When people who haven’t experienced the seashore come visiting at our Sechelt place, they are in for surprises. So many creatures that live in salt water are so strangely different from those in fresh water. Beachcombers can soon pick up a bucketful of fascinating treasures. Ramblers with an eye for unusual plants can find them in the creek deltas and the shoreline forests.
Not far above the high-tide line the hardy salal bushes flourish. Their tough, shiny leaves are shipped all over the continent for use in floral arrangements. We now have three tent platforms on various levels behind and above each other up the hill. Masses of salal grow all across in front of these platforms and down along the cedar-round steps between the levels, as well as beside the lower path over to Carsons’. In the spring, pretty pink and white salal flowers hang from their horizontal stems like zigzag rows of little Chinese lanterns. By midsummer, they have turned into strings of deep purple berries which I pick and munch as I walk past.
Of course not everyone likes these sweet salal berries as much as I do. They aren’t noted for their zip. Besides, they give people the “purple-mouth disease.” This affliction is not mentioned in medical books. You wouldn’t know you had it unless after you had been eating salal berries you saw yourself in a mirror, lips, teeth and tongue stained an elegant royal purple. For reasons of their own, some women seem to like changing the normal color of their lips. Perhaps one day a cosmetic company may scoop the market by putting out an exotic purple shade of lipstick under the name of Salal de l’ouest. I don’t think that the world of fashion is ready yet for it, however, despite the intriguing name.
Along that lower path towards Carsons’ there’s a particularly productive patch of salal. Strolling visitors interested in eating a few berries gravitate toward that sunny place, peering into the bushes to find the longest stems with large berries. Suddenly and inevitably they come upon themselves looking -out from the foliage which hangs around a great stump. The purple-mouthed image somewhat startles them and the unexpected presence of a mirror there in the bushes definitely puzzles them.
The stump on which the mirror is mounted is plainly visible from lounging chairs on the patio below. Early-rising visitors who haven’t met my mirror may be sitting around a first-thing-in-the-morning fire for making toast. They see me standing up there in front of that big stump, looking fixedly into the greenery while intent on doing something to my face. Kay is busy getting breakfast. They ask her, “What’s John doing up there at that stump?”
Glancing up, she replies, “Shaving.”
Her reply doesn’t help them very much. They sidle toward me to figure out the situation. My electric razor appears to be plugged into the stump. This is doubly remarkable, since our lot isn’t even serviced by electricity. Carsons’ place, however, does have electricity. Herb kindly ran a power line over as far as that stump between our lots. I keep the mirror up there by the receptacle for shaving purposes.
Shaving doesn’t require much concentration. For me it’s an automatic operation. My mind is free to think about other things, like letting my beard grow instead of shaving it off. I did let it grow during one summer holiday, but Kay objected to kissing my shredded-wheat bristles. Besides, I discovered that I have a patch of skin in front of each ear that absolutely refuses to grow any visible hair. Looking at my discontinuous sideburns, the children kept remarking, “Dad, there’s something wrong with your head.” So once more I took up shaving.
Why do men shave? Why do they shave only selected areas? Why don’t they shave all the hair off their heads? Why do they leave hair in some places and not in others? Why the various styles of hairdos and beards throughout the centuries and in the various cultures? Why do women use lipstick and eye makeup? Why are people so interested in the way they clothe and decorate their bodies?
Fashions in adornment and dress help people to identify themselves with everybody else who admires a certain life-style adopted or laid on by some current social leader. During a time of drastic social change, styles clearly advertise a person’s partisan beliefs. They are declarations of feelings and loyalties. But even in ordinary times, styles give notice to whom it may concern of important information, such as a person’s age group, sex, marital status, type of occupation, social class, self-esteem, religious position, wealth and rank. The uniforms and insignia seen in governmental officialdom, army echelons, church hierarchies and hospital staffs identify which personnel are entitled to what privileges, and which are expected to perform what kinds of duties. People belonging to each social grouping in a society are taught “the right way to behave” in the presence of someone from another social grouping.
Human bodily decoration enables a person to look into a mirror and say, “That’s who I am, so I shall behave appropriately.” Those very same clues of dress and decoration also help everyone who meets that person to conclude, “This is one of that kind of people. I know what behavior is to be expected from such a person, so I shall prepare to conduct myself accordingly.” All sorts of social encounters are thus smoothed out in advance because people’s clothing and ornaments telegraph ahead of them their social expectations.
No society is without rules concerning the proper dress for each of its social groupings at its main kinds of social occasions. Some freedom of choice may be permitted, but nevertheless rules define the limits of the variations which will be considered tolerable. Anyone who oversteps the limits prescribed by the rules will have to face embarrassment, disapproval, disdain or even ejection.
