No, not the vomit kind. Okay maybe.
As I've prattled on about before, human beings spend a lot of time either a) subconsciously sorting things into categories (right, wrong, dark, light, progress, regress, etc) or b) consciously deciding what categories things go in, with an awareness that the categories are fuzzy and the points don't matter and live from new york it's saturday night. You can try, but you can't escape it, and in this weird wide world containing the internet, where we can be exposed to any ideas that we choose, and in the privacy of our own homes make decisions about how we are going to engage with those ideas, we need to hone our metacognitive skills. Meta-metacognitive? Idk. You get the concept. Concept. Concept. Say it three times and turn in a circle. Concepts are… what? Ideas? Beliefs? Grouping of those things?
Categories are tangent to what I want to talk about, concepts are adjacent to it: the bit I need is the psychological concept of the chunk. Chunking, and the paper that first synthesized the concept, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," are such cultural staples that any writing on the topic is bound to seem trite, but here we go. The important bit is this:
A chunk is defined as a familiar collection of more elementary units that have been inter-associated and stored in memory repeatedly and act as a coherent, integrated group when retrieved. – Wikipedia
– Tulving, E., & Craik, F
Chunks are psychic objects, the basic building blocks with which we assemble our working memory, and thereby our thought. It doesn't matter if a chunk is a single binary digit, or a re-coding into higher space therefrom, or the entire idea of "whale", or "pizza", or "nazism", or "blog." Our largest chunks confine our largest thoughts. Chunks are how we contemplate the world. Refinement of our chunks is refinement of our consciousness. This is how "chunking" can be tidily inverted, now a big glass bowl encompassing some of the more political and philosophical things that we can discuss.
Chunking is sublimely underrated as a tool for more effective understandings of consciousness and the workings therein.
I'm aware of one other work on this topic, and a neat, Maria Popova summary is available here. I haven't read the book, but it certainly seems interesting, and a definitively more scientific description than the allusions, metaphors, and inanity offered herein.
To be aware that chunking is necessary, chunking is largely unconscious, chunking is how we are socialized, and chunking is the product of our own personal investigation, is to be aware of the forces that divide, and the forces that unite us in humanity. Education can become "tools to encourage re-chunking." Drugs "encourage the rapid disintegration of chunks." Inspiration contains the "rapid expansion of a chunk to contain new contexts."
It's criminally easy to abuse the metaphor (chunk) of chunks, and it sounds insane, which is why I've tried to explain these things to exactly zero people.
Ontology is concerned with reality and its categories. It's one big arm of metaphysics (that statement itself being an ontological assessment), and it's everywhere. You just have to know where to look.
Reasoning about the nature of reality, about the fundamental properties of a thing, about what markers are needed to fill the requirements of an identity, questions of self versus other and in-group versus out-group, these are actually (and often unconsciously) works of ontology.
What the nonsensical introduction was getting at, then, is that, like it or not, we spend an inordinate amount of time doing (committing?) ontology.
Ontology, neurologically speaking, could just be the study of chunks. I'm willing to bet enough on this to type words into a computer, so I'd say I'm pretty sure. Since ontology is focused on the boundaries of things, and chunks are the psychic set of boundaries between concepts, objects, and more, chunks are a superset of ontology.
Ontology is also in charge of the categories themselves. You cannot determine what category an item belongs to without first having a list of categories. Categories are established through the process of comparison that identifies "like" things.
When we say that one thing is like another thing, we've made a metaphor, and we're thinking analogically. Categorization is metaphorization.
I made a groaner the other night, realizing that semantics is metaphor without hyperbole – the unit metaphor is straightforward and useful. Of course, if there are unit metaphors, then maybe there are scalar metaphors, or metaphor transforms. Who knows?
A chair is a construction of wood, cushion, or otherwise, that facilitates sitting. A stool is like a chair, but dumber. You prefer stools? Psychopath.
Her eyes were cerulean kiddie pools. Her eyes were bubbles of fluid for focusing light on a sensor. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done.
The very descriptive act is one of comparison, the decision that things are like other things.
We get it poets: things are like other things
also, comedians / yes… comedians are like poets
– in the @ replies
Funny joke! Creative, collective definition is all of our jobs… some people are just more aware of it than others.
Semantics is fundamentally description, description is fundamentally metaphor, and metaphor fundamentally chunking. We're captive on a carousel of time. Every time I say fundamentally I draw a big red circle around my categorization impulse and further entrench this stupid chunking idea.
As we unroll semantics and look more deeply at what words and definitions are, semantic satiation seems to wink wink nudge nudge at deep neurological implications. When we use a word into total exhaustion we temporarily rob our mind of the word's usefulness. We lose its meaning, its chunk, its metaphorical, ontological way of being. The hole it leaves is terrifying. How did you spend so long with the sense of this thing, only to lose it into the ether? Even more terrifyingly, related concepts are also weakened. If we lose our "table" chunk, we weaken our "desk" chunk. The miasma of an idea, the metaphorical and physical relatedness of the building blocks of our consciousness, can be partially dissolved by the words we choose to assign them.
Is this why repeated chants channel such great power? Is it that filling the mind with (what are now) nonsense syllables clears your pool of conscious thought and makes space for something less verbal? Something closer to god?
Is the inverse phenomena of glossolalia just that? Nonsense syllables of a cleared mind? Is glossolalic interpretation hearing nonsense and understanding, while semantic satiation is hearing real words and failing?
Jargon seems like an arbitrary barrier to entry for any given academic field. It's arcane, it's needlessly complicated, it's elitist, and it seems, from an outsider's perspective, that regular ol' words will do just fine, thank you.
