19. Unseen Grammar – Suspecting The God Of Cracks Between The Floorboards

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;

But it is on the space where there is noth­ing
that the use­ful­ness of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a ves­sel;

But it is on the space where there is noth­ing
that the use­ful­ness of the ves­sel depends.

We pierce doors and win­dows to make a house;

And it is on these spaces where there is noth­ing
that the use­ful­ness of the house depends.

There­fore just as we take advan­tage of what is,
we should rec­og­nize the use­ful­ness of what is not.

(Lao Tzu, chap. 11, tr. Waley)

The flight of a bird is not in wings, but in the shape of the space-time enclosed by each wing from instant to instant. In other words, flight is a gram­mar of rela­tion­ships. An infinite vari­ety and num­ber of wings may par­tic­i­pate in this gram­mar of flight rela­tion­ships, but it is the gram­mar alone which remains con­stant.

A dance is not in bod­ies, but in the shape of the space-time enclosed by each danc­ing body from instant to instant. A daisy is not in its mol­e­cules, but in the count­less shapes of space-time enclosed by a fam­ily of mol­e­cules over sev­eral sum­mer days. A daisy is a par­tic­u­lar, very com­plex gram­mar of rela­tion­ships which only cer­tain mol­e­cules are able to enter into, but those mol­e­cules may do so to make an infinite num­ber of daisies. And a sen­tence is not the sum of its words, but is found in the pecu­liar gram­mar of rela­tion­ships which may exist amongst those words. There is a sub­set of rela­tion­ships amongst cer­tain ele­ments which we take to be a human being. The gram­mar mak­ing that human thing is very com­plex indeed, but it too is con­stant in a way which enables the won­der­ful vari­ety of human crea­tures to be rec­og­nized as mem­bers of a close fam­ily. One seg­ment of the par­tic­u­lar gram­mar of rela­tion­ships known as human, also has unusual prop­er­ties of recur­sion. We know this recur­sive behav­iour as self-inspec­tion, self-analy­sis and the abil­ity to act with pre­med­i­ta­tion. In other words, humans have sen­tience.

The sen­tience thing is not a stan­dard qual­ity of the bits of fat and meat and water and bone which any butcher could find. (Nor is the word proces­sor I am writ­ing this with nec­es­sar­ily located in bits of sil­i­cone …). No, sen­tience has to be some remark­ably com­plex and dynamic gram­mar of rela­tion­ships per­sist­ing in a pecu­liar envelope of space-time. The neigh­bour­hood of that envelope, we guess to be defined by the meat and bone etc., but as with most gram­mars, it might in prin­ci­ple be pos­si­ble to trans­pose it to other medi­ums.

Some humans have pro­posed that there is a mas­ter gram­mar of rela­tion­ships amongst all the ele­ments of the uni­verse. In fact, such a gram­mar is gen­er­ally assumed, and is often called Nature. A far more fiercely argued propo­si­tion is that Nature is in some sense sen­tient. Indeed, since most peo­ple find it eas­ier to think of “objects”, rather than a gram­mar of rela­tion­ships, Nature is apt to be iconized as a sen­tient crea­ture of some kind (even though only some sub­sets of com­plex rela­tion­ships have truly “object=like” qual­i­ties).

From that it is a short leap of imag­i­na­tion to think of the Nature crea­ture as sit­ting “out­side” of the gram­mar of nat­u­ral rela­tion­ships, and manip­u­lat­ing that gram­mar in some way. Such a leap is not log­i­cal, but dreams don’t have to be log­i­cal. At this point, a per­son­al­ized “God” has arrived on the scene. His­tor­i­cally of course, tra­di­tional soci­eties mostly iconized sub­sets of nat­u­ral gram­mars in this way, assign­ing sen­tience and power to hills, rocks, ani­mals and all kinds of imag­i­nary spir­its.

We have this say­ing that “see­ing is believ­ing”. We are phys­i­cally equipped to “see” or per­ceive cer­tain sen­sa­tions which emanate from cer­tain rel­a­tively sta­tic “gram­mars of rela­tion­ship”, such as solid objects from which light is reflected. Nev­er­the­less, per­haps the largest quanta of phe­nom­ena which we believe are not appre­hended directly through sen­sa­tion at all, but through lan­guage. We can­not “see” or per­ceive lan­guage, and only some­times the phe­nom­ena to which it refers. In fact if you ask any­one but a lin­guist to attempt a descrip­tion of the gram­mar of their lan­guage, they are likely to retreat in embar­rassed silence. 

