Does everything have meaning?

What is the meaning of rain? No, really -what, if anything does it mean? If we ask the same question of Life, we understand immediately the type of answer required, so what is different about rain? Both are processes, of sorts, although rain has the added advantage of also being a thing -both palpable and visible- I suppose. But should that disqualify it from having meaning?

Meaning is something that stretches beyond the thing described, and expands it in ways perhaps not obvious at first glance: beyond just descriptive definition, beyond attempts at capturing it with a synonym -those are mere tautologies and add little clarity beyond finding other words to say the same thing.

It would be all too tempting to resort to simply describing rain’s cause -its meteorological significance; or suggesting its value in the sustenance of Life -but these would only describe its purpose -what it does- not its meaning. There is surely more to rain than water falling from the sky, just as there is more to Life than growth, reproduction, and change.

No, it seems to me that meaning points to something else, and a grammatical equivalent might be something like a metaphor.

I suspect it was an essay in Aeon by Jeremy Mynott, an emeritus fellow at Wolfson College in Cambridge, that rekindled my wonder about meaning in the world around us:

As he suggests, ‘Sometimes you need to look at things from outside to see them more clearly.’ And history can do that for many things -birds, for example. Before the days of over-population with its attendant pollution and habitat destruction, the much smaller aggregations of humanity were more intimately exposed to the perils -and beauty- that surrounded them.

‘The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while people could observe the migrations of cranes, storks and wildfowl. The cities themselves were in any case tiny by modern standards – ancient Athens, for example, had a population of about 120,000 at the height of its power in the 5th century BC.’

Things in nature impressed their physical presence on people’s daily lives to a degree now hard to imagine. ‘Not surprising either, therefore, that they also populated people’s minds and imaginations and re-emerged in their culture, language, myths and patterns of thought in some symbolic form.’ Some things -birds in his essay, at least- acquired a meaning beyond their mere physical presence.

Because Mynott is writing about the ‘meaning’ of birds, he goes on to describe how they became metaphors -there is ‘a simple progression from a descriptive fact about a bird (swallows migrate here the same time every spring), to a human comparison (that’s when we change what we wear, too) and then, in a natural and almost imperceptible segue, to making the bird represent something other than itself (a sign of spring, a reminder to start gardening, a valued guest). That is, a metaphor, something that ‘carries us across’ from one dimension of meaning to another.’

I think there is a very obvious parallel with other aspects of the natural world, too -rain, for example. And where he supplies examples of proverbs to bolster his contention of how the idea of birds has migrated into the realm of metaphor: ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’, there is certainly an equivalence in rain proverbs that do the same: ‘You need to save for a rainy day’, or ‘Rain does not fall on one roof alone’.

Metaphors work by having one thing stand symbolically for another, and by so doing, achieve a meaning far larger than the original.

When my children were young and beginning to learn the intricacies of language, they sounded very literal -so much so, that at times it was difficult to explain things to them without endlessly searching for another word to use for clarification: definition again. And yet, often they seemed to be searching for something more than description -and the perpetual ‘Why?’ questions that dog every parent are testament to that. No matter the skillfulness of the answer, it is seldom enough to satisfy their inner quest.

I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily indicative of children’s innate need for meaning so much as simple curiosity born of insufficient exposure to the world -or perhaps incipient mischievousness- but it is interesting that it seems to be a search for more than just a cursory explanation. Perhaps it is a developing awareness that there is more to reality than surface -an early, and tentative, exploration of Philosophy.

“Why does it rain, daddy?” my little daughter once asked. I remember the question because of her drive to understand more about rain.

“Well,” I started, unsure of the answer, to be honest, “… you know how sometimes the air around you feels wet in the summer?” I was on shaky ground already, but I pressed on when she nodded her head enthusiastically. “And sometimes if you look really hard you can see little water droplets on the window glass?”

I have to admit I was making it up as I went along, but her little face seemed so eager for more, I embellished it a bit. “Well, those drops appear when wet air touches something cool like the glass in the window. It’s called condensation,” I added, but more for my sake than hers, I think.

“So, is that where rain comes from, daddy?” She was obviously confused that windows didn’t usually rain.

“Uhmm, no but it was just a way of explaining that wet air sometimes condenses on cold things, and it’s really cold way up in the sky…”
“So…” I could almost see her processing the information behind her eyes. “So, are there windows up in the sky…?” That didn’t seem right to her, I could tell.

“No, but there are little particles of dust up there, and they’re really cold, so water droplets condense on them. And when there are a lot of them, you see them as clouds…” I was way beyond my depth, so I rather hoped she’d be satisfied with that. But I could see by her face that the machinery inside was still churning.

