Sage Paul Lutus: Most “educated” people cannot tell the difference between a fact and an idea, the most common confusion of symbol and thing. Most believe if they collect enough facts, this will compensate for their inability to grasp the ideas behind those facts. And, because of this “poverty of ideas,” most cannot work out the simplest conceptual questions, such as “why is the sky dark at night?”


How we confuse symbols and things



It is no accident that modern education doesn’t teach the            distinction between symbol and thing         

— if it did, education as we know it would fall apart.          After that, after education reshaped itself to provide          actual knowledge instead of the symbolic representation of          knowledge, the society around us would be transformed. 

          But in the meantime, most “educated” people cannot tell the          difference between a fact and an idea, the most common          confusion of symbol and thing. Most believe if they collect          enough facts, this will compensate for their inability to          grasp the ideas behind those facts. And, because of this          “poverty of ideas,” most cannot work out the simplest          conceptual questions, such as “why is the sky dark at          night?” (unless you are in a small minority, the actual          reason is not what you think — see more          here          ).         

          As a result of this educational deficit, our individually          inspired sense of well-being, our direct participation in          those actions that assure our continued survival, our sense          that we must create our own reasons for living, have been          replaced by a kind of conceptual totalitarianism, 

                   which has as its cornerstone a deliberate blurring of            symbol and thing                    . This totalitarianism has several parts:       


            Originally a convenient way to trade what you have for what            you don’t have, commerce has been elevated to the status of            a moral principle.                    People who could be grappling with more fundamental issues          are instead imitating Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s          character from                      Death of a Salesman                    , who personified the replacement of substance with symbol.         
          I am sure there are many definitions for the term “consumerism,” here is mine:                      consumerism is the voluntary suspension of disbelief in the value of material            goods                    . In the grip of consumerism, we respond to advertisements for products          without once asking “if this product is so valuable, why do they pay to          advertise it?” This is an everyday statement of a well-established principle in          advertising — things of real worth are generally not advertised. Sometimes an          advertisement is designed to persuade you to switch between one worthwhile          thing and another (or one worthless thing and another), but no one pays simply          to make you aware of a worthwhile thing. What’s the point? You already know          there are cans of oil, coat-hangers, Pez dispensers. No one needs to tell you          this.         
          But those caught up in consumerism lose this perception. They actually think          responding to advertising makes them better people. In this way, consumerism is          a confusion of symbols and things raised to a higher power — we respond to an          advertisement for a symbol, then the symbol (the product) turns out not to          represent the thing (value). Then the entire process repeats.         
          For people possessed of common sense, the cure for consumerism is simple:          overexposure. The more you do it, the quicker you recognize that consumer          products are symbols masquerading as things. But for those not endowed with          common sense, consumerism can be addicting, in the same way that marriage,          government and religion can be.         
          For a more complete treatment of this subject, read          Consumer Angst          .          




            Early in our history, marriage simply didn’t exist, in fact            it is a relatively recent development                    (by “recent” I mean after the dinosaurs died and before          the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show). Marriage was          originally conceived (no pun intended) as a way to signal          the presence of a special bond between two people. At that          time, marriage had no special significance itself, it was          merely a social signaling device, and to some extent it          also represented a contract with mutual obligations                      . In those times marriage stood as a mere symbol for            something of actual substance — a relationship between            people that would have existed whether or not the symbol of            marriage was also present                    .         
          Today marriage (the symbol) has become a thing in its own          right, in some cases (and in some minds) replacing the          thing it once only represented. It has become a          multi-billion dollar industry, and only the most perceptive          individuals remember that it was supposed to have          symbolized something more important, more fundamental than          itself — a particular kind of human relationship. This          reversal of symbol and thing has become so profound that          one commonly hears a remark like “Marriage is what I really          want!” as though marriage were anything more than a weather          forecast or a road sign.         
          Naturally enough, this confusion of empty symbols and          actual things has led to a rather well-documented          disenchantment with that institution, even though the          disenchantment is based on an error in perception. The          reality of a human relationship between people (usually) of          opposite sexes is quite different from the packaged          perception called up by the word “marriage,” to the degree          that people often forget that they will have to build the          thing (a human relationship) after achieving the symbol for          the thing (marriage).         
          Then, after people waste precious time seeking “marriage”          and discovering that marriage is nothing by itself, they          complain they have been failed by “marriage.” This is          advanced puppetry, and no one seems willing to follow the          strings.         
          But marriage itself (as it is practiced in modern times),          by virtue of having taken on a life of its own, is in its          turn a symbol for something more basic:                      We live in a time where symbols for things have largely            replaced the things themselves                    , and this tendency exists in direct proportion to people’s          inability to distinguish between symbols and things.       



