages concerning packaged experiences and the acquisition of possessions as equivocating happiness is endemic to a world whose semiotic circumference is transcribed by the images and messages of commercial mass media.  In all the noise and bluster, and at some indistinct point on this collective journey, the pleasure of normative and socially-mediated experience has become mistaken for the somewhat aloof and semi-detached ambient experience and activity we may know as actually “being happy”.

Emotional branding is a term used within marketing communication that refers to the practice of building brands that appeal directly to a consumer’s emotional state, needs and aspirations. Emotional branding is successful when it triggers an emotional response in the consumer, that is, a desire for the advertised brand (or product) that cannot fully be rationalised.”

“Happiness” as a neurophysiological fact may be no less a result of chemically fortuitous conjunction than is the pleasure derived from sex, drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), emotional stimulation, gambling, dependence-forming habits of all flavours, etc.  The manufacture of the experiences and material artefacts associated with states of pleasure is a powerful economic and cultural energy  which perhaps mirrors, or at least indicates, a general psychological impulse towards pleasure in place of pain.  The evolutionary purpose of memory must at least to some extent be derivative of a requirement to avoid pain and fear, to privilege behaviours (and now – thoughts) which reinforce survival potential and which over many hundreds of millions of years have developed to enable continuity of the individual organism, it’s progeny and in some animals – the group.

As culture and technology advance, the onward march of civilisation finds itself in circumstances in which the availability and opportunity for pleasures and pleasing experiences proliferates.  It is perhaps to salve the combined tedium and unremitting entropy of everyday life and the awareness of the unremitting disaster and tragedy that exists in this world that we have unwittingly created this vast industry of joy but these brief flights on the wings of endorphins and dopamine can just as easily prime us for unhappiness and pain.  Escape from unhappiness and aspiration to catharsis is not a bad thing but it can become a bad thing when the manufactured, socially normative pleasures on the menu themselves become mistaken for, and surrogate of, happiness itself.

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Happiness has a more holistic, gestalt quality than does pleasure – the source of much (at least the early-stages of) addiction probably lies somewhere in the misattribution of emotional-state identities between the episodic experiences of pleasure and the more nebulous, ambient states of happiness.  Beyond the innate functioning of brain chemistry in regards to reward/pleasure and the potential for individual predisposition to addictive behaviours or personality types, the constant bombardment of messages equating pleasure with happiness inevitably clouds clear thinking and leads to much confusion and eventual desperation or depression.

Pleasure is even more transient than happiness.  Dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin rush is one thing but I am personally interested in the other and far more deeply compelling state which happiness and the catharsis of Enlightenment in Buddhism represents, even through a filter of secular and materialist psychological interpretation.  I would gladly substitute the low-level ambient joy of spiritual or meditative bliss over the discontinuous, episodic pleasure-rush of a normative, socialised pleasure.  While pleasure may predominantly be all about the possessions, people and experiences we collect and consume, happiness is probably much more about knowing when to let all of this go, of being unattached to things.  Pleasure and happiness are not mutually exclusive but there exists a significant difference between them which goes largely unacknowledged in popular culture and communications.


Goldilocks and the Two Anthropic Principles


“Big History is an emerging academic discipline which examines history from the Big Bang to the present. It examines long time frames using a multidisciplinary approach based on combining numerous disciplines from science and the humanities, and explores human existence in the context of this bigger picture.”  Wikipedia.

When seen through the framework of Big History we can define our various domains of study as Thresholds. We can consider that in some measure each Threshold requires “Goldilocks” conditions where the context and constituents of an environment are “just right” for the spontaneous emergence of fundamentally new and novel forms of self-organising complexity.

If we look back at the conditions which generate the emergence of any specific Threshold we may interpret those Goldilocks conditions as predetermining the conditions which allow for a new form of complexity which emerges at that historical moment. Looking back retrospectively to claim that the emergent properties of a specific system at a specific time are an inevitability is a little like looking back at a map that we have been drawing as we are travelling through unknown terrain — of course any significant geographical features will appear in retrospect to have been inevitable as, having now been recorded in the map, they clearly come into (intelligible) existence at the moment of being recorded.

