Monday, July 7, 2008

Construction of Meaning and Imagination

I was just thinking about phlogiston and the aether and vacuum..among other ideas.
The imagination that was required to come up with these ideas is, to me, stunning.

If what we do is make up stories as a natural part of how we understand the world, then coming up with ideas like these seems to me beyond the imaginative efforts of a Tolkein or an Asimov.

Some ideas seem like they would come up logically eventually: I can see how an idea like infinity would arise through some logical debate.

Or evolution: that seems not too impossible: one sees groups of similar creatures and tells a story of how they all came from a similar source--it is especially plausible if you already know of breeding of animals and how traits can be strengthened from generation to generation (and I think we can say safely that 19th century England knew about animal breeding). It would take some imagination to come up with the idea of evolution, but the elements are there in experience.

But what about vacuum or the aether? These are ideas that I can hardly even attempt to explain. They both play key roles in various stories about the very nature of existence. But they are so far abstracted from experience that my imagination does not take me to such places easily.

Phlogiston is another one: the substance that is contained in elements that burned. Somehow this works with the four classical elements--earth, air, water, and fire--but how is phlogiston different from fire? I don't know. I haven't tried to explain it. I have a story that explains combustion--something about release of energy from carbon bonds and recombination with oxygen--I don't think about combustion much, so I don't need a very detailed story. But think about how the mind is stretching when it tries to explain fire by adding a new element to a list of elements that already has "fire" as one of the elements.

Hopefully we don't need to use quite so much imagination in the construction of our meaning for our own work. Much easier to imagine a complete world filled with creatures that resemble humans, and also other mythical creatures, than to imagine a completely new element. Hopefully it's easier still to imagine significance for your own work.

I think perhaps one of the greatest battles that I fought was with the internal voice that said to me "no one is going to care about this abstruse philosophical question you're studying, even if it is important." Partly I battled the voice by telling myself that the idea mattered even if it didn't reach anyone else (an odd position for one who believes that knowledge is fundamentally instrumental, but who ever said I was consistent?). The sense that your own work is important is crucial. A great shame is that so many people start out on dissertations (or at least start graduate programs) with a sense that they are in school to help the world, and they somehow get out of touch with that initial sense of purpose. If you can reconnect with the things that are meaningful for you, and you can imagine a path by which your research can tie into the initial passion that drove you, then you can work from a place of emotional strength--one where your emotions are not conflicted (or at least not as conflicted).

I also gained a measure of strength by reframing the project and finding meaning in my ability to overcome obstacles and successfully complete a project that--by the end--had swelled into a work of over 300 pages. No one may ever read that book again (and given that I needed a proofreader, I'm not sure that bothers me), but that matters not at all because I finished it.

I've been thinking a lot about how the stories we tell about our lives can help or hinder us. Those stories are construction of meaning. On the simplest level this may be just a matter of what we focus on: do we focus on the good things or the bad? On what we have or what we want? This may also be a matter of the difference between constructing a story in which things are connected and a story in which things are disconnected.

And then there are the different levels of meaning that we construct. What if we are seeking the thread that ties a whole work together--a thread that we sense is there, but can't quite tease out--and while we seek that thread we are telling ourselves a story like "I'll never find the thread"? If that story about our inadequacy is dragging us down emotionally, will it cut into the hours we would have worked if we were telling ourselves some other story--like "I'm sure I'll find it if I keep working," or even "I'll keep trying to find this thread, but if I can't find it, I'll go and work on another project because I'm not letting one setback stop me"? I don't know whether it's true, but here's the story I construct: being depressed takes away energy, and so if you tell yourself you're going to fail, you'll have less energy, ergo, you'll work less and therefore have less likelihood of success.

Somehow I slipped into full self-help/power-of-positive-thinking mode. I didn't really mean to--but the power of our imaginations and our construction of meaning led me into it.

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