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Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Bear with me a little, while I play at philosophy.

What is a word?

You can say that a word is a sound. But there are lots of sounds that are not words. What makes a sound into a word?

The sound has to be shared by other human beings.

“Shared.” What does that mean?

You say a word: “hello.” I hear the sound. I know what that sound means. When I hear that sound, I locate it in the midst of a story.

A story is a sequence of memories in my brain. When I hear “hello” I think of other times when I heard that sound. The experience of the sound was followed by other events that are somewhat similar to each other. I remember people smiling, maybe shaking my hand. Each such memory is a story, a script for things that happen.

But what is the word itself? It is not just my memory, because I cannot create a word on my own. A word has to be created by a community of some kind. The word is not the sound that the community hears, because in the midst of a different group of people, for example, people speaking a different language, the sound would be meaningless. The word is somehow “out there,” floating above the people making the sound.

They say that the sounds that a bird makes has meaning to other birds of that species. There is one song for warning, another for mating, and still another for just celebrating the morning (I think of what I used to call “the morning song of the robin”). 

I once used a textbook in social psychology that claimed that without words, we cannot think. When the portion of the brain that processes language is damaged, for example, by a stroke, we literally cannot think. We cannot remember.

My father had a stroke. The last months of his life he sat by his living room window looking out. When I came into the room he would brighten up. The textbook would say that when I was not in the room, he literally could not think of me. His brain was processing his immediate experiences, but nothing beyond the immediate experience.

A word is an event that has no weight. It cannot be measured. It can be observed only when people are using it, but it ceases to exist when people are not using it, except that the memory of it is lodged in the people’s brains. But their memory is not the word itself. Their memory is of a sound linked to a story. The memory would have no meaning unless the experience of the sound had been shared by others, who have linked it to similar stories.

A word is an interpersonal event. It cannot be observed or measured, except in its effects. That sounds to me very much like what the ancients called a “spirit.” A word is literally spiritual.

They say you cannot observe or measure a soul. You cannot observe or measure a word either.

There is a spirit world that we live in the midst of, a world of words and stories.

I like to think of an evil spirit as a bad story, and an angel as a good story.

Let me describe an experience I recently had.

I wear two hearing aids, each one worth $1300. I was walking down by the Mississippi River. The day was very windy, and I began to worry that the wind could catch one of the hearing aids and flip it out of my ear without my realizing it. So I took out the hearing aids and put them into my left pocket.

I thought I put them into my left pocket. I did not. After about a half hour of walking, I returned to the car and got out the hearing aids to put them back in. There was only one hearing aid in my pocket. I searched the car, over and over again. I felt in my pockets, and began to panic. $1300. Finally in despair I decided there was nothing else I could do except to go home, and maybe look in the car with different lighting, although there was nothing wrong with the lighting where I was.

My companion insisted on trying to retrace our steps, to see if I had dropped it somewhere along the way. She went one way, so I decided, with no hope at all of success, to go the other way. I had not gone more than ten steps, when I saw the hearing aid, lying on the pavement in the street about a foot from the curb. I could not believe it. How had it escaped being run over by a car? It had to have lain there for at least a half hour.

That whole event was as close to a miracle as I have ever experienced. It would be very easy for me to tell the story that an angel had saved the hearing aid and pointed me to it at the right time.

It is that kind of experience that causes people to talk about angels.

I have heard stories of people, especially young people, who suddenly go “off the deep end.” They seem to become someone else. They start doing things they would never otherwise do, sometimes very destructive things. I speculate that an evil story has entered their head. A “demon.” (The original meaning of the word “demon,” in Greek, meant some kind of force that took over a person or a situation. The force could be good or bad--an angel or a devil.)

We very easily turn physical objects into persons. We personify a car. I think of the way World War II pilots named their airplanes after women. The plane that dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima was called the “Enola Gay,” the name of the mother of the pilot.

As a child, I got my first introduction to electronics from a book called Electronics for Young People. It personified electrons as little people, moving about in wires and vacuum tubes. That allowed me to visualize what was happening.

I have come a long way from “words.” I guess what I am saying is that a word is a spiritual event, one that cannot be measured or observed in itself. But once you start analyzing the experiences that give rise to words like “angels” and “devils,” the experiences do not seem so unbelievable.

We are learning that each of us is bathed, inside and out, in microbes, our “bionic” environment. We are also bathed in spiritual realities, inside and out. We are bathed in words.