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Semiformalishmaybe

The Dream we Put on Syntax

I was just asked by a random person itting next to me at this coffeeshop what the zip code is for where we were, and I was going to pop on Google Maps to look that up when I realised I couldn't remember the name of the coffeeshop. The experience of being united in a kind of cluelessness (mine a bit more profound) was kind of amusing (I eventually did find the name of the place because I could spatially remember where in the city it is). Names generally don't stick well in my head. I am also sleepy enough that I probably should not be so far away from my apartment right now; the near-constant darkness makes it hard for me to stay awake. On the upside (personally, at least), at least it's only really cold rather than terribly cold.

Earlier today I had a daydream continued from last night's dream, where I was some kind of sentient virtual world and some people I knew were inside (kind of; this is part of one of the elaborate dreamworlds I've had) and I was trying to entertain them with futuristic technology despite some of my agents not (yet) speaking English. I was hoping to entertain one of them with futuristic maths (in the dream I was some kind of ancient alien intelligence with millions of years of civilisations in my head), and synthesised something like a kindle with crazy maths stuff on it but was trying to design the kindle-like device myself, specifically how to label the buttons, and the daydream then dissolved into philosophy.

In the dream, I was trying to decide whether to give the buttons conceptual labels like 「page-turning-or-structure-forward-walking-action-for-this-device」 (which was represented as a squiggle of lines) or 「right」 (which was represented by a single short dash). In daily life we have a lot of terms for nearly the same thing, for which we could either use a short, nonspecific term or a possibly longer more nuanced term (how many words for snow, etc). Do actual languages differ in how specific they tend to be? (Recent conversation with someone about the Chinese language: speak it like a caveman and you'll probably get it right/say it how everyone says it; contrast Portugese?)

Crosspoint: Last night I had indian food, and I saw a few people get up to go, the father(?) staying behind to pay the bill and get the take-out food. The waiter asked if he wanted it all together or separate and he said he wanted it together, but the wife(?) came back and decided to override that, saying things needed to be separate because they were taking some of it to $someplace. He looked confused. I suspect there was confusion between "it all together on the same bill" and "it all packaged together in one bag".

Domains of terms as context: highly specific language avoids ambiguity

I wonder: does degree of language specificity affect linguistic domains? If a lot of our common sense is designed to catch things that are slightly not-routine, and the content of our common sense is signficantly sayings (reference Mao's writings on propoganda), we might shape the contours of common sense by the language we use; if we have a less-differentiated language, common sense is blunt and powerful. If we have a highly-specific language, common sense is weak and precise.

Presumably things that are neither routine nor handled by common sense are kicked upstairs into rare moments of actual deeper thought. I imagine most of the time most people spend less than a few minutes a week in this mode, as our lives become heavily mapped out by routine experience/habit and quips that structure us; fully-aware thought is more an emergency trick than something easily sustained.

Is semantics the dream we project onto the syntax of daily life?

I recently heard a webcast of the author of 「The Binding of Isaac」 on the Roguelike News podcast. It was pretty interesting; I particularly liked a quip that went something like "whenever I find myself about to self-censor because I might offend someone, I instead turn around and push harder, because that's how I know I'm onto something interesting". There's something to this, but I wonder about the qualifier I usually put on respecting diversity in worldviews; I do assert that it is generally inappropriate to push too hard or in certain ways against a policy/world-of-terms for effects that are not intended to harm a certain group but do anyhow (e.g. if you don't allow knives in school for good reasons, and some Sikhs feel you're obstructing their religious freedom with that policy, too bad, they lose), and you're not being religiously bigoted with that policy (unless you do it specifically to harm Sikhs) nor do they merit an exemption just based on their faith. The other side of this assertion is not true though; one does not need to be kind to all perspectives or identities. The details of this are an underdeveloped part of my (and many others) philosophy; I generally try to be reasonably fair (although I do generally consider mystic claims to be incorrect; I'm not trying to be neutral on ways-of-knowing or what-is-true), perhaps following something like the golden rule (except I substitute my notion of a "reasonable person" in place of my own intuitions) when figuring out when and how respect is due to people who bundle themselves with bad, freaky, weird, or different ideas/identities (I am not universally-affirming nor do I want to be; for me those categories are all fairly well-populated). Harsh criticism that amounts to a verbal attack on an identity/philosophy is something I think is fundamentally acceptable, just not something to be done lightly (for a lot of reasons, among them hampering solidarity in common causes, damaging personal ties, the likelihood of the involved catharsis leading the attack to be inaccurate, emboldening people who would go a lot further than the attack).

I am bothered by people attacking atheism in mostly the same way that I am bothered by people attacking non-heteronormals, at least when the form of the attack is the same. Threats of violence are unacceptable, dehumanising language is reprehensible, but philosophical criticism is something I would have to judge in the light of likely action that would accompany the verbal attacks. If someone is just uncomfortable with my not being exactly straight, or my not believing in their fairytales, that's fine. I would not demand they be comfortable, just that they tolerate it as part of treating me as a human being. If they want to mock it, they can, knowing that I might mock them back. I am not looking for "peace" in the sense of a society where nobody criticises/mocks anyone else and all decisions are respected; that society is an awful, stale one with a dead world-of-ideas.

I still feel challenged to figure out exactly what the liveliness I'm looking for looks like. Salman Rushdie's Insultana of Ott was a good reminder of this unfinished concept.

I also want to preserve both the idea of loose norms (without too strong a society-wide hegemonic discourse, mind you!) and the idea being broken with respect to them. The norms I propose are not those that are dominant now; in many cases they're broader, in some parts they're narrower, but if in the end I can't say that I disapprove of any perspectives or identities, I will have failed as a thinker and proposed something sick. There are even norms of behaviour and function that I believe in that I don't meet, due to personal brokenness. That's a personal problem, not a problem with my philosophy. I don't need to approve of all parts of the way I am any more than I need to approve of all parts of other people (even people I like as a whole).

And a bit more on philosophical discourse:

  • In philosophy, you are not arguing with a person, and you cannot make deals with them. You are arguing with your opponent's perspective, and with all possible variants. The words you speak will be borrowed by allies and opponents and repeated in many places you will not be. The argument will be reincarnated many times after the last breath has left your body.
And because I'm trying to make headway on shrinking my list of things to write about:
  • I sometimes dream of advocates among the religious who specialise in converting people whose self-identity is bound to their lack of faith; reworking their personality into a compatible analogue of its self-perception, but with a religious inclination built in. The rebellious atheist might become a rebellious heretic who rarely attends church, etc. Self-image is mostly maintained with a bit of reworking, or at least the flavour is maintained. I sometimes see hints of conversion-programmes that might do this in all of the religious mailing lists I've anonymously subscribed to, but generally the specific tactics of conversion are not trumpeted very loudly.

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