            Modern people may have a hard time remembering that            government was originally conceived as a method for            accomplishing as a group what individuals could not            accomplish alone.                    In this hypothetical model, groups formed to achieve          specific goals, they learned how to work together, they          succeeded or failed                      , but then the group dissolved and the individuals returned            to their natural lives                    . In the modern version, just as with marriage, what had          originally been a symbol for a thing now seems more          important than the thing it originally represented.         
          Modern governments are to the efficient solution of common          problems as modern marriage is to natural human          relationships — in both cases, there is only a superficial          resemblance, and in both cases, what was once a symbol has          become a thing. Government has become so much a thing unto          itself that it is now essentially separate from human          society, to the degree that governments regularly pass laws          and collect taxes in the interest of, and for the          furtherance of, government itself — laws and expenditures          having nothing to do with the interest of the people the          governments were originally designed to serve.         
          One might think, reading my harsh indictment of government,          that I must side with those who blow up government          buildings. Nothing could be further from the truth — in          fact                      , every fruitcake that blows up a government building            thereby assures an increase in governmental power                    . This is because government’s effects are mostly out of          sight (and mind), and to an average person those effects          are benign compared to the wholesale slaughter of innocents          whose only mistake was to be near (or in) that day’s          randomly selected building. This is a fundamental truth          that Mahatma Gandhi recognized, but that we have largely          forgotten — violent opposition is the bread and butter on          big government’s table.         
          The real solution to excessive governmental power is          education. People must learn the difference between a          symbol (government) and a thing (effective group action),          and they must come to believe in themselves and the natural          value of individual experience. If people educate          themselves to the point that they realize their own power          and capabilities, huge governments will lose their          audience. And make no mistake about it — big government          isn’t just like show business, it                      is                    show business: no audience, no show.         
          In a “natural system,” an idea or a group must justify          itself or dissolve — it cannot simply enforce its          continued existence without proving its value. If this          natural law were to be broken, if an idea or group was          allowed to exist without continually showing its worth,          then nature herself would step in and extinguish that group          — or, if necessary, the species to which that group          belonged. This would happen because a natural system is          defined by constant scarcity and fierce competition between          individuals, groups, ideas, and methods.         
          Some will argue that the natural system I describe is          brutal and unnecessary — it has little to do with modern          times, and going on about it constitutes worship of the          primitive. But I maintain that we must study natural          systems and apply what we learn, because no matter how          “advanced” we become, we will always be ruled by nature.         
          How do I mean this? After all, we in America appear to be          completely divorced from the requirements of nature. We          have more than we need, we don’t have to struggle to          survive (even though we go on endlessly about our          “struggle,” usually to get more of what is already enough).          But we do this by setting up a special, unnatural          relationship with nature — instead of experiencing nature          directly, we have created a hierarchy of experience. Those          at the “top” of the hierarchy of experience see nature on          television (and on the Internet). In particular, we see          natural laws played out in the lives of the modern          proletarians, people whose job it is to create a cheap          labor pool and then die quietly, gracefully, without          objection.         
          The modern proletarians, both in America and elsewhere,          represent the “bottom” of the hierarchy of experience (as          Americans see it, anyway). They experience the modern          version of a natural food chain, with (for example)          blue-green algae at the “bottom” and humpback whales at the          “top.” And this is how nature reasserts herself in the most          modern context — a technical “food chain” in which many at          the “bottom” are allowed to assemble circuit boards for          computers “consumed” by those few at the “top.”         
          The reason natural food chains don’t break down is because          the creatures that make it up have no mobility — try          teaching calculus to blue-green algae, or, for that matter,          to a humpback whale. The reason technological “food chains”          don’t break down is because in the same moment that an          individual realizes his position at the bottom of the “food          chain,” he also realizes he can scramble to the top          (speaking as someone who did). George Bernard Shaw once          described religion as “what keeps the poor from killing the          rich” — our realization of upward mobility is the modern          equivalent, except that it has more intrinsic truth than          does religion.       