People "in the know" already know that the entirety of a field's jargon is its "ontology." When there was a push for the "Semantic Web," ontology was also the chunk they used to represent domain knowledge, saying, in one common example, that a book site would use "author" where a more general site might use "creator." Author is more descriptive than creator. It captures more information –more context– than creator, and represents a larger chunk.
Jargon, domain knowledge, ontology, chunks– these things capture information much more complex than simple words, their phonemes, or even their definitions. When you enter a specialized field these chunks contain increasingly large amounts of information. Eventually some information is added that causes one chunk to diverge from a previous version. To distinguish new chunks from older chunks, new vocabulary is invented.
It is when working with these complex ideas that jargon becomes desirable, since specialized vocabulary is imbued with the potentiality of triggering chunk loads, allowing the reader or thinker to access larger and larger pieces of information simultaneously.
The cargo-cultist possesses the half of a chunk that is superficially available, without bothering to (or knowing enough to) ferret out more deep and nuanced meaning. It is always the job of philosophers (and Doctors of Philosophy in __) to spend enough time with the meanings of things that the whole chunks are uncovered and the full context made apparent once again.
Vocabulary Words / Foreign Words
Sometimes true meanings are obliterated by our proximity to them.
Boredom is a powerful chunk containing dissatisfaction with the state of reality and the urge to escape it. It is listlessness and aimlessness and existential anxiety. How often do we unpack boredom? When we speak "boredom" do we expect our listeners to unpack the chunk and actually feel something? Maybe it's easier to use a word that makes us work a little harder, allowing us to become aware of its subtlety as we think. How about ennui? Ennui is beautiful, and for me has always captured the more "real" bits of boredom. I'm not bored of an activity. Activities are easy to find. Maybe I'm bored of all of this.
Maybe ennui is already too loaded, "loading" in this context is a flattening of our chunks so that they look, from the outside, like things much less complex than they are, removing the intensity of meaning in a hedonic treadmill. Thoughts can only move us for so long. Cargo cults are shallow, like the understanding gleaned from visiting a place, but never living there.
Other times, however, a language is entirely missing a word to capture a particular chunk. It somewhat bothers me when I see "untranslatable words" or things of that ilk, because of course english is infinitely expressive, and what they mean is that there is no single word translation. But, when brevity is desired or you would like to instantly trigger the loading of a particular, huge chunk, using a foreign word is infinitely more efficient. At this point foreign words become jargon for our everyday experience. Fremdschämen from German, Saudade from Portuguese, the Vus from French. These words have no "simple" translation, but immediately and thoroughly capture potent chunkcepts. I've wept over beautiful words. This is okay. I'm fine.
Genius and a few good chunks
I read somewhere [citation needed(probably from inside the rationality-web)] that even the most genius people have only a few good tricks: a set of mental tools by which they approach every problem. If their tricks don't work, maybe file the problem away for a while until new tricks can be learned or new information can be gleaned about the problem itself. Being productive dictates shelving unpleasant problems from time to time.
Anyway, the tricks are reductions, incarnations of the analogical thinking that ontology empowers. The question is always 'is this problem "like" another problem?' Is there an approach I know that works here, too? Are the logical threads the same? Are the crossings of rope unique to this problem not so unique after all? Is it the same knot in a different context? I've wept over the same knots in different contexts. This is okay. I'm fine.
Computicians[sic] are already directly aware of these workings: progress in this field almost always occurs via the reduction of one problem to another – what once seemed intractable now accessible through the arcane machinations and mathematics of yore. If one problem is reducible to another, it is already solved.
As we've seen, most work is just figuring out what things are like other things anyway. Poetry. Poiesis. Creation.
Personal Revelation as "new chunk"
That's the sound of a new metaphor falling into place, your new analogy another brick in the wall of Knowledge. You've compared two things, and now you understand. This is the nature of knowledge, that text is nothing without context.
By comparing two things, you've encouraged their chunks to merge, you're blurring the boundary between one thing and another. We can say, when speaking analogically, "of course I don't literally mean that one thing is like another, but of course it is. It is if our unit metaphors are tight enough.
The moment of epiphany is a spectacular subduction of one chunk by another, the sublime rumblings of expanding definitions and better comparisons, stories to tell yourself that feel more whole, and a better angle on the facts.
Epiphany feels so good because your brain finally knows where to put things. What a relief.
Explainers, and encouraging others to "Get It"
If this blog has a purpose, it is to realign your perception of the world to be just a little bit more similar to my own. This is often the goal of "explainers," articles, videos, books, that are an attempt by one human to explain something to another. Sometimes this works well, and is necessary, like apprenticeships in trades and membership in dojos for the physical arts. Sometimes it seems to fall flat, like in the case of personal advice columns and self-help books.
When we explain, if we feel frustration at someone else not "getting it" they either haven't heard us correctly, or their information is chunked such that whatever new info you've provided is being sorted into a pile that might not even exist in your brain.
Sometimes these piles can be the source of our greatest naïvetés. Progress – new, better perspectives, are available to those who are just now in the process of building up their chunks, and much can be gained by questioning the validity of some of our more "fundamental" chunks. Gender is a good chunk to break apart. Gender contains a lot of information, and has historically been very useful. But gender chunks contain humans, and humans are tricky.
In this case we may do well to chunk less information in gender, and work more slowly out from there.
Or maybe we would do better to chunk more information with gender, including more information about ambiguity, spectrum, and complexity. In this case we must still make sure we don't become desensitized to meaning– we must unpack gender every time we speak of it.
Maybe the real trick is only to use foreign words for gender.
I've gotten derailed. I hope when you pick up your chunks you find them healthy and whole.