Looking back at the history of the Universe in this way and from the privileged viewpoint we possess (i.e. we exist and have the technical and intellectual capacity required to know the conditions required for us to do so), we might presume that our own arrival on the cosmic stage is a self-evident inevitability. The belief that our own existence in the Universe is in some sense probable or even inevitable is known as the Anthropic Principle. The Anthropic Principle comes in two flavours: weak and strong.

Definition of Anthropic Principle

a) : conditions that are observed in the universe must allow the observer to exist — called also weak anthropic principle

b) : the universe must have properties that make inevitable the existence of intelligent life — called also strong anthropic principle


In the context of Big History, we are examining a historical thread-of-pearls measured by a sequence of Thresholds which culminate in the arrival of sentient creatures who develop the scientific wherewithal to look back into the conditions of their origins. The very specific series of events, coincidences, emergent properties, parameters of natural laws and any number of contributing factors seem to form a vast tapestry of directed probability towards our existence.

The weak anthropic principle is a reflection on the fact that if things were otherwise than they are or if the multitudinous coincidences had followed anything but the specific causal path that they have, we would not be here to observe it — that the “(…) observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where (…) life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.” [Source.] Otherwise said: the Universe has conditions that allow you to exist and this is why you do exist.

The strong anthropic principle is much more ambitious: “The Universe must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage in its history.” [Source.] This is to say that the parameters and tendencies written into matter and energy and expressed through the laws of physics must inevitably result in the existence of life and this is why you exist.

In regards to the Thresholds of Big History, the weak anthropic principle characterises our existence as being a kind of “happy coincidence” and convergence of probabilities over vast time scales. The strong anthropic principle states that our existence (or something or someone similar to us) is an inevitability. There are different interpretations of the strong anthropic principle, see this link.

If Goldilocks conditions are required for a Threshold or a causal sequence of Thresholds to occur, I think that we are more likely experiencing a weak anthropic principle — that we are the results of a fortunate sequence of random accidents that have blindly led to our existence. That the parameters of physical reality are apparently finely-tuned [see recommended text “Universes”, below] to what is necessary (i.e. Goldilocks conditions) for any number of Thresholds to have just randomly fallen out of history is a fact which we can never be in a position to affirm as a process that has been in any sense directed or inevitable. From within the system of the Universe we can probably never successfully prove any statements which require a “meta-” or external, Archimedean viewpoint to justify.

In the light of the pure naked fact of our existence in the Universe, it may not ultimately matter which anthropic principle we choose to believe in. The consequences lie in the reflection that a weak anthropic principle supports more of a daisy-chain of entirely random and coincidental events which allow for the arrival of fertile Goldilocks conditions and their subsequent (and retrospectively fortuitous) Thresholds. The strong anthropic principle states that the arrival of sentience is inevitable. Probable or inevitable, which bowl of porridge do you choose ?

Suggested Readings: 

        The Cosmological Anthropic Principle, John D. Barrow, Frank J. Tipler, John A. Wheeler, Oxford University Press, 1988 – link.

        Universes, John Leslie, Routledge, 1989 – link.

Other Resources:

Crash Course Big History YouTube Playlist

The Strangeness of Life

The strangeness of life is so close to us, so intimate that we can not see it nor recognise the novelty and peculiarity of human existence and consciousness for what it is.  Like some exotic fish swimming laps in a tank of water: embedded, immersed in it’s context and oblivious to the improbability and sheer randomness of existential facts that have led it to be in this place, at this time and assuming this particular form.  We swim in laps, surviving, feeding, breeding and only occasionally wondering what lies above the bubbling waters of our liquid atmosphere, what lies outside of the partially reflective glassed parameters of our collective context.


Are the fish aware of the water they live in ?

Technology, logic and science have gifted us with the tools and aggregated knowledge of ten thousand years of civilisation, of recorded history and collaborative creativity.  We now know how vast our ultimate context really appears to be, from the thin and fragile Terrestrial biosphere which supports us, on to the impersonal terror of interplanetary (then – interstellar) spaces, through a local galaxy populated by impossibly many uncountable stars and on into the devastating emptiness and immensity of intergalactic space, galaxy clusters and Cosmology at such a scale that if you are not simultaneously filled with both dread and awe when considering it, you have clearly not understood the contemporary scientific message concerning the grandest of Universal scales, time-frames and energies.


