Sunday, March 11, 2012

Relativistic Absolution

I have a horror of absolute statements.

It might even be a phobia, now that I ponder it.  It starts with my experience of certain people: my father was fond of absolute statements, as was the first person I took on as a partner after I started my own company.  Both of these people have something in common: they believe that if you state something with enough confidence, people will believe you.  It didn’t much matter whether the something was actually true or not.  This actually works, sort of, especially on strangers.  Unfortunately, people that have to listen to you on a regular basis quickly learn that the more confident you are (and the more absolute your statement is) the more likely you are to be full of shit.

So I myself learned to be more cautious when I state things.  With the result that many folks (including some of my closest friends) think I’m “wishy-washy.”  I dunno; maybe I am.  I certainly don’t like to be wrong, although I think many people think I feel that way because of pride, or a need for superiority.  The truth is, I just feel bad when I’m wrong.  If I tell you something, and then it turns out I was wrong, I’ve misled you.  That makes me feel crappy.  You came to me for information (and, the older I get, the more that happens, obviously), and here I went and told you the wrong thing.  Makes me feel like a right bastard.

In addition, my whole philosophy of life reinforces the concept that absolutism is useless.  Again and again in this blog I’ve talked about how I believe in two competing things at once: from my initial post on what I (only half-jokingly) mean when I claim to be a Baladocian, to paradoxical views on reality and perception, semantics, uncertainty, quotes, parenting, hype, and grammar.  (Wow, that list was even longer than I thought it was going to be when I started to write it.)  With that many posts about how two seemingly contradictory ideas can both be simultaneously true, is it any wonder that I tend to stay away from statements that pretend there’s only One True Way to view the world?

But if I had to pick one single reason why I don’t believe in absolute statements it would certainly have to come back to ... a book.  Now, there are five books which I think of as having changed my life.  Four of them are fiction: Stranger in a Strange Land, Cat’s Cradle, Legion, and The Dispossessed.  None of these are perfect—charges of sexism against Heinlein are mostly true, and Blatty’s books require a strong stomach in places—but each of them caused some fundamental shift in how I viewed the world.  The characters of Valentine Michael Smith, John (a.k.a. Jonah), Lt. Kinderman, and Shevek all have something in common: they are all thrown into strange settings (Earth, San Lorenzo, a supernatural murder, Urras) and their attempts to grapple with the bizareness they’ve been thrust into generate philosophical ramblings in addition to essential plot points.  The plots of these books are very good, but that’s not why I list them here; in terms of sheer plot, there are many other books I like better.  No, it’s the philosophical ramblings that are the important bits.  Smith’s handling of money and religion, Kinderman’s views on the impossibility of evolution, John’s exploration of truth and lies, Shevek’s reflection on language and possessions ... these are the aspects which challenged my worldview and caused it to shift, sometimes in large ways, sometimes in small.

But perhaps none of these shook up my brain patterns as much as Quantum Psychology, a book by “science fiction” author Robert Anton Wilson.  I put the term “science fiction” in quotes, because, although some of what RAW (as he’s often affectionately known) writes is definitely science fiction, much of it can’t be categorized so simplistically, and quite a lot of it (including Quantum Psychology) isn’t really fiction at all.  In fact, Quantum Psychology reads like a textbook ... but a textbook for a class like no class you’ve ever taken before, nor are particularly likely to, for that matter.  I find it difficult to believe that quantum psychology has ever been taught in a college setting, even in the most liberal of institutions.

And yet, after reading it, you’ll wonder why not.  Well, you’ll also know why not—primarily because few teachers could present it and few students would “get” it—but you’ll still marvel that we don’t all have to learn this stuff.  At least I’m pretty sure you will.  I know there are people who are simply not wired to handle this sort of introspection, and, if you happen to be such a person, I fancy you’ll proclaim it to be pretentious tripe.  And that’s no reflection on you personally.  Maybe one day in the future it would make more sense.  Or maybe you can’t get past RAW’s dismissive stance on the world’s religions (in the same way that staunch feminists will have serious problems looking past Heinlein’s rather primitive portrayal of women in Stranger in a Strange Land).  Or maybe you just don’t care to dissect the universe that much.  That’s okay.  As always, I refer you to the masthead.

