The Aesthetics of Ideas, Part 1: Introduction

(This is the first in a series of posts I am writing about the aesthetics of ideas. In it, I will put forth my theory about the emotional grounding of symbols, and describe a practical method for associating beliefs with emotions.)

I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Atoms

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.
 — “The Logical Song”, by Supertramp

Science has brought us many incredible things, but it’s also shattered our beliefs in God and the supernatural, which provided primitive man with beauty and with comfort in the face of the unknown. In particular, primitive worldviews infused the world with meaning and life.

Before we go any further, let us ask: what is meaning, exactly? (Here, I’m using the word in the existential sense rather than the semantic one, though this series of blog posts will try to identify the relationship between the two.) I define existential meaning as a link between external and internal experience. Meaning is a way of relating the vast and inhuman movements of the cosmos to our own individual struggles in life.

When primitive beliefs and myths were interpreted literally, they gave the universe literal meaning: the sun did not cross the sky indifferent to humanity; it was created by the same gods who carefully crafted people. Perhaps it was placed there solely to warm the earth. So when you’re raised all your life in this belief system that’s saturated with meaning, and suddenly you discover that the world actually works a different way (the sun is a flaming ball of gas flying through space, utterly indifferent to the earth), then all of a sudden the universe seems to lack meaning; vitality drains from the landscape and all beauty crumbles into dust. Note that here I mean “lack of meaning” in a very concrete way, as per my definition above. When the sun was placed in the sky by a human-friendly deity (or when the sun was an anthropomorphic, human-friendly deity itself), it was obvious how it related to the struggles of mankind. But when the sun is just a giant nuclear furnace that doesn’t have a mind with which to care about humanity, its relation to humanity becomes a lot less clear and objective. Sure, the sun is necessary for us to survive, because it casts its light on our planet – but it doesn’t do it on purpose. It doesn’t care about us. It’s not an agent.

Thus, when moving from this primitive belief system to a modern scientific one, a feeling of disorienting dissonance arises between one’s perceptions of the sun as friendly and anthropomorphic, and the knowledge that such beliefs do not reflect reality. The mind’s way of perceiving the world emotionally (e.g. looking at the sun and feeling loved) must be retrained to accomodate the new worldview; these emotions no longer correspond with the facts, and so must be discarded.

These days, we often think of primitive, animistic beliefs as childish. After all, children are likely to personify inanimate objects, and to attribute events in nature to an anthropomorphic cause. The fact that children naturally gravitate towards these primitive-style worldviews suggest that such worldviews are more in line with how our minds naturally think, and that it takes some forcible redirection to push them into a different way of thinking, such as the logical, analytical mentality that currently predominates. If this is true, then every childhood contains a loss of innocence; each individual life echoes the Fall from the Garden of Eden, when we eat from the tree of knowledge of modern science, and the world ceases to be magical as we learn to view it in mechanistic terms. I suspect that the disillusionment I described in the previous paragraph, when a primitive man suddenly learns that the sun is just a flaming ball of gas, happens to all children in our society at an early age, as they are taught the basic truths that modern science reveals to us. Perhaps this is when we first begin to trust reason over intuition, to separate the mind from the body; perhaps this is when we move from embodied to disembodied consciousness. (Note that, presumably, a similar kind of disillusionment happens to those who move from a theist to an atheist worldview, as they grapple with a newly godless world.)

This “death of God” and loss of spiritual beauty has caused many an existential crisis. In the absence of God, humanity is on its own. No longer do we have the protection of a cosmic father figure watching us from on high. Instead, we wander, alone and abandoned in a universe that lacks any objective meaning or purpose. And the more we explore this universe, the deeper we delve into the cosmic mysteries, the more mysterious they become. Searching for the clear light of truth is like trying to find one’s way out of an infinite maze, a House-of-Leaves-like labyrinth of unanswerable questions, the chasm of the unknown only widening the more information we attain, so that we can’t even see across it to the distant shore of truth.

Primitive man was spared these existential and epistemological crises by his simple, orderly beliefs, which flowed down to him from the clear and ancient fountain of tradition. But in the modern age, we don’t have that luxury. In light of our modern scientific discoveries, it’s folly to accept these comforting beliefs as literal truths. And so we must face the harsh reality of the universe (and of modern thought) and come to terms with it. As the existentialists say, it’s up to us to find meaning in our lives; society and religion can no longer provide it for us.