Every kind of interpersonal relating is regulated by social rules. These rules ensure that there will be enough social conformity to make life with others orderly and predictable, therefore manageable and un-aggravating. Persons, processes or activities following the same rules will resemble each other. They can be easily identified as apparently belonging to a certain segment of society in which that particular style is acceptable and appropriate.
Stretching the costume metaphor, one might say that each society “clothes itself” with an overall worldview which correlates and makes sense of all its rules, its conventions, customs, laws and morality. A society’s universally accepted meanings and general conceptions are its rules for sorting out things and people according to their social value and function. Even its language has rules for sounding, spelling, stringing words together, for identifying things and classifying them. These, of course, like all other social rules, may be broken, ignored or modified through time, much as the rules concerning clothing, cosmetics and hairdos keep changing.
Rules, whether about dress, language or any other social behavior, have the same kind of “existence” as the kinds of beings that storytellers create. It’s as hard to locate the dwelling place of a social rule in space and time as it is to find a snorting unicorn, a flesh-and-blood mermaid, or a shifty hobgoblin who will stand still long enough for scientific measuring. Science fiction describes whole worlds populated by strange characters, creatures, machines and phenomena that we never meet in our ordinary experience. All of these fictional beings nevertheless operate by definite, if unfamiliar, sets of rules. As long as they consistently obey the rules which integrate them with their own peculiar realms, they remain believable for the reader.
The concepts of mathematics consist of rules that govern the relationships between numbers, geometrical figures, and kinds of “spaces.” Western society generally agrees that the rules of mathematics pertain to the actual world. Everybody knows that “three ones make three.” Yet Christian theology holds that the three persons of the Holy Trinity make one God, and lawyers claim that three partners in a corporation can be considered as one “legal person.” A person who is dead and gone, long absent from a society, a zero of personal presence, may nevertheless be compelling the executors of his or her “last will and testament” to carry out certain instructions. When is a zero not a zero? It seems clear that even the rules of mathematics may be ignored in the interests of social desires.
There is a certain resemblance between social rules and the rules of a game, except for the fact that the social game is often played “for keeps,” all in great seriousness. To play a game that is truly a game, people must agree to retire mentally for a while from the common world where the accepted rules of social interaction apply in full force to any relating. While a game is in progress, in their imaginations players are permitted to do “terrible things” symbolically to each other-things they would never do, nor be permitted to do, to each other in real life. While they inhabit this imaginary “game world” they agree to conform their behavior to an interim set of rules. These rules have no bearing upon the behavior of nonplayers. Spectators are simply expected to keep out of the game, even though they may become emotionally involved in its progress and outcome.
The human imagination has devised an amazing number of different games. Each establishes a temporary, minisociety as the players accept certain rules and begin to take action accordingly. Each game is the game that it is because a particular set of rules has made it so. Games are individually and essentially constituted by their rules. The situation at the beginning of the game is prescribed, and the ending state of the game is identified. For the duration of the game, rules prescribe the ways in which players may normally take action and make their moves. Certain relationships must be maintained at all times. Other relationships are permitted to occur under specific conditions. If certain others ever occur they will entail specific consequences. Some situations must not occur at any time. If the players cease to obey the rules of a game, they have ceased to play that game.
The rules of games exist only in people’s minds and imaginations. Despite the purely mental nature of rules, they can nevertheless constrain the physical movements of players and determine the relocating of game-pieces within the space-time-material framework of the actual world. If spectators don’t know what rules the players are following, they cannot understand why particular moves are made. While rules, being mentacosmic realities, may not be physically locatable, if they are accepted and obeyed, such rules obviously affect the physical locations and behavior of physical things and people. Among humans, “spiritual” causality is quite as effective as physical causality.
In every social milieu, social rules are in gear, constraining people’s behavior. In some situations, however, a number of the ordinary rules of life may be temporarily suspended and held in abeyance. For example, a small group of people may retire from the “real-life” world to engage in “planning,” “creative thinking” or “brainstorming.” While they are in this “think tank” situation, they mentally participate in a purely imaginary world which they themselves jointly create, a world whose rules for social interaction may be quite different from those presently operating in the society “out there.” For hours they may devise and discuss all sorts of new arrangements that could be instituted in the actual world if it were constituted differently. During the brainstorming, for the creators of these newly imagined, purely mentacosmic worlds, it is as if those realms actually existed. “Suppose things were this way, what would it be like to live in such a situation?”
In that short-lived minisociety the participants can freely doubt, question or suspend any rules, separate ideas formerly connected, connect ideas formerly separated, modify, accept or reject any suggested possibilities. In the social isolation of the think tank, imaginatively inhabiting their own nonpublic mentacosm, they can mentally sustain possible arrangements that no actual society would accept or tolerate.
