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The Value of Diverse Vocabularies and Metaphors

In my day job, I am a machine learning engineer. You might be aware that machine learning (ML), data science (DS), and artificial intelligence (AI) are pretty hot topics these days, constantly cracking the top lists for stuff like “fastest growing jobs.” Even Apple isn’t afraid to throw out terms like “neural network” in the middle of a product keynote.

So while these ideas have only recently become popular, they’ve actually been around a lot longer than you might think. Depending on who myou ask, you could trace AI back as far as the 1960s. It just wasn’t known as AI back then. It didn’t really have a name, but AI, ML, and DS are all basically fields that revolve around fancy math executed on computers.

Some of you probably shuddered reading that dreaded word: MATH. Flashbacks to images of weird symbols on chalkboards in high school. Praying that there wouldn’t be a pop quiz that you’re totally unprepared for. The horror!

But somebody got wise and decided to capitalize on the success of pop culture by rebranding these these fancy math fields by what we know them as today. Arguably, movies like The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Terminator have done more for the field of artificial intelligence than actual scientific studies have! Don’t get me wrong: I think AI/ML/DS is a very important field. I’m just not sure if it would be hyped nearly as much without that Hollywood bump.

Isn’t it interesting how simply calling something by another name can cause such a monumental shift in a population’s opinion?

Of course, this doesn’t change the underlying nature of the actual idea. Let’s imagine this together: I place a red, juicy piece of fruit on a table in front of you and ask you what it is. No trick questions here. If you really wanted to be sure what it was, I suppose I’d let you take a bite out of it!

Most English speakers would recognize it as an apple, plain and simple. But if you were to bring somebody like my mother — a native Spanish speaker — she might call it a manzana. A French speaker might call it a pomme, and an Italian speaker might call it a mela. Even amongst the English language, some apple loving enthusiasts might go further to call this same object a Red Delicious. Some tech savvy teens might whip out their smartphones and show you this: 🍎.

Clearly though, this does not change the nature of the object itself. Though we have constructed many words for this same object, those words still all point to the same apple. In both the AI and apple examples, the underlying nature of reality stays the same; what differs are the signposts that point to that reality.

I like the word “signpost” here because it is a directionally-oriented word. If I were to hop in my car and drive to Chicago, I’d follow the appropriate highway signs that would indicate the proper direction for me to go to Chicago. There are two pretty obvious things I want to point out here. First, the signpost itself is NOT Chicago but a pointer to Chicago, and second, highway signs are not the only way I can point myself toward Chicago. In fact, with modern technology, I’m probably more apt to use the GPS in my smartphone.

This is an important consideration because humans are inherently limited by nature to both communicate and understand fundamental reality. We’ve done a great job at inventing this thing called language to communicate ideas in written and oral form, but I don’t think I need to tell you how often words are misunderstood! Even when we think we are being clear, the receiver might interpret something differently. (You married folks know exactly what I’m talking about.)

What happens too often is that we get so lost in these signposts — these words and metaphors — that we unintentionally or intentionally forget the reality behind the words. I’ve personally experienced this to be most true within the Christian faith community. I grew up largely in a space where the Bible was interpreted as literally as possible, essentially making an idol out of the signposts rather than truly trying to understand the subversive context underlying the words. I don’t necessarily want to put these people down; I think many of them did it with good intentions. The challenge again comes back to this idea that language ultimately has a lot of ambiguity in it that doesn’t always allow for clear transmission of really abstract thoughts.

(Fun side note: this is why programming languages exist and probably will always look as funky as they do. They intentionally follow a very strict syntax so as to fully eliminate this ambiguity. Great for computers; probably not great for telling your partner how much you love them.)

As you might be aware through my other blog posts, it’s been very difficult for me to press forward in my spiritual journey via the Christian icons I grew up with. Unfortunately, there was just too much baggage associated with those words and metaphors. So I think it freaked people out a little when I started speaking in new metaphors found in more Eastern spiritual worldviews. This last summer, I notably found a lot of respite and beauty through studying the Bhagavad Gita and the works of Ram Dass. Through these new and diverse metaphors, I found new life outside the former signposts that carried for me too much weight.

Interestingly, I’ve started to come around on Christian tradition with the help of Father Richard Rohr, and so I’ve once again started to adopt the metaphors of things like the Trinity or Holy Spirit. To the average person, it probably looks like I’m being wishy-washy — flipping back and forth between worldviews on a whim. But I assure you that is not the case! Just as with our example of the apple earlier in this post, I largely see these things now as helpful metaphors to point to an underlying nature of the same reality. I’m not talking about two different things here; I’m talking about one thing clothed in multiple languages.

I suppose you might reasonably ask, why not just get straight to the point? Why not try to jump to understanding that reality through one language? Part of it we already discussed: human communication is inherently limited. To talk about an apple is one thing, but to talk about this infinite Mystery often called “God” is another! Applying finite language to an infinite idea is just not possible.

But the other reason harkens to what we started with at the top of the post: certain signposts get associated with negative thoughts / imagery and need to be replaced with new signposts. AI became more popular when we tamped down the oft-despised math imagery. Likewise for my own spiritual journey, it was great to experience the great Mystery of reality through a lens that didn’t use my tired out Christian metaphors. I found a lot of love and grace in these new Eastern spiritual images.

One final parting thought… I’m not sure if it’s even possible for humans to make sense of reality without these signposts of language and metaphor. For as much academic study as I have done in the spiritual space, I can’t think of a stronger metaphor for God’s love than through witnessing how selflessly my baby girls have loved me. Though I try as best I can to be a good daddy, I ultimately feel undeserving of the love they show me through their smiling faces and bright eyes. What fierce grace is shown to me in this manner!

As one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Rob Bell, likes to say, we come to an understanding of the general through the particular. In other words, we come to understand larger ideas through very specific signposts. I find that to be just lovely, and I hope you do, too.

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