Friday, January 07, 2005

The Outer Limits

It is important to us to define things. But when we define something, do we do it from the center, or from the edges?

Most of us might reflexively answer: "From the center." But do we? In what can be very loosely attributed to the Hellenistic side of our culture, our definitions actually proceed not from the center, from the thing itself (pace Kant), but from what the thing is not. This can quickly get more involved than it should, and perhaps the technical defenses should be left until they are needed.

But Greek reasoning, by and large, runs from what things are not, to what they are. Thales of Miletus, observing a cow eating grass that was nourished by rain, and then producing milk, wondered how all these unlike things could produce this result. And he reasoned that the similarity in them was water; so, he said, all things are water. Socrates later disagreed with the type of reasoning, not merely it's conclusions, but in the Phaedo he argues for both the existence of the soul and for its immortality based on what is not. His argument proceeds largely from opposites, in fact; and from these he concludes that things unseen (an eternal soul, for example) can still be said to be.

All very rough and ready reasoning, granted, but think of it as sandpaper on epistemological fingers itching to try their hands at the combination lock that keeps new thoughts pent up and waiting to cascade down. Good thoughts or bad will depend, but first, be open to the thoughts.

Because we still haven't gotten to edges, yet, and to boundaries. My thesis here is that when we define by boundaries, we define by what is not, rather than by what is. And that means we have to put a lot of energy into keeping those boundaries in place; constantly scouting for incursions on the what is from the what is not. This, in fact, was the central creation myth of the Greeks (but not, significantly, of the Hebrews). Reason, arising from logos (yes, similar to the logos of John) imposed order onto chaos. But the background issue is that chaos is always ready to consume order; and without ceaseless effort by reason, chaos soon, and inevitably, reclaims all (since the energy required by reason cannot be maintained indefinietly). The "natural state" of the universe, in other words, is chaos; so order is defined largely by what it is not.

Which isn't all as tedious as it sounds. Well, not quite.

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