Two Perspectives on Atheism and Science

For centuries now, people have been grappling with atheism and modern scientific beliefs. In what ways have different people come to terms with it? In this section, we’ll look at two different perspectives that people have taken with regard to these beliefs. In my introductory post, I claimed that worldviews were not just beliefs, but beliefs paired with emotional and perceptual experiences. According to that definition, the perspectives I am about to describe are two very different worldviews, though they contain very similar beliefs.

The first worldview is what I’ll call “hard-headed realism”. Hard-headed realists are usually materialist atheist reductionists, and they often accuse religious people of using their beliefs as a “crutch” because they “can’t handle the truth”. As suggested by their name, the hard-headed realists value “realism”, which they equate with cynicism: “The world is an unpleasant place; now suck it up and deal with it.” They think that human society needs to grow up from its childhood games of religion, stop playing pretend, and “face the facts”. This is considered unpleasant, but necessary for attaining any kind of intellectual maturity. It is worth observing that this worldview acknowledges that the beliefs set forth by religions are more aesthetically pleasing than their particular brand of materialist atheist reductionism.

And yet, when we look at the people who actually devote their lives to studying science, we often find a very different worldview. These people don’t find the knowledge revealed by science to be ugly. On the contrary, many scientists and mathematicians find an almost mystical beauty in the subjects they study. Far from stripping away unpleasant illusions and shattering comforting beliefs, scientific discovery helps to reveal the glory of nature. The world is huge and beautiful and complex. Learning how things work does not make them feel less magical to the scientist. If you tell a man who adheres to this worldview that emotions correspond to chemicals in the brain, he won’t feel disillusioned with emotions because they’re “less real” somehow. Instead, he’ll be even more impressed with the brain for working in such an interesting way; this new knowledge will deepen his appreciation of the complexity of nature. For him, this new knowledge will enrich the beauty of the world, not detract from it.

The Aesthetics of Ideas

The contrast between the two worldviews highlighted above suggests the main theme of this series of posts: abstract facts, such as the absence of God or the unattainability of truth, are not inherently beautiful or ugly. It is possible to find beauty in any belief system. There’s no need to live in a disillusioned world that lacks all feeling of magic or awe. The scientific quest for truth does not require disillusionment.

Certainly, it may be easier to find meaning in some belief systems than others. For instance, the primitive beliefs described above are perhaps inherently meaningful, and need no existential interpretation. But it’s still possible to find beauty in any belief system. It may take some work, but it’s possible. And this series of posts will attempt to explain how to do it.

But perhaps you don’t believe me yet, so let’s take a look at another example.

Case Study: Materialist Reductionism

Can materialist reductionism possibly be beautiful? I picked this example because I was once firmly convinced that it couldn’t be. Materialist reductionism seemed like the epitome of ugly ideas. It’s a belief system which separates us. We’re all isolated bits of matter floating around in space; we’re the ten thousand things instead of the one. And materialist reductionism depletes the world of life and makes people doubt that their own consciousnesses exist. How could such a worldview be beautiful? To quote David Zindell’s The Broken God on the ugliness of materialist reductionism:

The first science had resigned human beings to acting as objective observers of a mechanistic and meaningless universe. A dead universe. The human mind, according to the determinists, was merely the by-product of brain chemistry. Chemical laws, the way the elements combine and interact, were formulated as complete and immutable truths. The elements themselves were seen as indivisible lumps of matter, devoid of consciousness, untouched and unaffected by the very consciousnesses seeking to understand how living minds can be assembled from dead matter. The logical conclusion of these assumptions and conceptions was that people are like chemical robots possessing no free will. No wonder the human race, during the Holocaust Century, had fallen into insanity and despair.

But I have found that even materialist reductionism can be beautiful, because it highlights the fundamental unity of all matter, and it emphasizes that humanity is part of nature and not separated from it. Regarding the fundmental unity of all matter, the multifarious objects in the world are not as different as they might seem. I am a chunk of matter and the chair I’m sitting on is a very different chunk of matter, but we’re both built out of the same fundamental particles. You and I are just pieces of the universe, constructed of the same building blocks that were used to make all the other pieces of the universe. We humans, made of matter, participate alongside the material stars and planets in the dances of the cosmos. We are of one substance with nature; we are not the sole souled creatures, isolated from the world by our unique possession of some kind of dualistic spirit.