Yet whether the signs of the lan­guage arrive in puffs of air, or the visual sym­bols of print, or touch Braille, every­one sub­con­sciously applies an incred­i­bly com­plex known gram­mar to decode rela­tion­ships amongst the signs, that is, to extract mean­ing. These “mean­ings” are gen­er­ally believed, and some­times fought to the death over. In other words, the unseen gram­mat­i­cal rela­tion­ships of human lan­guages have an awe­some power to influ­ence human actions.

Lin­guis­tic gram­mars are not the only unseen rela­tion­ships which have power. The so-called laws of Nature are sim­i­larly appre­hended by infer­ence, and they are pow­er­ful enough to keep the whole road­show of life rolling. Whether any impor­tant non-human part of that power man­i­fests as an agent with some sort of pre­med­i­tated pur­pose, that is, in a voli­tional man­ner of its own mak­ing, is a trick­ier ques­tion. Since humans, a sub­set of Nature them­selves, do just that, the ques­tion is rea­son­able.

The pan­the­is­tic notion that Nature, as a grand gram­mar of rela­tion­ships amongst the ele­ments of the uni­verse, is in SOME sense sen­tient, IS con­ceiv­able to my brain. The propo­si­tion that a SUBSET of nat­u­ral rela­tion­ships, besides the known human vari­ety, might exer­cise some pow­er­ful sen­tience, is even more con­ceiv­able to my brain. What that sen­tience might amount to has been a rich field of inven­tion. How­ever, I have seen NO per­sua­sive evi­dence that such non-human sen­tience, even if it exists, can be har­nessed for good or ill by humans. That is why I choose to call myself an athe­ist.

To me it seems that nei­ther our sci­ence nor human reli­gions have estab­lished the power of any exter­nal intel­li­gence to influ­ence our lives, least of all in answer to prayers and sac­ri­fices; (I am a stub­born skep­tic. Oth­ers may require much lower stan­dards of evi­dence). How­ever, I can­not hon­estly pre­clude the pos­si­bil­ity that such a thing might come to pass. And that is why, unlike many (per­haps most) athe­ists, I am not a dog­ma­tist. It is a per­fectly ratio­nal pos­si­bil­ity that the cracks between the floor­boards could be man­aged for some bizarre pur­pose by a local duty god. 

There remains the inter­est­ing ques­tion of why any­one would bother with the god in the crack between the floor­boards, given our rot­ten record of extract­ing spe­cial favours, in spite of all the prayers. Not too many of us win the lot­tery either, but hope springs eter­nal. At this very moment, in a moun­tain grove fifty meters from my apart­ment win­dow on the out­skirts of a Korean city, two old Korean women are chant­ing and ring­ing a bell. In a tiny grotto or rocks, they have placed a liba­tion of three oranges and a stain­less steel gob­let of spring water. They are seek­ing the favour of a hill spirit. Clearly, for them, their beliefs offer some emo­tional com­fort, whether or not they are prov­able to my own sev­ere stan­dards of evi­dence.

A sec­ond, more polit­i­cal answer to the puz­zling pro­lif­er­a­tion of unprov­able reli­gious beliefs might be that a) the human brain evolved to ask ques­tions (that’s a big sur­vival advan­tage), but b) noth­ing in evo­lu­tion taught our brains that you can’t get sure answers to some ques­tions with the men­tal equip­ment we have. When the old men of the tribe couldn’t get sure answers, they fig­ured they had bet­ter make up some answers and stick to the story, or they’d lose all respect. Oh well, no doubt that still hap­pens some of the time… But the emo­tional needs of those old ladies in the hill grove out­side my win­dow is prob­a­bly a more pow­er­ful engine in the end.

