Dynamics Trumps Semantics

It could be time to reconsider our views on intentionality. We could learn to satisfy ourselves with building on what is sustainable, i.e. what can reliably be created, rather than what we ideally would prefer to have. Semantics can be bent more flexibly than dynamics, so it serves us to consider adjusting creative desire to that which is dynamically sound, rather than attempting the reverse. Darwin’s lesson to us was simple: that which can be sustained will outlive the things that cannot, regardless of their beauty or meaning. Dynamics trumps semantics.1

I’ve read Mark Burgess’ In Search of Certainty (source of the quote above) a while back, but the phrase dynamics trumps semantics has stuck with me. I keep seeing that phrase all around me, captured in familiar forms like:

Show, don’t tell.

Lead by example.

You can only control what you do.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

We know more than we can say…

A picture is worth a thousand words.

For my purposes here, dynamics means doing or motion of things, semantics means meaning of things.

So, as a thought experiment, I wanted to see the implications of dynamics trumps semantics. Previously, I’ve written about a model of communication for information sharing. In context of such a model, dynamics trumps semantics implies (to me) that communicating by doing should trump communicating of meaning. To simplify a bit further, what happens when we stop communicating what things mean?

All of us automatically attribute meaning to things we observe to some extent. If we stop communicating meaning, we are permitting people interpretations grounded entirely in their own experience, without biasing their meaning with our interpretation of what things mean. Interestingly, if our interpretation of meaning is “wrong”, and we don’t communicate meanings, we don’t propagate the “wrong” meaning to others. If their interpretation turns out to be more accurate, I assume we’d be able to observe that better accuracy through the actions they take and improve our own models accordingly.

Yet, we (or at least I) communicate meaning all the time, why is that?

In model of communication I mentioned context-specific jargon as a compression mechanism for communication. It seems to me that meaning is a different category of compression mechanism that we use, an orienting one, but not a very precise one. Interestingly, it seems that we can better communicate meaning obliquely, by doing instead of explaining the meaning. For example, think of the word love and how it means something different to each person. Typically, knowing what someone means by saying I love you (this phrase is a statement of what one person means to the other) only becomes apparent over time through their actions. A lot of heartache comes from actions not matching expectations because the meaning was communicated, instead of meaning being extracted (independently in the mind of the observer) from observed actions.

Dynamics trumps semantics is not that important in a stable world. If things don’t change that much, if you’re a human “back in the day” where the pace of change was effectively zero, meaning acquired over time and generations, became more and more accurate when assigned to the world around you. Dynamics trumps semantics didn’t mean much, because dynamics worked over many human lifetimes. However, we live in interesting times, where “impossible” things become possible many times over within a span of a single human lifetime. In times like these, dynamics trumps semantics seems much more relevant. We don’t have generations to let the meaning of things converge on the accurate representation of the world. Before we can make progress, new dynamics take effect, and render previous meanings moot. I’m curious if in a dynamic world like ours, not bothering much with communicating meaning can make us more effective in achieving the futures we want.

1 Burgess, Mark. In Search of Certainty: The Science of Our Information Infrastructure (p. 354). O’Reilly Media. Kindle Edition.


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