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Let’s Put Life “In Context”





[I wrote this essay some years ago; but the reason I publish it now is that the media, who always seem to be so “out of context”, yet always trying to set the public’s ‘context’, in their favor, has published an article on ‘context’ being used to understand how we interpret sentences that should be un-interpretable — but of course, as usual, they have again missed the bigger 'context'!]



I’m a programmer by profession, among other things; but the reason I mention this is that while debugging a program, some weeks ago, I was brought to the reality of how important the idea of 'context' is in life, and especially in the way we interpret life.

In programming there is something called a compiler, a smart piece of computer code that reads other computer codes, written in computer languages, and produces a 'program' from them that runs on a computer. Sometimes the languages that these compilers understand can be ambiguous in how they display certain symbols. For instance, the computer language BASIC, defines the '=' symbol in two ways:

It can set one variable (or expression) to another e.g.: {1} “x = y” (read this as: the value in the variable 'x' is set to the value in the variable 'y').

Or it can test a truth statement e.g.: {2} “x = y” (read this as: does the value in the variable 'x' equal the value in the variable 'y'?).

The two expressions “x = y” are identical, but they 'mean' two very different things; still the compiler can distinguish between them. How?

It uses 'context' to distinguish them; in other words it uses some of the “everything else” it finds around these expressions to distinguish them.

If the first expression “x = y” ({1} above) appears by itself on a line then it interprets it as setting one variable value to another . On the other hand if it finds “x = y” ({2} above) on a line surrounded by other expressions like: “If (x = y) then”, then it interprets it as a statement testing the equality of two values. “Context” makes the difference here. 'Context' is the surroundings that a certain symbol, word, fact, or even an object is found in. It’s the “everything else” in the universe of reality that pertains to the thing or situation at hand. In a compiler, the universe is very small; it consists of all the various 'words' of the computer language that are defined in its memory store. In compilers, like the one above, everything is set out and defined concretely; even 'context' is defined by certain sets of rules that apply to certain 'words' in the language it understands.

Contexts also exist, and are in fact quite important in human beings.

Ambiguities exist at practically every level of human life, not only in human languages, where they abound, but also in the relations between human beings. These ambiguities are resolved by addressing them “in context”. Contexts: in language, in objects or things, in situations, in behaviors, even in relations, every one of which is there for us to create our meanings and truths from; and yet they aren’t set concretely, like say, that set of rules that BASIC uses to distinguish the two meanings of '='. No, in humans they are indirectly learned, and, in fact, very personal to every human being.

Humans, unlike computers, learn things. Nothing is programmed or set out very concretely in memory like a computer is programmed. Everything is brought in, and filtered through a particular individual’s 'reality' or “personal memory store”. The “everything else” in that reality is what makes up the contexts that are used to disambiguate things, situations – whatever. Because these 'contexts' are “the everything else” in people’s minds, they are very personal and very 'individual'. The ramifications of this are vast. These contexts determine meaning and truth for people, yet they are different in everyone; and further, they are never really learned outright per se, but are haphazardly picked up, and even often distorted through economic privation, social conditioning, ethnic or racial upbringing, and probably a thousand other factors.

Let’s take a very trivial, yet very concrete example of this. Suppose you had to go to a gathering about which you knew absolutely nothing. How would you dress for the occasion? Probably most, not knowing much about this event would dress as they always dress; the poor dressing poorly and the rich dressing richly. Someone would be “out of context”; especially if they found out, once they got there, that it was front row seats at an Academy Awards event, or, for instance, a food give away at a local homeless shelter! Knowing the 'context' is what allows us to interpret the way we "fit in", to the "Big Picture."

Think of all the myriad ways there are in which 'contexts' that are never really learned outright, are extremely important in determining the realities we all experience. They are: religious, moral, ethnic, racial, sexual etc. Even our societies build contexts that other societies build differently. Contexts within societies are their mores and customs – their culture – the very things upon which our societies, governments and even economies are based.

The clash between these contexts in our modern “global society” is one of the biggest problems that all mankind must come to deal with in today’s world. Meaning and truth is “man-made”, not universal; further it is often culturally determined and culturally implemented. Even 'right' and 'wrong' have no real basis in concrete fact. So where does that leave us?

Viewpoint is something a computer doesn’t have; but it abounds in the human being. Viewpoint comes down to that very thing in human beings that determine his or her “will”; that thing we might call the “central motivation mechanism” in human beings – the causality of the mind. The “will” in humans can be very narrowed and 'self' oriented, or very broad and 'other' oriented. Since all contexts essentially reside in the “everything else” of our perceptual reality, the wider we make our viewpoints, the broader our meanings and truths become. The ancients realized this, in seeing knowledge as the “Good” or that toward which all humanity should strive. But knowledge is not enough. It is only one part of the puzzle. The other part is when, and when not to use this knowledge. This touches on that viewpoint we talked about above.

There resides within human beings a thing called empathy; that quality which allows us to feel for another human being his or her pain, or joy; it is that quality that has to do with viewpoint. It sees a human not as a thing “in context” to its own “everything else”, but as a part of every other human being and the context they all share. This broadening of the viewpoint is itself a way to see ourselves in context to all others, regardless of their differences. It broadens our definition of a human being, by dropping out all those, ethnic, racial, cultural, social – whatever differences they have – barriers we tend to use to define humans with. Instead we define them as just a duplicate of ourselves, with motives that we can understand.

This is nothing new – it’s called the “Golden Rule” – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This, and the love which has created it in us, is truly the only real absolute 'context' we have to guide us in this world. It is the only Universal Context for humanity. If we use this context to define our own reality, and our societies use it, in turn, to define theirs, then perhaps we will be able to live through all the problems that the other contexts seem to cause – and everything will truly be “in context”, because human life will have found its true context, a context which includes all other humans.







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Originally Published:

February 25, 2012

Revised:

January 2, 2014