humor, language, philosophy, photography

Flags, Moles, & Meanings

While pondering “the meaning of food” is rare, pondering “the meaning of life” is common.  Deservedly?  Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Don’t let sweating “the meaning of life” interfere with living.

§1: Colors

Meanings are tricky.  Colors provide a simpler way to explore some of the relevant ideas, but exposure to a common misuse of language may mislead some readers into objecting to the following subsection’s first paragraph.  If U want to object, please wait until U have read §1.3.  Don’t want to object?  U can skip §1.3 but are welcome to read it anyway.

§1.1: What Color is the Number Six?

The question heading this subsection is inane, bordering on nonsensical.  Many different kinds of thing have colors, but numbers don’t.  Making sense is harder than just having sensible-looking syntax.

One of the ways that philosophy made substantial progress in the past century was the realization that some “deep” questions could be as inane as the one heading of this subsection.  Determining which ones are really deep will take a while.  Inane questions may sometimes be failed attempts to pose serious questions that might be more tractable with better wording, so some inanities may deserve more sympathy than the heading of this subsection.

§1.2: What Color is the US Flag?

Flags do have colors, but the question heading this subsection is still inane.  The US flag is red, white, and blue.  While mostly red, the Chinese flag also has some yellow.  How many nations have flags of just one color?

Nobody is silly enough to speak of “the” color of a nation’s flag, but people often do fall into the trap of speaking of “the” thingamajig when there are in fact several relevant thingamajigs.  I posted 4 varied examples (and there are many more).

It does make sense to say that white is the color of the stars in the US flag, that green is the color of the fake foliage in my Xmas wreath, and so on.  But look at the ribbon on my wreath:


The color I see at any place on the ribbon is intricately context-dependent.  Where is the light coming from?  Where am I standing?  While the solid red ribbons on other wreaths are easier to describe, my iridescent ribbon is prettier to see.

§1.3: Numerals Ain’t Numbers

For clarity and emphasis, I will wrap words in square brackets when I want to write about them rather than with them.  Italics will be only for titles or foreign words; quote marks will be only for quotations.

Nobody confuses the English word [six] or the German word [sechs] with the number six.  The words are names for the number, not the number itself.  Likewise for the numeral [6], but people often do confuse numerals with the numbers they name.   Now that Arabic numerals like [6] have displaced Roman numerals (and strings of them like [VI] to mean six) for nearly all purposes, the confusion usually does not matter.  But it matters here.

One of the many kinds of synesthesia responds to reading various letters or numerals by also seeing various colors that are not in the text.  It’s called “grapheme-color synesthesia” and discussed on many web pages, with some variations in details of the definition.  (What about a color response to a whole word rather than just to a prominent letter in it?  To a symbol like [@] that is neither a letter nor a numeral?)  Close reading of the oversimplified definition in Psychology Today (and elsewhere) suggests that the authors were thinking of numerals when they wrote “numbers” in something like

Grapheme-color synesthesia occurs when
letters and numbers are associated with specific colors.

Some discussions of this kind of synesthesia do say “numeral” when discussing color responses to reading numerals, as they should.

I found one page that touches all bases and, despite prose obfuscated by refusing to use the word [numeral], recognizes the distinction between names and what they name.  The Syntax Tree goes on to assert that some synesthetes do have color responses to numbers themselves, not to numerals.  How could that be verified?  The page does not say.

Suppose Ulrika Zweisprachen is bilingual in English and German.  Suppose she sees the color lime green when reading a passage in English with the word [six], a passage in German with the word [sechs], or a passage in either language with the numeral [6].  The number six does have the color lime green for Ulrika, but not by itself.  Pedro Doslenguas may see orange when reading a passage in English with the word [six] or a passage in Spanish with the word [seis].  And so on.  In short, numbers don’t have colors.

In a comment on a much earlier version of this post, Sue Ranscht remarked that [nonsense] (where [inane] appears now) was an overstatement.  She also broadened my horizons about kinds of synesthesia.  I had only known of the sound-color kind.  Thanks, Sue.

§2: Words


© tunedin123 | 123RF Stock Photo
(Image has been cropped.)

The word [mole] has utterly different meanings in chemistry, dermatology, and espionage.  Even if we suppose it makes sense to attribute a meaning to life, pondering “the” meaning of life may still be like pondering “the” color of the US flag, “the” color of an iridescent ribbon, or “the” meaning of [mole].

Like mathematical notations (and many hand gestures), words are arbitrary symbols with enough consensus about what they mean to support use in communication.  Who uses life to say what to whom?  Your life and mine are not arbitrary symbols used by a third party to communicate with a fourth party.  Numbers don’t have colors and don’t need them.  Words don’t have unique meanings and don’t need them.  Life doesn’t have or need anything like “the meaning” of a word.

I posted 4 imagined responses by an old Yankee to a novice philosopher’s bloviations; one of the responses is

Wehrds need meanings; life don’t.

§3: How to Live

Maybe some concerns about “the meaning of life” are poorly worded concerns about how to live fully and righteously.  Preferring the workable to the grandiose, I try to abide by a short list of simple rules:

  • Have some fun.
  • Do more good than harm.
  • Don’t sweat “the meaning” of it all.
– Gray button (upper left corner) reveals widgets, –
– above post (on phone) or beside it (on desktop). –

2 thoughts on “Flags, Moles, & Meanings

  1. Following your simple rules for living fully and righteously should lead to a life well lived. For those who seek “meaning” in their lives (which differs from “the meaning of it all”), I might add: Do things that you feel give meaning to your life.

    Thanks for the mention. I am happy to have helped broaden your horizons, just as many of your thoughts move me forward to broaden mine. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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