Tag Archives: Science

The Gift of Self Reference and Necessary Imaginative Constructs


As I mentioned at the beginning of the post Metaphors of Reality we try to make sense of ourselves, the world and (at least for those who think in spiritual or religious terms) God. But one of the struggles we have is that we never have a ‘God’s eye’ view of reality and that our view is always provisional. Unlike in the gospel stories which sometimes have an all seeing narrator (who for example sees what is going on in the temptation of Jesus) we are limited to the things we have experienced through our senses, the creative leaps we have made through our imagination and the constructs we have learned from our conversations with others. We take all these pieces of reality as we perceive them and try to decode our world and experiences “by a highly imaginative, creative piece of guesswork. But we finish with something that is only a gigantic metaphor for that part of the universe which we are decoding.” (Bronowski 1978, 70) We attempt to make sense of things and we construct systems that seem to make sense of the world with some things we are fairly certain of, others less so, and some just our best guess at the time. Sometimes there are things we believe that we cannot prove, that doesn’t mean they are not true-just that they cannot be proved. That is the reality of living in which our perception and knowledge are incomplete and bound by constraints and self reference.

One of the vanities of the modern (note I am talking modern as a category, not necessarily in terms of recent) philosophy that emerged in the 18th century in the wake of the Enlightenment was that it believed that it could penetrate reality and get to absolute truth. That for example if you could peel away the encrusted layers of tradition you could actually get back to the real history of what happened-and while there were many useful insights gained from this dedicated effort to get back to the facts as well as the dialogues that came out of different interpretations of the same data, but we never are truly free of self reference. For a lot of people this is looked upon primarily as an issue to be apologized for, but I want to suggest this is one of the things that allow creativity to thrive. In contrast to a computer which understands its inputs in terms of its coding and programming that when it encounters a novel experience that doesn’t fit within the world of its programming either creates an error or the computer ignores the anomaly, humans are able to integrate experiences in creative ways into their worldview. We are not limited by one set of constructs which we make sense of the world; instead humans are constantly experiencing and growing in our interaction with others and the world around us.

We need the imaginative constructs, the language and systems and science we learn from others to make communication possible, so for example within linear mathematics we can feel confident that 1 + 1= 2, or that in speech the letter ‘c’ will make certain sounds, or that in the world of Newtonian physics every action will have an equal and opposite reaction. We need laws, theorems and systems to make sense of the world, but these laws, theorems and systems are not absolute because there are times when we will experience things that do not make sense within the constructs we may have accepted. As Bronowski alludes to when he states, “The fact that we are content, when running into this kind of difficult, to reanalyze the system, to seek a new consistent formulation, is terribly important.” (Bronowski 1978, 87)Without the ability to seek a better system that makes sense of ourselves and our world we would be limited in our understanding to the knowledge and systems that were handed on to us. The experience is always in reference to the self, it is using our senses and our intellect to interpret that experience within the memory of our previous experiences and knowledge, and yet because of this self reference we are able to challenge external references and experiences. We seek consistency, we want things to make sense, but the experience that does not make sense for many is actually an exciting process of discovery. Let’s say, for example, that we had received a way of evaluating others passed down from our parents that, “blondes have more fun.” So long as our experience of people having blonde hair being fun people to be around holds up we might assume this random piece of a world to be true. Yet, once we encounter a person who has blonde hair who is not fun to be around we have several options of how we might proceed: we might challenge the assumption (are blondes really more fun?), we might wonder if this person is an exception to the rule (and the ability for there to be exceptions is also an imaginative leap), we might wonder if blonde is really their natural color (providing we understand that people can change their hair color) but the reality is that we will attempt to make sense of a disparity we have encountered. This is the way for example that prejudices may change when a person has experiences that challenge that prejudice, or new scientific discoveries are made when data doesn’t fit the previously assumed construct, or a new challenge presents itself based on technologies not previously available. Our ability to take in new challenges and experiences and in light of our knowledge and memory to make sense of them in a new way, even if it is only a creative piece of guesswork, and then see if this piece of guesswork seems to hold true is a part of the experimentation that opens new horizons in the imagination.

