February 11, 2010

Symbol Shifters

A came across this wonderful quote via a colleague:

Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions. -Joyce Carol Oates

That led me to reflect ...

Humans are so much more than other species on the planet …

‘Symbol shifters’ is a phrase I remember Carl Sagan using to describe humans.

Language is indeed one of those defining characteristics that separates us from other species.

We have managed to learn so much about the structure and evolution of the universe and managed to store that knowledge for future generations using the power of language.

And so each succeeding generation is able to profit from the accumulated knowledge base of its predecessors.

We are literally ‘star stuff’ as well … another phrase I remember from Sagan.

Humans tend to confound me when they choose to give equal importance to man-made things such as cultural stuff (traditions, rituals) as they do to laws of nature (gravitation, how stars are made).

There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to man-made things … and that includes language as well.

There are no options to choose from when it comes to any law of nature — we are all bound by them.

A Soviet nuclear bomb works by the same principle as an American one.

An Indian fission device works the same way as a Pakistani one.

An Iranian weapon would use the same principles as an Israeli one.

The only difference I can observe is this: most of these man-made conventions are pretty old and therefore they have become quite ingrained in us. Science, on the other hand, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The laws of nature have been discovered in the last 300 years or so.

As we continue to progress, humans will surely learn to give less and less importance to man-made rituals.

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