Our shared limited options

Fingers

Humans can only make so many stationary, single-hand signs with our five fingers. Thus it is inevitable that disparate groups of people develop different meanings for the same symbol, some of which I illustrate below:

Language

Like our hands, human mouths can only make so many sounds. Thus, it is not uncommon for different languages to have shared sounds with very different meanings. Let’s call that intra-language homonyms or “false friends” as language learners call them. Some quick examples:

  • English fart / Polish “good luck”
  • English but / Polish “shoe”
  • English kiss / Swedish “pee”
  • English barf / Hindi “snow”
  • English gift / German “poison” / Swedish “married”

Martial Arts

Like hands, humans limbs have only so many possible movements — there are only so many ways to attack an opponent using our limbs. It is common for various martial arts to declare themselves as unique, yet sharing more methods than they are willing to admit. This is the result of either intentional borrowing or spontaneous, independent development from among a limited number of movement options.

Theology

Finally, a common theme of this blog: religious thinking. One of the main reasons I left the exclusive religion of my youth was exposure, while traveling and reading, to shared thinking between religions (though each religion thinks themselves unique) due to the limited dilemmas shared by all humans. Like hands, mouths and limbs each human mind experiences a common limited set of dilemmas. Each religion dresses their similar solutions in different myths and theological clothing:

  • Free Will
  • Suffering
  • Works vs Faith
  • Magic Words
  • Guaranteed Afterlife
  • and many more …

Conclusion:

Because we do not often recognize our shared limited options, we are frequently and unnecessarily surprised by our overlaps. I could have gone further by exploring government types, sexual practices and more, but I think I’ve made my point without being too risky. Our insights are bound by the limitation of what sort of organism we are — a limitation we often forget.

Notes: Here are Wiki articles on single hand signs: List of gestures, Shaka symbol, OK gesture, Horn Sign. BTW, I was inspired to write this post because of one clue in the Vox crossword puzzle this week about Heavy Metal bands (the Horns sign) — ah, the internet rabbit holes. I am thankful to my son for editing my writing.

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The M(m)eaning(s) of(in) (my) L(l)ife.

In this cluttered title, I have tried to symbolically illustrate four significantly different ways both “meaning” and “life” can be used in a question. But spoiler alert: Only one of these questions is non-deceptive:

  • (A) What is the Meaning of Life?
  • (B) What is the meaning of my life?
  • (C) What are the meanings in Life?
  • (D) What are the meanings in my life?

I imagine readers can feel how each of these sentences carries their own assumptions.

Questions A, B, and C above are not useful questions for two main reasons:

(1) The word “Life” is a huge abstraction implying that there is one real thing called “Life”. It is a Trojan Horse much like the word “Truth” in my previous post. The idea/word of “living” is an obviously useful category, but as we have explored our world more deeply, the word “living” has gotten trickier as we wrestle with if it can be applied to (for instance) viruses, complex systems and now AI. These puzzles can help us see the artificial nature of the word “living”. Don’t get me wrong, “living” is a useful word, but that is the point, it is useful only in a limited way — it doesn’t point to a real “thing”. And so, you can imagine, if “living” has issues, the word “Life” — “living” morphed into a capitalized noun — is deceptively reified. I won’t go on here about this point — you can read my posts about other abstractions if you want to further understand my warnings about reified abstractions.

(2) A, B and C are not meaningful because of a short-coming in human reasoning. The metaphor that “humans are story tellers by nature” is a useful way to understand human communication and creativity but also to understand certain sorts of short-comings in human reasoning. With this story telling as a reasoning tool, it is tempting for people to look at history as a story, or at one’s own life as a story or a play. The next jump in reasoning is to assume that since it is a story or a play then it must have an author (“a god” or “the gods” or “fate” or “the Universe”) who has planned our roles in these stories — our purpose in the story or our meaning in Life. See how the phrase “meaning in Life” snuck in there? These weird false assumptions are what then make questions A, B and C seem deceptively meaningful.

Meaning” is a product of our interpretation, a tool for our motivations, but we must remember that it is comes from us, not from an invisible author. The beauty of realizing this is that it strengthens our sense of responsibility and participation.

Question to readers: Have you ever wrestled with any version of these questions?

