Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Making Nonsense of Sense

Synchronicity (n): the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection : such synchronicity is quite staggering

You know how when you learn something, like a new word, or a new fact, it suddenly starts popping up everywhere?

I opened my e-mail yesterday to find a quote from Chuck Palahniuk. "What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher." (For being such an asshole, he says some cool stuff sometimes, doesn't he?)

For the last week or so, I've been feeling... mentally disorganized. No doubt due to all the change that has plagued characterized my life for the past year plus. Like all the thoughts in my brain are scattered, disconnected. Rather, like there are connections between them that I can glimpse just long enough to know they exist, before they slip away. I can't seem to get a solid grasp on them. And, because I'm self-destructively self-reflective, I consciously think about this disconcerting lack of order. I'll search my jumble-y brain for an idea and find it one place one day, another place the next day, and not at all the next. I'm thinking in circles as opposed to the straight lines I like so much... Hence, I guess, the excess of ellipses. Structure. Chaos. Patterns. Randomness. In our minds, in the world...

... and in grammar, of course. There's a ton of structure in the grammar of Arabic, to the point where analyzing morphologies and deconstructing sentences feels a lot like a math problem. Like you're actually uncovering underlying truths, rather than inventing a system of rules and imposing them upon the language to try to make sense of it. At least, this is true most of the time. The Abbasid grammarians had to explain a gigantic corpus of data from the Qur'an, from Jahili poetry, and from Bedouin speech. In the standard analyses of syntax, verb patterns, grammatical cases, etc, there are relatively few rules, and even fewer exceptions. A mark of a beautiful theory. When it comes to certain noun patterns, though, it seems like a different story. It's almost random. The "rules" are abundant, and the exceptions moreso. Imagine you're in kindergarten. There is a big pile of red, yellow, and blue blocks. And there are three boxes, one red, one yellow, and one blue. Your teacher tells you to put each block in the box of the corresponding color. Easy, right? That's verb-blocks. But then she throws a massive corpus of noun-blocks at your feet, of 1000 assorted colors, and gives you 100 boxes. Then she says, well you have to do the assignment, because the proper interpretation of the Qur'an depends on it. (Ok, so it's not exactly like that. But kinda.)

In class the other day, we were reading a story about an Islamic scholar who was described as having a strong memory, a sharp intelligence, and a  "ذهن صاف", literally translated as "pure mind." To illustrate the meaning of that phrase (no pun intended, promise), our teacher drew on the board two large rectangular boxes, each representing the brain. Inside the first, she drew a series of smaller boxes, arranged in a grid-like pattern. Inside the second, she drew more small boxes, but this time randomly placed, overlapping each other in a jumbled mess. She explained that a "pure mind" is like the first picture. Someone with such a mind can readily access facts or ideas, because he knows where each idea is located in relation to the others. Like pointers in C++. He knows where all the asterisks and ampersands go. Someone with a mind like the second box is like a poorly written program, and his recall is hit and miss.

Does mental structure mirror structure in the world? Is my brain making nonsense of a sensible world? Or is my brain imposing sense on a nonsensical world? Or is mental structure all there is? That's theory-talk, and if I learned about these things in college philosophy classes, I've long since forgotten them. The "it's all in your head" part sounds Berkeley-ish, though, doesn't it? Hmm... So what's the point? For me, it's this: when I feel like the thoughts in my brain are organized, and I can identify the relations between them (whether or not I actually bother to do so), I don't worry as much. I sleep better. I make better decisions, because my goals and my perspective on myself and on the world around me are somewhat stable. When my thoughts are tangled up like arms and legs in a Twister game, I feel constantly unsettled somehow. Like I'm reaching for something, and I don't know what. 

The funny thing is that organizing my thoughts about just one area of life can transfer over and help everything else feel organized. Unfortunately, the reverse works too. Somehow, when I'm studying and grammatical categories start to blur together and I start losing track of what's what, I start getting panicky about the fact that all my belongings are in Berkeley, my car is in Ohio, and I'm getting back to the States only three days before I need to be in Texas. But all that stuff seems perfectly fine, as long as I'm straight on whether or not that accusative specifier is modifying a pesky implicit agent.

So I either try to find a way to straighten my thoughts out, or find a way to live with the wiggly-ness. Mostly, a little of both. I can handle the chaos better when I tell myself that just because I can't see the pattern, it doesn't mean it isn't there. But sometimes, like nountimes, I'm afraid I'm looking for patterns that just aren't there.

Another bonus story from class. Maybe only nominally related, but it's my blog, so I can write what I want. This afternoon I was daydreaming a little bit, idly anticipating the start of school in less than a month, mentally thumbing through the familiar flipbook whose pages say, I used to study quantum mechanics, now I am changing my career, I think I'm doing the right thing, I'm in Jordan right now (normally followed by "what the hell"), I'm moving to Texas in less than three weeks, I really want someday to have an office full of books with fancy Arabic calligraphy embossed on the cover... I snapped out of the daydreaming enough to half-follow the proofs for the existence of God based on the impossibility of randomness. The teacher was throwing around such terms as "steady state," "time zero," "quantum physics," and "the limit as x approaches infinity." I had to pinch myself as my two undergraduate majors, chemistry and philosophy, converged in a class on Classical Arabic texts. If that doesn't mess with an already jumbled up head, then I don't know what will!  

1 comment:

  1. Thinking in circles isn't all bad, I say as one who knows no other way of thinking, so learning to do a little of it might come in handy some time. Mainly, because sometimes those colored blocks just don't fit into any apparent category. And if it helps, you aren't dealing with the possession in Berkeley and the car in Ohio situation all on your own.