Cats, dogs, and other animals quickly learn the signals for play, food, sleep, a walk, and -- unfortunately -- for that infamous trip to the vet, or the family vacation, which means they go to the kennel, at which time our Sheba becomes the great Ninja! She disappears, fades into her latest hiding place, and resists all efforts to capture her when she eventually is found.
We can see their intelligence and emotions in response to the signals we send. And, of course, this signaling works both ways, doesn't it? Sheba "signals" to us when she is hungry, tired, sleepy, angry, sick, stalking, playful, or wanting to cuddle.
But, as far as we know, animals do not understand symbols. I am moving here toward a distinction between symbols, signs, and signals. It is true that in our culture, presently, these words most often are used interchangeably and with little attention to the deeper nuances of "symbol." So it is interesting, if I am following this development clearly, that a major concern in the field of Artificial Intelligence has to do with this issue of transforming a signal into a symbol. The underlying thought regarding robotic intelligence regards the working of the mind as a mechanical, computational process in which electrical impulses could be transformed into a kind of rational reckoning.
But this usage of "symbol" would more accurately describe a "sign." This is an important distinction particularly in the fields of religion, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. A sign is an "indicator" of something known. The "indicator" holds no mystery, no uncertainty, no question. The movement of thought from indicator to subject is generally a linear one of direct correspondence. In the case of a traffic light, the color green in our culture means "go," red means "stop," and yellow means "caution." We read the sign and respond. No questions.
Obviously, then, signs are important. We need them to function in the service of regulating traffic flow in our society, whether it be vehicular traffic, the flow of communication between and among groups of people, or between machines and humans. But signs are not symbols.
Symbols are "... the best possible expression for something unknown -- bridges thrown out toward an unseen shore" (Jung, CW 15, para. 116). As such, the symbol serves to make a connection between the conscious and the unconscious. In other words, the symbol defies easy explanation because it is rooted within the human unconscious that has a grip on us mentally and emotionally. Quite likely, the symbolic image grasps our attention and in some cases possesses us. Think of the scenes we see daily in our media where individuals and groups move within a frenzied state of mind to commit bizarre acts of violence on others. Or, again, consider the frenetic titillation of money and prizes of TV game shows, the "to-die-for" creations of ad agencies, the euphoric mascots at college and professional sports events, and the fascination with vampires, aliens, extra-terrestrials, and conspiracies. How can we be so gullible?
And the answer is found back in the nature of symbols. They arise out of the unconscious; they evoke a deep emotional resonance; they coalesce around emotion, thought, and body sensation; they make possible the experience of some kind of meaning in that the symbols arise from the central theme in the unconscious having to do with the centuries-long adventures of risk-taking, life, death, love, and loss. But let us remember also that symbols may lose their potency over the course of time.
At that point when a symbol "dies" (loses its potency and meaningfulness), a dry formalism, sterility, or dogma develops. Adherents may still feel loyalty to the old symbols and feel duty-bound to pay allegiance, becoming more radical and extreme as the formerly live symbol fades over the horizon into the past. This is not just in the case of religion but in all "isms" that control the minds of people.
In the examples I have given, my emphasis was on the efficacy or potency that symbols possess, even when they appeal to our darker side. I don't mean to suggest that symbols are to be associated only with what appears sometimes as an incessant need for stimulation. In fact, the symbols may also arise out of reverence, awe, and the highest ideals of our people. We see some of these in the great religions and profound political acts of courage and justice. Even in these cases, the symbols may fade and die. Individuals, groups, even societies may becomes fallow and vacuous, a condition of dryness that feels like death.
But then a very liberating phenomenon may occur. It may be the appearance of a dream that challenges the old order and seizes individuals or groups with an image that stirs new life. The dream may be a very personal one or one of epic proportion. Consider the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 C.E. How did this come to be? The details of this pivotal development in European history are sketchy and pieced together from the records of a Roman historian, Eusebius, and an advisor to Constantine, Lactantius.
The general narrative that has come down to us is known as "The Battle of the Milvian Bridge" and goes like this. On the evening of October 27, 312, Constantine faced the most significant battle of his life, one that would determine the next Emperor of the Roman empire. Constantine's rival was Maxentius who occupied Rome; the developing battle likely would be fought at the Milvian Bridge which straddled the Tiber river and controlled access to Rome. On that evening of the 27th, Constantine saw a vision in the sky that was confirmed by a dream in which "he saw the initial letters of the name of Christ with the words, 'By this sign you will conquer'" (Eusebius, quoted in Walker, 1959, p. 101). Constantine painted the monogram, Chi Rho, on his helmet as well as his shield and those of his soldiers.
Constantine won the battle; Maxentius was defeated, and Constantine became not only the ruler of the Roman empire but a Christian convert who rescinded the edits that had depersonalized Christians. In a move that changed the direction of world history, Constantine's new "Edict of Milan" granted absolute freedom to all citizens in the empire, opening the door for future developments in which the Christian Church would eventually share power with the state.
Such a dramatic appearance of a symbol is not an everyday occurrence. But, on the other hand, we do not know. We are so conditioned to disregard our dreams, and the professions of psychiatry, psychotherapy, clinical psychology, and psychoanalysis have become so preoccupied with neuroscience and the atomization of clinical studies in general that little attention is given to the narratives and images of the waking and sleeping mind. Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, organized religion has become obsessed with defending its doctrines, growing in numbers with mega-churches while aligning with right-wing power politics.
The spirit of the times is preoccupied with the signs of the times. This is part of the barbarism of our age that will end only when the pendulum swings back and we learn yet again the difference between a signal, a sign, and a symbol.
Jung, C.G. Collected Works, Vol. 15. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Walker, W. (1959). A History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.