            The reason religion seems so appropriate a repository of            dreams compared to, for example, a used car lot, is only            because religions have been practicing longer.                    The crude methods of the used car salesman, the appearance          of chrome and freshly washed metal icons, flags, balloons,          cannot compare with the sophisticated, “uptown”          presentation of a modern church. In a Western church you          see actual images of deities, some frozen in advanced          stages of suffering. Compared to this, a vintage Mustang, a          classic Ford Coupe, mere metal and oil, cannot compete.         
          Modern religion is not a concept, it is a process. You          don’t evolve or sit in repose, you proceed. From the moment          you encounter religion, you are in motion toward a goal.          There is no rest for the wicked, because rest is itself          wicked. But if you accomplish everything that religion          places before you, expecting to be left alone at the end of          the process, you instead discover you must go out and          persuade other people to join up and commence their own          process.         
          This is something religion has in common with Alcoholics          Anonymous — after you are in remission, you must go out          and find other alcoholics and “bring them in.” For AA, the          real reason for this is because, without that secondary          goal, the members might slip into drinking again (as          recounted in a well-known, possibly mythical story). In the          same way, for the religious person, without the secondary          goal of proselytizing, he might lose interest in what is,          after all, a rather shallow belief system.         
          I would like to report that religion (the symbol) once          served the purpose of introducing people to a natural quest          for meaning in life (the thing), only later to become          distorted, but this would be disingenuous — so far as I          can see, religion has always been a diversion from the          actual quest, fed at times by personal selfishness, at          times by a desire for power, but only coincidentally by a          desire to provide a context for individual spiritual          experience.         
          Most western religions begin their indoctrination by          asserting the basic evil of individual experience and the          absolute necessity of the religion itself. This is simply a          convenient way to accelerate a process that replaces the          thing (spirituality) with the symbol (religion).         
          This assertion, this statement that individual experience          doesn’t count or is actually bad for you, is the most basic          assertion of western religious experience. It conceals (not          very well) a belief that individual experience is secondary          to group experience. Thus, to the degree that it influences          modern people, it is a totalitarian belief system. One          person is in charge — the person who can most convincingly          assert his connection with a deity.         
          But religion in all its manifestations can never do more          than symbolize the reality of individual religious and          spiritual experience. Western religions are much more          worldly than many others, having debased even the symbol          they are responsible for. Instructively, the sad present          state of Western religion can be summed up by saying          “Television is better.”         
          That’s an interesting test. Why not evaluate your most          prized belief — by comparing it to television? In the case          of Western religion, the experience is such that people          prefer television. I hope you see the connection — both          television (as it is embodied in America) and Western          religion (ditto) promise something they can’t possibly          deliver: an enriching experience. The only difference is          that television provides so many colorful images so quickly          that the average person finds he prefers the empty promise          of television to the empty promise of religion.         
          The negative side is that television and religion entrain          people to trust external value systems, to rely on a          fraudulent report of their own needs. And in this way          television is worse than religion. Why — because it has no          moral compass? No — it is only because television has a          larger audience. Religion has no moral compass either,          contrary to common belief. Or, to be more specific,          religion has had the same moral compass all along, but the          moral landscape’s magnetic poles have reversed, leading          religion’s travelers astray. What was sinful is now          virtuous and vice versa (to use the hackneyed language of          religion).         
          As just one example, having a large family used to be a          virtue, now it is no longer so, and it is about to become          “morally wrong,” if that expression can have any meaning in          the minds of intelligent people. In the real world, very          soon, to bear one child will guarantee the death of another          child — that is nature’s math, not mine. Unfortunately,          religion is using the same moral compass in the modern          world that guided it through ancient times, but under          nature’s law there is no permanent solution to life’s          problems — we must change how we act in life, because life          itself changes.         
          In a larger sense, religion’s power to conceal this fact          (overpopulation) shows the power of symbols to                      conceal the very things they are meant to reveal                    . And, once again, it shows the inability of people (the          symbol’s recipients) to see the difference between symbol          and reality.         
          None of this is to say that spiritual experiences are          fraudulent. That is a question I am not competent to answer          one way or another (except for myself). Answering this          question about religion is much easier — religion has          validity only to the degree that we are all identical, can          have meaningful spiritual experiences inside a building,          listening to the rantings of someone who pretends          attachment to a deity, and who needs us more than we need          him.         
          To a person capable of original thought, religion as a          belief system represents as much of an obstacle as does          government — a rigid system of facts, no ideas, no          openness. But the biggest threat to religion and government          (as practiced in modern times) are the laws of nature, a          place where constant change is more than just a fact of          life — it is a requirement.       



