Symbolic Systems and Me

December 15, 2007

I’ve had a strange idea that I’ve been rolling around in my head for the past few months. I seem to really enjoy symbolic systems with fixed rules and set patterns.

For example, mathematics. If you know the language, math can be a pretty beautiful thing. On top of that, it’s also eminently practical [or at least can be, and that’s really the part of math that I’m most interested in]. You can really play around with it all you want, within certain bounds of reason.

Same thing with the physical sciences. Chemistry, you have a list of certain pieces [the elements] that you can mash together, pull apart, etc. through a set system of rules [laws governing chemical reactivity, structure, stability, etc.]. Physics, you have the four known forces, and you can do whatever you want with them as long as you stick to a few equations and use a few predetermined variables. Not bad, really.

Which brings me to the life sciences. You can’t really do much directly with biology, I’m sad to say. I think that’s half the reason it never really ‘turned me on.’ Sure, it’s amazingly interesting. But I want to be able to turn to the end of the chapter and do some problems. I want to push some pieces around, or crunch some numbers, or something.

Same thing with psychology: yeah, really cool stuff. It sure makes a lot of people make a lot more sense. But if you don’t give me applied psyche, the wonder fades. Again, at the end of a chapter, I want something that I can take away and apply to my life.

And since we seem to be surveying the entire academic field [I didn’t see that one coming!], let’s move on to languages. I really do love learning a new language, again because I can mess around with it. I can play with it. I can make it do what I want to do. But ask me to analyze a piece of literature and FORGET ABOUT IT! The passion is gone. I’ll read it, but all the doing tha had to be done with that piece of work has been done! The author gets the credit, I can enjoy it, but then give me something to do other than parrot back the author’s words.

I’m selfish. I want to be able to play around with the system you’re giving me, not just look at the parts. I guess it’s my way of being ‘hands on’ in the only way I can be: completely in the abstract.

But I wanted to take this thought a step further: isn’t it possible that I would be just as content with a completely arbitrary system [though some would say that the system we already use is in fact completely arbitrary already: who is to say that mathematics has any sort of transcendental meaning, right?]. I could create my very own ‘math’ with my very own random rules, play around with it, and I’d still be happy. Nevermind that it says ‘2+2=apple.’ If that’s what it’s supposed to say, then the nonsense makes perfect sense.

I’m sure this says something incredibly interesting about how my mind / brain works. But for now I’m just going to go back to tinkering around with real [at least as real as they get] symbolic systems. We’ll leave making my own system for another day.

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