To become effective in changing the direction of an actual society’s development, any new rules which planners privately conceive must be publicly proposed and successfully “sold” to those social authorities who possess the power to institute changes. Some great dreams have changed the world, but many great dreams have died stillborn. Sometimes mediocre dreams have gained widespread influence simply because those ideas became the rules shaping people’s actual behavior.
Human social behavior, of course, is not the only behavior that appears to be channeled by rules. Living organisms of all kinds, and even inanimate physical things, seem to obey what are usually called “natural” rules or laws. If you are told that an object is made of iron, you will expect it to be relatively heavy and hard, attractable by a magnet. Iron rusts easily. Iron stains have a characteristic color. A lengthy list of the “properties of iron” can be compiled. Each involves a rule which iron obeys.
Nobody, of course, quite understands why iron or any other substance behaves as it does, nor is the source of the rules known. Scientists try to account for the properties of molecules in terms of the rules which govern atoms. Atomic rules in turn are explained in terms of rules governing subatomic particles. This process of chasing rules down to other rules and further on down to more basic rules is like sweeping dirt from under one rug to under another, on and on.
Somehow it would seem that a straightforward statement is called for—that the universe as a whole and in all its parts is grounded in an ultimate mystery. Few of the early physicists believed that any adequate explanation of the world could ever be entirely “natural,” i.e., godless. They believed explicitly that the laws of nature are the laws of God. The question as to whether or not those laws are eternal, universal and unchangeable for all time involves one’s beliefs about the sovereign freedom of God to do new things if he chooses.
Rules about rules about rules
Not only do substances and organisms obey behavioral rules which establish their properties, but they may also acquire a social role, a social place, a social function. If iron becomes scarce during a war, the society concerned will likely make rules about the handling and disposition of iron so as to conserve the supply and deploy it into those channels which best serve the society’s interests. The same is true for salt, oil, rice or whatever. Thus society establishes social rules about things which are already subject to natural rules. Some social rules are, therefore rules about rules. No doubt the society will have rules about the making of such social rules. These higher laws are really rules about rules about rules.
A society whose language has an alphabet teaches its children to associate certain symbols with certain sounds. “When you hear this sound, make this letter. When you see this letter, make this sound.” That is a social rule, one that is basic to a written language. The society will also have rules about combining sounds for pronunciation and combining letters for spelling. These rules could be called rules about rules. (Can you think of a word in English which has five true consonants in a row?) Then there will be rules also for stringing words together. The rules of grammar are really rules (grammatical) about rules (pronunciation and spelling of words) about rules (writing and sounding letters).
.Under thoughtful examination it appears that not only language but mathematics, science, technology, art and religion also consist largely of rules about rules about rules. Everything called “culture” was originally conceived in some mentacosmic bedroom of human imagination. Only sometime later was it adopted and thus given public social authority by those who had the power to do so.
In chapter 14 I spoke of “control” as imposing form upon the form of forms (holding tools in the right relationships so as to achieve the desired effect). “Proportion” appeared to express the ratio between ratios of ratios. There are ways of relating relations of relations. “Comparison” is the contrasting of a contrast of contrasts. Using the analytic method, we divide a division which was created by a previous dividing. Other significant phenomena can be described using a similar sentence organization. We can make a statement about a statement about a statement. “The editor said that the mayor’s claim that the paper had misquoted his account of the salary increases was false.” Our human self-consciousness is such that we can know that we know that we know. Forms can be arranged in a pattern of a pattern of a pattern.
You will have noticed the pattern of threefold recurrence in the expressions which were italicized in the previous paragraph. To generate each of them a certain function must be exercised three times successively—and there is no obvious reason (except memory failure) that it should not be further repeated.
We don’t seem to have a general word in English whose meaning includes these situations where an operation is repeated upon the results of its having been employed before. In algebra we are familiar with “squaring” a number, “raising it to the second power,” “cubing” it and “raising it to the third power.” “Nesting” is a good word to use when speaking of a Chinese box which contains a box which contains a box of progressively smaller boxes. “Telescoping” describes how the farthest-out tube of a retractable radio antenna fits inside a tube that fits inside another tube. We have seen framed pictures which contain a framed picture of a framed picture, but “framing” isn’t quite the word we’re groping for. In mathematics, expressions are “bracketed” with several kinds of symbols which indicate what operations are to be performed in what order. But too much is missing from the idea of “bracketing,” so it won’t do. We need a new word or some new approach to this practice of repeating an operation at higher and higher levels.
The Greeks had a neat way of changing the meaning of a word by putting prefixes on general “root” words. Modern scholars often use that method when they wish to coin a new word. The example of the ancient Greeks still has enormous prestige.
