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The Metaphysics of Grammar

I am these words you read. Or, if you want, these words are you. They radiate from this screen, involving you in their shapes, in their meanings, in the very mystery that they can communicate at all. We don't know one another and will never meet. Yet you read these words, each of them composed of letters, which shape representations. Representations of what?

Ah, there's the rub. Of what? What is it that is transpiring between us, you and me? Take this word: computer screen. There, that has clear representation. We register the screen surface, the edges, note the colors. That transpiration is clear. But what about other words? Where are their references? How is it possible that we make any sense at all together? What is it that we participate in to create this communication? It has been called consciousness, but that is another word.

We are wrapped in language. Our universe is linguistic. Poets, astronomers, philosophers, lovers, politicians, businessmen, even animal trainers, all use it. Most of it is based on airy conceptions, none of which does any more than help us think we know what we are talking about. Take grammar as an example.

Grammar has three basic tenses: we were, we are, and we will be. Our everday language is founded upon metaphysics, the metaphysics of time. With the future conditional, we would, speculation about choice and determinism arises.

We accept grammar as common sense rules of language and it works well to help communicate events as we experience them: what did happen, is happening, and will happen. Still, its tenses are flimsily based.

In "The Unreality of Time" (1908), Scottish philosopher J.E. McTaggart concluded that we label the tenses of our lives as time, and that is all it is, a mere name.

He said that confusion arises because we think the coffee was hot but is no longer hot. Instead, the coffee involves properties of hotness, then coldness which, as past and present, are properties of time which do not relate to one another because gone is gone, and here is here, so to speak.

Here are two different claims McTaggart poses about time:

A. Once in the past, a property can no longer be present. Only two possibilities are involved, present or not present.

B. But every event also has three properties; the coffee was hot, is cold, and will be gone (evaporated).

Claims A and B are logically incompatible. (No longer present? Three properties?) McTaggart must conclude that this inconsistency renders the tensed theory of time as false. Hence, he said time is a name for what we can't explain.Time is the strangest of our concepts, one that we rarely question. In terms of strangeness, consider the next paragraph.

Einstein's Special Relativity Theory folded space and time into spacetime, a four-dimensional block universe. In Relativity the observer determines the present. For our purposes, think of a light cone, which is the history of a flash of light. Relativity implies that time is unique to an observer's light cone. Philosopher Hilary Putnam pointed out an implication of relativity in which observers Joe, Linda, and Jennifer might involve these scenarios: Joe witnesses event X, which is not the future for Linda (therefore unreal), but is in the past for Jennifer (therefore real). How can events be both real and unreal?

Consider that in the night sky your eyes might register a star's light emitted billions of years ago. The light is real and present for you but the star cannot "see" the same light, which is in its past. Thus, too, dead stars may still live as we see their light for the first time.

Of time, St Augustine said, When you don't ask I know; when you ask, I know not. Modern theorists would say, When you ask I can give you lengthy explanations, but still I don't know. A Thirteenth Century Zen master and a brilliant mind, Dogen Zenzi said that man disposes himself into the world and takes this disposition as time. He meant that our "neural itch" creates time. (See Fait accompli, 8 November.) We are always impelled forward, always changing.

An understanding occurs when we realize that we are intelligent energy and that our changes are manifested as time. Some physicists would not touch this proposition. It does not readily yield itself to mathematical equations. It is one that each of us must explore for himself or herself.

Turn the light of consciousness inward and all thoughts, all sensation, all half-impressions disappear as it illuminates them. What remains is the light itself. This is not theoretical but is empirically verifiable.* Turn the light on whatever arises, and only it, a clear presence, remains until eventually clarity notices that all arises and falls away.

At this point, words again become a mystery because they remain on the remote edge of any further discussion. I had begun by saying I am, or you are, these words, and then, headed for laybyrinthine convolutions, tried to clarify meanings. But what are we when we turn away from them? What are we without meanings?

( * For empirical verification comments see the Richard Dawkins article, 31 December, and the Francisco Varela article, 6 January. For articles on time, see John Wheeler, 11 January, and Peter Lynds, 20 November. Also see the article on Perception, 8 December.)


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