But if you’re the sort of person who’s bothered to read this far (which of course you must be) I bet you would find QP just as fascinating as I did.  Now, there are many vital concepts to be learned from this book, but one of the most fundamental is also (perhaps unsurprisingly) one of the earliest presented: E-prime.  I’ll let Wilson explain it:

In 1933, in Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski proposed that we should abolish the “is of identity” from the English language.  (The “is of identity” takes the form X is a Y, e.g., “Joe is a Communist,” “Mary is a dumb file-clerk,” “The universe is a giant machine,” etc.)  In 1949, D. David Bourland Jr. proposed the abolition of all forms of the words “is” or “to be” and the Bourland proposal (English without “isness”) he called E-Prime, or English-Prime.

Okay, that’s what it is ... but what’s the point of it all?

The case for using E-Prime rests on the simple proposition that “isness” sets the brain into a medieval Aristotelian framework and makes it impossible to understand modern problems and opportunities.  ...  Removing “isness” and writing/thinking only and always in operational/existential language sets us, conversely, in a modern universe where we can successfully deal with modern issues.

Okay, so the problem appears to be with our friend (and nemesis) Aristotle again.  Remember him from the balance and paradox discussion?  He’s the fellow who told us there were four elements (when there weren’t), and five senses (when there weren’t), and two possible truth values ... when we know the world is more complicated than that.  Well, it turns out that Aristotle had another potentially problematic habit: that of describing how the world actually “is.”  Or, as RAW puts it, “the weakness of Aristotelian ‘isness’ or ‘whatness’ statements lies in their assumption of indwelling ‘thingness.’”  But the truth is, again, more complicated.  If you think about it, it doesn’t actually make any sense to talk about what something “is.”  We can talk about things we’ve seen, or otherwise experienced, or we can talk about our opinions on the world or the things in it, or we can talk about how things act, or how we remember they acted.  But what something “is”?  Once you let go of your Aristotlean prejudices, it doesn’t actually make any sense.

RAW givs us a few examples of where “is” can lead us astray.  “That is a fascist idea.”  As long as the proposition is put thus, it’s bound to lead us into an argument.  We could fight over the technical definition of “fascist,” or we could argue about the intentions and/or beliefs of the person who came up with the idea, or we could debate about whether people’s perceptions on whether or not it’s fascist override any consideration of whether it actually is fascist.  Now, what if we restate the proposition in E-Prime?  “That seems like a fascist idea to me.”  Well, not much to argue about there, is there?  I could claim you’re lying, I suppose, but honestly: why bother?  If it seems like a fascist idea to you, okay.  It doesn’t seem like a fascist idea to me.  Glad we had this little chat.

So, see how “that is a fascist idea” is an absolute statement, while “that seems like a fascist idea to me” is properly qualified?  And also how the absolute statement is problematic, while the qualified one is just fine?

I could go on (as RAW does), but just think about it.  Think about the last time you had an argument with someone, and see if the word “is” wasn’t intimately involved somehow.  “That is a very bad idea.”  “Republicans are all in the pocket of big business.”  “Gay marriage is destroying American family values.”  “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”  “This movie you recommended is crap.”  “You are so frustrating sometimes!”  The “is” is the part that makes it an absolute statement, and the worst part about that sort of absolute statement is that it involves us making judgement calls for things we can’t possibly back up, stating opinions as facts, and describing the very essence of things, when the nature of the universe mandates that all reality is mediated by our senses, so that the best understanding we can ever achieve is still just a mental picture of that reality.

Now, note that I don’t actually write in E-Prime—neither in general, nor even in this particular post.  In fact, go back and look for the places where I’ve used “is” (or “are” or whatnot) and notice how those statements are the very ones that provoke you, that are confrontational, that make assertions that I can’t actually prove and challenge you to apply your brain instead of just accepting whatever I say at face value.  If I had written this entire post in E-Prime, that would have made it very difficult for you to disagree with anything I said.  But maybe I wanted you to disagree.  Maybe I wanted to shake you up and make you think.

So, even though I think that E-Prime is a fundamental concept that everyone should understand, I personally believe that not using E-Prime has some value as well.  But, of course, that’s just my opinion.

1 comment:

  1. Re-writing a very short writing piece without using any form of the verb "to be" was an assignment a friend of mine had in a college English class, actually. (They also had to avoid use of passive voice, which dovetails nicely with the first post of yours I read.)

    OK, trying that again:

    A friend of mine took a college English course that required him to re-write a very short writing piece without using any form of the verb "to be", actually.

    Huh... I had actually already avoided passive voice the first time with the parenthetical sentence.