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The Future of the Symbolic Mind

  • Humans used to live by symbols (see Susanne Langer's "Philosophy in a New Key")
  • A traditional Indian wedding used to last three days (and still does in many villages of India). During these three days an impressive number of mindboggling rituals are performed that involve hundreds of people. All of this to celebrate the fact that a woman is about to lose her virginity. The tea ceremony in Japan is an elaborate ritual that can last hours. All of this to drink a liquid.
  • The world is rapidly moving towards a more practical approach to life's events, and especially to daily life events: put a coin in a machine and drink your tea; you can get married in five minutes in Las Vegas. Funerals used to last the whole day and mourning used to last months. Now relatives and friends seem in a hurry to forget the dead. The symbol of death has been reduced to the fact of death. The last vestiges of ritual in a wedding are the white dress (that obviously means nothing in an age in which most brides are far from being virgins), the ring and the flowers. These will disappear too as people start realizing that it's all a big waste of money.
  • Humanity is rapidly removing rituals from its existence. We are removing symbols from our material life. Only the facts are left: A and B got married; he drank his tea.
  • Symbols, of course, still exist in our minds, but humanity is increasingly reserving symbols for creative activities (not traditional activities) such as science and art.
  • It is, in fact, the alliance of art and science that killed symbols in ordinary life. Art mocked the traditional rituals as a waste of mental energy: artists argued that they could create better symbols. Science showed that those symbols have no effect on the outcome: an elaborate three-day Indian wedding has no better chances of creating a happy family than a five-minute Las Vegas wedding. On the other hand, science can indeed make a huge difference on people's happiness by creating light bulbs, heaters, cars, telephones, hospitals, etc.
  • It is not a coincidence that humanity has come to perceive (and simulate) the brain as a neural network: a giant complex but ultimately simple clockwork of switches. Humans used to think of themselves in terms of thoughts and feelings. Increasingly they think of themselves in terms of neurons. We are increasingly facts, not symbols.
  • Science and art too are increasingly based on practical facts rather than on grand ideas (symbols).
  • The effect on social life is to degrade everything that depends on big symbols and the rituals associated with them. For example, friendship is a symbol, and it comes with its own ritual (you care for your friends, call on them occasionally to chat, help them when they need you, hang out with them, etc). People increasingly keep "friends" at a distance. Friends are becoming facts: a list of people to call when you need a ride to the airport, promising of course to reciprocate. Basically, friends are increasingly just a "sharing economy". The homeland is another symbol that is decaying: how many people are truly willing to die for their homeland? And of course family is a less powerful symbol than it used to be. There is only so much that we are willing to do for our brothers and sisters. Meals are not moments of communion, but moments of business transactions, brainstorming, and making connections, basically an informal kind of business meeting. Sex is and less often part of a ritual of love, and more often a simple case of physical pleasure.
  • Morality too is now resting on weak foundations. Morality is the most unnatural state. The natural state is to kill and rape. Morality existed and exerted a powerful influence because of all the symbols that supported it. Those symbols probably originated from practical facts, but now the facts underlying the symbols need to be rediscovered, certified, weighed and eventually applied instead of the symbols.
  • Symbols created art, music, math, science and technology that eventually killed rituals and demoted all symbols while promoting facts.
  • Symbols helped humans to find a balance between being in harmony with nature and being independent from nature. Now there is a third way: being a machine, made with natural materials according to natural alws, but that is neither in harmony with nature nor independent from nature.
  • The result is a transition from a symbolic existence to a factual existence not so different from the life of a machine.

See also:

Speaking Gave us a Symbolic Mind

See also

The Symbolic Life