            Science is by far the most misunderstood modern human            activity, and the one whose essence is most poorly conveyed            to students.                    And yet, in order to comprehend the modern world, one must          also comprehend science. We are surrounded by the fruits of          scientific thought, but we don’t understand the process by          which these things are created, and more importantly, we          don’t understand the limitations of science. And, as with          so many other parts of the modern world, we have replaced          the reality of science with a symbol that is more a          caricature than a reflection.         
          The myths Americans believe about science and scientists          are almost too numerous to list — I will touch on just a          few.         
              Science myth #1 — The purpose of science is to discover              truth.                        Science, unlike law and religion, does not even pretend to          be a source of absolute truth — and this is one of          science’s great strengths. The highest product of science          is not truth, it is theory — the best theory we can devise.         
          When practiced correctly, science is a paradoxical mixture          of discipline and free-wheeling imagination. A productive          scientist begins by developing a new insight into an old          problem (or by posing a new question never before asked) by          imaginatively creating alternatives to existing theory,          then the scientist presents his findings in a way that pays          respect to all the things that can go wrong when we express          a new idea.         
          Instead of presenting a new idea by saying “I think this is          true,” as one might expect, a scientist analyzes the          available data and shows how well his theory corresponds to          that data. And, perhaps more important, in most studies a          scientist includes a number that represents the probability          that his result came about by chance.         
          To those untrained in science, this might seem like bending          over backward with skepticism, but it is actually a very          efficient way to separate good theories from bad (or          meaningless) ones. Here is an example. Jerry flips a coin          eight times and all eight times the coin comes up heads.          Jerry, who is not trained in science, says “The coin came          up heads eight times out of eight, therefore it will always          come up heads. I have discovered a new truth about this          particular coin.”         
          Jerry’s friend Susan, trained in science, says “I have          examined the coin, and it seems normal. Therefore it is          most likely that the coin has provided a statistically          improbable result. The probability of getting eight heads          in eight flips is 1/256, which is unlikely but not          impossible.”         
          Jerry scratches his head. “I studied some math in school —          does your result mean that if I flip the coin again, the          chance that it will come up heads in that toss is 1/512?”          Susan responds “That’s called the ‘gambler’s fallacy’ —          actually the chance you will get heads in any single coin          flip is always 1/2. But the chance you will get                      all heads in a  series of nine tosses                    is 1/512.”         
          This everyday situation is one reason why many people          believe in extrasensory perception (as just one example).          Someone will announce “I successfully predicted 12 coin          tosses in a row, therefore I am psychic.” A scientist, by          contrast, will ask a few questions and (as likely as not)          discover either deception or a result that can be explained          by everyday statistics. In the case of the psychic,          typically he might discover that the person carried out          thousands of experimental runs to achieve the reported          result, and will then explain that if one sat through 4096          such tests, the probability of achieving 12 correct          predictions in a row in one of those tests                      solely by chance                    would be equal to 1/2 (in everyday language, an “even          chance”).         
          Or the psychic might say “Well, there was a negative result          in the middle of the 12 correct answers, but I didn’t count          that — I wasn’t feeling psychic just then anyway.” This is          one of the ways by which science differs from ordinary          human behavior — in science, you count all the events, and          you don’t offer silly explanations when the data don’t meet          your expectations.         
          This example doesn’t mean that psychic ability does not          exist, or that scientists as a class don’t believe in          psychic phenomena. It only means that scientists have not          succeeded in producing reliable evidence for psychic          effects. No self-respecting scientist would say “Psychic          events are always false,” instead he would say “Show me the          evidence.”         
              Science myth #2 — the best science comes from addressing a              specific problem.                        When science addresses a particular problem, it is called          “applied research.” When scientists are free to work on          anything they care to, it is called “pure research.” And,          contrary to popular belief, pure research is the source of          most important scientific results.         
          Scientists love pure research, but politicians hate it.          Pure research costs the same amount of money as applied          research, but yields fewer short-term results. In the long          run, however, pure research creates new fields of science          and technology, while applied research can only add to an          existing body of knowledge.         
          The laser, the computer, the transistor and integrated          circuit which make the modern computer possible,          television, rocketry, our present understanding of the          universe, all these resulted from scientists being given          permission (or giving themselves permission) to think about          anything they cared to, to be “undisciplined.”         
          But the majority of research funds come from government and          corporations, and those funding sources almost always          expect short-term results — applied science. This might          explain why, in spite of the fact that there are more          scientists living and working today than have existed in          all of human history, there are fewer fundamental          discoveries being made than, say, 50 years ago.         
          Someone might say “That’s because everything has been          discovered already” but this is certainly not the reason —          there are many fundamental unanswered questions, questions          waiting for creative minds. As just one example, we can          describe gravity, but we can’t explain it. We can predict          gravity’s effects well enough to launch a spacecraft to          Mars so that it will arrive when and where we expect, but          we have yet to produce a meaningful explanation for gravity          and add it to our understanding of the universe. Gravity is          only one of many questions modern science could address,          except that no one will pay for the work — it’s too          “theoretical.” So, instead of exploring nature’s secrets,          we pay to find (as one $65,000 study discovered) that          people who are young, rich and healthy are happier than          those who are old, poor and sick.         
              Science myth #3 — science can only be practiced by              scientists                        Contrary to this commonly held belief, science is the moral          property of all thinking people — it is an indispensable          tool for sorting out reality. Practically any activity can          benefit from the application of scientific reasoning          skills. Even automobile mechanics regularly apply a kind of          science to their work — they replace one part, then          replace another, but never two at once, so that a          particular result can be traced to a single cause.         
          Scientific reasoning can also protect us from some of the          outright stupidity of modern times. For example, let’s say          an advertisement appears on TV that says “Use my $39 secret          method and make a million dollars in only a few months!” A          scientifically trained person will take this description of          reality and place it next to several other descriptions,          one of which is “If his method can make a million dollars,          why is he selling it for $39?”         
          Here’s another good application of scientific reasoning —          you see a book that tells the stories of 40 successful          stock investors, all multimillionaires. The book promises          to reveal their investment secrets (there are any number of          such books available). But, trained in science, you          consider all possibilities, not just one. You quickly          realize that, if there are millions of people who invest in          stocks, hundreds of them will become multimillionaires                      by chance alone                    (and hundreds of others will go broke by chance alone).          You realize you can program a computer to model a stock          market and investors, and, even though each portfolio is          randomly traded and the computer “market” goes up and down          randomly (without gradually increasing in value over time          as the real market does), the program will churn out a          certain number of wildly “successful” investors. You see          that, in spite of the mechanical nature of the computer          model (no system, no secrets, random trades), a certain          number of “investors” will increase their holdings ten          times over (this computer experiment can be easily          performed).         
          This is not to say that a successful system for investing          is impossible in principle, only that most have          common-sense explanations, and that consistent success in          the market is more likely the result of chance than genius.          Also, common sense tells us if there really was a sure-fire          method to win in the market, the creator of the method          would be reluctant to reveal it, because most methods fail          if they are widely practiced. In general, if you see a book          filled with sure-fire methods (even just one), it is most          likely that the author’s secret sure-fire get-rich-quick          method is to sell a million copies of his book.         
          The general rule for a scientific thinker is to consider          all explanations for an effect, not just the one that first          springs into view. This works for everyone, not just          professional scientists. A professional does this to          protect his scientific reputation — normal people do it to          protect their life savings.       