Here’s one of many relevant passages from Joseph Campbell, this one taken from Pathways to Bliss, though he emphasizes the physical nature of the universe rather than its material nature. However, the two are closely enough connected that I consider this worth including here, especially considering the relevance of its final sentence to my definition of meaning:

The laws of time and space and causality are within us, and anything we can see or know anywhere will involve these laws. What is the universe? Space. Out of space came a coagulation that became a nebula, and out of the nebula, millions of galaxies, and within one constellation of galaxies, a sun, with our little planet circling it. Then out of the earth came us, the eyes and the consciousness and the ears and the breathing of the earth itself. We’re earth’s children, and, since the earth itself came out of space, is it any wonder that the laws of space live in us? There’s this wonderful accord between the exterior and interior worlds.

So you see, reductionism can be either beautiful or ugly, depending on how it’s depicted. The description is what matters: it connects the abstract concept (“materialist reductionism”) to its aesthetic and emotional implications. The description gives us a way of grounding the abstract concept in our emotional experiences. This is, of course, how the aesthetics of ideas relates to symbol grounding. A description of an abstract concept relies on metaphors; the metaphors we choose will define our emotional experience of the concept.

Furthermore, observe that we can use the contrast between the two descriptions above to figure out what humans find inherently meaningful. Reductionism was ugly to me when I associated it with uncomforting things like isolation and aloneness, and beautiful to me when I related it to beautiful ideas like the mystical unity of everything, and our connection with nature. By analyzing many different beautiful and ugly descriptions, we can figure out which things we find beautiful, and which things we find ugly. Then, we can use this knowledge when designing new descriptions of ideas. Equipped with these tools, we can make abstract concepts as beautiful or as ugly as we choose.

Conclusion

This skill is necessary for truth-seekers in the age of science. Before science, knowledge was handed down through the ages. Factual and aesthetic knowledge were intermixed; the belief systems came pre-infused with meaning. But now we are in the scientific age, and science provides us with a method of discovering truth for ourselves, individually. But (as Joseph Campbell has observed) spirituality lags behind; spiritual truths are still taught by religious authorities, still handed down from on high, and they typically rely on outmoded cosmologies. This makes them unsatisfying to the scientifically minded individual; thus, many people have rejected spirituality altogether. But what we need is not a rejection of spirituality. Instead, we need a method for spirituality akin to the one we have for science: a method of individually discovering religious or spiritual truths or meaning. This series of blog posts is an attempt to provide such a method.

Furthermore, we live in a world where new knowledge is available daily. The intrepid truth-seeker must be willing to have all his beliefs shattered, and must be willing to accept strange and unpleasant things as true (at least until that model is replaced by one with even better predictive power). These blog posts are intended as an aid to such truth-seekers.

To summarize, spirituality and meaning are not a set of beliefs, but an emotional, intuitive, and aesthetic perspective on beliefs. Two people can believe the same factual claims, yet have very different emotional interpretations of those claims. This series of blogs posts is about learning to frame arbitrary abstract philosophical claims in terms of specific emotions. It’s also about stripping away the accidents of culture to reveal what humans truly find meaningful.

In the next post, we will begin to explore the technical details of my model, starting with some assumptions I am making about how the mind works.

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11 Responses to The Aesthetics of Ideas, Part 1: Introduction

  1. Kevin says:

    this is great stuff.

    Do you read the blog Genealogy of Religion? (http://genealogyreligion.net/) I think you’d really like it. It deals with a lot of the topics you’ve staked out for yourself.

    One article that’s particularly relevant is “Meaning of Life: Alienation & Animism”: http://genealogyreligion.net/meaning-of-life-alienation-animism

    Also, you’ve probably seen this, but just in case you haven’t:

    • Thanks for the links! I hadn’t enountered any of those before. “Meaning of Life: Alienation & Animism” was especially interesting.

      By the way, I’m overjoyed that you’ve found and are enjoying my blog! I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your essays, especially since many of them explore ideas that are similar to ones I’ve contemplated. It’s so exciting to find other people who are thinking about these things, especially when their conclusions are as fascinating and enlightening as yours have been. =)

      Some random thoughts regarding the transition from an animistic to a non-animistic worldview: in “The Meaning of Life: Alienation & Animism”, there’s a section titled “The [Neolithic] Transition” which talks about why the transition occurred. I agree with what is said there; I think the transition occurred when we started to have a bigger impact on our enivornment. When we started planting grain, it was probably harder to view the plants as agents who had grown themselves to share food with us. Of course, well into agriculture, people still believed that gods/spirits were controlling the success of the crops, and they used fertility rituals to encourage the growth of plants. But the more we learned about the workings of nature, the harder it became to attribute the success/failure of crops to the whims of some god or spirit, since we could identify other causes. And the more we influenced our environment, the less room there was for spirits among all the human-crafted objects. Today, in modern society, we’re constantly surrounded on all sides by human creations. How can the walls of my apartment or the cloth of my backpack contain any spirit, when these things were clearly made by humans out of basic synthetic materials? I could be completely wrong about this, though; maybe a person with an animistic worldview, even knowing such things were made by man, would still see them as animated by spirits.