“So, clouds are rain before it falls…” There, I had told her all I knew about rain -more than I knew, in fact.

Suddenly, a large smile grew on her face, and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “You’re just kidding me, aren’t you daddy?”

My heart sank. We were walking along a trail in the woods at the time, and had stopped to rest in a little clearing; I hadn’t thought to bring an encyclopedia. I can still remember the flowers peeking through the grass like children thinking they could hide in plain sight and I shrugged to hide my embarrassment. “What do you mean, sweetheart?”

She grabbed my hand and looked up at my face. “There’s more to rain than clouds, daddy…”

I tried to look like the wise parent, but she was having none of it.

“Why do you say that, sweetie?” I said and held my breath.

She sighed and rolled her eyes like she’d seen me do so often. Then she pointed to an enormous fluffy cloud that was floating lazily just over our heads. “Miss Janzen at kindergarten says that rain happens when clouds cry…”

I didn’t know whether to nod in agreement -it was a kind of vindication of my explanation- or stay still, in case it was a trap.

She suddenly blinked and stared at the cloud. “You can tell that cloud doesn’t have any rain in it…” I smiled and waited for the explanation. “It looks happy, doesn’t it…?”

I’m not sure, but I suspect my daughter already knew about metaphors, even if she’d never heard the word… and perhaps she’d grasped the meaning of rain, as well…

A rarer spirit never did steer humanity

Okay, here’s a seemingly obvious and probably self-evident question: What constitutes personhood? I mean I assume that, until recently, it was something only bestowed on us -humans, that is- but what, exactly, is a person? And does the reason we were its exclusive possessors have anything to do with the fact that we are the bestowers? In United States law at any rate, a corporation -in that it has certain privileges, legal responsibilities, and is able to enter into contracts- may be considered a legal person. But even so, it is us that have granted it that status. We, alone, seem to be the arbiters of who gets into our club.

That we are both enamoured of our rank, and also the adjudicators of the contestants is a fine point, perhaps, And yet, there you have it: it’s our ball, so we get to decide who plays. We have decided it has to be a thing that can interact (with us), that has a sense of identity (as a self or as an entity), and that, presumably, can assume and accept responsibility for its actions.

Fair enough, I suppose, although I continue to wonder if those criteria are not a little too restrictive, their legal usefulness notwithstanding. I continue to suspect things like corporations and their vested interests getting the nod, whereas trees, or dogs, say, do not. I think it’s reasonable that some entities that seem to have some personal interest to me, and with which I interact, however indirectly, should qualify as something close to personhood at times: a tree that I pass each day and whose leaves I enjoy seeing dance in the wind, perhaps, or the peak of a mountain that I use to reference my location.

Okay, I realize those examples might be over-stretching the idea of personhood and diluting the whole purpose of the concept, but what if I have named each of them -given them an identity that draws them out of the background, and allows them to interact with me by fulfilling some need, however mundane or whimsical? And no, I don’t imagine the mountain peak whose position is guiding me out of the woods has any consciousness of itself or its purpose any more than an inuksuk in the barrens of northern Canada; it remains what it is: many things -or nothing- to whoever sees it. But, a potentially useful entity nonetheless. And for that matter, so is a corporation with which I have no dealings in another country, I suppose…

They are, each of them, metaphors in a way: things regarded as representatives or symbols of other things. Beneficial items whenever we might need them. And yet, are they persons?

The etymology of ‘person’, although complicated and disputed, is revealing, I think: the Online Etymology Dictionary describes person asa mask, a false face, such as those of wood or clay worn by the actors in later Roman theater. OED offers the general explanation of persona as “related to” Latin personare “to sound through” (i.e. the mask as something spoken through and perhaps amplifying the voice).’ Non-living entities, in other words, that in some situations pretend to be us.

I don’t mean to go overboard in my assignations of personhood, though -I suppose I only wish to defend my penchant for seeing agency in Nature. I recognize that I am inextricably entangled in its web and point out that it is me as much as I am it… So it was with some considerable relief that I discovered that I may not be sufficiently unique to necessitate a mention in the psychiatric DSM-5 bible. Thank you Aeon.

In an article for the online magazine, Sarah Jackson, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University  of Cincinnati in Ohio, wrote that ‘For the Maya of the Classic period, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America between 250 and 900 CE, the category of ‘persons’ was not coincident with human beings, as it is for us. That is, human beings were persons – but other, nonhuman entities could be persons, too… the ancient Maya experienced a world peopled by a variety of types of beings, who figured large in stories, imagery, social and ritual obligations, and community identities.’