            “If a foreign government had imposed this system of            education on the United States, we would rightly consider            it an act of war.” — Nobel Prizewinner Glenn T. Seaborg         
          In the first paragraph of this article, I asserted that          education could reshape itself “to provide actual knowledge          instead of the symbolic representation of knowledge.” In          this section I will provide the meaning behind these words.         
          Modern education could serve to clarify the difference          between symbol and thing, except that much of modern          education depends on just that confusion — you aren’t in          school to acquire knowledge, you are there to get a degree.          And                      mistaking a degree holder for an educated person is            possibly the commonest confusion of symbol and thing in            modern times                    . Do you need proof? Okay — Dan Quayle not only went to          college,                      he graduated                    .         
          The true goal of modern education, stripped of all          pretense, is to provide                      a reasonable outward appearance of scholarship          — this is an easy task, it can be done on a small budget,          and virtually anyone can be shaped to fit into the costume.          As a result, we have “educated” people who know there are          three branches to the American system of government, but          can’t explain why. We have “educated” people who know what          inflation is, but can’t explain what causes it (more on          this below).         
          A more direct example. Please answer this question: How          many colors are there in a rainbow?         

  •               One           
  •               Three           
  •               Five           
  •               Seven           

          The correct answer is that                      the question is meaningless,                    because a rainbow is a continuum of colors beyond          counting, including invisible “colors” called infrared and          ultraviolet beyond the red and violet ends of the band.          Nevertheless, questions like this are part of the present          school curriculum, and a question like this one is included          in the science category of the Trivial Pursuit game cards,          a game supposedly designed for adults.         
          But even meaningful questions of this kind carry a hidden          false message —          education means knowing the right answers.                    If we have answers for all questions, we believe we are          educated. We fail to realize that                      correct answers are only symbols that represent knowledge,            they are not themselves knowledge                    .         
          In a recent interview, a corporate recruiter said “We need          people who can                      deal with ambiguity                    … Schools must produce students with higher-order          thinking skills, and this must be done for all students,          not only for the elites.”         
          Corporate and business leaders complain more and more about          their younger workers’ inability to deal with the ambiguity          of real-world situations, and it renders young people          unable to compete once they leave the classroom.                    This problem arises from the determinism of the present          educational system — we are teaching people                      what to think                    instead of                      how to think                    .         
          Entertainer Steve Allen recently said, “We need a fourth R          to go along with the traditional three R’s of education —          Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic, and Reason.” But such an          educational change would be revolutionary rather than          evolutionary, because schools have                      never                    trained students to think for themselves.         
          The cornerstone of reasoning ability is a grasp of the          foundations of academic subjects, the ideas that lie behind          the “answers.” In our next example, it is not enough to          know that the energy in a moving object is proportional to          its mass times the square of its velocity. Memorizing this          formula is only symbolic education, but knowing what it          means in the everyday world can be useful — or lifesaving.         

            Fact 1: “The energy in a moving object is proportional to            its mass times the square of its velocity.”           
            Fact 2: “If a car going 20 miles per hour requires 20 feet            to stop, that same car going 40 miles per hour will take 80            (not 40) feet to stop.”           

          Memorizing Fact 1 (and many others like it) will get you a          diploma. But if you don’t understand the idea behind the          fact, you will not be aware of Fact 2, which could kill you.         
          And guess how many Americans know their cars take four          times more distance to stop when they double their speed          (disregarding reaction time)? Virtually none.                      It might as well be an atomic secret                    .         
          What conclusion should be drawn from this example?         

  1.               Fact 2 should be included along with Fact 1 in the              education of American students.           
  2.               Students should be educated in such a way that they              understand                              why                            fact 1 is true, and therefore any number of other              dependent facts (such as Fact 2) will become obvious.           

