Meta#3

One day, the point of this “Meta” topic will stick with my readers, but for now this is just a holding post to collect previous attempts and add a few new inputs that might help me clarify it.

Back in 2011 I had Meta and Meta#2 attempts (*). Meta itself as a concept runs through many hundreds of posts and topics here, hardly surprising when so much of my over-arching agenda is at the metaphysical boundaries of physical reality. And my use of the term is the same root, same intended meaning, but sadly the meaning in use has ended up very one-dimensional …. which is going to take some explaining.

[(*) In fact those two explicit posts are not attempts at all, but simply references to usage, so they don’t add anything. Ho hum.]

Anyway, the problem is meta-meta and more:

The net practical result of “meta”
is that “things”
are not defined by “words”
with clear “definitions”.

Here I’m effectively talking about the use of the word meta and/or my intended definition – usage – of it. And when I used the single level “meta” I mean implicitly meta-[meta x n] as many levels of meta piled on meta as reality consists. (A bit like irony-[irony x n] incidentally – come in Richard Rorty.)

Bottom line is
all definitions (in words)
are about intent (in usage).

One of my heroes Dan Dennett is always warning his more scientistic – definitively objective – acolytes to “hold your definition”. Definitions are things that arise from, not things you impose on, discourse, whether that discourse is dialogue or argument. (Obviously, in a closed environment – the “control volume” of a scientific experiment or formally staged critical argument, you can – and should – impose whatever rules your game requires. Real life is not a repeatable experiment, it’s a different game.) Dan’s point is that definitions obscure the things you’re trying to understand before you understand them.

But having got to the bottom line so quickly – the problem of things and their definitions – I have glossed right over my “meta” point … so I need to back-up and unpick what I’m saying.

About a year or two ago I wrote a long piece on exactly this – the misuse of taxonomies and definitions – where I didn’t major on the meta. In fact it remains in draft with many fragmentary references only to the politics of identity – how we identify individuals by definitions of their class(es). It was called “Good Fences” – about “dividing lines” we use to distinguish between things and the words we choose to represent them. (I repurposed the original Good Fences draft for one particular border dispute, but that never got published. So I need to rework it – and can emphasise this meta problem.)

So for now, the meta problem in expecting things to be definitive.

One news story today on AI replacing humans in various roles, specifically in the legal profession. Somehow in a profession driven by rules (of law) it seems self-evident that automation can bring consistency and predictable clarity (as well as efficiencies). Jeez! One, see rules. Two, the application of rules is not linear anyway. Circumstances are many-layered, relations between the layers would by inconsistencies if confined within layers. Even the layers are not one-dimensionally stacked. There is no reality without Hofstadterian strange-loops that cross levels. (This IS the meta point, if I can elaborate it comprehensibly.)

Consistency and transparency are over-rated concepts.

A second story on Twitter was sparked by Dick the Dawk’s suggestion  that he needs to write a book on atheism for kids, and the general response that someone with a little humanity and “generosity of spirit” – like Alom Shaha – would do a much better job. (In fact he already wrote “The Young Person’s Guide to Atheism”) I managed to ignore Dawkins suggestion yesterday, but had to agree with @TheosElizabeth characterisation of Alom today.

Then Liz made a plea to somehow downgrade the “boo” factor in the word “indoctrination” – the child-abuse charge Dawkins habitually parrots in this space- since we all intentionally or otherwise pass on values and stories from one generation to the next. That is clearly not bad in itself, it’s absolutely essential in fact. I responded with the counter plea that we should keep indoctrination for the more doctrinaire / ideological process and inculcation for the “better” kind.

(Aside – One of my triggers is “PC” – people flattening the playing field with broad definitions and word usage that disguise real and important differences. Usually the reason being that hard and fast definitive differences are often difficult to come by and too subtle for mean-spirited rhetorical cut and thrust anyway. I prefer we properly address the hard problem, rather than impose an unworkable simplification by banning or ignoring uses of a word.)

Anyway, Liz asked me for the definitive difference between inculcation (good) and indoctrination (bad) – hence this (inconclusive) post. The trigger was her use of “line” and “definition”. So far this is just an early attempt at elaboration on my response:

The point here is not as simple as “hard-lines” being divisive, unlike “good-fences” being collaborative. But that the defensive (definitional) processes and collaborative (usage) processes work on multiple different meta levels. It’s about how, not what. Definition is just too one-dimensional for reality.

