Words are like sheepdogs

There is a fascinating article in the New York Times about a symposium, the Magic of Consciousness, organised by members of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. (Thanks to Abbas Raza of 3Quarks for the pointer)
Reading through it, there were a whole host of examples of how conjurers misdirect our attention to produce the illusion of magic. So at a variety points I hit something I thought I would like to write about. But the biggie for me was this exchange with Daniel Dennett:
“For years Dr. Dennett has argued that qualia, in the airy way they have been defined in philosophy, are illusory. In his book ‘Consciousness Explained,’ he posed a thought experiment involving a wine-tasting machine. Pour a sample into the funnel and an array of electronic sensors would analyze the chemical content, refer to a database and finally type out its conclusion: ‘a flamboyant and velvety Pinot, though lacking in stamina.’
If the hardware and software could be made sophisticated enough, there would be no functional difference, Dr. Dennett suggested, between a human oenophile and the machine. So where inside the circuitry are the ineffable qualia?
Retreating to a bar at the Imperial Palace, we talked about a different mystery he had been pondering: the role words play inside the brain. Learn a bit of wine speak — ‘ripe black plums with an accent of earthy leather’ — and you are suddenly equipped with anchors to pin down your fleeting gustatory impressions. Words, he suggested, are ‘like sheepdogs herding ideas.'”

Hitting that phrase, “Words are like sheepdogs herding ideas” is a great example of what he means in itself. As I read it I realised that much of my time is spent in searching for those words and phrases that crystallise the buzzing confusion of ideas, impressions and experiences bumping around in my mind that I haven’t been able to articulate.
Finding the illuminating word or phrase, for me seems to be what transforms a mess of ideas into something more coherent that I can work with. Adding Dennett’s phrase to one of my favourite quotes from George Nelson, “The connection game is a process of building patterns. Patterns make things intelligible.”, seems to sum up what I do.