Posts Tagged ‘levels of meaning’

LITERATURE|RELIGION: Hidden Meanings in the Universe

In Literature|Religion, nature, perception on July 24, 2011 at 4:48 am

God reflects His Self through the Universe.

To reach Him we must reflect upon the Universe.

Or we may use the writings of those who have reflected before we did.

Windows of Reflection in the Verses of a Poet:

Her shai pukarti he pas-e-parda-e-sukuut

lekin kise sunaun koi ham-nawa bhi ho

Fursat mein sun shaguftgi-e-ghuncha ki sada

ye wo sukhan nahi jo kisi ne keha bhi ho


Everything speaks behind these cloaks of silence.

Alas, there is no audience. Ears here are struck.

When free, listen to the sound of the roses’ glee.

This is not speech that has been uttered.

–Nasir Kazmi (Deewan, Ghazal no. 1, p.11)↓1

What is Nasir saying in the first line?

Every object around is a being in its own right with a place in the universe. At the highest and spiritual level of meaning, every object as a creation of God signifies some property of that Creator: beauty, completeness, power, or profoundness. Here, Nasir laments of the indifference of general society to this “World in a Grain of Sand” [from William Blake]. ↓2

The second of the two quoted verses serves as a specific and illustrative example of the general idea in the first. Its first line is very pleasing and fresh (read slowly in Urdu to appreciate). It creates a beautiful image in our mind that is not just a static visual (a pleasant half-open flower bud), but is additionally decked with sound! – a striking combination. One instantly indulges imagining how, say, a rose-bud must sound if we could hear it…

Of course, this is not a literal reference to a synesthetic experience, ↓3 as the word ‘shaguftagi’ helps us realize. Word ‘shaguftagi’ is masdar in Urdu grammar, equivalent to an abstract noun in English. The poet thus is attempting to call our attention to the delightful quality of the rose. It bespeaks some meaning that is part of the mystery of the universe. (The mysterious atmosphere of the Urdu verse reinforces this conclusion).

Moreover, the Persian word ‘sukhan‘ in the fourth line is used not just for ‘speaking’, but also for the best form speech can take: literature. Thus the glee of roses not only speaks, it does so at the highest possible level, aesthetically and meaningfully.


The Highest Level of Meaning…?

All communication is made up of small signals or alphabets which combine in a way to form something bigger and meaningful (a symbol).↓4 Symbols (such as words, equations, or lines of html) in turn combine to produce something even larger and fuller. Fuller because the meaning of the combined product goes beyond a mere sum of its parts (such as a rousing poem, a theorem that helps explain some mystery of the universe, or an interactive computer program that seems a far cry from the lines upon lines of dry code it springs from.).

Thus ‘meaning’ is the overall pattern created by hierarchical combinations of symbols and signals. As such meaning is also latent (hidden); it doesn’t reveal itself as long as you stay focused on the underlying symbols or signals. One can’t even see the whole painting on a wall, let alone interpret it, if one is standing too close looking at a portion of the whole. ↓5

The Essence of a Reflection:

In combination, the four lines lend to four major realizations, in deciphering of which, the last line is of paramount significance:

First: The ‘speech’ Nasir refers to is the ‘meaning’ contained in the layers of inscription this world is made up of: the sands, rains, leaves, seasons…. No creator of things ever makes anything without some meaning (or purpose).

وَما خَلَقنَا السَّماءَ وَالأَرضَ وَما بَينَهُما لٰعِبينَ
AND [know that] We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in mere idle play. [Al-Anbya, 16]

Nasir, in his beautifully conversational way invites us to try sense these messages in nature. her shei pukarti hei..econd: These messages are as real as our speech but seem far beyond the bubble of our existence, since we have never really looked beyond that bubble; or if we did, we just focused on the symbol, appreciating at most, say, the beauty of a flower.  fursat mein sun..

وَإِن مِن شَيءٍ إِلّا يُسَبِّحُ بِحَمدِهِ وَلٰكِن لا تَفقَهونَ تَسبيحَهُم

and there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; And yet you understand not how they declare His glory [Al-Asra (also Sura Bani Israil), 44]

Third: Moreover, these messages correspond with the finest possible form this mode of communication can take. The whole of Al-Qur’an proves that the form in which the timeless realities of the Universe are revealed must have been the epitome of all literature.↓6
We do not even need a reference ayah for this point. Attend closely to any good and authentic recitation of the Qur’an or learn it by translation.↓7  ye wo sukhan nahin..