[Work-in-Progress – Need to come back.]


Also published on Medium.

4 thoughts on “Meta#3”

  1. In the essay from which these lines are quoted “theology” is taken to mean “something like meta” , as I understand your usage of the term . Perhaps these quotes or their parent essay will help you to define the boundaries of the indefinite.

    Don’t be off-put by his use of the term “theology” as the man was an overt atheist unintimidated by taboo words like “god” and “electron” which are constantly reified with horrendous results
    .
    The first quoted paragraph provides an elegant simple distinction between reduction and abstraction , which can illuminate the divide between classic and romantic , analytic and continental and many of the other dichotomies which cripple philosophy.

    “The scientific man then starts from experiences in themselves emotionally flat, though to him perhaps interesting enough. He may end by producing a theory as exciting as Darwinism, or a practical invention as important as antiseptics or high explosives. The mind of the religious man on the other hand works on a descending scale of emotions. The dogma, prophecy, or good works which he may produce are inevitably less thrilling than his religious experience.

    The experience of the past makes it clear that many of our most cherished scientific theories contain so much falsehood as to deserve the title of myths. Their claims to belief are that they contradict fewer known facts than their predecessors, and that they are of practical use. But there is one very significant feature of the most fully developed scientific theories. They tell us nothing whatever about the inner nature of the units with which they deal. Electrons may be spiritually inert, they may be something like sensations, they may be good spirits or evil spirits. The physicist, however, can only tell us that they repel one another according to a certain law, are attracted by positive charges according to another law, and so on. He can say nothing about their real being, and knows that he cannot.

    It is, I suppose, the fact that there is no great stability to be found in scientific theories which leads the opponents of science to talk of the intellectual bankruptcy of our age; generally as a preliminary to adopting beliefs current in mediaeval Europe, India, or Bedlam.

    Perhaps a summary of the ideal relationship of religion and science would be somewhat as follows:—Religion is a way of life and an attitude to the universe. It brings men into closer touch with the inner nature of reality. Statements of fact made in its name are untrue in detail, but often contain some truth at their core. Science is also a way of life and an attitude to the universe. It is concerned with everything but the nature of reality. Statements of fact made in its name are generally right in detail, but can only reveal the form, and not the real nature, of existence. The wise man regulates his conduct by the theories both of religion and science. But he regards these theories not as statements of ultimate fact but as art forms.”

    “SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY AS
    ART FORMS” JBS Haldane
    http://jbshaldane.org/books/1927-Possible-Worlds/haldane-1927-possible-worlds.html#Page_225

  2. On reflection , it appears that I’ve focused on the wrong parts of your blogs , if you really mean to address purely the self-referential aspect of “meta”, as found in ” Hofstadter’s Law : It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” and the even stranger loop that creates self-hood .

    If so this quote from WK Clifford may induce you to read his essay. It pursues this theme to a satisfying depth in a manner that foreshadows Hofstadter as his physics foreshadowed Einstein.

    “The universe, then, consists entirely of mind-stuff. Some of this is woven into the complex form of human minds containing imperfect representations of the mind-stuff outside them, and of themselves also, as a mirror reflects its own image in another mirror, ad infinitum.
    Such an imperfect representation is called a material universe. It is a picture in a man’s mind of the real universe of mind-stuff.”

    “ON THE NATURE OF THINGS-IN-THEMSELVES”

    https://archive.org/stream/lecturesessaysby19012clif/lecturesessaysby19012clif_djvu.txt
    Page 52

  3. I recently heard of the “TLA or Three Letter Acronym” , a concept which exemplifies this phenomenon , of “meta” even more simply.

  4. Fascinating. I really am going to have to get around to reading JBSH (and Clifford). You get my (unspoken) point about reification of “objects” in use of words.

    That abstraction vs reduction too. “Greedy reductionist” is another Dennett criticism of the “scientstic” tendency.

    Also, yes, the replacement of complex concepts with TLA’s is an example of “Compression” – an algorithm that fits in very well with Hofstadter – and yes on at least one dimension it is Meta all by itself.

    As I say, fascinating. I can’t respond to every individual comment – I’m busy with other projects too – but I do appreciate your interactions. Many thanks, Ian

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