Thursday, November 8, 2007

Philosophy on a Character Sheet

Look at a D&D character sheet. Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Wisdom, Intelligence, Charisma. You also have skills, with each one derived from one of those base attributes. The character exists as a distinct object, defined by these attributes. He is strong, or he is intelligent. Or, consider the character sheet from White Wolf's World of Darkness. The 3x3 grid offers something more nuanced and sophisticated, but still deals in describing a discrete object. Even the trait-defined characters of Spirit of the Century or Dogs in the Vineyard share this; in fact, by stripping it down to only this, they really help lay bare the foundational, philosophical assumption common to them all: we inhabit a universe of objects, and objects have given characteristics. They "are" a certain way.

I've written this blog in E-Prime, just as I have and will continue to write the Fifth World in E-Prime. It helps create that evocative experience previously mentioned, though this probably has one of the most subtle impacts. I doubt many would even notice the lack of "to be." But it still strikes to the very heart of the difference between literacy and orality, and their effect on the way we think. Mark Willis' overview provides an excellent summation of the research on literacy, orality and thought, but to summarize, because orality makes all communication a social event, it primes the brain to see the universe as a collection of relationships. By contrast, since writing turns communication into the analysis of a collection of objects, it primes the brain to see the universe that way, too.

For instance, American Indian languages typically use very few nouns at all. Instead, they rely more heavily on verbs. Presented with a photograph of dancers (and notice that even here, I describe it as a "photograph of dancers"), the literate mind first notices the dancers, and the dancers happen to dance. The oral mind first notices the dancing, and the dancers who happen to dance. As one Pueblo Indian described it:

To illustrate, he described the experience of getting water at the communal well. “In English, it meant to me the Pavlovian thing. You hear the words, run to the buckets, get them, go outside, get to the pump, get the water and then you bring it back.

“Now, here’s what it means in Tewa. Aah-paah-ii-meh (ah pa HI may). ‘Aah’ is purity and clarity. ‘Paah’ is light. ‘Ii’ is awareness. ‘Meh’ is movement. When I went to get water, I became the activities I was doing. I became purity … clarity … light … awareness … and movement.”

When quantum physicists and native language speakers got together, the quantum physicists quickly found out that this kind of linguistic difference not only made quantum physics more understandable, it made it downright self-evident. Quantum physics seems almost completely unknowable, not because it goes beyond human intellect, but because it clashes too directly with the paradigm literacy puts us in. To an oral mind, quantum physics makes a lot more sense.

In A Theory of Power, Jeff Vail put this quite succinctly:

The networks of connections, not the elements connected, appear to constitute a more accurate map of reality. Consider this a critical paradigm shift: the connections, not the parties connected, may best represent our world. Take the seemingly simple nature of this very book. All of our senses confirm that it “is” a solid object, with little mysterious about it. Another of our models of reality represents its composition as that of a web of billions of atoms; nearly entirely empty space speckled with clusters of sub-atomic particles. Other models exclude the concept of a concrete “particle” entirely: quantum mechanics provides us with a model of reality without fixed particles at all, using instead a nebulous web of constantly changing energies and waves of probability. These energies and connections may represent all that actually exists! The connections, the power-relationships between perceived “entities” make up the world around us, not the illusion of particles. This concept of the connection, and the power-relationship it represents, extends to our genes, our culture and our technology. It wields great power over all areas of our lives. Our thoughts, desires and self-perceptions, our very identity, stems from this enigmatic web of connectivity.

This brings us back around to the main point Graham Harvey hit upon in Animism—animism simply means treating as a person whatever acts towards us as a person. Because in animist cultures, "person" acts as a verb, rather than a noun; it describes something you do, not something you "are." Persons communicate. They exchange gifts. They observe rituals. It doesn't matter what shape you currently take: if you act like a person, that makes you a person. We do not exist as discrete objects with a particular "personality" made up of our innate characteristics; the best description of our self comes down to "that which relates."

Putting this into a character sheet can do more to express that than a hundred more pages of description, though. Written down, the differences can seem almost trivial. The difference doesn't hit you until you experience, until you've had that experience of glimpsing, peaking, momentarily experiencing what it feels like to live in such a different universe. We'll get more to how we intend to do that next time.

No comments: