Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Intellectual Integrity and Meaning

I'm wondering this morning, what the difference is between the idea of intellectual integrity and the idea of what it means to be human? I know Dr. Pete began this thinking exploration with a particular incident. However, the phrase intellectual integrity on that day stood out differently than I normally see it. So even though I'm going beyond the parameter of his initial post, I'm only trying to go further into his own thinking about Mind. And my own. And yours.

What surprises me is how big the idea of intellectual actually is- it carries a lot more than our typical use which usually only signals tones of being erudite, elitist, or just plain stuck up—both in attitude and altitude. To be intellectual, in reality, simply means that we pretty much carry our sense of being in language. And once we are talking about language, we are implicitly talking about meaning. And communicating; so to be an intellectual organism means that the realm of our existence is language, meaning, and the expressing and receiving of meaningful information—to ourselves and each other; in contrast to fish for instance, which has as a primary realm of existence, water. Or bears, which crap in the woods because it doesn't/can't dawn on them to wonder if someone's going to talk about 'em. (If bears only knew what we were saying about them…would they make bathrooms?)

You could say that intellectual life is a life lived in meaning. The problem with that short statement though, is that our sense of meaning isn't very intelligible. Oh- we know when we experience something as meaning-full, as well as when something is meaningless. In a like manner, we also know when we experience gravity, and when we don't. And I would offer that where meaning and gravity are most alike, is in the way they both exist like "fields", are irreducible to anything else, and in the way we don't understand how they come about in the first place. More, without gravity, mass makes no sense and likewise, without meaning, information makes no sense. However, where gravity and meaning differ--in terms of most consequence to us--is how our understanding of Gravity is more intelligible than our understanding of Meaning.

Riddle: What has force but doesn't have mass or acceleration? Meaning.

For human being at least, (I can't speak for bacteria) meaning has real causative affect; when we mean to do something is to equally say we intend to do something. Or the meaning on the look of your face may incite me to action; you show distress and I move to help out: an effect is caused without Newton's logic there to describe and predict that effect.

We in our beautiful ways of science understand nature in ways we don't understand meaning. Yet without Meaning scientists can't exist, and neither can engineers. And without civil engineers, bathrooms can't exist. There's something more profound to the realm of meaning than Hallmark cards can reveal. To understand intellectual integrity, or what it is to be fully human, we have to have an intelligible sense of Meaning that has an existence in the way gravity does.


  1. Sorry to pick, but I think "without gravity, mass makes no sense" isn't right, insofar as part of the meaning of mass is as the constant of proportionality between velocity and momentum, or, almost equivalently, as the constant of proportionality between acceleration and force. Gravity is just one kind, or perhaps just one aspect, of force.

    I think it's also as well to recognize that people often use such words as momentum, energy, and power interchangeably in ways that technical users of the words would have to say are misuses. People might as often say that meaning has power as they might say that it has force.

    We speak of an idea having "momentum", by which I think we mean that it's difficult to stop. An idea can be fast, perhaps, in the sense that it makes a big difference to a few people, but easy to stop, because only a few people give it mindroom, so I suppose an idea can have small or large mass. Then, we have to think about the relationship of the "meaning of an idea" to the "idea itself", which we might quantify ---if we're feeling quantificatory, or quantifactory, or quantifactious, or quantifactitious, or quantifacetious--- in terms of how much difference an idea makes to how we live our lives. If we feel that our measure of meaning must be objective, then I suppose it may have to be in something like behavioral terms.

    Human thinking being as complex as it is, however, I think it's not susceptible to being modeled as a simple dynamical system such as a model of planets going round the sun. If we want to model, or to describe, or to understand our meanings, I suppose some of our best attempts are given Nobel prizes for literature. It's a long business.

  2. Peter, I love your first paragraph!!!

    And you're absolutely right that meaning can't be quantified--or objectified. So when I liken meaning to gravity, I only mean to make use of its main characteristic of being real and prevalent.

    So it's not as if by giving the seriousness of thought we give to gravity, to meaning as well, we'll get people to the moon and back; indeed, gravity has to be calculated. Yet implicit to calculation is this existence of Meaning which is something as real as gravity. And yet again, behind the moonshot was meaning subjectively experienced; if there wasn't a subjective experience of meaning in going to the moon, that project wouldn't have come into existence.

    As a late-comer to science culture, it's interesting to see how Information is only recently being thought of in explicit ways. Yet this explicitness only goes so far as it's mostly conceived as something like a reciprocal of entropy. Our scientific approach to information feels a bit clumsy to me; not because we're stupid or ill fitted to it, but because it is SO complex.

    Peter, I'm wondering about your phrase "It's a long business." Is this a British idiom? and what does it mean?

  3. Mike,
    I'm thinking you need to introduce a "moral compass" into this discussion.
    It would seem to me to be at the very heart of both intelligence and integrity.

  4. Pete, funny that you mention this- I'm mulling the Integrity side of this. Your mentioning "moral compass" just added a nice spice into mix....