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“Truth” – a Christian Trojan Horse

Over the years, I have run into Christians saying variants of “I believe in Truth” during an otherwise non-religious conversation. If you remember, I am a former Christian and thus can more easily see when the use of this abstraction (“Truth”) contains sneaky hidden assumptions — intentional or otherwise.

The English noun “Truth” (intentionally capitalized) is a common Christian trojan horse used to smuggle their god into a discussion – intentionally or often unintentionally. For Christians skilled in apologetics1 it is usually very intentional, for Christians who are transitioning out of their exclusive faith2 have usually been programmed by apologetics preachers and thus their use of it can just be an unintentional anchor in their former identity.  

Most people would agree to these uses of the word “true”:

  • It is true that 2 + 2 = 4 (a math truth)
  • It is true that George Washington was the first US president (an event truth3)
  • It is true that dropping a barbell on my bar foot will hurt my foot (a physical truth)

Religious and Religion-Free people can all comfortably say “those are truths” or “those are true statements”.  But when you take the “s” off of “truths”, we start having problems.

For instance, I think all readers can feel the difference between these two statements:

  • (A) There is Truth
  • (B) There are truths. (Read: “There are true statements”)

When a Christian says (A), “I believe the is Truth”, they do not mean something as simple as “I believe there are some statements we can be OK calling ‘true’ ” because that would be trivial and no one would disagree.  Instead, it is their trojan horse in which hides one of their pet phrases: “The author of all truths” — their god. Whereas (B), “There are truth statements. (There are truths)” can simply be what we discussed in our second paragraph.

Corollaries of this hidden thought inside of the word “Truth” can be particular Christian “truth claims”:

  • There is a god
  • Jesus was god
  • Morality is impossible without god

These claims are also obviously problematic but a little more direct and easier to discuss. Ever softer versions of “I believe in Truth” for Christians can be that “I believe the following truths”:

  • Morality is not totally relative
  • Things happen for a reason
  • Each person has a purpose

Those softer versions still have a Christian god tucked inside but at least they are even more easy to discuss that the huge blanket claim of “I believe there is TRUTH”. For example, in discussing these softer claims, a religion-free person may offer the following alternatives as true statements:

  • Some behaviors are far better than others.  I’m OK calling that principle “morality”.
  • Some statements are better approximation of reality (what is the case) than others.
  • It is possible to have suffering in one’s life and survive it using a deeper meaning than just happiness.

Again, the word “Truth” is a sneaky abstraction — keeping an eye out for these types of words is important, as I have written about extensively (see here). I hope I have illustrated that above.

Question to readers: Do you embrace using the phrase, “I believe in Truth”?

_____________
Footnotes:

  1. Apologetics” is a technical religious word for the use of (polished) systematic arguments to defend one’s religion
  2. “Exclusive Faith” — it is an ideology/religion that believes only their view is correct and in Christianity and Islam it goes further saying that those who don’t believe are bound for eternal torture.
  3. Event Truths: While most people would not disagree with this claim of George Washington, some folks disagree with the “truth” of the US moon landing, the holocaust or Jesus/Buddha existence. Here, evidence weighing is important and debate is possible, Some of these debates are silly (the moon landing), are evil (the holocaust) or a reasonable (Jesus or Buddha’s existence). But I think most agree that their is a reality against which to stack the evidence for these candidates for truths. (see my post and diagram here “Truth vs truth(s)“. See also my post on “Types of Truths“. My suggestion is not to buy into a single thing called “Truth” as I explained above, for if you do, then the conversation turns the proper us of an unreal abstraction. In this early post I wrestled with 7-8 models of using the single concept of Truth.

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Types of History

I highly recommend David Frum’s 10/30/2022 article in the Atlantic entitled “A New History War“. Frum’s article explores a controversy stirred by James Sweet’s 8/2022 article, “Is History History”.

This morning I read the NYT 1/8/2023 article about Sweet. I then followed links which led me to read the related articles below. But if you want a one-read suggestion, I’d suggest Frum’s article.

Here is a timeline of related articles with links:

Question to readers: What do you feel about the historical methodology pull between “presentism” and “antiquarianism”?

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Required Baby Names

How do parents choose their new baby’s name?

Socially conservative parents may borrow one of their own names or relative’s name. They may use creative mixes of relatives’ names. Or they may use a standard religious name or famous person name or celebrity name. Or they may chose from the top 100 most popular names at that time. Creative parents, on the other hand, may add a new spelling to a common name, or choose a name from another language, or create a name from scratch.

