The Object of This Story – Theresa Smith

Most of the information in the world, prior to the act of organization, exists as minimally interconnected, even isolated, bits of data. The relevance of these data to one another may be clear, unclear or nonexistent. A system that is maximally interconnected, by contrast, consists of elements networked in such a way that each element is necessary to explain the inclusion of other elements. The object of this story is not to illustrate the ease with which you could construct a convincing philosophy that evades the suspicions of a person of ordinary gullibility, but to point out that organized systems of information are more readily accepted by this person than loose concatenations of occasionally-conflicting information.

I am proposing that maximal interconnection is a characteristic of an invented system, or a natural system overlaid with concepts whose purpose is to bring the system’s tenets closer together by explaining their connection to one another. These systems establish the truth of their conjectures by conflating theories with observations, and purporting to prove the former by pointing to the latter. The fact that some of these systems, though invented, are persuasive allows us to infer that interconnection is a stronger criterion than demonstrability when it comes to selecting one’s beliefs from the near-infinite warehouse of superstitions.

No statements about the world are really demonstrably true unless they take the form of tautologies or analytic truths, true by virtue of being identical to themselves. Dictionaries or thesauruses dwarf any gnostic tome in terms of demonstrability, but not in terms of consistency. In fact, they fail the consistency criterion spectacularly: if one is literal in their search for truth among the discrete, self-referential propositions contained in a dictionary, they will find definitions that call one another into question, or flatly contradict one another, or purport to be talking about a single phenomenon, when in fact they are talking about many. One object may be referred to by many names, flouting the one-to-one or bijective criterion that tends to characterize the search for viable explanations. A dictionary is a compilation of mostly isolated facts, organized by the characters they contain, which constitute some portion of a given language. The system that explains the interconnections of a language is a grammar. A grammar is a philosophy that uses metaphors to describe classes of words and their relationships to one another.

All systems are built around metaphors. Even mathematics, among the most literal of systems, expresses relationships between its precepts by the use of figurative language that maps a proposition from a source domain to a target domain by initiating a comparison between two objects with conceptual similarities in order to understand one in terms of the other. If one rejects the metaphor – disputes, for instance, the identity between the spatial properties of a right-angled triangle and the Pythagorean Theorem – then the principle falls apart.

Distinguishing between metaphorical language and literal language isn’t always easy. Some metaphorical concepts, such as the concept of time, are so integrated into the way we perceive the world that rejecting them outright, or accepting an alternate definition, radically alters the way we perceive the world and changes the meaning of many of the things we believe to be true about it. If one is accustomed to thinking about time as a kind of discrete and measurable temporal distance between objects and events and the relationship between some of those objects and events as an expression of time, then substituting a definition of “time” as a volatile medium that expands and contracts according to features of the universe not known to most individuals causes those relationships to either disappear entirely, or alters them beyond recognition.

There is a continuous discourse between the source domain of literal language, by which we describe observed phenomena to ourselves, and the target domain of metaphorical language, which expands the function of these descriptions. Foundational metaphors, such as those concerning time, are difficult to alter or reject because we constantly refer to them as we try to make sense of the unstructured information we encounter. Yet, all of us have experienced fundamental shifts in our understanding of central abstractions such as time, creation, appearance and identity over the course of our lifetimes. If these metaphors are so indispensable to our conception of the world, how have they undergone such cataclysmic shifts without undermining our ability to interact with the world in the most basic of ways?

The metaphorical answer, of course, is that we have metaphors for these metaphors, and metaphors for those, and so on, spiraling downward through one’s understanding of the universe in near-infinite redress until a sort of conceptual singularity is encountered in which two opposing concepts circle around each other, equally matched in every way so that the logical ascendance of one over the other is impossible. The constant and mechanical shifting of this twin precept is the engine of the surface metaphor’s strength and the source of its flexibility.

You don’t have to believe me. You could reject this explanation as easily as you’ve dismissed other, better arguments, formulated to a degree of complexity that seems convincing in itself. But doesn’t it reflect your experience? Haven’t you rejected ideas that were, prior to rejection, crucial to your understanding of the processes by which life around you occurred?

Doesn’t it at least deserve your consideration?