She asks the intriguing question, ‘Do nonhuman persons need human beings to exist?’ For the Maya, ‘the answer was no. Nonhuman persons were not tethered to specific humans, and they did not derive their personhood from a connection with a human… In a Maya way of thinking, personhood is a resource in the world… The Maya saw personhood as ‘activated’ by experiencing certain bodily needs and through participation in certain social activities.’

But Jackson is careful to point out that for the Mayans it was not a magical world in which all of the things surrounding them were talking, or dispensing advice. ‘Rather, the experience would have been one of potentiality’ -rather like my mountain peak, I imagine. ‘they were prepared to recognise signs of personhood in a wide variety of places, and to respond appropriately when nonhuman entities signalled as such to them.’ Interestingly, ‘There’s one other element to consider, in blurring the boundaries of personhood. Personhood was a nonbinary proposition for the Maya. Entities were able to be persons while also being something else… they continue to be functional, doing what objects do (a stone implement continues to chop, an incense burner continues to do its smoky work). Furthermore, the Maya visually depicted many objects in ways that indicated the material category to which they belonged – drawings of the stone implement show that a person-tool is still made of stone.’

Jackson suggest that this idea is certainly of interest nowadays. ‘Challenging ourselves to illuminate assumptions about personhood (and its associated responsibilities and mutual obligations) sheds light on our own roles in constructing and deconstructing people, and the social and political consequences. Environment, race, immigration, civil discourse, gender identity, #MeToo: all of these topics link in some way to whom, or what, we value in comparison with our own experience of being a ‘person’, and our norms of what shared person-status means for action and interaction.’

Boundaries are porous -I like that; things are multifaceted, not forever confined to one identity -nothing need be either this, or that. It can shift, according to context, and perspective. According to need. My favourite mountain peak is a sleeping bear, by the way. I see it whenever I’m on the ferry and travelling from the island where I live to Vancouver. I miss it when I’m away…

Love, which alters when it alteration finds

I’m not certain I understand why, but I am being led to believe that Love can be described mathematically using Bayesian Probability Theory… Okay, as a start, I have no idea what subscribing to Bayesian probability theory might entail, except maybe a club membership, and a considerably manipulated personal profile to attract some interest. But, ever alert to new (or any) social possibilities, I decided to read the essay by Suki Finn, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton in the UK writing in Aeon:

It starts with the not unreasonable premise that there are two basic types of love: conditional, and unconditional. Then, she dips her toes into some background to convince me that Thomas Bayes’ probability theorem is flexible enough to improve my social life.

‘Degrees of belief are called credences. These credences can be given numerical values between 0 and 1 (where 1 is being completely certain), to demonstrate how strong that degree of belief is. Importantly, these values are not forever fixed, and can change when given reason to do so… But how do you rationally alter your credence, and figure out how strong it should be, given the information that you have? Cue Bayesian probability theory to calculate conditional credences. A credence is conditional upon information when it is evaluated with regard to that information, such that the strength of the belief is sensitive to that information and is updated on the basis of it… But what if my credence is completely irresponsive to such evidence? … This is what it is like to have credence 1, in other words, a belief of certainty, which could not be any stronger and cannot be updated. It cannot be updated in either direction – it cannot get stronger because it is already at maximum strength, and it cannot get weaker on the basis of evidence because it was not built on the basis of evidence in the first place.’ Uhmm… easy, right? And these are the rational changes to credence. ‘When your strength of feeling is sensitive to information about how things are, a philosopher would call it rational, as it develops in accordance with that information. Such is loving for a reason: with more reason comes more love, and when the reason goes, the love goes. This type of conditional love is an analogy to rational credences between 0 and 1 (not including the extremes), which change on the basis of evidence.’

Still with me…? I mean with Suki, because I’m not in any way with her…  Okay then, ‘Alternatively, unconditional love is love that will not change according to any information, as it was not built on the basis of information in the first place. This is love without reason… This type of love has an untouchable and irrational mind of its own. As with credence 1, it can change only irrationally – it does not abide by any Bayesian law and so cannot be updated… You fall in and out of unconditional love at the mercy of love itself… This is loving in spite of everything, rather than loving because of something, and so appears unaltered by reason… But this does not make the love stable. It is simply out of your control, and can literally go away for no reason!’