The explanations of parents for their naming choice can vary from “I don’t want my kid to stand out.” to the opposite: “I want my child to be unique.”

The USA has very few limits on names, and even then it varies by states. See here. Some countries have stricter rules on naming your children including: Denmark, Hungary, Japan and Iceland.

In this Japan Times article, a Japanese researcher found a new growth of Japanese unique names and shows how it is probably a sign of Japanese people gradually embracing individualism. From the article:

[The] Hofstede Individualism Score, … was developed in the 1980s by Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede to measure how much people in a society are expected to look after just themselves and their families. Unique baby names, it turned out, correlated positively with countries that scored as highly individualistic.

Their research shows similar trends toward individualism in China, Germany, France and the U.S, of course. Likewise, with immigration and people mixing, unique names flourish also.

Questions to readers: How did you or would you name your children and why? What do you feel are the down-sides of individualism?

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Abstractions & the Lazy Mind

I’ve written a lot about how abstractions trick people. This is just another rant. Someday I should try all this stuff together because abstractions are a huge obstacle to insight.

Today I chatted/argued with a friend about “civilization” — another tricky abstraction. He tried as hard as he could to get me to agree on a shared definition of “civilization”. I tried to point out that no matter what definition you create, it will have an “us vs them” agenda or be so fuzzy to be meaningless. In order for us to agree on a definition of “civilization”, we would need to agree on mutual self-deception.

In yesterday’s post (and my first comment) I indirectly tried to illustrate the manipulative use of the abstractions: “race” and “ethnicity”.

I created an aphorism today to capture my feelings on abstractions:

“Abstractions are the luxury of a lazy mind.”

by Sabio Lantz

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Is Morocco an Arab Nation? Is France a White Nation?

Imagine the righteous outrage that would result from a headlines like this:

The White world is elated that the French White team may win the World Cup.

Well, apparently no one is bothered by recent headlines just like these:

  • Morocco Has Given the Arab World Something to Cheer for Again (NYT)
  • Morocco is the first African and Arab team to advance to the World Cup semi-finals (NPR)
  • Morocco’s World Cup Streak Brings a Joyful Arab Embrace (VOA)
  • Arabs cheer Morocco as it becomes last Arab team in World Cup (Reuters)

The word “Arab” [according to ChatGPT] refers to a person who is a member of the Arab ethnic group, which is a group of people who share a common cultural and linguistic heritage. Arabs are predominantly Muslim and are native to the Arabian Peninsula, although there are significant Arab populations in other parts of the world as well. The Arabic language is the main language spoken by Arabs.

But looking at the Wiki article on the ethnic groups of Morocco we see that:

Arabs make up 44% of the population of Morocco, Arabized Berbers make up 24%, Berbers make up 21%, the Baydhan make up 10%, and others make up 1%.

Yet ChatGPT, when asked, “Is Morocco an Arab nation?” it replies:

Yes, Morocco is considered an Arab nation. Although it is located in North Africa, rather than the Arabian Peninsula, Morocco is predominantly Arab in terms of culture, language, and population. The official language of Morocco is Arabic, and the country has a rich Arab cultural heritage. However, Morocco is also home to significant populations of other ethnic groups, and its culture is a blend of Arab, African, and European influences.

Seeking clarification, I ask ChatGPT “So what is an Arab country” and it replies:
An Arab country is a country that is predominantly inhabited by Arab people.

OK, so with the same logic, any nation with a majority of Whites should be considered a “White Nation” right? Wrong! Countries should embrace diversity, and Arabs (like Western White nationalists) should not be encouraged to ignore the non-Arabs in their countries. Yet our news outlets seem to promotoe Arab/Muslim cultural imperialism.

Your thoughts?

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Etymology Stigmas: English vs Japanese

Etymology” means the study of the origin of words. The etymology of English words come from a mix of many languages:

  • 29% Latin
  • 29% French (a Latin language)
  • 26% German (English grammar is Germanic)
  • 6% Greek (mostly scientific/theologic words)
  • 10% others

Below you can see my diagram of the history of this blending of languages into modern day English. This complicated history of each words origin is unknown to the average English speaker. So though an English speaker may know how to use a word, they usually don’t know the word’s original meaning.