Aristotle wrote treatises about the behavior of physical things. Naturally he called the books Physics. An editor gathered together some of Aristotle’s later works which were untitled. Lacking any better idea, the editor simply called them “The books after the books on physics.” The Greek word for “after” is meta, so the collection was entitled Meta-Physics.
The Metaphysics happened to deal with very abstract philosophical ideas like being, existence, substance, matter, form, properties, causality and motion. These ideas go beyond physical objects, yet seem to underlie everything that such objects are and do. In the later Middle Ages many leading thinkers were profoundly impressed by the contents of the Metaphysics. They forgot that the title had been given to the treatises by a matter-of-fact editor who intended no reference at all to their subject matter. The word “metaphysics” eventually came to be applied to all discussions of the most basic principles that are embodied in, but nevertheless transcend, all physical objects. In this curious shift the meaning of the prefix meta also migrated, moving from the plain sense of “after” until it came to mean “situated behind, under, above or beyond ordinary experience, while remaining essentially and deeply related to it.”
In recent years academic thinkers have found it useful to put the prefix meta together with the name of many a discipline other than physics. Now we hear of metapsychology, metageometry, metatheory and metalanguage. From “somewhere above,” a metadiscipline looks over an original discipline, dealing critically with its methods, structures and basic conceptions, thus itself becoming a new though related discipline on a higher level. Metadisciplines operate, as it were, from lofty seats on an elevated intellectual dais, from whence they are able to survey the common plebeian disciplines down below. Metalanguage refers to the conceptual language which is used to discuss another language, or languages in general (e.g., theories of grammar). A metastatement is simply a statement about a statement. “What I just wrote is true.”
This little prefix meta thus provides a handy way of expressing the repetition of an operation on a higher level. When I state something, and then state that I stated it, I have made a metastatement. Similarly we can make metarules, i.e., rules about rules, and have metarelations, i.e., relations between relations, and so on. But when we want to talk about rules about rules about rules, or statements about statements about statements, it sounds a little awkward to speak of meta-metarules, or of meta-metastatements. We need a better way to handle this threefold recurrence pattern that is so useful for understanding things otherwise difficult to describe or define.
Pattern of power
What we are searching for is a way of expressing more than merely another pattern. This threefold pattern results from operations that overpower other operations. We have already mentioned how in mathematics a series of brackets of various kinds can group mathematical expressions, indicating which operations are to be performed in what order. We must now also take note of the fact that changing the operational sign which stands before that grouping which is the most inclusive will change entirely the net value or sense of everything within the brackets to which it applies.
The punctuation of sentences, also the emphatic stresses which are laid upon certain words in phrases and sentences, indicate how we intend the words to be grouped. The priority assigned by the order of the groupings conveys the meaning we have in mind.
In the absence of conventional tonal changes and stresses, printed words may often be ambiguous, sometimes embarrassingly so. Take the words “attractive Canadian boys’ school.” Does this expression mean that only attractive Canadian boys go to that school, while the unattractive Canadian boys go elsewhere? Is this attractive school only for Canadian boys and not for Canadian girls or for children of other nationalities? Do the words imply that some schools are unattractive? Such ambiguities can be dispelled if the writer or speaker indicates plainly which words play the primary roles and which play only secondary or tertiary roles. Language depends heavily upon indications of power status where words modify words that modify other words.
In the army there is a chain of command. Officers of high rank can pass orders down to those of lower rank within their command, until finally the orders are given to the lowest ranks who merely obey. In most social organizations there is a similar “hierarchy” of authority. Consider government levels, as well as those in business, industry, education, the churches and the courts.
In this search for an adequately descriptive general word, we are really looking for a way of referring to the activity of a change agent with the power to change the changes made by other lesser-powered change agents.
What shall we call a meta-agent who performs meta-operations upon other agents or operations or things, exercising power from a superior position of overwhelming advantage? Here we are considering someone or something able to function effectively from an untrammeled position of privileged initiative—the dominator rather than the dominated.
A metadevice which controls other things must be different in some important way from whatever it controls. It must be able to produce changes in others without itself being significantly changed. There will always be some radical discontinuity between the controller and what it controls.
Of all the words I have ever considered, “modulator” seems to express most accurately and suitably the idea we’ve been groping toward. A modulator can transform the significance or behavior of a certain “module” without being itself irreversibly altered by its modulating. A module is any unitary assemblage of a lower order, a subordinate rank or lesser power than its modulator. A modulator, as well as a modulator-and-module unit, can themselves be in turn modulated by a metamodulator.
Let’s see how this works out. For memory’s sake, have a cup of tea. With respect to “shape,” the tea is the module and the cup is a modulator, for the tea must conform to the shape of the cup. With respect to “heating power,” the tea is a modulator, for it heats the cup. You are a metamodulator, for you lift the cup with its contents to your lips. From now on no one else will likely want to sip that tea.
