Totems of Understanding

Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno on Unsplash

Recently I stumbled upon someone saying that “you don’t learn in your mind, you learn through your body.” I don’t know the validity of this idea, but it’s one of those things that you take a pause on, rewind it back and listen to it once again. For some reason, some ideas have so much aesthetic appeal to them that you don’t really care if they’re valid or not but you want the universe to bend around it to make it valid. So, here’s an attempt at that.

I am the kind of a person who lives inside their head a lot. To the point that sometimes it is very claustrophobic here. Maybe it is because of this that today I’m throwing out some of my furniture over this page. But, the fact of the matter is that this idea made my train of thought stop in its tracks. It is really interesting to think that you can’t learn something by learning something. You have to enact it. Like you can’t learn swimming without swimming (or drowning). But, that’s just a lazy example. This idea interests me because for the past few months I have been involved in learning something which has a very mathematical aspect to it i.e. Computer algorithms. Now, how do you learn something which is mathematical in nature? How do I enact mathematics? For a moment there, I was thinking if I even learnt any of it because I didn’t exactly turn myself into a mathematical equation. But then it dawned on me, the method by which I was learning it, which was… Solving Problems. Now, if we think about it carefully, we see that those mathematical problems are nothing but mapping of those mathematical equations onto the real world. So, in solving those problems, what I was really doing was embodying those algorithms to solve a real world scenario.

It seems like the abstract is a real phenomena which is extrapolated in a certain direction. But, to understand it, we have to map it back to the physical realm. It’s like a mobius strip, folding back on itself. Maybe with the loss of certain nuance, we can say that abstractness equals non-understanding. We have all seen a debate pulled to its logical extremes so much so that it appears nonsensical. Because at that point, the participants are just sweeping their sophistry under the rug of sophisticated abstractions.

In a world where our body has evolved to embody objects and now the whole game has pivoted towards playing with something as abstract as an idea; the person with the most capacity of imagination must have a huge advantage over the others. Because even if they cannot embody the idea’s real world projection, they can just simulate that in their head. This is that mobius strip taking another fold onto itself. And, when I think of that imaginative person, I somehow imagine someone like Eric Weinstein with his linguistic craftiness. Afterall, language is the currency of ideas. And no wonder he’s a mathematician; dealing with abstractia mathematica all the time. I love his embodiment of a phenomena associated with spinners with the philippene wine dance.

I used to think that to understand something, we need to create a mental model for it. But it seems like that it is actually quite the opposite. To understand something abstract, maybe we need to map it onto something feasible, so that we could manipulate it and understand its physics. Maybe that’s the real understanding of something. The film ‘Inception’ embodies this idea with totems being metaphorical and at the same time literal anchors to an individual’s reality.

Now, to digress a little, I have also heard the person who suggested the premise of this essay say something like “fiction is a better approach at exploring philosophy rather than philosophy textbooks”. And I feel like this person has pulled a great stand-up set on me with this callback because of how it relates to the current premise. Maybe fiction is better at letting us embody the philosophical scenario rather than the abstract idea written in plain text. And maybe, this is what Jordan Peterson is getting to when he’s talking about the importance of mythologies and how they have survived for so long. That since we have embodied these mythologies in the form of rituals year after year, that it relates to their success in mapping philosophical thought onto the real world. And maybe that’s why we let our kids literally embody Ram every year on Dussehra. Because it isn’t until we have physically embodied the ideal, that we understand it completely. And maybe that’s the whole point of these rituals. But, following that thought, maybe it isn’t until we have embodied Raavan that we’ll be able to understand greed and arrogance.



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