          This is true about education in general, and experience in          general                      : For each fact there is an underlying idea, and it is the            idea that creates scholarship, not the fact                    . A fact only symbolizes a particular example of an idea.          But this distinction has been lost — in modern education,          we have replaced idea-based training with fact-based          training.         
          One more example. Why is the nighttime sky dark? I want to          emphasize that the correct answer to this question is known          (within the uncertainty of well-established scientific          theory), but practically no one outside certain narrow          specialties knows that answer, including science students.          This is (once again) because students are provided only          with facts, and no one attempts to knit those facts into a          coherent whole, neither students nor professors.         
          Here are some possible answers to the question “why is the          nighttime sky dark?” (they are not correct):         

  1.               Because stars other than the sun are too far away to light              up our sky.           
  2.               Because dust clouds out in space block the light from              other stars.           

          The problem with answer number 1 is that there are a great          number of stars in every direction, more than enough to          provide full coverage of the night sky, so wherever one          directs one’s gaze, the surface of a star should be lying          in that direction. So, barring any other considerations,          the entire night sky should blaze with the brightness of          the combined surfaces of all those stars.         
          The problem with answer number 2 is that, over a long          period of time, the energy from the stars should heat the          dust clouds to the same temperature as the stars themselves          (a well-established physical principle), so that after          billions of years, no matter where one looked, one would          either see the surface of a star or a dust cloud heated to          the temperature of a star, in every direction, including          the direction of our own sun.         
          The correct answer, according to current theory, is that          the universe is expanding. There are a great but finite          number of stars in an ever-increasing volume of space, thus          preventing the average temperature from rising very far. In          fact                      , for centuries the dark night sky provided the answer to a            question no one knew how to ask                    .          Click here for a full explanation
          But, once again, even though specialists now know why the          night sky is dark, virtually no individuals can provide          this answer. We are unable to answer this or many other          questions of a similarly obvious kind, we are unable to          apply fundamental principles to specific everyday questions                      for the reason that we do not understand those fundamental            principles                    . We suffer from a poverty of ideas.         
          Most Americans are educated in name only — we do not have          the comprehension of ideas that would be required to think          for ourselves, and we also are not trained or encouraged to          do this. Not only are we unable to think creatively, we          don’t even possess this expectation,                      and this is not an accident                    .         
          There are many vested interests that prefer us as we are —          in government, religion and in corporate America. Think how          much more trouble we would be if we could think for          ourselves. Not only would we be much more difficult to          govern (to the degree that politicians would have to          explain their actions), we would be much more alert to the          public stupidity that so often surrounds us.         
          Here’s an example — former President Gerald Ford actually          persuaded many Americans to wear a button reading “whip          inflation now!” Imagine this happening in a society of          educated people — the immediate reaction would have been a          nationwide call on government to stop printing dollars not          represented by goods and services (the real cause of that          inflation) and then someone would have added “those buttons          you are printing — ‘whip inflation now’ — tell the lie          that inflation is the fault of the private sector.          Therefore, because the buttons tell a lie and are printed          at public expense,                      they are themselves inflationary                    , because they expend public resources and create no new          wealth.”         
          But, as it happened, no one said anything. The people in          government were certain the rest of us would swallow the          lie that we were responsible for inflation, and government          was right — we did. This is why inflation can continue at          the whim of government          — virtually no one realizes that governmental policy is            the most frequent cause of inflation                    .         
          Inflation is really quite simple — it is a measure of how          many goods and services a dollar can buy, and how that          changes with time. When the relationship between dollars          and goods and services changes, so that a dollar buys fewer          goods and services, the result is called inflation.         
          In most cases, inflation is caused by a governmental          decision to print more dollars than there are goods and          services — this is a calculated bet that the extra dollars          will create a psychological effect and actually increase          the size of the economy, thus making the dollars actually          stand for something. But very frequently this money          printing only causes private value to flow into the hands          of the government (through one of several methods) or it          simply causes people to lose trust in paper money.         
          For this and other reasons, if a change takes place so that          we are motivated to learn creative thinking skills, we          should not expect any help from government (although to          refuse earnest help would be equally stupid). We should          anticipate a lot of resistance from many quarters. But in          the long run, after all the emotional reactions have          expired, we will be more productive, more effective, and          less prone to follow charlatans both inside and outside          government. Most important, we will finally deserve the          label “educated.”         
          And we will know why the sky is dark at night.       

            Most of us are unable to sort out reality — we can’t            distinguish between a thing and a symbol for that thing                    . This springs from several causes. One cause is that we          are isolated from the natural world, where the distinction          between a thing and a symbol is more obvious. Another cause          is our educational system, which simply reflects the          intellectual laziness of the society in which it is          embedded. A third cause is resistance on the part of vested          interests — if we could think creatively, we would be          difficult to govern, and advertisers would have to appeal          to reason instead of emotion.         
          We see the effects of this confusion of symbol and thing          all around us:         

  •               We seek “marriage” as though that quasi-legal institution              were the same thing as a worthwhile human relationship.           
  •               We seek “education” as though knowledge could be injected              into us like a vaccine without any investment on our part.              Failing at this, we then trust the statements of people who              possess white, rectangular sporting event trophies called              “diplomas.”           
  •               We seek “religion” as though any worthwhile answers to              fundamental spiritual questions could be delivered in              encapsulated form, outside the direct experience of nature.           
  •               We trust the findings of “science” as though science’s              principal value could be meaningfully delivered to people              who don’t understand science (it cannot).           
  •               We trust the wisdom of “government” as though, without              direct participation by all of us, government could be              anything but a dumping ground for aging juvenile              delinquents.           