      I think we may be approaching a reversal, though. Technology is complexifying to the point where it’s much easier to ascribe agency to it, especially for people who don’t understand that technology. “My computer was really mad at me this morning” is a pretty normal sentence. Not to mention that people designing AIs often build in a sense of agency to the system. Even AI techniques without any explicit agency still hold a sense of magic for me, at least. Since you studied NLP at one point, I am guessing you’re familiar with the EM algorithm and MCMC? These algorithms hold a sort of mystical beauty for me. I know the details of the math; I know that the algorithms were designed by humans and are really just clever tricks for optimizing functions/taking samples. But every time I actually see one of these algorithms run, I am filled with a sense of awe; it seems like magic the way order arises out of chaos. The models are given life by the living structure of the data. Or something. Anyway, perhaps advances in artificial intelligence will return us to more animistic worldview, once most household objects become interactive and agent-y.

      (Oops, this comment got long!)

      • Kevin says:

        “It’s so exciting to find other people who are thinking about these things”

        I agree — it’s one of the great pleasures writing has brought me over the past year or so. I hope you find it half as rewarding as I have.

        I found your blog from the comments section at Ribbonfarm and I’ve really enjoyed it so far. It’s clear you’re on the trail of some of the same insights I’m searching for.

        I like your description of the process by which the worldview shift occurs: farming/modernity -> more human agency -> crowds out the explanatory power of non-human agency. My sense, though, is that more of the meaning (existential not semantic) in animistic cultures comes from the lifestyle rather than the worldview. I don’t think they feel connected to world primarily because they see it as imbued with spirits, but because their lifestyle puts them in closer contact with nature and with each other. Farming breaks that connection, a bit, and industrialization breaks it dramatically.

        Technology is certainly an interesting case study in agency. It’s cool that you’ve found beauty in algorithms. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse of it, but it’s not something that really wells up inside of me, the way the beauty of biology or physics does. A weakness of spirit, perhaps :P.

  2. nadith says:

    Isn’t what you are saying and getting at is that meaning is more an alignment of the universe, our world view, and our relation of self within this? It almost feels a little too one way otherwise, and while I can find meaning in the occurrences around me, I as well can find meaning in my own expression, actions, and the things which I choose to engage myself in. After all, do we not find more meaning in an occupation which comes from our own pursuit for those very reasons I mentioned?

    I do not believe that primitives, or animistic beliefs held more pleasure, nor that primitive man was more content. To the contrary, there was likely a similar predicament as today, conflicts between what has happened and what we believe, gaps, doubt, disillusionment, and illusory structures. Yes we imagined the world around us much as we imagined ourselves to be, which really is quite akin to how we map the universe today.
    Similarly I have seen nihilistic children, atheistic, conflicted, happy, spiritual, distant, and open. Some is from culture, and parents, and some is from their own body, self, means by which to grasp and interact with their environment, and sense of this, and likely much more. If anything the one common thread I have seen in growth is that we are more capable of encompassing a larger sense of being or the world. This is not necessarily about size, but depth, complexity, almost dimensions of relation. As we grow we recognize our self, parts of ourself, family, local others, community, strangers, acquaintances, and on and on, as merely one aspect (social growth) of this concept. I think the animistic belief emerges for many reasons, some because we see primarily our self, and map this to everything, but also to fill in the gaps of misunderstanding, or simply to appreciate what it is to be, or to live, as that is likely as mysterious as any idea.

    I’ve always kind of wondered how much of the beauty scientifically oriented people see in exploring is based on the sense of flow, or similarly the endorphins released in understanding new aspects, internalizing, and/or mapping such within our self. I am not the first to wonder such, but it has been proposed that some, especially within the field of mathematics (not because it is prone to it, as I feel the literary fields also have similar, but more of our shared familiarity with it), are as much addicts as any other chemically dependent individual. Not that this stilts the idea of the general appreciation, but one that I always found to be quite an interesting variable to how people appreciate and see the world.

