Microcosmographia by William Van Hecke

Elementary Particles of Meaning

Microcosmographia lxv: Elementary Particles of Meaning

Microcosmographia is a newsletter thing about honestly trying to understand design and humanity.

One of my favorite moments in deep discussion with a dear friend is when the conversation seems to hit bedrock.

Jon Bell and I talk quite a lot, and one thing we both love about the friendship is trying to understand the other person’s taste, especially when there’s a strong taste contrast between the two of us. While he explains DJ sets and hip-hop and standup comedy; I explain earnest, intimate Japanese indie acts and Dwarf Fortress.

Right now he’s reading Our Mathematical Universe, the book most influential on my philosophy, and sharing impressions as he goes. What’s exciting is that we seem to have found something fundamentally different about our minds. To me, coming to deeply understand something true about the universe itself is one of the most meaningful experiences imaginable. For Jon, if there isn’t any tangible bearing on any human’s living experience, what’s the point?

We arrived at the idea that perhaps each person has a unique set of elementary particles of meaning: types of experience that are inherently meaningful in some primal way, and that can’t be reduced to any more fundamental parts. Experiences that, when you have one, you can’t explain “what you get out of it” or how it supports some other goal. It is the goal.

Some of mine seem to be:

Some of Jon’s, by his account:

Now, just like in physics, sometimes we discover that even at what we thought was the most fundamental level, there’s something inside. One piece of a recent series of maturing events I’ve had was realizing that video games are not nearly as essential to my identity as I spent several decades thinking they were.

Take Xenoblade 2, a game I do still have quite fond memories of. In it I unlocked Shiki, a support character whose whole theme was books and ancient learning. Like, she spouts esoteric lore while punching enemies with tome knuckles. Of course I loved this character and followed all the wincingly dull quests needed to complete her storyline. But why? Because I love games, the characters they can introduce us to, and the lives they can allow us to experience? Because I love the ideas of books and study? But if so… couldn’t I have spent that time reading books? And studying? I could actually get ancient or esoteric knowledge for myself… like Haskell! Or linear algebra! From actual books!

Even books are not fundamental, though. As much warm sentimentality as I feel for them, they’re just a symbol of curiosity and learning. Depending on the topic, a video or a hypertext course may be a better way to learn, and may be more likely to lead to that elementary experience of understanding something true about the universe.