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You Don't Have to Explain Yourself: Language, Logic, & Ultimate Truth

Updated: Apr 22


"Follow the currents of your oceanic knowing."

--Chris Spark

 

Artwork: The artwork for this post is by the Iranian artist Gol Naran, whose beautiful creations follow their own dreamlike logic. See more of Gol's work here: https://golnaranart.wordpress.com/. #golnaran, @golnaran.


Footnotes: I recommend reading the post first without looking at the footnotes.


 

No Western philosopher was a painter. Even though paintings convey information and meaning, the Western tradition has demanded that philosophers convey their wisdom in words. Scientists—our modern-day philosophers—must also use words along with mathematical equations to present their truths.

 

In the modern westernized world, the official means of communication are language and logic.[1] Western culture believes that the most important, brass-tacks information about the universe can and must be conveyed by some combination of language and logic. If it is conveyed in another form, it might be interesting, amusing, or thought-provoking, but it isn’t really real.[2]

 

Language and logic are a huge help in solving technical problems and in conveying certain kinds of information. They are also based on separation and exclusion: red is not orange, right is not wrong, the US is not Mexico, straight is not gay, and so on. The building blocks of language and logic themselves are separate from each other. Every word I’m writing here is separate from every other word. Language and logic, by their nature, divide up reality into abstract elements that exclude each other. This is a helpful way of modelling certain aspects of reality for our convenience. But it’s far from reality itself. In fact, close investigation reveals no definite or permanent boundaries of any kind in reality.[3] 

 

Once language and logic divide up reality into abstract elements, they lay out these abstract elements in lines. One thing follows another along the straight line of a sentence or logical statement. There is no other way to use language and logic except in this sequential way.

In a painting, you can dab a little red and then a little yellow on top of it to get some shade of orange. But when things are laid out in the lines of language and logic, they can’t be in two places at once. One location on the line excludes another location. Things aren’t allowed to blend, curve, fold, overlap, or branch.[4]


Yes, we can express nonlinear concepts and images using language, but we have to express them in a linear way.[5] I can say, “Jennifer blends with Edward,” but you still have to take in the information one word at a time in a sequence. (Which might lead us down more linear paths like “Why did I put Jennifer first? Is she more important than Edward?”)

This is not how we experience reality. In each moment, reality presents itself to us all at once. Nothing is denied. Our experience is all here now.[6]

 

Just as a hammer was made to pound nails, our Western way of understanding reality was made to separate things and lay them out in lines. Any time we think this way, we are slicing up the wholeness of reality into mutually exclusive chunks and arranging them in a sequence. We aren’t encountering reality directly. We’re representing it in our minds in a way that makes it appear to be a “this-then-that” proposition. We’re telling ourselves stories about our experience. These stories simplify our experience and sometimes make things more convenient.

 

But they don't tell us about ultimate truth.


You probably know the saying, “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We could also say, “When all you’ve got is modern Western thinking, everything looks separate and sequential.” We tend to use the hammer of this modern Western thinking to bang on everything we encounter. [7] Even when it’s not the right tool for the job.

 

The job of knowing ultimate reality, is not another nail. This is because all the nails exist within this reality. To somehow approach the greatest truth, we must enter a dimension that the tools of language and logic weren’t made for. Language and logic have helped us immensely. But language and logic do not contain reality. Reality contains language and logic.[8]

 

This means reality can’t be fully understood using only language and logic. Trying to do this is like trying to squeeze three dimensions into two. We’ll always encounter paradoxical statements.[9]

 

This often tempts intellectuals to dismiss spirituality as nonsense. But there’s really nothing strange about the situation.[10] Language and logic are simply not reality itself. Rather, they are elements within reality. How then could they be adequate tools for describing the whole of reality? The study of a gear in a clock wouldn’t allow us to understand the whole clock. The contemplation of a line in a drawing wouldn’t allow us to appreciate the whole drawing. [11]  Using only logic guarantees we are not describing reality as a whole. To speak about the greatest possible reality with the greatest possible accuracy, logic itself tells us that we have to sometimes speak nonlogically.[12] Non-sense is necessary. Or at least the kind of nonsense that points to something real. We could call this “serious nonsense.”[13]

 

Stop for a moment after this sentence and just experience reality—sights, sounds, sensations—for ten or fifteen seconds without forming any words about it in your mind.

 

Now imagine trying to describe your experience in words, or model it with an equation. Could any words or numbers capture the experience? Could any words or numbers be the experience? Not even close.

 

It’s not just that language and logic can’t convey some of reality. They can’t convey most of reality. This “most of reality” is what a spiritual practice invites you to explore.

 


 

 The truth can’t be told 

nor understood by the mind,

only embodied.

 


When language becomes 

a barrier to the truth,

know which one to toss.

 


The inscrutable

harmony of the Self is

heard when we shut up.

 

 

 


 

If you enjoyed this post, please let me know with a like. Or leave a comment.


 

Footnotes

[1] Most people don’t realize how different various ways of human thinking can be from our own—in tribal societies, for example. Such different styles of thinking are equally legitimate even if they emphasize different aspects of reality. Not every human culture, for example, is as fascinated by technology as ours is. I explore this more in my book Of Geometry & Jesus, particularly in the essays “Country Bumpkins,” and “You Are Your Philosophy.”

[2] Contrast this with pre-literate cultures in which the deepest wisdom was conveyed by spoken myths. The people in such cultures were also pragmatic. They used logic in making tools, tracking animals, and so on. They just didn’t imagine that logic and pragmatic language was sufficient for expressing deeper truths about reality.

[3] This may sound like a bold or even ridiculous claim. I explain it more in “Division Vision,” an essay in my book, Of Geometry & Jesus, and also in my blog post about the word division

[4] Poets try to overcome this limitation of language by using words in unconventional ways and laying them out visually in ways that break up the usual linear arrangement of prose sentences.

[5] Marshall McLuhan’s famous pronouncement “The medium is the message” is relevant here. The medium of language and logic always subliminally sends a message that reality is divided up and linear, regardless of what other message we think we are conveying.

[6] Evidence shows that learning to read changes the brain. Literate people have a reduced capacity for facial recognition and for recognizing overall patterns and gestalt wholes. (See The Weirdest People in the World, Prelude.) 

[7] This is not to denigrate logic and language in any way. We overuse this approach precisely because we have found it so useful.

[8] Kurt Gödel and other thinkers have used logic itself to demonstrate the limits of logic, thus pointing to a greater reality which contains rational thought. In the East, the yin-yang symbol of Taosim is an attempt to depict that larger reality: black and white—logically thought of as opposites—interpenetrate and harmonize in a greater circular wholeness.

[9] One of the founders of quantum physics, Neils Bohr, once said that the opposite of a superficial truth is a falsehood. But the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth. 

[10] In fact, paradox is at the heart of modern physics: both light and all matter sometimes act as if they were waves, and sometimes as if they were particles. Or, that’s how we humans see them. What they ultimately are, then, must be something that appears paradoxical. Physicists accept this about their discipline, but are sometimes reluctant to accept the same principle in a larger arena.

[11] This is similar to mathematician Kurt Gödel’s proof that “broke math.” Gödel proved that no logical system can prove all the truths that that system implies. In other words, in any mathematical system, there will always be true statements that are impossible to prove!   

[12] Neils Bohr, who along with Einstein was one of the central figures in the founding of modern physics, said, “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality.”

[13] Zen koans are serious nonsense meant to help students break through past limitations. 

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2 commentaires


Can an other dimension be the Feelings maybe? In relation to a certain thing....

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Yes. I think that's one of or part of the other dimensions.

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