Fourth: Nasir’s comparison of these hidden communications to human literature is solely for the purpose of explication. It is no comparison in fact. Since even though many magnificent examples of literature exist, no person has ever said anything approximating the timeless meaning of all the signs in God’s universe.  Qur’an’s own challenge (unanswered to date!) to humans to produce anything like a single surah (Al-baqarah ayah 23) of it is sufficient for reference. jo kisi ne keha bhi ho..


Note that there is an incomplete loop in the flow from human perception to metaphysical inferences. I mean, even though we may begin to glimpse and apprehend to a very meagre extent the mysteries contained in these symbols, they will certainly remain beyond our full encompassment. None of us can ever claim that we have comprehended the universal significance of all objects truly and completely because of their latent quality.
Interestingly, The above conclusion is a highly logical deduction from Nasir’s own words: as soon as the meaning of the universe becomes totally comprehensible by humans, it will be translated into the human form of communication. It will mean that someone has spoken those meanings in words. But that is not possible. That has never happened in this world, and by implication will never happen in the future either.
وَلا يُحيطونَ بِشَيءٍ مِن عِلمِهِ إِلّا بِما شاءَ
and they cannot comprehend anything of His knowledge except what He pleases [Ayat-ul-Kursi, Al-Baqarah, 255]
Certainly, that is why Nasir refrains from hinting at any particular meaning he might be discerning through his mysterious teachers. Since the bounds between the human and the divine sounds are essentially unsurpassable, any subjectively derived meaning could be just that: subjective. The humility and the unbiasness of the highly real Nasir must prevent him from sharing his intuitions. Poetically, his reticence helps retain the mysterious and obscure quality of the world of meaning and of the corresponding ‘air’ of this verse.

 I am amazed what depths of phenomena may be explored in the span of a ghazal’s verse by an honest and artful poet.


God’s own Word can be the only link enclosing the gap between the limitations of human perception and the real meaning and significance of all the elements of the universe out there.



1. Translated by the humble author of the blog.

2. Nasir had a particularly incisive eye for the sights of this world. In the second line of this verse, he laments of his difference in this respect with typical ‘others’ in society.

3. Ever heard of synesthesia? On first reading, ‘the glee of a rose-bud’ reminds of that welding of two or more senses when sights are experienced as sounds (or some such other combination of sensations). For a first hand description of a synesthestic experience, read my older post on ‘outrageous sensations‘.

4. The concept that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ is old (generally known as holism) and has been popularized in psychology by the gestalt school who explain it very well.

5. Read Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid for more on the nature of meaning. My absurd attempt to organize and summarize the concepts developed in the book reads here.

6. On the human level, being able to sense the glee of roses also corresponds with the highest possible form psychological experience can take. Abraham Maslow devoted his life to studying just such ‘peak experiences‘ which have an indescribably transcendental quality, when a person’s senses and emotions seem to go beyond the limits of daily life and to perceive something ‘pure’ and otherwordly.

7. For an interesting article on the literary aspects of Al-Quran, click here.

BOOKS: What I learned from “Godel, Escher, Bach” – Part II

In Books, cognition on May 3, 2009 at 11:59 am

geb-book-coverContinued from Part I.

In this post we will look more closely at “symbols”, “levels of meaning” and “isomorphism”.

Symbols – the carriers of meaning

Strange loops arise in systems that are powerful enough to capture meaning. Meaning is achieved when networks of signals stand for one particular concept in the world.  Thus each letter of the alphabet signals a particular sound. These signals in turn get arranged into a pattern – a word – that refers to one particular object or idea from the external world.

In a similar vein, the firing of a single neuron in response to a specific stimulus is a signal. For instance, studies on the visual cortex have shown that different specific neurons are stimulated upon presentation of and variation in very specific features of the visual stimuli such as length and orientation.

When we sense (see, hear, or touch) a new object, all the neurons responding to its various features are activated in the pertinent area of our brain are activated and form a neural circuit. Circuits in different regions of the brain are themselves interconnected: As you talk about an apple you are using i) the muscles of your respiratory system to create the right sounds, ii) the corresponding visual circuit to visualize the apple, and iii) circuits in the language areas representing the word apple as well as the corresponding phonetic pattern needed to pronounce the word correctly.

The above described network caters to one meaningful concept in the world. It is to such networks that Hofstadter applies the term symbol. The world is full of such information-preserving  symbols and below are some examples:


Meaning is not inherent in the symbol

By now it is clear that the power of a symbol does not reside in the signals that it is made up of; rather it is the correspondence with a specific concept from the outer world. Every word will be a meaningless pattern of sound if it was not associated with something we are familiar with. Words such as ‘mother’, ‘money’ and ‘love’ evoke strong personal reactions in most of us, not because there is something in the special arrangement of those particular sounds, but because of what each of these words refers to.