Granules of clay are modules that may be modulated into the form of a fired brick. This and other bricks may be metamodulated by a bricklayer into the form of a wall.
On the staff lines of music manuscript paper, write a sequence of the oval symbols commonly used to designate musical notes. So far this module is only a meaningless set of markings on paper. Now write in a treble clef sign as a modulator. Immediately those markings can be identified as musical notes in the key of C. Now the oval markings can be sounded by instruments. Write in bar-lines and a time signature. You now have metamodulated the notation so that it prescribes a rhythmic melody. You could further transform the musical meaning of every note you have written by changing the key signature. Translating the written passage into actual sounds would be the penultimate modulation, with a musician in control. The ultimate modulatory power would be exercised by an orchestra’s conductor—or God.
Trying to make sense of uncoordinated musical symbols without the transforming effect of the proper modulators and metamodulators is much like trying to make sense of a map without the modulation of a north arrow and a scale. The latter two items are not actual positions on the map. They orient the map as a whole and give locational significance to whatever does appear in the map. The map’s legend gives a list of the rules for interpreting the meaning of each symbol in terms of features to be found in the terrain represented. The scale gives the rule by which those symbols are placed on the map at specific distances from each other. The scale is thus a modulator of the symbol modules—a rule about things dealt with in other rules. The norm arrow controls the orientation of the whole map, so it is a metamodulator—a rule above rules above rules.
Law is a particularly powerful metamodulator in matters of social rules and definitions. With a few strokes of a pen and the right words, a law can change even the plain and time-honored meanings of words. In any country, when women are officially given equal rights with men, the legislators don’t have to go back and rewrite the gender references of every law which was originally written with only males in mind. They simply pass a declaratory act which decrees that all references to males in existing laws will henceforth be taken to apply also to females unless otherwise specified. “He” will then also mean “she,” “his” will also mean “hers,” and so on, mutatis mutandis.
The constitutions of certain social organizations require their secretaries to read out the minutes of the last meeting to be approved either as written or as corrected. Sometimes this requirement is neutered by passing a motion “that the minutes of the last meeting be taken as read.” Thus the law triumphs over itself. What has not been read at all has been treated as if it had actually been read.
A law could decree that from henceforth the word “white” will also include colors commonly known as dark or black, since “black” is, after all, only a dark shade of white. The law, playing this perpetual game of As If can metamodulate any definition. Sometimes the highest legally constituted authorities take advantage of their metamodulatory position and change the very constitution which gave them their power.
Historically the Christian church has also exercised its metamodulatory power by decreeing that the communion bread is the flesh of the Lord, and that the communion wine is the blood of Christ—chemical analysis notwithstanding. The meaning of the word “is” as used here has provoked many an argument.
Euclid and Company Limited
Every society has a stock of truths which few people would dare to question. In Western university circles when someone utters an opinion that does not obviously belong to the accepted tradition, the new opinion must be tested by the Laws of Clear Thinking to ascertain whether it is consistent or inconsistent with other well-known “truths.” The laws of logic thus act as an intellectual metamodulator. The traditional, accepted truths that make up a society’s worldview always modulate untested new possible beliefs.
In geometry the modules are points and lines. Euclid defined a “point” as “that which has no part.” A point is thus the limit of divisibility. He defined a “line” as “length without breadth.” Here again a line is the limit of the divisibility of breadth. Euclid also relied heavily on “equality,” which is the limit of differing. He derived the straightness of a line between two points from its minimum length—a particular limit. All of Euclid’s constructions could be drawn with only a limiting straightedge and a reliable compass. He imposed very severe constraints on his subject matter. Parallel lines were not allowed to meet under any circumstances.
If a rule is defined as what imposes limits upon tolerable variations, Euclid’s basic modules were defined by rules which imposed limits. It should always have been understood, therefore, that Euclid’s geometry was applicable only within certain limits. His postulates, assumptions and axioms set the rules for the game of geometry, always metamodulated by the Laws of Clear Thinking, which were expected to overrule all deviant geometricians. Next to the Bible, Euclid’s were the most respected writings in the whole Western world for two thousand years. Euclidean geometry was a most ingenious and coherent organization, a purely mentacosmic construction, consisting of rules, rules about rules, and rules governing rules about rules.
As we saw in chapter 8, Euclid’s assumptions, definitions, postulates and axioms turned out to be rules selected from a considerable array of alternative possibilities. They were not in themselves, after all, absolutely self-evident truths. The mathematical discipline of geometry, like all other strictly rational thinking, sallied forth from some suppositional IFs. “IF such and such is assumed to be the case, THEN certain statements which follow must be true.” But if something else had been assumed to be the case, different statements would have been true. The line in which a subject develops depends upon who selects the rules. Often that depends on the relative power of rival metamodulators.
