Sunday, August 31, 2014

Change your thoughts

Years ago, when I was in college, I came across some old theological books in the library and wrote down these passages about willingness to change one's mind.

Leslie Dewart observed that an impartial or even hostile critic can help us find our factual and logical errors:
There is an old proverb that a good man deserves an enemy to tell him his faults. Perhaps this nugget of folk wisdom might have been a little richer, albeit less euphonious, if besides hoping that even good men would become conscious of their shortcomings, it had managed to stress that a hostile critic is an invaluable aid also in the cultivation of one's truth. It is not, of course, a critic's hostility that counts, but his freedom from prejudice in one's favor and, thereby, his aptness for ferreting out every last weakness in one's position. Indeed, the enemy should be sought in his home ground. It does not infrequently happen that the appreciation of our own truth, the understanding of our own ways and the development of our own experience are uniquely enhanced if we speculatively entertain views contrary to ours, if we pursue our acquaintance with foreign ways, and if we beg to share in someone else's novel experience.
When we criticize others, even if they do not hear our criticism or cannot respond, our criticism of them may be an occasion for ourselves to look inward and improve ourselves. Edwin Tenney Brewster put it: "So far as my reader finds me in error, this should but add zest to his own search for truth."

Norman Vincent Peale said, "Change your thoughts and you change your world," while George Bernard Shaw said, "Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." Taken together, the option is stark: Either we can change our entire personal worlds or we can change nothing at all.

A few great people are able to communicate their shift in thinking and, in so doing, influence the worldviews of the entire culture. Alfred North Whitehead wrote: "In its turn every philosophy will suffer a deposition...Philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher."


Leslie Dewart. The Future of Belief: Theism in a World Come of Age. New York: Herder and Herder, 1966. p 52.

Edwin Tenney Brewster. The Understanding of Religion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1923. p viii-ix.

Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality. (Originally 1929.) Part 1, Chap. 1, Sect. 6. New York: Harper, 1960. pp. 9, 14.

Friday, August 22, 2014

When conflicting perspectives are opportunities to learn about oneself and others

Multiple worldviews can be a source of conflict, but they can also be a path to peace.

One approach is to reconcile some of the gaps within oneself. Gish Jen wrote in Tiger Writing:
It is clearer from the book [Philip Kasinitz's Inheriting the City] than from this quote that life in a structural hole [a term coined by sociologist Ron Burt for the location between two cultures] is not an advantage in the way that, say, private school education is an advantage. Still, the larger picture this term describes, including both the ‘structural hole’ in which children of immigrants like myself grow up and the ‘creative selective assimilation’ that results, seems to me on the mark.
People who grow up in multicultural families or neighborhoods may be especially attuned to certain areas of discrepancy in worldviews or mores, but they are not the only ones who experience this potential source of anxiety and this opportunity for growth and insight. Everyone is exposed to uncertainties and "structural gaps" where they are taught contradictory or incompletely explained ideas.

After acknowledging the gaps within oneself, another approach is to reconcile with others. Richard Kearney wrote in Anatheism:
I like to think that the eventual formulation of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in March 1998 — permitting Irish citizens to be “British or Irish or both” — was greatly facilitated by the interconfessional and intercultural hospitality practiced by some of Ireland’s finest artists.
Here, a grassroots culture of acceptance and successful intercultural exchange is identified as being developed prior to a formalized political breakthrough. This is inspiration for self-empowerment; change can begin from the bottom-up.

Apparent contradictions can disguise significant opportunities for growth.

Gish Jen. Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013. p. 111.
Richard Kearney. Anatheism: Returning to God After God. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. (Kindle edition.)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Unreadable and mysterious written language: A look at ancient languages that still haven't been deciphered

Some scripts have not been deciphered. Some are so mysterious, it isn't even known what language they were used to transcribe. Originally posted to Helium Network on Aug. 27, 2010.

Among the greatest puzzles in the world are the undeciphered scripts - ancient systems of writing that no one has yet been able to learn to read. In many cases, it is not even known what language is represented by such strange symbols. They are like secret codes that no human or computer has yet been able to crack. We can only wonder what mysteries of ancient life are locked behind them.
Here is a brief overview of a few randomly selected undeciphered scripts, organized from oldest to newest.