It seems to me that the author is saying that conditional love is probably more predictable, or maybe controllable than unconditional love, because it is not subject to random (uncaused) fluctuations. It’s not as liable to be indiscriminately, or inadvertently snatched away. Nice. But have I learned any non-obfuscatory take-home lessons? Is it readily transferrable to any situations other than amongst rhetoricians? Could I use it in the car on the way home, in other words?

Sometimes the grandest ideas fall short of the mark in actual combat… sorry, relationships. How, in practice, and when you’re just getting to know somebody, can you possibly profess conditional love? And why would you? It sounds like a sort of one-time stand thing. It is of course, but normal rules of courtship require hyperbole. Metaphors -as in: ‘My love is as constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, but there’s but one in all doth hold her place.’ As long as she doesn’t know you’ve cribbed the lot from Shakespeare’s Caesar, and you don’t mess up the words, everybody wins.

People are attracted to metaphors -they conjure up sincerity without linking it to unconditionality. Without requiring the intrusion of credences into an otherwise emotionally friable situation. It seems to me there’s nothing but trouble in store for anyone who decides to numerically assign emotional attachment parameters on the way home from a lovely dinner in an expensive restaurant.

Anyway, Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister, and heaven only knows what that entails in terms of the slideabilty of relationships. I mean, their Regulative principle of worship (according to Wikipedia, at least) ‘specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.’ I’m therefore not entirely convinced that he would approve of the commandeering of his theorems in the somewhat tottery realm of Love, whether or not it is entwined with the idea of worship.

Of course, on the other hand, I suspect he would no doubt denounce any effort to charm with untruths, or at least equivocatory declarations. I certainly admire Suki Finn’s attempt to clarify intrinsically opaque emotions, but I’m afraid it will not do. And to revert back to Philosophy -her specialty- for a moment, there are just too many perils for any practical attempt at a Kantian Categorical Imperative application here, either.

It seems to me that I blundered into a more satisfactory solution to the declaration of Love: metaphor. It does not require any numerical assignations that might confuse or even spoil the moment; it does not even require positioning the feeling along a Bell curve for comparison with other loves you might have had. Nope, at the party -after you muster up the courage to ask her to dance- you merely say: ‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that’, or in the car on the way home, you just have to come up with something like, ‘O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day which now shows all the beauty of the sun…’ and let it go at that.




Trolling for a Cause

Okay, full disclosure: in my day, ‘trolling’ was either dropping a baited fishing line in the water behind the boat as you cruised, or watching out for Billy Goat Gruff villains under the next bridge. I didn’t realize just how much I was in need of a more recent update. I mean why does everything now seem to have an online reference? A diktat. That which was once perfectly happy as a denotative word, complete with papers as an official definition, has since wandered onto the wild side beyond the tracks and reinvented itself as a ‘connote’ –or whatever the noun for its once respectable verb might be. I suppose I could look upon their ilk as metaphors, but I suspect they are a little too slippery to be confined like that.

Maybe what has drawn my interest this time is an article I saw a while back on my BBC news phone app: That I am being critical of matters to which I may, online at least, be naively party, has not escaped my notice. Irony, if not denotatives, can sometimes coexist, I suppose.

At any rate, it’s the issue of media advice I wish to address here. And the issue, I must confess, is problematic to say the least. In brief, a young London woman, Dami Olonisakin, began to write a sex and relationship blog, Simply Oloni, in 2008 because she felt that a lot of women didn’t have anyone to speak to. ‘It began as a personal lifestyle blog and she wanted to be the person that someone could speak to without being – or feeling – judged.’ Fair enough. She wanted ‘to give out impartial advice – something she believes can be more valuable than the opinion of a friend or a relative, who could be too emotionally involved.’ The identities of the participants and their problems were kept confidential and indeed she did not set herself up as an expert, merely an intermediary, as it were. She posted the problems on her Twitter account for her ‘26,000 followers to also share their advice and tips on the dilemma.”

It became quickly apparent, as she herself admits, that not every reader was happy with reporting the sorts of problems she receives. ‘”Not everyone has accepted that women are allowed to talk about sex freely, and we are allowed to embrace our sexuality; whether it’s choosing to keep your virginity until you’re married, or wanting to have casual sex, or wanting to be friends with benefits,” she says. “Your sex life is not a decision for other people to dictate.”’ And the critics were apparently not kind in their responses -they ‘trolled her’, to lapse into the vernacular for a moment: ‘”I’ve had trolls online telling me I’m ‘disgusting’ for suggesting that girls dating more than one man [at a time] is fine,” she says.’