Yet, for all this immensity and the sheer implausibility and infinitesimal unlikelihood of our (either individual or collective) existence, we are nevertheless and for now a physical, living and sentient presence in the Cosmos.  Notwithstanding the genuinely disturbing and positively insane possibility of bringing upon ourselves an insecurity-induced collective self-extinguishing calamity (itself possible upon potentially widely varying time-scales), the ongoing absurdity and essential non-meaning of this life and technological, cultural Fact of Human Being never ceases to leave me reeling with dizzy apprehension, fear and excitement about where we have come from, where we are, and where we may (or may not) be ultimately going.


The beauty, depth and diversity of human cultures.

Of course the Fact of the world and our existence in it is wide-open for interpretation and translation.  The Void of meaning is clearly amorphous and easily shaped to suit whatever purpose, mythology, ideology or teleological end-game you may choose to follow or fabricate.  The majority of such narratives and ideologies appear to capture a certain self-interested ethos, perhaps as an inevitable and emergent evolutionary consequence of the existential requirements for self-perpetuation in a competitive environment populated with limited shared resources.  It is also perhaps unsurprising that those human beings who by luck or skill should excel at obtaining and stockpiling resources and wealth will tend to act as ideological gravitational centers towards which others will inevitably drift.  The embryonic political schism between individual and collective undergoes many permutations, iterations and instantiations across time, place and culture but remains the essential defining feature of human ideological self-identity and belief.


Who is accepted and who is alienated ?

The core of this individual/collective dichotomy also forms a framework upon which are built notions of familiarity and difference, of known and unknown, of normality and peculiarity, and of self and other.  That which might be perceived to be beyond the individual or collective self-identity can lead to insecurity and conflict through the political generalisations and psychological projections which may be cast upon the “other”.  It remains a striking irony that the “other” or notional “outsider” may be persecuted for their alleged strangeness or perceived threat when everyone is an “other” and “outsider” to someone else, when the assertions of normality (of individual or group) are really very relative to a specific time and place, and when all life and human activity is strange and ultimately exotic in the Cosmos.

Felicitation Ceremony Of IPL Champion Kolkata Night Riders

Yes, we are all individuals…

The totality of all political systems and ideologies can be constructed in some sense from the various permutations and iterations of the individual/collective dichotomy.  One of the most powerful features of human social and technological development is our ability to aggregate previous information and ideas and to extract useful technologies, social ideologies and strategies from them.  A feature of this constructive reconcatenation is that it relies on taking certain assumptions for granted and this allows for a certain degree of compression or energy-saving required to be able to progress further.  A significant problem with the requirement for attributing reliability to the ideas and conclusions of others is that in a global information environment such as the current human context, not all information or interpretations of facts are equal in veracity or social and technological efficacy.  Being able to discern who is a reliable source of information (and who is not) and might speak with authentic, genuine authority on any particular topic is becoming a significant information-jungle survival skill.


The shoe of the messiah.

Many people are outsourcing their own ideas and rational thinking to other people, to ideologies and political movements which appear to have all the answers and which in large measure are only demonstrating a desire to self-perpetuate themselves.  All manner of reprehensible conclusions are being drawn by people who should know better, or who should at least possess the intellect to understand the consequences of their privileged public statements and actions.


Creative ideological assertions.

It is quite clear that, other than the strangeness and peculiarity of human existence being totally unrecognised by most of us, the majority of people, politicians and ideological movements are really just improvising, “winging-it”.  No one really knows what is going on – the majority of assertions of certainty and political or ideological convictions of belief in “self-evident” truths are really just attention-seeking, self-promotion and self-aggrandisement .  We are born into a world in which the wheels are already turning very rapidly indeed.  We are then required to attempt to rapidly adjust and adapt, to learn and assimilate for a brief number of years before then returning our mortal coil to the Universe from which it came.


Punk Rock style in Thailand.

Swimming as we are in a thick soup of signs, symbols, memes, abstractions, images and necessary communicative generalisations – we don’t tend to see the most obvious features of the cultural peculiarity of the world around us.  Not traditionally being a tie-wearer, I am always somewhat bemused by the cultural norm which requires business attire to include voluntarily wearing a small decorative hangman’s noose.  On a more banal level, consider the degree to which the clothing, music and general aesthetic sense of a previous generation or other culture begin to appear alien or strange and in proportion to it’s distance to us in time or place.  We are able to recognise the strangeness, the uniqueness and bizarre beauty of other times and places but not of our own time and place and even when we live in such a time as this when culture, technology and (arguably also) history is accelerating exponentially.