This was a pictogram system used in southeastern Europe from 6000-4500 B.C.E. Short inscriptions have been found on burial sites.


Used in the region of present-day Pakistan between 2600-1900 B.C.E. Although there are thousands of examples of this script, no one has cracked it. It may have represented a Dravidian or Indo-Iranian language. About 500 distinct symbols are known, yet the longest surviving example strings only seventeen of them together.

Linear A

Used in Greece around 1800 B.C.E., it is related to hieroglyphics and uses relatively few symbols. (Linear B was once also a mystery but it proved to be a Cretan form of Greek.)


Today the Tujia are a Chinese ethnic minority who trace their heritage back to the Ba kingdom (600-316 BCE). Their spoken language is in the Tibeto-Burman family. They were long believed never to have had a written language, but several ancient books discovered in Youyang County in 2008 use a script that resembles Chinese characters and may be Tujia.


The Etruscans lived in Italy around 600 BCE. Scholars are able to pronounce Etruscan words, and the "bi-texts" combining Etruscan with Latin or Greek have enabled guesses about its meaning. According to one writer, "Etruscan, as scholars know it, cannot simply be classified as belonging to the Caucasian, the Anatolian, or Indo-European languages such as Greek and Latin, from which it seems to differ markedly in structure." It has no surviving descendant languages. While Etruscan texts can be read for general meaning, the precise connotations of their words and grammar remains a mystery.


This system was used in southern Mexico from 500 B.C.E.-1000 C.E. Most inscriptions are less than 10 symbols and, although modern forms of Zapotec are still spoken today, the ancient language has been lost.


Dating to 300 BCE in the Sudan, Meroitic is the second-oldest writing system in Africa. One Meroitic script is an adaptation of Egypt's hieroglyphics (which is the oldest African writing system), while another is a 23-symbol alphabet including vowel sounds and a sign to divide words. The existence of this script was unknown in Europe until the 19th century. Today, these inscriptions can be decoded, but it is unknown what language they represent.


The Runic alphabet, often called "futhark," was used throughout Europe for magical inscriptions as early as the 1st century CE and especially during medieval times. Some people believe that it was created artificially rather than having evolved on its own. It may have been modeled on the Roman or Etruscan alphabet. The word "rune" means something akin to "text" in Old Norse and "mystery" in Old Germanic.


Also known as Mojarra or Epi-Olmec, it was used in Central America from about 500 BCE-500 CE. The glyphs are elaborate boxes and crosses. The language is unknown.


The Picts lived in present-day Scotland in the 4th-9th centuries C.E. They inscribed symbols on stones, and no one knows whether this may have been a form of writing rather than art.


This extinct language was used in Khazaria - the present-day region of Caucas, Armenia, northeastern Turkey and part of Russia - whose kingdom that lasted from 652-1016 C.E. It was related to other Caucas languages and used a slightly different alphabet.


Modern Nahuatl dialects are spoken by two million indigenous Mexicans, but Classical Nahuatl, spoken by the Aztecs when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century C.E., is now extinct and its glyphs have not been decoded.


There is only one existing example from Central Europe, c. 1600 C.E. The hauntingly illustrated Voynich manuscript, named after the collector who acquired it in 1912, has never been deciphered. Many people believe the manuscript was created as a hoax.

Image of the Voynich manuscript by: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University ([1]). © public domain Wikimedia Commons


Used on Easter Island, c. 1800 C.E. This script probably represented the Polynesian language Rapa Nui, but no one remembers how to read it.

These are just a few of the mysteries of ancient writing. Some of them may be solved one day. Others may rest in permanent darkness.

Computers may be able to crack the codes. A 2019 update: Jiaming Luo and Regina Barzilay from MIT and Yuan Cao from Google’s AI lab in Mountain View, Calif. developed a computer system that correctly translated two-thirds of Linear B cognates into Greek. Linear B was a test case because humans had already deciphered it. Given that the computer can correctly decipher Linear B, it may be able to crack the code of other scripts.