    I am curious to see how you relate to the sense of ugliness and beauty, as it is entirely based on what we value. Whether this be life, company, harmony, discord, isolation, containment, safety, or what have you, it helps detail what it is we feel a desire for, or lack of. Now, this is not necessarily to map you out, but to hear you, and to see in what ways you decide to wrestle with the values, and thus the aesthetics, It is something I catch myself in periodically, and it would be interesting to see it done in another light.

    • Oops, sorry I forgot to respond to this – I think it’s because we talk so frequently that it didn’t seem necessary at the time.

      Regarding mathematicians/scientists as addicted to understanding new aspects, this blog post has an interesting discussion on that.

      Also, hmm, I think I agree with you that the definition of meaning should be bidirectional. I will have to think more about this, and how it relates to my definition, and why I was thinking of it as unidirectional to begin with. Thanks!

  3. wallowinmaya says:

    First of all, great post! I’m glad I’ve found your blog and hope you will continue to write more.

    >…abstract facts, such as the absence of God or the unattainability of truth, are not inherently beautiful or ugly.

    This is true, but beauty is a “2-place function”. (http://lesswrong.com/lw/ro/2place_and_1place_words/)

    Some abstract facts just are more beautiful, not inherently, but for most humans. To explain myself through an analogy: Women are not inherently more beautiful than men for example, but I as a heterosexual guy just find women more attractive. Homosexual men on the other hand are more attracted to other men. These preferences are hard-wired and can’t be (easily) changed.

    I really tried to find beauty in a reductionistic worldview, but it still feels like there needs to be something transcendental which turns this drear and mute cosmos into something truly worth living and fighting for.

    The big question is if our preferences for supernatural vs. reductionistic worldviews are alterable (which is probably the case) and if that’s the case, how much? My guess is that – just like most preferences – “worldview preferences” are different from one human to another. Those individual differences are caused by genetic as well as cultural factors. Some folks are really repulsed by reductionism/atheism, whereas other folks have no problem with this worldview. Again, the big question is whether those worldview preferences are as hard-wired as sexual ones or are they as malleable as e.g. musical preferences?

    In any case, I’m certainly trying my best to take more “joy in the merely real” and hope future posts of yours will help me with that. ;)

    • nadith says:

      I would argue that such Hard wiring is only as hard as we choose to make it.

    • Thanks for the comment! =) Also, I apologize for how long this response got.

      I agree with you that some worldview preferences are more malleable than others, and that there are probably individual differences in the ability to reprogram oneself. In the rest of this series (which I swear I’ll write eventually), I’m going to argue that the more abstract a worldview is, the more malleable one’s aesthetic preference for it becomes. But my beliefs in this are strengthened by my own experiences modifying my preferences, so I’m wary of falling prey to the typical minds fallacy.

      (I’m also wary of people using “typical minds fallacy” as a reason why they failed at something others succeeded at, or why they refuse to even try something. In order to accomplish something (especially something involves a lot of thinking), it helps to believe you are capable of accomplishing that thing. For instance, a lot of people seem to explain their procrastination with “I just have no willpower; I am doomed to procrastinate forever”; such lack of confidence presumably exacerbates any natural deficiency in willpower. Anyway this is tangential to your comment, but something I feel the need to bring up when people mention innate inabilities to do things.)

      Regarding reductionism… first of all, I empathize, as I felt the same way for a very long time. And although I can see the beauty in reductionism when I squint hard enough, I typically associate reductionism with dreariness, just as you say.

      Also, there seem to be two definitions of reductionism. When I look here, it gives one definition that basically amounts to physicalism, and another definition which says “a procedure or theory that reduces complex data or phenomena to simple terms”.

      I think it’s this second definition, the simplification of the glorious complexities of the world, that make people averse to reductionism – not the physicalism – and this preference may very well be immutable (despite my attempts to describe it beautifully above). People feel disillusioned and disappointed by statements that imply that all of the world’s complexity is an illusion – especially when that complexity pertains to something important. When people hear “Love is just a chemical reaction that your body has”, I think they are also hearing an implicit statement of “Love isn’t real”. And, uh, actually Eliezer seems to be saying this: in his post on reductionism, where he paints the antireductionist as saying “What? Are you telling me the 747 doesn’t really have wings?” He then comments that the wings (and in my example, love) are part of the map, not part of the territory; the territory only contains physical laws. (I should point out that I’m far less of a scientific realist than Eliezer, and I’m not convinced that the universe is actually reduction-able; I don’t really think quarks are more a part of the territory than love is. They’re both models. But anyway.)