Hav­ing got­ten them­selves a god, or gods, human inge­nu­ity in defend­ing him/her/it knows no bounds. Along with jus­ti­fy­ing the orga­nized crime of earthly kings, many of the clever twits who inhab­ited sem­i­nar­ies, uni­ver­si­ties and courts for two or three mil­len­nia, seem to have devoted their lives to con­struct­ing reli­gious argu­ments. Their most pow­er­ful tool has always been REASON, though most of them also glo­ri­fied Faith as an impreg­nable front-of-house door genie. The beauty of rea­son is that you can eas­ily con­struct whole libraries of ratio­nal argu­ment, no mat­ter that your shoddy premises are buried deep in the base­ment. This is the Faus­tian stuff of PhDs. I’m not about to waste my life dig­ging up these many mouldy foun­da­tion stones. How­ever, some­times it is tempt­ing to take a kick at this or that ven­er­a­bly dead reli­gious premise when it is heaved through one’s win­dow yet again.

Con­sider, for exam­ple, the grand acci­dent of life itself. The grand acci­dent was con­sid­ered one of the best argu­ments for a divine being in 18th-19th Cen­tury Europe. They called it the prob­lem of the Cos­mic Watch­maker amongst other things, reflect­ing on the sheer improb­a­bil­ity of life, espe­cially the kind of life that could give rise to a pocket watch (a mechan­i­cal mar­vel of the age), com­ing about by acci­dent.

Well, I’m not at all sure that this “acci­dent” of life was so unlikely. From our human stand­point, life and it’s com­plex­ity truly is amaz­ing, but we are entirely unqual­i­fied to judge on any cos­mic scale, its emer­gence as prob­a­ble or oth­er­wise.

There are an awful lot of vari­ables out there that we don’t know about, and given our lim­ited sen­sory and cog­ni­tive equip­ment, we may never put it all together. How­ever I can con­ceive that in a phys­i­cal uni­verse which seems to our puny mea­sure­ments to be damn near infinite in extent, it might have been sur­pris­ing if, some­where, some­time the right com­bi­na­tion of mol­e­cules to form a self-regen­er­at­ing micro sys­tem had NOT bumped into each other. 

And if this scene that we are part of now falls apart in the cos­mic future (well, it seems cer­tain to)… then it may very well hap­pen in the next big bang (or what­ever uni­verses do from time to time, includ­ing invent­ing “time”) that some kind of life is cre­ated yet again … This could have been going on forever, but we are never gonna’ know about it. Why? Being a slow-wit­ted fel­low, I find it hard to even imag­ine that our own inven­tions, past or future, are going to save our descen­dants from cos­mic cat­a­stro­phes, such as our local sun becom­ing a red giant.

Far more impor­tant to a wretched bug like me is what the other silly crit­ters of my species actu­ally DO with their lives and TO mine. If they sus­pect there are grem­lins at the bot­tom of the gar­den, then they’ll act on that belief and affect my wel­fare. We have to live with the stub­born illu­sions and sim­ple hopes of com­mon peo­ple. Many a merry philoso­pher, real­iz­ing this, has set up shop as a for­tune teller or guru to make a tidy income from their wish­ful think­ing.

Occa­sion­ally under extreme provo­ca­tion we might need to cut a zealot off at the knees. But we cer­tainly can’t move the teem­ing mil­lions from their low-level reli­gious com­fort zones. Every prophet who tried that in the last three thou­sand or so years has been resisted, then enveloped and absorbed into the rou­ti­nes of kitchens and babies, of work and war, with­out ever mak­ing wise men of fools, or saints of ordi­nary self­ish folk. Nor are we ever going stem the rise of oppor­tunists (thou­sands are born by the min­ute) who will use any reli­gion, or any ide­ol­ogy, or any idol made of clay for self pro­mo­tion, no mat­ter what the cost in merely human suf­fer­ing.



Lao Tzu (trans­lated 1934 by Arthur Waley) The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chi­nese Thought , 1934
http://afpc.asso.fr/wengu/wg/wengu.php?l=Daodejing. Also see com­pi­la­tion Terebess Asia Online at http://terebess.hu/english/tao/waley.html


Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972).

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thor­may AT yahoo.com
Thor’s Unwise Ideas index

All opin­ions expressed in Thor’s Unwise Ideas and The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

Unseen Gram­mar – Sus­pect­ing The God Of Cracks Between The Floor­boards”
© copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2001

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