Regaining Balance: Learning to make sense

What is the world around us and how do we make sense of it?

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What is the world around us and how do we make sense of it?

A one-line answer to this question: We don’t know.

That’s right. For all the books that humans have written and read across time, we don’t really know much about the world that we live in. And, given the material and social contexts that so many of us live in, there is little reason for us to trust knowledge marketed to us by our colonial masters.

So, instead, we need to begin at the very basics and re-learn to make sense.

There are things in the world that we can see, hear, smell, touch and/or taste – and, we all differ in whether and how we engage with these senses. We know this because we experience, observe, and interact with the material-biological things in different ways.

Notice that I am not differentiating between material and biological things here. We are combining them into a single group.


Because we do not have a credible definition of life. Without such a definition, we cannot proceed to separate out or study biology.

This observation implies that much (if not all) of the current work in biological sciences needs to be questioned: if biologists cannot define life, what exactly are they studying? Why? And, why should we trust them?

In addition to the physical-biological world, which we can sense through our sensory systems, we also know that there is a world that is non-material: a world full of ideas, and thoughts, and feelings, and knowledge, and beliefs, and dreams, and questions… Let us call this the socio-semiotic world. A world which exists for each of us; but its existence is not material. Its existence is socio-semiotic: it evolves and exists only in some social contexts; and, it can change or alter at any time for any reason.

From observation of other living beings, we can note that all living things have the potential of having socio-semiotics. However, given our differences, it is not feasible for us to understand how other living beings experience or make sense of life. In fact, in our experience of life, we know that we can’t even really know what another person thinks and feels like. (Click here for a link to a poem on this topic.)

We note that material-biological scientists agree upon the use of atom as the primary material particle. And, based on an agreed set of assumptions, material-biological scientists develop and use different methodologies and approaches in doing something to manipulate atoms in order to achieve their goals.

In contrast, people who study social sciences do not have a unified approach. Instead, they study each subject area within social sciences differently. This implies that there is little consensus between people about the nature and substance of social sciences; and, this leads to different disciplines and specialists doing their own things. However, this can change if we consider symbols as the central building block of our socio-semiotic worlds.

Symbols are used across all our sensory and socio-semiotic systems to create and exchange meanings. For example, in economics, money is a symbol; in mathematics, numbers and signs are symbols; in linguistics, sounds and scribblings are symbols; in religious studies, various objects and practices, e.g., food, clothes, smells, calendars take on symbolic meanings.

We live in both the material-biological and socio-semiotic worlds simultaneously. And, these two worlds interact in and through each one of us – individually and collectively.  Table 1 below sets out some of the key differences between these two worlds.

Material-biological world Socio-semiotic world
Made of matter: it has physical existence Not made of matter: it does not have physical existence
Comprised of particles, called atoms Comprised of non-particles, called symbols
Material particles interact with each other based on physical properties Non-material particles are placed into patterns
Mathematics can be used to study them Mathematics does not operate
Existence may or may not be dependent on humans Existence is dependent on human existence
May exist without socio-semiotics Does not exist without being material-biological
Material force required to make changes Material force is not necessary to make changes
Changes are influenced by principles of the material-biological world Changes can occur at any time and for any reason
Studied in a university in disciplines such as: physics, chemistry, biology… Studied in a university in disciplines such as: sociology, linguistics, economics, religious studies…

Once we realise the centrality of symbols and patterns of symbols (made by humans) in our understanding and engagement with the world, we can develop this understanding to reharmonise our material-biological and socio-semiotic systems, which were and continue to be suppressed by oppressive and aggressive colonial policies and practices.

In order to do this, we need to study the relationship between material-biological and socio-semiotics. In human experience, our understandings and perceptions of the material-biological world develops out of our interaction with it. And this interaction occurs through our sensory systems.

As humans, we may use up to five sensory systems to make sense of the world. These sensory systems interpret the different types of material stimulus (light, sound, smell, touch, and taste) in relation to a person’s previous experiences and socio-semiotics. These sensory systems, it needs to be noted, are not totally independent of each other and often work together.

Figure 1 below provides an overview of how our material-biological self relates to our socio-semiotic self through our sensory systems. It shows how the five senses differ in terms of two features: distance/proximity to us; and, ingestion (taking things inside our body). And, it includes examples of how we experience and understand these. Note that all relationships between the material-biological world and the socio-semiotic world are symbolic and dynamic.

Sensory systems (connect us to the physical-biological world, which is formed of atoms) Human experiences (socio-semiotic world, which operates through symbols)
 Sense         Distance Ingestion
Group A

(things may be in our presence or recorded)

Sight +++ Literacy, movies…
Sound ++ Boli, music…
Group B

(things must be in our present)

Smell + + Food, manure…
Touch 0 / – – / + Braille, human…
Taste + Food, flavour…

Group A sensory systems operate on things that are never ingested; hence, they don’t always need to be very close to us. We can see and hear things that are around us and also things that have been recorded (e.g. through writing, art, audio/video recordings). In contrast, Group B sensory systems operate on things that can (and, in some cases, must) be ingested; hence, they always have to be in our present. We cannot smell, touch or taste things that are not in our present.

Note also that things that we access through Group A senses can injure or hurt us, but they are unlikely to kill us. On the other hand, things that we access through Group B, have the potential of causing serious harm or of even killing us.

Current colonial models of education are primarily dependent on Group A – formal school education happens through literacy and oral language. Relying solely on Group A sensory system is a potential trap in education because things that we read and listen from distant sources are not directly observable and hence not verifiable. For education to work though Group A only, we need to lower our guard and trust information given by others. In other words, by accepting Group A based colonial knowledge, we are placing our trust into the people who built their knowledge and power by exploiting us, our ancestors, our lands, our resources, and our environment.

In contrast, Indigenous and holistic approaches to education consider all five sensory experiences in thinking about education and training. Infants and children – in all parts of the world – start learning through Group B first. They learn through taste, touch, and smell before their eyesight and hearing is developed sufficiently to use language (including sign language) or other resources. This is one reason why babies put pretty much anything they can get hold of in their mouths.

The world around us is a mix of things – most of which we do not know or recognise. We make sense of the world that we come into contact with by using our sensory systems and developing and sharing interpretations of the stimulus we receive. Over time, as our ideas, thoughts, knowledge, beliefs, and goals change, our perception and engagement with the world changes too. And, this engagement can impact and change the material-biological world – through our actions or inactions.

At present, especially in the exploited communities, our sense making abilities have been crippled by colonial policies and practices. Reversing this is not an easy task. However, it is a feasible one because things that are socio-semiotic are, by definition, dynamic and always fluid – thus, they can change to harmonise our societies and eco-systems.

In concluding, I will share a poem called, Symbols: A translingual poem. Note that the Urdu, Hindi, and Roman scripts represent the same sounds. The different and conflicting scripts used by Urdu/Hindi speakers is an outcome of British socio-semiotic violence. The British encouraged the use of two writing systems for a language that had the same sounds (and are mutually intelligible even today). And, by doing this, they created two languages out of one and cultivated the Hindu–Muslim divide that has turned a once-upon-a-prosperous-land into a nightmare.

An audio-video version of the poem is available here:

An audio-video version of the poem is available here:

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