      It seems that people have a basic aesthetic preference for things being real/facts being true. (Although, for instance, we can appreciate things like fiction without it being true – this whole topic warrants further investigation. I have various hypotheses about this subject, which I’ll probably write a post about eventually.) And the “atoms are real, and higher-level concepts like ‘wing’ and ‘chair’ are not” thing really does seem to conflict with the way humans naturally process concepts (see George Lakoff’s book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (which I haven’t finished reading yet) for a discussion of which concepts are cognitively basic). So I could definitely buy that the “simplification” version of reductionism is inherently ugly, because it grates against our natural cognitive mechanisms.

      Unfortunately, physicalism often gets lumped in with reductionism, as evidenced by the definitions above, which glue the two things together into a single concept. I think physicalism inherits a lot of unwarranted ugliness from its cousin concept of reductionism-as-simplification. When you speak of a “reductionist worldview”, to which of these things are you referring?

      If you are referring to physicalism, then I assume you’ve already encountered a lot of the sources which speak of physicalism in beautiful terms, and describe a transcendental awe at the forces of nature? If you are referring to “reductionism as simplification”, then… why bother using that perspective at all? Some people seem to think that accepting physicalism means that one must also accept a viewpoint of reductionistically simplifying everything, e.g. always thinking about the world in terms of atoms instead of higher-level concepts. I think this is silly. From a computational perspective, our minds don’t have the capacity to handle all the atoms, so why bother thinking about the atoms at all? Even if you’re a particle physicist, it’s still impractical to think about atoms when reasoning about whether there’s any food left in the fridge. And when reasoning about love and relationships, I don’t find it especially useful to think about the chemicals in my brain. It’s computationally easier for me to use my built-in social modules for that kind of thing.

  4. 2obvious says:

    You and I, we agree on a lot of things. So humor me as I advocate the devil.

    >every childhood contains a loss of innocence

    um? The wonder of learning has been mutated into a loss? Methinks you’ve manufactured this existential crisis. Man has a hole in his heart that wouldn’t be there in simpler times, you say.

    I say, my hole opened at the discovery there was no Santa. Not because my “god” died; because my parents, my teacher, all grown ups were colluding in a lie. (Willfully misleading children “preserves their innocence?”)

    I’m inclined to think that kids can handle G-rated versions of reality. Scale the details as they mature. No, the sun doesn’t need to be animistic any more than the light fixtures in your home.

    • I see your point. Hmm. I’ll have to think about this, because I’m generally not a fan of sheltering children from the realities of life (by which I mean everything from having to do chores around the house to being told honestly about grandparents’ deaths). In fact, I’d even claim that this sheltering creates the loss of an artificially-imposed innocence when the young adult eventually enters the real world, which is perhaps what you’re saying.

      But I do still think there are senses in which modern education causes a loss of wonder at the world. Education encourages abstraction. I read an article recently where they compared people who had received some formal education to other people who hadn’t received any. If I recall the article’s contents correctly, both groups of people were given a sequence tasks with similar solutions. The people with formal education solved the later tasks faster, because they assumed (correctly) that later tasks would follow the same abstract pattern as the first. The people without formal education took the same time on each task, because they treated each task as a completely new thing. I interpreted this paper in light of my prior belief that education teaches us to favor abstraction over experience, to ignore the messy details and instead focus on the general class to which an object belongs. I’ve long assumed that emphasizing general categories and deemphasizing the details of specific situations causes us to experience the world less intensely; this at least fits with my subjective experience, and also seems to match the claims of those who advocate mindfulness meditation.

      On the other hand, there do seem to be ways of focusing on the abstract class that don’t diminish appreciation of visceral detail. But I’m saying that based on a fascinating perspective I explored once, and it would take too long to go into now, so I’ll save that for another time.

      (By the way, the article I mentioned is Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole, “Cognitive Consequences of Formal and Informal Education”, and I may be completely misremembering it, so I apologize if everything I said is wrong.)

  5. nadith says:

    Is meaning then just relating? I get the feeling you also infer a sense of control or power in it all, like how we may effect, be effected or drive?

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