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Metaphors of Reality

Newton by William Blake (1795)

Newton by William Blake (1795)

One of the sets of vows that is commonly used when I do weddings includes the words “to better understand ourselves, the world and God.” One of the things we do as humans with our language to better understand ourselves, the world and God is we attempt to describe objects and actions and their interactions. All of these words, symbols and ideas are constructed within a system to give meaning and sense to them, for example in the world of mathematics 1 + 1 = 2, if the rules of the system were different 1 +1 could equal a different number, but the rules that the system works within allow 1 + 1= 2 to be the correct answer while 1 + 1= 3 would not make sense within the system. The systems we understand the world within are attempts to describe the reality we observe and know, and yet they are always metaphors or propositions of reality. As Jacob Bronowski states:

I believe that all the kind of scientific descriptions that we can make about one another are perfectly real. And yet, I believe that any theory that we as human beings make at any point in time is full of provisional decodings which to some extent are as fictitious as the notion of force in Newton. (Bronowski, 1978, p. 58)

As Bronowski alludes to, Newton’s description of force, particularly the force of gravity where “the gravitational attraction is proportional to the mass of the two bodies divided by the square of the distance between some point in each mass.” Or in the symbolic language of science:

G=  k ( m m’) / r2

Which as a description of reality worked well in a system of Newtonian based physics, but when Albert Einstein published his first paper on relativity in 1905 it demonstrated the flaw in the concept and proposed a new way of describing the reality,  and yet even Einstein’s theory is no longer held to be an ultimate description of reality- yet both the work of Newton and Einstein and countless other scientists (just to stay within the scientific realm of creativity) work well for describing reality as it is encountered and it is only when we find exceptions to the rule where we begin to wonder what might cause these anomalies, is the way we have constructed reality inaccurate in some manner and we begin to wonder if perhaps there is some new way to understand the world our senses observe and to describe it so that others can encounter the world in a new way.

Science is not the only discipline that works this way, think for example in the realm of religion. At various point in history different metaphors have served as a dominant metaphor for understanding God. For example, at the beginning of the enlightenment where the clocks and watches were one of the most complicated pieces of technology available that most people would encounter in their world there was the common image of God as the clockmaker who constructed the world and then allowed it to run. It is not coincidental that this was a time in which deism was the primary philosophical tool for talking about God and the deist view of God was a God that was for the most part uninvolved in the day to day undertakings of the world. This is not the dominant picture of God today and there are a number of problems with this image, but it was how many religious people of that time tried to make sense of God in a way they could imagine.

Here I think is where the mystical tradition of talking about God can help us out: on the one hand there is the cataphatic tradition which in a positive manner says that our language can point to God while, on the other hand, there is the apophatic tradition which states that our language is never adequate to describe God. Moving back to our world and ourselves there is a sense in which our language describes reality, for example I can say that I have hazel eyes or that I am around 6’2” tall but ultimately my descriptions, even of myself, will never be completely adequate to convey all of who I am. Our understanding of the world around us is also provisional or metaphorical, that doesn’t mean it is incorrect-but it may not be complete. I think the French language has a helpful construct here with its two words that we can translate into the English ‘to know.’ The French word savior refers to knowing a fact, knowing how to do something or to know something by heart. The French word connaître refers to knowing a person or being familiar with a person or thing. There is a sense where we can know about and describe individual things but people, for example, are not reducible to a set of facts. We can describe others, ourselves, the world and even God, but that sense of knowing is always based upon our relation to those things and is in its own way contingent on the systems we understand them within. Each of these systems are really theories about the nature of the world and there may be times where we find our own metaphors of reality are inadequate and need to be reexamined as we attempt to make sense of our relationship to the reality we encounter.

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