Friday, September 19, 2008

Don 't Eat the Rocks

We have symbols for everything, things that represent something else. You can point to almost anything and think of some way of referring to it other than by the thing itself. Why do we do that? Why not just let things be whatever they are without investing them with extra meaning?

We have become so accustomed to using symbols that conversation is almost impossible without them. But what did people do before they decided to adorn their speech with symbols? Would religion have even been possible, or tales of love and danger and valor and cowardice or greed or charity? Would those ideas even be possible without their symbolic ornamentation? Could we even have ideas at all? Odd that the basis of civilization is language and language rarely refers to anything directly.

Then again, our obliqueness of expression may be significant. It may be that symbols are the means to visualizing events so that we can talk about what might happen later. The event itself is the interaction of things, like an avalanche. It doesn't really help much to talk about each rock tumbling down a mountain and it would take a really long time to pass along any information that way. So we group the whole event together as if it were a single thing and give it a name. The name becomes the reality.

It's been said that we humans have been around for a couple of million years yet we've only been interesting for about six thousand. What were we doing before that? Why did it take so long for us to become whatever it is we are now? Did it really take almost two million years for humans to discover the bow and the arrow? Without language there isn't a medium for thought, we see stuff but are unable to comprehend events. The rules of life would be simple: "Don't eat rocks", "Kill the Mammoth before skinning it", "Don't fart next to the campfire". These kinds of rules were obvious and required only minimal awareness.

It may also be that simple tools were invented many times. The arrowhead, for instance, is sharp making it a danger to both the its target and the one wielding it. How many times did some Paleolithic dude cut himself with an arrow and then immediately swear off arrowheads? The guy opts for nice round stones instead and the arrowhead has to wait a few generations before someone else invents it. Same with fire. To the non-thinking man of pre-history there is only the thing itself and its physical properties. The first word ever uttered was, "Ouch!" the second was, "Dammit!". The first attempt at something resembling thought was, "I'll never do that again!".

It wasn't until a woman invented dusting that humankind began the process we call history. Before that invention there was no such thing as dust and certainly no one had ever thought to remove it. But the removal of dust led to the concept of "tracking in" and that led to the concept of, "Bitch!". Now it became necessary to skin animals "outside" (another strange concept with which men had to grapple). The ragged rock outcropping where generations of foul and dusty men had gathered to skin their prey was transformed into a "home" and pretty soon the woman was making the children of the clan "Wash Behind Their Ears!".

Men began inventing things in self defense. First the broom so the woman could finish her damn dusting sooner, then the bow so he could spend the whole day chasing after his arrows instead of moving rocks around to satisfy his woman's sense of order. The evolution of thought had begun. At first is was simple work-avoidance strategies but soon mutated into a whole suite of philosophical musings having the sole purpose of allowing the man to sit around idly pondering the meaning of it all. He soon discovered the benefits of religion: the gods required him to be dirty and lazy and stay out all night. Next came the idea of government and royalty and privilege. Pretty soon no one knew the difference between invention and necessity and fiction became fact. And that pretty much brings us up to the present.

The symbols we use exist to perpetuate the whole superstructure of the societies that we've concocted over the millennia but no one knows that anymore. We have come to believe that they actually represent something. All of our thoughts depend, fundamentally, on symbols and apply to nothing real. Money, national boundaries, class and caste, good and evil, all political, philosophical and theological beliefs are wholly symbolic and have no substance. We have invented a world that is only perceptible to humans and exists only in the human mind. The "Real" world, the world of "Nature" is "out there" somewhere and not directly relevant to the world we care about. Nature is a stage, an inert environment having value solely because of our presence.

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