Early in this book I risked alienating all sensible readers by confessing that I had had trouble understanding the nature of geometrical lines. My teachers told me that the actual lines which I saw printed or drawn on paper were not the imaginary lines with which geometry deals. Unlike actual lines, which have both length and width, geometrical lines have no width.
I’ve never had trouble in imagining lines. I can imagine all sons of them. But if other people can’t see for themselves which specific line I happen to be imagining just now, how can they really know for sure which line I have in mind?
A line which an artist actually draws on paper, however, is clearly and concretely visible for all who have eyes to see. Being there, it is describable and discussable. That line occupies a certain definite position on the paper. It runs in a definite angular direction with respect to the edges of the paper. Unless it is a closed figure it has a definite beginning and a definite end. That particular, visible line isn’t just any old line, nor is it by any means all lines in general. It isn’t any mere “segment of an imaginary line which is indeterminately long.” That line is what it is and nothing else.
Regardless of how the artist originally imagined the line he or she was about to draw, when it had been actually drawn, it turned out in a certain definite way. If the line is not erased or withdrawn, we must assume that the artist considers it to be a reasonably accurate and satisfactory representation of what he or she had in mind.
Beyond the fact that the line is what it is, the line says something for the artist and about the artist. To create that line, the artist deliberately chose its direction, length and character. What appeared on the paper resulted from his or her personal decision and practical domination of drawing materials. The line as drawn declares that the artist asserted modulatory authority by a definitive use of technical forms.
These qualities of personal decisiveness and power were always entirely absent from the lines we had to deal with in our school’s geometry classes. Those misconceived lines had neither salt nor savor. Out there on the playground we kids would often draw a line somewhere through the dirt and dare others to cross it. In those games we knew that behind our own “home base” line we were safe, but that if we ventured out into “no man’s land” beyond that line we might be “captured by the enemy.” In those games the existence of a line informed all concerned that they had to deal with a highly “dangerous” situation. Up to the line a certain set of rules pertained, but across and beyond that line a totally different set of rules would be enforced by an alien regime.
We territorial kids instinctively understood the property lines around people’s gardens and lawns. Nobody had to explain to us the sensitivities connected with international boundary lines. We knew about realms and rulers and the risks of trespassing, of overstepping “the line” which was put there to remind us of the imminent threat of disaster. Our parents would “bring us into line” with a sharp warning: “Don’t go too far now!” The lines drawn for us let us know what was expected of us, and where we stood.
I could see no connection between such portentous lines of imperilment and the thin, anemic, spiritless lines which inhabited classroom geometry.
Every time I draw some simple figure on paper—say, a triangle—the first line I make holds a mysterious power over the lines that I will draw later as the other sides. I therefore have to take care how and where I draw the first side. Its placing, direction and length dictate a great deal about the scale and direction of further lines on the page, especially those based on the first one. Drawing a line is therefore establishing a personal rule.
When I’m drawing a map to help someone follow a complicated route to somewhere, what a bother it is to run out of paper because at first I drew the lines to the wrong scale. Not every rule which I establish has been thought out very well.
When laying out the floor plan for a new house, if I don’t put my lines representing the first partitions in their proper positions, in the end I’ll have rooms that are too large, or too small, too few or too many. Making personal rules is a tricky business.
Real lines for me are power lines. Lines I draw represent my personal decisions. They result from a exertion of my personal power in manipulating things: my hand, a pencil, a straightedge and paper. The lines I draw are the result of authoritative assertions. I have issued personal fiats: “Let lines be drawn here, in these directions for these lengths,” and I actually executed my plan as intended. I exhibited non-compelled, personal choices. I did what I wanted to do. (Ooops!)
Drawing a line is always a significant matter, even in doodling. Drawing a line establishes a brand new rule which lays constraints upon anyone who intends to draw more lines on that paper. A certain territory has already been claimed and occupied. What has already been drawn there must in future be taken into account. In a consultation about the layout of some building or property, all concerned must reckon with the limitations imposed by existing boundaries, neighboring structures and the owner’s specifications. Lines carry a charge of ongoing, vibrant, personal power.
The lines people draw on paper strangely enough resemble all sorts of decisions made by people in power. The analogy is obvious in the work of surveyors, mapmakers and boundary commissions, all of whom work with lines and edges. Sometimes a doctor has to take up a scalpel and incise a line between a certain clump of cells and the rest of a human body. A photographer must decide how much of a scene to include in the picture, using that frame which appears in the camera’s viewfinder. Any authorities who lay down regulations, establish curricula, set guidelines, adopt platforms, sign agreements or give orders are, by these decisive actions, setting limits and making rules that place their subordinates under constraints. They are drawing effective and influential lines—just what Euclid himself was doing when he enunciated his axioms, put forward his assumptions and stipulated that geometricians must obey the Laws of Clear Thinking. In school, however, no one ever even hinted that in these matters Euclid had been exercising his powers of personal decision.