As an example, let us first look at the word “diabetes”. The medical word for the most common type of diabetes is “diabetes mellitus”. “Diabetes” comes from a Late Greek word for a group of urinary diseases. It literally meant “a passer-through” but it was used in Greek medicine to mean “an excessive discharge of urine”. The “mellitus” in “diabetes mellitus” means honey or generally, sugar. In many rural parts of American, “diabetes” is simply known as “sugar” — “My grandma got sugar”.

So you can see that the original meaning of diabetes is hidden from the English speaker. However, all high school educated Japanese speakers know the etymology of almost all their words because they use pictograms (“Kanji”) to write each meaningful part of a word. For example, in Japanese, “diabetes” is called “糖尿病” “tou-nyou-byou” or “sugar urine disease”. Nowadays in Japan there is a movement to change that name because of it can people with diabetes feel it stigmatize them by implying they have dirty urine. Fortunately most Americans don’t know the etymology of their own words so we are unaware of possible etymological stigmas. But for Japanese, Kanji (their characters) are both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that they make the language rich and deeply meaningful, but a curse because they are very difficult to learn.

Another example of a hidden etymological stigma can be seen in the word “cachexia”. Cachexia is Loss a loss of body weight and muscle mass, and weakness that may occur in patients with cancer, AIDS, or other chronic diseases. The word for this in Japanese is “悪液質” aku-eki-shitsu (bad-liquid-substance). Whether in Japanese or English, it is a very bad condition, but because a Japanese person knows the meaning of each component of their words, they get a particularly bad feeling from 悪液質.

To an English speaker, however, the etymology of the word cachexia is hidden. “Kakhexia” is a greek word meaning “Bad Situation” and actually, the first half of the word “kakos” comes from the Proto-IndoEuropean root “kaka” which means “shit”. So, “a shitty situations” is the original sense of cachexia. “Kakos” is also the source of our word “cacophony” — shitty sound.

So you see, English speakers ignorance of their words etymology can protect them, but overall the beauty of Japanese is that MEANING is always staring their readers in the face.

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Emotions

This post will contain links to the theme of “emotions”. I work in psychiatry now, where emotions and cognition are its foundations. Theories on these foundations are often in conflict. Here we will explore the slippery abstraction we call “emotion”.

My Relevant Posts:

Articles:

  • Science, 2019: “Emotion semantics show both cultural variation and universal structure”

Sources:

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Emotion

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Ensign (n.)

US Navy Ensign shoulder insignia

This post is simply a nerdy meandering around the word “ensign”. Those who know me, will know why I have this interest.

Ensign” travelled to English like this: Latin (insignia) –> Old French (enseigne) –> Scottish –> English

Already in the 1100s the Old French word had two uses:
(a) mark, symbol, signal
(b) flag, standard, pennant

Then in the 1510s the English word “ensign” was used for the soldier who carries the army’s flag. (Later jokingly called “being a target”). The rank, “ensign”, was first used by the French Army and is still used as the lowest rank in the French Navy. In the US, our first ensigns served in the Army as junior infantry officers and from 1862, Naval Academy graduates (“passed-midshipmen”) were given the grade of “ensign” which, by then, was the equivalent of Army second lieutenants. I have posted the Navy officer shoulder insignia for an “Ensign” to the right.

I started my explorations today when I happened upon a post illustrating countries with similar flags. I did not know that so many flags looked similar. See here Johndcook.com.

It was then that I learned that “ensign” has the meaning of “flag”. This started me wondering about the naval rank of “ensign” and what sort of flags naval ships fly. I wondered if these similar flags could be a challenge in identifying ships at sea. This investigation led me to the disappointing revelations that there are all sorts of “ensigns” on vessels. Here, “ensign” means the flag flown on a vessel to indicate nationality, BUT that ensign does not have to be identical to the country’s official flag. Flag information is so complex that in 1959 the word “vexillologist” was coined to mean someone who studies flags (Latin: vexillum: “flag, military ensign, banner”).

Almost all US government ships fly our national flag, except the US Coast Guard which uses a special ensign. Most other countries actually use a unique Naval ensign different (though similar) to their national flag. See Wiki pics here.

Sources:

  • Wikipedia (of course)
  • Etymonline.com
  • A History of Sea Service Ranks (PDF)

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