Monday Madness (August 4, 2008)

¡Hola! Everybody…
It’s mother dear’s birthday!

Sorry I didn’t call yesterday, but I didn’t have my phone with me and I got home late. When I was a kid, a salesman came to our door selling Brittanica Encyclopedias. I begged and cried and begged some more and my mother, a single parent of four, barely keeping it together financially, bought the set on a lay-away plan that probably made the price of the st double. But she bought it because she cared about my intellectual development. I went through that set like a kid in a candy store. Some things you never forget…


* * *

-=[ Knowing ]=-

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
— Socrates, in Plato, Dialogues, Apology (469 BCE – 399 BCE)

I agree with our friend Socrates up there, but I’ll take it one step further by adding that it’s how we examine life that determines its worth. This is no small matter. Since before the days of Socrates humans mostly lived within one culture, never having to confront the belief systems and meaning making of other cultures. Today, you can no longer depend on the society they live for obtaining meaning and value.

I believe this is a good thing.

One of the first beliefs that has been shattered (but that people still cling to nonetheless), is the myth of the individual standing outside of cultural context as an objective observer. This notion has been shattered in almost all areas of knowledge. In the hardest of sciences, physics, The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (measurement), and the observer effect demonstrated that the tools we use affect what we measure and observe. In that way a quanta, the most essential building block of matter, can be seen as both a wave and a particle, according to which instruments are used to measure it. Additionally, the observer effect impacts all other sciences from psychology to information systems.

Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that we do not much as observe reality, but create it. I’ll give you a good example. Right now, you’re reading the pixels on the screen that turn out to be letters (in actuality they are codes). Are you aware of other objects within your awareness? The area beyond your screen, for example. The wall behind you. Even now, you’re “deciding” what data to observe and what data to omit. Much of what we pay attention is decided by our cultural views. Culture is a very human concept – it’s the major way we create meaning. Your language, for example, is a product of your culture and every language omits and includes certain data. There are concepts for example, in Sanskrit, that are almost impossible to translate into English. The reason being that English tends toward categorizing things while Sanskrit was better suited to describe pre-verbal, spiritual concepts.

Even better, let’s take Spanish and English. I remember a particularly interesting study whose aim was to study language and childhood development. Specifically, the researcher wanted to study the impact of Spanish-speaking parents on children in Boston. What she discovered was extremely interesting to me, as I am bilingual. When the Spanish-speaking parents spoke to their children, they often used open-ended questions. English-dominant parents used closed questions. For example, a Spanish dominant parent would ask her child questions about a trip that led to qualitative thinking/ responses. They would ask, for example, “So you went to the zoo?!! How did you like it?” Open-ended questions are question that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, and Spanish-dominant relied more heavily on getting the child to describe the quality of their experience. English-dominant parents relied more heavily on close-ended questions, such as, “So, you went to the zoo! Did you enjoy it?!!” They would go on to ask questions that helped their children describe quantify – or categorize – their experience.

Note that I’m not saying one is better than the other, just pointing out the difference. Moreover, as a bilingual individual, I can understand the difference because the two languages emphasize different aspects of reality.

Scientists are no different, though they do try to control for these effects. Still, it’s only recently that the western medical community is beginning to understand traditional Chinese medicine. Modern medical practitioners scoffed at acupuncture until research began to show that there was something to the practice. Even today, with more and more western practitioners accepting eastern medicine, they still do not completely understand why acupuncture works. As one basic scientist Candace Pert, put it, “We just don’t have the geography” to understand why it works. That’s just another way of saying that we don’t have the language. We still do not understand the meridian system and today, westerners are taught acupuncture in a way I find unethical. In the East, you have to study for at least 10-15 years before you’re even allowed to pick up a needle and much of the training (calligraphy, qi-gong practice, etc.) is considered extraneous to acupuncture.

Another great example is the now more commonplace practice of attending the mind as well as the body. Medical doctors are trained to view the body as a mechanism, divorced from its mental state. They are trained to treat the “symptom” or the “disease.” What modern western medical science never acknowledged was that the mind – the mental state – of the patient was attached to the body. In this way, people were reduced to symptoms and diseases, their humanity sacrificed on the altar of scientism.

Today, we have proof that mental state holds an enormous influence on the outcomes of any treatment, so western medicine has taken a turn toward a more holistic approach, though I think there’s more lip service than actual practice practice.

I say all this to show that we’re not just individuals living outside of the culture in which we are embedded. If you were to attempt to change the meaning of one word, for example, it wouldn’t be too successful until a significant portion of the population began accepting that meaning. The meaning may change for you (to a small extent), but it hasn’t changed really. It still has a larger cultural meaning and that meaning still has an influence on you.

That you don’t notice this influence doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Rather, it means that you’re not aware of it. The purpose of life, as Socrates woiuld have it, is to make the unconscious conscious through examination.




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