Thus the fact that each constituent of the symbol stands for a particular sound is explicit (i.e. apparent). On the other hand, the fact that the pattern as a whole stands for something else altogether is implicit (i.e. hidden) –  the meaning is not readily apparent to anybody who’s not  well-practiced in the use of these symbols (e.g. a child, a person not familiar with the English language).

Meaning is thus independent of any rules for combining signals to produce patterns. That is how, even though the formal system in Principia Mathematica was especially designed to shun explicit self-reference, it is by association with a different (a higher, and less readily apparent) level of meaning that self-reference is achieved.

Isomorphism – reading meaning into patterns of signals

The key is that the transition from the explicit to the implicit level is  information-preserving. In math, such a case wherein elements of two sets correspond with each other in an information-preserving fashion (math theorems and Godel numbers in the above example) is called an isomorphism.

Thus the word “table” is isomorphic to that piece of furniture on which my PC sits. So is the neural circuit that gets activated in my mind when I think of a table. The symbol ‘=’ is isomorphic to the concept of “is equal to”.  Genes are isomorphic to the protein synthesized from them. A code is isomorphic to the text of the message it hides. The camera film is isomorphic to the color photograph printed from it.

In short, human thinking and culture is fraught with isomorphisms of various kinds.

As far as we cannot detect and read the isomorphism, the structural similarity between two different sets of elements, we will be oblivious to the fact that one is a message encoded by the other. In Hofstadter’s terms, meaning is induced in the explicit lower level matter (or components of a pattern) by identifying its isomorphism with a real world concept at a more abstract level.

We recently have had an eerie reminder of this fact, when a scientist Craig Hogan realized that he may have hit upon some observations supporting the holographic principle. It seems that the totality of information on all the particles in our 3D universe may be contained on the 2D cosmic horizon…

Isomorphisms and mental life

The swirls of neuoronal activity back and forth across the brain are isomorphic to mental activity. In other words: consciousness of our inner life is attained because we can read off the explicit neurological processes at a much more higher and implicit level.

When you are looking at a TV screen, the data you are receiving is nothing but a fluctuating pattern of pixels. But you are not conscious of this ‘lower level’ of the message. You can simply read off the higher level meanings coded for by those pixels – feat we call as perception.

This shows how its totally unnecessary to be conscious of the lower level in order to read the implicit. Fluent readers are rarely conscious of the exact letter sequences making up the words they are reading. A practiced reader in a book describing highly visual scenes will simply see the scene by scene depiction of the story on the pages. The feel of reading is completely replaced by the sense of watching in such instances…

In sum, both intelligence and consciousness may be redefined as our capacity to perceive the meaningful isomorphisms in the world and within ourselves.

Tangled hierarchies and strange loops

Many a times a clear differentiation of ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ levels is possible when dealing with two isomorphic sets. A majority of the examples of such sets given above illustrate this differentiation. There are times however when such a clear differentiation is not possible, since levels keep leading back to each other.

It is the entangledness of our concepts that leads to recursion in human thinking. All our concepts are interrelated, are constantly activated by each other, and this constant exchange among themselves and with information from the outside leads either to modification or reinforcement of every concept.

We define our preferences and loves in relation to our own selves. We reflect upon the outer world and interacting with it obtain further information from ourselves thus re-affirming, enhancing or adjusting our self-concepts. All this modification is indeed not just at the abstract, conceptual changes. The changes are reflected in the underlying patterns of connections across networks of neurons. This is what happens in any level-crossing feedback loop. The system does not just mirrors meaning, it has the capacity to  change in response to changing information.

That is also why human intelligence is definitely superior to machine intelligence. Where a computer will get hanged, the human will leave the level on which it was working (for e.g. some office task) and work on other levels to solve the problem (for e.g. confronting the supervisor who didn’t explain the task fully, confronting and modifying one’s own level of knowledge and skill required to achieve the task, etc.).

The beauty of Hofstadter’s ideas is that they apply equally well to human intelligence and human consciousness. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies is the result of his research into the intricacies of human cognition, whereas I am a Strange Loop presents more fully Hofstadter’s ideas of the emergence of the human ‘I’.

An example of the all-tangled up semantic network underlying GEB (Click on the image to see in full size)

An example of the all-tangled up semantic network underlying GEB (Click on the image to see in full size)

After I have completed reading I am a Strange Loop, I’ll find some excuse to post about it as well, InshaAllah!