Wherever lines have been deliberately drawn, someone has asserted personal concern and declared a personal choice. Certain things and levels of approaching them have been accepted and included, while at the same time other things and levels of approaching them have been rejected and excluded. A physicist’s decision to examine the electromagnetic forces working at the level of an atomic nucleus automatically puts aside an examination of tectonic forces at the level of continental drifting. Choosing to approach events exclusively on one level excludes all sorts of very important questions about other levels of the same events. Specialists should therefore avoid dogmatizing about the total meaning of the world in terms of that level of events which they happen to understand the best. The force of any argument based on a one-level world model can easily be averted by shifting the discussion to a different level.
Lines indicate that certain rules have been established that will be enforced by the modulating powers that be. Lines advertise the constraints which confront whoever comes upon the scene after those who arrived earlier, made their marks and staked out prior claims. Lines remind us of the existence of rules, and rules set the limits of tolerable variations in behavior.
Authorities look down from their lofty platforms, surveying all in their purview from their seemingly invulnerable position, and draw lines throughout their domain where none may have existed before. The analytic academic mind is no exception. Modulation proceeds from a metaposition.
The physical and social worlds appear to be organized in a gradation of levels of modulatory power. Each level of authority dominates the level or levels below it. Each culture has its own way of assigning things and people and other beings to some rank, whether on a subordinate level, a coordinate level or a superior level. Thus the worldview of each culture always contains a classification scheme which expresses the accepted relative importance, ranking and value of everything. Such worldviews are not just accidental, fortuitous developments. To be adequately understood, worldviews which are embodied in philosophies, languages, sciences and religions should be studied in the light of historical power struggles which have taken place and are still going on everywhere and at all times.
In mainline Western Christian theology, God the Creator occupies the topmost rank, holding the ultimate power to modulate anything and everything. The Creator ordained and gave confirming approval to the relative rankings of the various species of his creatures. Human beings came close to the top of the ladder, being placed only slightly lower than whatever heavenly beings there may be. From an invulnerable position “on high,” God can survey his created universe and enjoy its enjoyments.
Here we have, it would seem, a definitive description of the ideal earthly domain. The ruler must have absolute power and exercise wisdom in ordaining good arrangements and executing righteous plans.
Despite his absolute power—indeed perhaps demonstrating it—the God of the Bible undertook a very risky project. He limited his powers (for a time) and put his world partly in charge of human beings. Adam and Eve were expected to preserve the relationships of thingsaccording to the Creator’s primeval ordering, keeping the lesser creatures in their proper places with respect to each other. If significant changes in the arrangements ever became necessary, God himself would issue any new instructions for handling the situation. As long as Adam and Eve would continue to manage the garden estate according to commandments that had been given to them personally by God himself, all would be well. From his exalted metaposition “in the heavens” God was able to keep an eye on the interrelationships of everything. He was therefore capable of giving wise counsel to his gardeners. Adam and Eve needed instructions because they were not of themselves able to obtain a comprehensive overview of all that was and of everything that was going on.
According to the Genesis story, however, one of the lesser creatures, the serpent, who knew some of the ins and outs of the garden, managed to gain inappropriate power over the imagination and will of the gardeners. Under its influence, they misinterpreted God’s intentions and willfully exercised power that had not been granted to them. They made up their own rules for the garden and ran it their way, without reference to God. They were sure that they themselves knew what was right and wrong to do. They had “knowledge of good and evil.”
Things immediately began to go wrong in every direction. Soon Adam and Eve found themselves living in a harsh environment which was anything but a lovely garden. Whereas they had once worked in joyful cooperation with God, they now had to work desperately hard just to stay alive. They alienated the lesser creatures, misruled their children and mishandled each other.
These people had wanted to be entirely on their own, and God gave them their fill of that privilege. But when they ran into trouble they no longer had the benefit of immediate access to the higher wisdom of God, nor would he intervene when they insisted on going wrong. The shadow of death hung over the whole scene.
When persons of the same rank disagree about what to do in some problematic situation, how can the matter be settled? Each is likely to push hard to gain the advantage over the other. Confrontation and conflict are inevitable unless both parties agree to accept a ruling from a third party, a higher power recognized as having authoritative wisdom about the matter. Civilization appears when whoever is in power can make rules and rules about rules from a point of view which is much more inclusive than that of those on the level below—those who are struggling against each other to secure their corner of the world and its goods. The judge, the ruler, the civil magistrate, the bishop, the boss, find themselves in a place analogous to the place God once occupied in the tale of a garden and its self-centered gardeners.
