Monday, March 2, 2015

This book makes so much sense it HURTS

Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics – Alfred Korzybski (1933)

On a recent road trip with my wife, we listened to a collection of speeches and interviews with Robert Anton Wilson, and in them he was asked what books made the biggest impacts on his thinking.  He mentioned several but the one that he stated he had read as a young adult and then re-read several more times throughout his life, was this weighty tome.  This book is nothing less than Alfred Korzybski’s attempt to change our world from the didactic, Aristotelian mode of thinking which has negatively programmed humanity towards believing the absolute certainty of language and the idea that something either “is” or it “is not,” with no “maybe” in between, into a non-Aristotelian, scientific worldview which accounts for the way the world truly is, and which mathematics and science have already come to.
Many of the problems that exist in relaying scientific information to the general population is that science and math have for some time now, relied on pure non-Aristotelian language, the better to understand such non-Newtonian concepts as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.  This revolution in thought has not made its way through to the general population.  The world and its politicians still speak as if language creates certainty, when language is purely a symbol and more than one “meaning” can be easily extracted from any statement.  For example, the statement “Poor people are lazy” is pure fiction, and meaningless in every respect, but the language carries a certain certainty that, for those of us who do not wish to think, is very comforting.  The non-Aristotelian version of this statement, “Some poor people seem to stay poor due to their laziness” is far richer in true meaning, and verifiable, but this kind of language scares politicians and people in power because in their eyes it seems to portray their stance as “soft,” or “uncertain.” The real problem lies in that finding solutions to human and world problems requires us all to think in the non-specific latter manner as opposed to the highly specific yet meaningless and un-true former manner.
Mr. Korzybski was writing this in the early 1930’s, and with diligence has included examples from all fields of human thought, showing the way non-Aristotelian thoughts and words not only better describe reality, but actually help us human beings process information in a beneficial and meaningful manner.   He shows how Aristotelian ideals worked at the time of their creation, because here was so little hard data about the world around us.  The Greeks such as Aristotle, had to delve into the realm of the Ideal and use that as a gauge for the world that we all experience.  This was fine for them, but in the more than two thousand years since, our knowledge of the natural world around us has grown exponentially.  Because of this it is no longer sound to base our study of reality on notions of an Ideal.  The world is inherently chaotic, and fractal in nature.  The Ideal in Euclidian geometry, the geometry we are all taught first in school, only works perfectly in abstractions, not in real life.  Non-Euclidian geometry is able to actually describe the world around us without reliance on absolutes.  Newtonian physics was similar to Euclidian geometry and drew from it.  In Newtonian physics, the speed of light is infinite.  In non-Newtonian physics (Einstein’s macro-world Relativity and the micro-world of Quantum Mechanics) the speed of light is known and serves as a “top speed limit” to the Universe.  This allows the understanding that Space and Time are not separate things, but instead are two parts of the whole of space-time.  One cannot be had without the other. 

An ink drawing cannot exist without the paper underneath, and a piece of paper without ink is not a drawing.

            This book explores many other fields which would benefit greatly from Non-Aristotelian thought.  It is so dense, and so rich with ideas, that the author recommends the book be read at least 3 times, to fully grasp everything it contains.  Mr. Korzybski hoped that this idea would spread and that each schoolchild would be taught in this manner, so as to free them from the jail-cell that is Aristotelian thought.  This was echoed by Robert Anton Wilson who stated in the aforementioned recording that he read this book every 15-20 years, and always found more and more to digest and explore.  I am in that same camp.  I wish I had tried reading this at a younger age, to see how my thoughts would be different re-reading it now, but that is wishful thinking.  Robert Anton Wilson took these ideas and ran with it, especially the idea to never use the specific verb “is.”  He called this E-Prime, and he wrote several books and articles in it.  While it may seem odd when reading these stories and articles, it is the same language and mechanisms used by science to explain results meaningfully. 
The brain is a tool, and as such must be prepared properly in order to function at its peak.  Mr. Korzybski explains how so many of our “mental illnesses” are a byproduct of the human mind trying to explain it’s experience using Aristotelian logic and language.  This causes neurosis, paranoia, and delusions that can morph into actual pathologies.  A human being can only understand what it is prepared to understand, and seeing the world in absolutist, non-relative terms creates mental chaos.  The world is not absolute.  The human mind is not a yes/no machine.  Thinking this way does harm to all of us, and hopefully will slowly be rectified.  I will be reading this book again in a decade or so.  I hope it blows my mind yet again.

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