A Universal Game

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

A Universal Game

Daniela Miteva

"The blank page is nothingness-the silence-
on which the words enact their epic journey,
which is both a quest for a meaning and a
creation of meaning."
O. B. Hardison

The Bible introduced the concept of God as a creator of the universe. In contrast, Darwin's theory supplanted the idea of a single creator orchestrating all extant processes by affirming the role of chance in shaping the reality. According to Darwin's story, random events create chaos in the universe and then re-establish order characterized by certain patterns of life. Like the changes in the environment, the emergence of specific patterns cannot be predicted. Yet, no matter how chance might shape reality, language adapts to mirror all of the changes. Consequently, by molding language to reflect the emerging patterns of life, chance begets new meanings. Building bridges between time and space and arranging the patterns created by chance inside these domains, language contains the expression of meanings. Therefore, using language to describe the surrounding world, we control the universe. The role of language in the formation of reality also makes us reconsider our notions of self and freedom.

Fueled by chance, random memes generate new patterns. As Dennett contends, memes need human minds in order to live and "reproduce" (give rise to a new idea, thought or meme). As soon as a meme assumes a trivial meaning, it is supplanted by other memes. Once a meme is anchored in a brain, it is "processed" and changed in compliance with the idiosyncrasies of that particular brain. Then, it is passed to other brains.

According to this description of memes, an individual cannot generate germinal memes without being influenced by other people. This means that our thinking is dependent on other people's thinking. Consequently, the society we live in shapes our mental processes, culling those thoughts that threaten to undermine its foundations. Therefore, if we happen to resist the influence of the memes and generate our own thoughts, eventually we become pariahs, because our way of thinking differs from that of the rest of the society. Faced with the prospect of living alone, we do conform to the social way of processing memes. Of course, we will remodel them in accordance with the idiosyncrasies of our brains, but the attribute of the meme stays the same. Thus, the social processing of memes gives birth to different cultures. Because of the dependency on society for the formation of our perceptions of the environment, does the freedom to be unique exist?

The freedom to be unique depends on chance. According to Dennett, memes propagate "because of our esteem for them" (363). Random events and the particular social circumstances induced by them determine the social stance. So, being unique is the freedom to respond to the emerging patterns imposed by chance according to the idiosyncrasies of our brains within the boundaries set by society. Experimenting by putting elements together in a new way approved by society, playing with memes within those boundaries, and challenging the boundaries, we display our uniqueness.

Do we have control of the processing of the memes? Apart from society's influence to reject or adopt a meme, the influence of the memes themselves may be too subtle for us to perceive it. Inadvertently, we may turn into "a sort of dung heap in which the larvae of other people's ideas renew themselves..." (Dennett, 346). It is again chance that determines whether we will happen to resist its influence.

Like the detection of a meme, its propagation depends on random events. So, chance begets thoughts, which are in turn shaped by language.
Articulating thoughts, words convey meaning. So, the appearance of new words increases the range of thought by providing additional means to communicate these thoughts. Likewise, the decrease in the number of available words limits the range of consciousness: "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it...Every year fewer and fewer words and the range of consciousness always a little smaller." (Orwell, 55) Because we need to adjust the extant vocabulary to reflect the emergence of new patterns or the disappearance of certain structures in the surrounding environment, the array of words is constantly changing. By establishing new order chance fuels the creation of new words and the disappearance of others. Consequently chance shapes thought and determines the range of consciousness.

Yet, in addition to conveying meaning, words create such. The placing of one word after another to form phrases, sentences, paragraphs, books gives rise to meaning not contained in the individual words, but emerging as a result of their interactions with one another. Articulating thoughts, we impose order on words. Nevertheless, the emergence of meaning sometimes depends on chance. Often struggling to express an idea, writers and speakers place words after one another creating unintentional meanings. Sometimes it so happens that the meaning completely diverges from the original intention. So, the creation of meaning depends on both personal will and chance.

The interpretation of the language is solely an act of will, however. Reading or listening, we project our own experiences, attitudes, moral beliefs etc onto the text, thus creating a meaning that corresponds to our selves. So, the meaning of a chain of words is exactly what we make of it. Since a text is construed in accordance with the unique personal experiences and idiosyncrasies of one's brain, the resulting individual images of the universe also differ. Describing the surrounding world, we create reality which varies for different people. Thus denying the concept of an absolute reality, we find a way to control chance.

Articulating thoughts, people impose order on the surrounding world, arranging their perceptions in a particular way in space and time. Thus, language provides people with the means to control the universe by describing it. Creating the various identities of the surrounding world is what triggers evolution. Not facing objective boundaries of reality, we are encouraged to cast off fears of the unknown and of failure, play with and seek successful formulas to modulate our notion of the surrounding world. Thus, giving rise to new theories to explain what we see, the playful impulse prods people to try to expand their notions. The moment we attain the knowledge to do so, we cause the universe to evolve by ascribing new meanings to it. So, if chance creates new meanings and language contains the universe, the role of people is to create various identities of the universe.

Mastering language, people have learned to create various images of the extant world. So, if both people and the gods of the various religions are capable of imposing order on chaos and disrupting the patterns of life, what should our definition of a supreme being be?
The more people know about language, the greater their power to control the world. Yet, it is not feasible for us to hoard all words in order to expand infinitely our identities of the universe. Neither it is possible for us to control both past and present by expressing it in words, because random events constantly reshape the environment. Human brains have so evolved that they tend to dispose of all information that is not being used. Consequently, a being is considered supreme if it is able to retrieve the words normal people have long forgotten and thus get hold of the past. So, a god is somebody who can store numerous words and arrange them in more ways to generate a myriad of meanings. Playing with words, experimenting with their form and content are the prerequisites for these.

Furthermore, to maintain ascendancy over people entails the knowledge to express the meaning in a distinctive and articulate way. It is not the most germinal ideas that receive credit, but those expressed in the most lucid and compelling way, because other people are able to understand them. Having managed to mold a certain thought in an effective way, those who have mastered to the art of expression elicit emotions and thoughts from the audience. The ability to achieve this grants immortality to the text and its creator.

Random events inspire new meanings, contained in words. Arranging words to transmute time and space, people manage to control the universe. Giving us the freedom of thought, language allows us to impose order on the surrounding world, thus enabling us to create reality and grow. Having the ability to transmute the environment according to our own volition, are we free to do whatever we want? Are we entitled to the right to do so?

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (New York, N.Y.: Touchstone books, 1996)
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four (London: Penguin Books, 1990)
Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

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