          There are many other examples. The solution to the problem          is to cast away a basic precept of modern times — that          wisdom can be bought and sold as though it were a toaster                      . It can’t be bought — it must be acquired through            personal experience.         
          As to the question of training people for meaningful,          skilled lives in the modern world, educators must begin to          impart thinking skills. This means training students to          know facts,                      but also to know the ideas behind those facts                    . To say it another way, educators must stop teaching                      what                    to think and start teaching                      how                    to think. This means forming a partnership with students,          so the latter realize they are the most important part of          the process.         
          There is another way of saying this, a somewhat darker way.          As a species, if we decide that facts are good enough, if          we abandon our pursuit of ideas, we thereby replace the          human intellectual adventure with a system of fixed          beliefs, and all human progress will cease. Eventually          nature will deal with us as she deals with all inflexible          species — we will vanish from the earth.         
          As an individual, relying only on facts assures that you          will be marginalized — and left behind. If you think the          world is just fine the way it is, then you may become a          “fact consumer” and no one will notice. If, instead, you          want to make a personal mark on the modern world, you must          have ideas —          ideas are the fuel of modern times                    .         
          When it comes to a choice about personal values, “the          meaning of life,” the acquisition of wisdom, no one is an          expert (which means everyone is, which means you are).          There is no simple scientific, technical, or religious          solution to the problem of shaping an individual human          being — all an honest teacher can do is make a list of          obviously flawed methods, say “these don’t work,” and then          silently point toward the horizon of all known experience.          Our past and present lie about us in comical repose, and          our future lies beyond that horizon.       












A symbol is not a sign. A sign is merely a shape, a color, a gesture, an object or a word representing something else. A “stop sign,” for example, is a red octagon with the word “stop” on it. It is a sign representing a legal mandate, a boundary for people operating vehicles through an intersection of roads. The mandate is “stop.” Come to a full stop. Then go. Wait your turn. So you don’t die. Or kill anyone. Or smash up your car and watch your auto insurance rates go from ridiculously expensive to really obscene.

Signs are functional. Useful and necessary. But the stop sign itself is worth no more than the sheet metal and paint out of which it is made.

The difference between a sign and a symbol is something first felt, and only later comprehended. Consider this illustration …

Let’s say I’m standing in front of a stop sign, holding a 12-gauge shotgun. Let’s say I’ve had enough beers to open the padlock on the cage detaining and restraining Stupid Macho Man Moron. When Stupid Macho Man Moron gets out, somebody usually goes to jail, the hospital and, sometimes, the morgue. At the very least, there are repair bills.

So, Stupid Macho Man Moron gets the idea that it would be both fun and meaningful to shoot the stop sign with the 12-gauge. And so he does. Ka-blam. Buncha smoking holes in the stop sign now. SMMM has conquered, and is king of all he surveys.

Now, if the county sheriff happens to witness this little masculine adventure, he will arrest me. I’ll be charged with wanton destruction of public property. At the very least, I’ll be fined, put on probation, made to make restitution, perhaps sentenced to community service.

But it isn’t personal. No one would be “hurt.” Disgusted, maybe. But no one would be horrified or personally devastated.

Now, let’s say you’re happily married in a great love affair. I’m over for dinner. I compliment your wedding ring. Ask to see it. You take it off and hand it to me. I get up, step out on the back patio, take a hammer out of my pocket, and smash it to bits with three rapid blows. White gold flattened. Diamonds rendered to dust.

Your mouth would drop open in a silent or not-so-silent scream. You might cover your face with your hands. Hold your stomach, straining, bending over so as not to implode. You hold the ruined ring in your hands, cradling it like a dying sparrow chick, fallen from the nest. Eventually, you weep.

In some other — but equally real — reality, I have hit you with the hammer three times.

That’s the difference between a sign and a symbol. A symbol “participates” in the thing it represents.

Now I’m ready to answer your question, S.

I’m talking about all kinds of symbols. Marriage is a symbol. Wedding rings are symbols. That collar around the neck of the priest is a symbol. Old Glory is a symbol. Hair can be a symbol (see Samson). Fire (see sweat lodges). The Alamo is a symbol. (I was in San Antonio on the day Ozzy Osbourne urinated on it. Texans reacted, well, badly. Dramatically, even.)