A very valuable general principle may be discerned in the first stories contained in the Bible. When claims and opinions collide, the conflict can be resolved only by the mutually recognized authority of some overriding principle, one which can, as a last resort, be administered by a powerful overruling person.
To reconcile two concepts that appear to be incompatible opposites, always look for some conception on a higher level in the light of which both ideas will be seen to be necessary and complementary. When opposing powers are bound together in constructive ways that compel each to lose its separated identity, new, unexpected and possibly helpful properties of a higher order will emerge from the combination.
Religiously speaking, this asserts that from the metaposition of God, with a comprehensive overview of all things together, the conflicts and contradictions of this life may be seen to be reconcilable under his creative modulation. Out of historical struggle under opposing tensions, new and wonderful things can appear in due time. That is inherent in the creative process.
Why constants are constant
Before we finish this discussion about rules and levels of power, it could be useful to recollect some observations previously made in this book.
When considering how tools are used, we concluded that whoever could control the form of all forms could control the world. Forms are always manifestations of power, although the source of the power may not be directly visible or physically locatable. Forms are detected or perceived due to the presence of contrasts. A contrast arises out of the differential between the respective powers of the two elements or aspects in the contrast. What has traditionally been called a property of a substance, or an attribute of a thing, refers to something’s power to make a certain specific difference to something else. The information it sends out from itself may be construed as an assertion of its identity, an imposition of what it is upon whatever stands in the way of that asserting. Anything that continues to exist ins. certain way for a significant time must possess in itself, or in its guarantor, the power to sustain the rule it has asserted about how it intends to relate to other things. Water in any of its phases will insist on behaving in certain set ways despite attempts to make it otherwise. This kind of determination gives meaning to “natural law.”
Why does sulphur (or any other element) behave as it does and not otherwise? Why does a proton operate in the proton way and an electron in an electron way? It would seem that each of these things either made a rule of behavior for itself, or its rule of behavior has been made by a powerful other. Ordinarily we object to the principle of inanimate particles making decisive rules for themselves, for that would not explain why each one of a kind seems to have made exactly the same rules—which is obviously why we call them “the same kind” of thing.
We seldom hear scientists, dedicated as they are to the discovery of regularities in the world, suggesting why everything conforms to rules of behavior—the basic presupposition of natural science. This is a most remarkable omission, since “primeval randomness” is almost universally assumed in science to have been the origin of everything, down to the level of subnuclear particles. Why should “the laws of nature” be, as assumed, uniformly the same throughout all space and time? Why must energy be always conserved despite the variety of possible interactions? Why is the speed of light constant?
Throughout the universe, from the largest galaxies down through level after level of organization, in groups, organisms, tissues, cells, molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, right down to subnuclear particles, we encounter “natural laws”: rules that unfailingly describe (or govern?) the uniform behavior of highly similar things. These rules appear to be universal and must be reckoned with. Since they were not made by humans, no social authorities in any culture can repeal them, alter them, set them aside or interpret them away. From whence is derived the universal authority of natural laws?
Scientific data may be interpreted in a variety of ways. The “laws of nature” can be harnessed, combined and directed by a variety of technical devices to produce a variety of results which are often so entirely unexpected that they have sometimes been deemed impossible. But never for a single moment can any of the rules which govern the behavior of things be ignored with impunity. They must always be respected upon pain of disaster. These nonhuman rules are ever present as constraints upon all the planning and policies of human modulators.
In human societies, the various kinds of authorities are ranked as higher and lower, much as our levels of tent platforms at Sechelt, or the steps of our cedar-round stairways. For every step up there is a step down, and so it is with the levels of human authority.
But when we consider the levels of the physical world from top to bottom, we encounter rules and constraints throughout that no human social authorities set forth. Those rules are not enforced from somewhere above or beneath, but from somewhere behind, somewhere deep within—somewhere beyond visible things and processes. Certain enduring conditions seem to have been established for our world, for our own beings, for our very perceiving, knowing and thinking. If any technical undertaking is to be successful, these “givens” must be taken into account. Every human proposal is followed by a quiet but final yes or no that issues from an authority that must authorize all real authority. The ground rules of the universe have been determined for us from some nonhuman realm beyond up and down. These rules are rigorously and immediately enforced, both in the mysterious microcosm and in the majestic macrocosm.
However powerful our human techniques may be for bending the physical universe to fulfill human dreams and desires, our capabilities are nevertheless constrained on every side, strictly limited at every turn.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it.”‘
1. Psalm 127:1.