A lot of things can be said under the cloak of online anonymity, to be sure and I suppose venting it serves some purpose or other… but as the inadvertent recipient of ‘trolling’ for writing a supportive comment on a news item a friend had posted online, I can attest to the concern –and even fright- that the vitriolic response elicited. It was almost as if someone had entered my house while I slept and spray-painted a hateful epithet on the bedroom wall. Perhaps I deserved it for daring to evince support for something in public -sorry, online; nobody agrees with everything, after all, but it was the emotions, the hatred, oozing from the words that felt threatening. And yet, maybe that’s just my age talking -presumably most youth today have evolved an internet shell under which they can shelter. But as the devastating effects of internet bullying have demonstrated, the shell is far from impervious. Far from universally distributed.

As bad as ‘trolling’ and internet bullying may be, however, I am more drawn to the courage of Oloni in recognizing the need that women –all of us, really- have a desperate wish to be heard. And to be heard impartially, non-judgmentally. Friends, clergy, and even doctors have the unfortunate habit of diagnosing and then advising; sometimes the person doesn’t want a diagnosis, let alone a treatment –she just wants someone to listen. Often the simple act of describing something to a dispassionate ear, is in itself a cure –or at least a relief. We don’t always require advice either –sometimes just a respectful silence. An acknowledgment.

This is often readily apparent in the privacy of my consulting room. I am a gynaecologist by trade, but occasionally ‘sounding board’ would describe it better. Deborah, a normal-appearing 38 year old Caucasian woman, was a good example.

She had been sent to me by a worried family doctor because of her heavy periods. Nothing the GP tried seemed to be working, so in desperation she had sent her reluctant patient to me to see what I could do for her. All of her tests were normal –iron stores, haemoglobin level, ultrasound of the uterine lining, and even a biopsy of those same cells (just in case) as she put in brackets.

On taking her history, Deborah assured me that her periods were quite regular and predictable, and on the whole, not any different from what she had experienced for years.

“I shouldn’t have mentioned them to Dr. Cameron,” she said once I had finished the history. “My mother and her sister both have heavy periods, so neither of them seemed at all worried when I was a teenager. But my GP seemed adamant: they were too heavy. In fact, she put me on all sorts of pills to decrease the flow…”

“And did they work?” I’m not sure why I interrupted her at that point, except for her eyes. They kept wandering to the pictures on the wall, or out the window to the tree outside. It was almost as it they feared to seek shelter on my face.

She shook her head at first, and then grinned. “Well, actually I didn’t take them -they were samples anyway, so…” She thought about it mid-sentence, and then suddenly revised it. “Well, actually I did take one and it made me feel sick, so that was it for the pills, I figured.” She shook her head sadly and then sent her eyes to explore the wooden carving of a woman holding a baby I’d positioned on my desk behind a plant to make it look as if she were hiding. “I felt like that woman,” she said, pointing at the carving. “You know, like I needed to hide from all her well-meaning advice.”

She was silent for a moment, so I waited. “I think Dr. Cameron had a thing about periods, actually. Each time I’d return for follow-up, she would smile and shake her head in that conspiratorial way women have –you know: ‘what a life we have to live’, and all that. She tried several contraceptives that I never took. And then she suggested a progesterone IUD that I refused.” Deborah finally allowed her eyes safe passage to my cheeks. “I only let her do the biopsy because she felt so upset about her treatment failures. She needed to find something. An explanation. Or better still, a solution.

“But I started to get really worried when she began to hint that I might need surgery. ‘Maybe just an ablation to get rid of the lining cells of the uterus,’ she added –probably because my face went pale.”

Deborah sat back in her chair and scrutinized my face, obviously more relaxed than when she’d entered the office. “Dr. Cameron suggested I see a gynaecologist that she was going to recommend, but I didn’t recognize the woman’s name. And anyway, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to discuss it with another woman…” A mischievous grin surfaced on her lips. “I figured I needed a non-participant… Neutral territory,” she added, her eyes twinkling. “And anyway, my mother sees you and she’s still got her uterus at seventy-three, so…” She blinked; it was my turn, apparently.

I shrugged and tried to suppress chuckling at her posture. She was comfortably ensconced –slouched, actually- in the far-from-comfortable wooden captain’s chair across from my desk, looking like she didn’t have a care in the world. I couldn’t remember anybody owning the chair –owning the office– like she did at that moment. “Well, Deborah, I have to say that I’m not worried about you.”

“No ablation? No hysterectomy…?” She pretended to pout. “Nothing?”

I smiled. “Well, if the periods get worse, you could always come back…”

The mischievous look returned. “Don’t worry, my mother would make me.”