Only in a culture as overly rationalized and material as this one could we …

* wear the American flag as jockey shorts;

* refer to a wedding license as “just a piece of paper”;

* be absent collective rituals for grief;

* be absent collective rituals for rites of passage to adulthood;

* think it’s funny to try to make the guard at Buckingham Palace laugh;

* think potato chips and Pepsi could stand in for bread and wine;

* refer to a girl’s first menses as the arrival of “The Curse”;

* think a glowing light bulb is the same as a perpetual flame;

* ask them to mail your doctoral diploma to your house;

* dare to be impatient when stuck behind a funeral procession in traffic.

Here’s my first question in premarital counseling: “What do you want to change in your relationship on (date)?” Wanna know the most common answer? The couple exchanges a befuddled glance. One of them sits taller. Proud of this answer, mind you. “Nothing,” he/she says quizzically, as if I’ve asked a very strange question.

If your goal was to change nothing, wouldn’t it make sense that you would do nothing?

Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols.









What do you see in human experience?

C.G. Jung said that in Western civilization, the ancient office of tribal “ritual elder” was less and less occupied by clergy. Changes in modern institutional religion have turned parish clergy into administrators, teachers and fundraisers, and less and less available for the ancient symbolic functions of meaningful ritual and “testing the spirits” (discernment).

Jung believed that modern therapists were largely the default recipient of the shamanic role. This has always intrigued me and made me nervous.

Nonetheless …

I want to extend an invitation to veteran therapist/counselor types — you modern elders — who might be in earshot of this column: What do you notice? Wrap your arms around the years of individuals, couples, kids, teens and families that moved through your practice. What themes do you see in the modern human experience, either positive or negative? Put all that into a two- to six-sentence paragraph, and send it to me.

Here are a few things I notice:

* People seek redemption. Yep, regardless of religion or no-religion, people long to convert banal human experience into redemptive meaning: birth, belonging, hope, vocation, sex, pride, humility, fear, joy, forgiveness, justice, evil, anger, values, moral failure, guilt, grief, love, meaning, child-rearing, aging, death. You can see how Jung arrived at his conclusion; the list of presenting issues in therapy is virtually synonymous with the needs and hungers of any pilgrim on a religious journey.

* There is no escaping the paradox of The Individual and The Collective. Meaning, we cannot participate creatively in the wider human experience without possession of a healthy, separate self. Yet, the only way to grow a healthy, separate self is to participate in the collective.

* People are designed for relationships. Seems funny how often I remind folks of this. I think “individualism” is a near cult in America. People are surprised, made anxious, threatened, even embarrassed by their yearning for deep friendships, kinship and a great love affair. We embrace insipid mantras — or sometimes hear them from therapists who mean to encourage — such as, “You’re fine alone.” You’ll never hear that from me. Instead you’ll hear, “You’re fine enough alone.”

* Western civilization is a neurosis factory. Anxiety, self-consciousness, self-doubt. An overwhelming tendency to attach undue and largely negative meaning to self. So common is this outcome in human formation that consulting therapists will describe patients with a shrug, saying, “He’s a normal neurotic.” Meaning, he’s just like everybody else. Just like me, for that matter.

* People have answers for most of their questions. In fact, it’s uncommon for patients to ask me an honest question; meaning, a question seeking actual information about which they are ignorant. Nope, the majority of questions are rhetorical. The patient poses the “great mystery/crisis/dilemma” inquiry as a segue, a stage. Give them some room, and they will usually answer their own questions.

* Children need to be admired. They need to hear the “wow” in the voice of the mother, the father. They need to see the wonder in our eyes.

* Children are absurdly forgiving and breathtakingly resilient.

* We marginalize adolescents, yet reserve the right to complain about their despair.

* The best thing I have to say about hitting children is that it is unnecessary.

* The “nuclear family” is a ridiculous and historically unprecedented way to raise children.

* Narcissistic parenting patterns dominate the current culture of child rearing.

* As a group, we have sold ourselves a shameless bill of goods regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. We’re personally affronted when we discover that our marriage has failed to sustain “in-lovedness” and happiness. We tell ourselves that divorce and remarriage is a terrific strategy for growth and personal development. No data supports this idea.

* Modern people are tragically separated from their symbols. Said another way, materialism and rationalism rule the day, both at the cost of meaning.

* It’s not abuse that makes children — and later, adults — feel or act crazy and destructively, it’s not being allowed to have any feelings about our abuse. To be separated from the reality of our emotional reality — that is crazy-making!

We’ve come a long ways, but it remains today axiomatic: Men can’t cry, and women can’t get angry. I’m serious. Can’t tell you how many times individual therapy with a man includes helping him take grief and loss seriously. Can’t tell you how many times individual therapy with a woman includes helping her take anger and outrage seriously.

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9 Responses to Sage Paul Lutus: Most “educated” people cannot tell the difference between a fact and an idea, the most common confusion of symbol and thing. Most believe if they collect enough facts, this will compensate for their inability to grasp the ideas behind those facts. And, because of this “poverty of ideas,” most cannot work out the simplest conceptual questions, such as “why is the sky dark at night?”

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