Time and relative dimension in space ?

In the post-truth information economy, it doesn’t really matter if you believe that life is strange, random and beautiful or if you believe that it was purposefully created by a Divinity (or even, a Pasta Pastor) because all opinions and ideologies have become potentially equally true.  If a belief or opinion makes someone feel more comfortable, they will posit it as true and then they can quite easily find information to support their position, sans rational justification or analytical thought.  The strangeness and fragility of this all-too-human world is profound but we have become fundamentally, perhaps irreversibly, desensitised to it.  The world is diverse and beautiful, it is strange and rare and we would all do much better to stop taking it all for granted.



Memory: Juxtaposition and Relativity

I can remember a print hung on a wall in my father’s house when I was a child. I puzzled and fretted and stared and wondered about this image and it’s impossible, unsettling reality. The print was of M.C. Escher’s 1953 lithograph “Relativity” and I was probably only 9 or 10 years old at the time. I can vaguely remember being obsessed with tracking the paths of the manikins and of the stairways, of never being quite able to see the whole image because one plane of sensible reality would incessantly slide into another, where one logic was constantly subverted by another in an unending sequence of mental doubt and the perpetual hunt for a certainty and a solid ground from which to perceive the whole reality. This kind of perceptual trickery was of course Escher’s goal. I do not know whether Escher was making artistic comments about reality, mathematics, physics or psychology but I do remember in a quite foggy way that I was always a little perturbed by this image and also simultaneously fascinated by its impossibilities.

Memory functions in similar ways as did my playful struggle to visually understand Escher’s image as a whole so many years ago. Kierkegaard’s reflection that Life “…can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” captures a part of this, in as much as memory is the trail we leave behind us which through retrospection has some capacity to explain both who and what and how we have come to be where we are at the current (ever-moving) moment. I can quite easily state that the places I have been, the people I have known or even the thoughts I have conceived are all exactly as I remember them, grounded solidly in the unerring reality of space, time and shared human experience; however – memory, under closer inspection, at first appears like a solid and impressive architecture of certainty and organised structure but upon deeper reflection quickly reveals itself to be an incessantly unravelling and tangled ball of experiential threads, impressions or retrospective projections.

My attempts to decipher the perspectival matrix of Escher’s Relativity as a child were very likely constrained by the level of cognitive complexity I had achieved by that age, my nascent abilities to perceive wholes and totalities was likely constrained as much by developmental neurobiology as by Escher’s graphic chicanery. Looking back at any point in my past, my first experiences with this lithograph as a point in case here, it is perhaps inevitable that I overlay memory with my current subjective states, my impressions of who I believe I am now, as much as whatever subjective and intellectual states I possessed at that time.

I am aware of an event, or a series of events, but I find that the further back in time from the current moment I mentally travel, the more indistinct and fuzzy my memories become, the more requisite this memory is of personal fictional narrative overlays and addendums to even begin to conceive and understand. In relation to memory of distant events I find myself in a place where I have difficulty perceiving or conceiving the whole mental image, where one plane of sensible reality quite easily slides into another and my imagination combined with faded memory of events quite easily distorts them, potentially deviating significantly from what may have actually happened or have been experienced at the time.

People deal with their inability to remember their pasts with perfect fidelity in many ways: with photographs; audio and video recordings; diaries, memoirs and autobiographies; through shared stories and myths of events and people or places; in an ongoing mental narrative of self and self-justification. Some people hand over their own re-creative self-definitions to pre-existing narratives and through this find that a shared reality and cultural memory (even of events not connected directly to their own corporeal or experiential world) shores up their psychology, bolsters their self against dissolution and the incessant fabrications that time and temporal distance demand. Some people voluntarily enslave themselves in narratives and fundamentalisms, conservatisms of solid and unchanging (yet contingent) truths despite the fact that the world is just not like this and is not really intelligible this way. The past does not reshape itself to a projective certainty grasping for continuity and resolution any more than it does to an imaginative fiction of constantly re-woven narratives of self and world.

The past and the present are, just like the entities which populate them, improbably coupled but related realities.