Aristotle in a Non Aristotelian Age

It is only with the greatest reluctance that I reach the conclusion that the modern theory of multivalued logic is illogical, in that it is elliptical and superfluous to restate in confusing jargon what Medieval Schoolmen stated clearly, and in Latin.

Allow me first to explain my reluctance.

In my youth, the science fiction novels by A.E. van Vogt, World of Null-A and Players of Null-A much impressed me, planted the seed of my interest in philosophy, and did much to shape my personality. No books were more influential in my development.

For me, these books are illumed by the elfin cherry-rose twilight dawn hue of magnificent nostalgia. I owe them much, and speak no ungrateful word against them.

The central conceit or gimmick of the books is the Non-Aristotelian philosophy (abbreviated Null-A) as elucidated by Alfred Korzybski in his ponderous tract Science and Sanity, in future centuries, would revolutionize psychiatric science, cure all personality defects, and be used to create utopia on planet Venus, peopled by supermen who all live at the peak of moral and mental perfection.

Van Vogt’s purpose was to write a futuristic wonder tale. He used Korzybski’s Null-A philosophy much as a lesser writer would have used spaceflight or atomic energy, namely, as a gimmick to introduce a Hitchcockian thriller about false identities, false memories, thinking machines, clones, terraforming, superhumanity, galactic invasion, teleportation, telepathy, and utopia.

It should go without saying that the science wonder story depiction of Null-A is not to be taken literally, any more than the depiction of atomic science in Buck Rogers. A science fiction author only needs to portray the basics of any science, aerospatial or neuropsychological, correctly enough to introduce and excuse his speculations both conservative and fanciful.

Nonetheless, as many a science fiction writer is wont to do, Van Vogt takes the time to describe enough of the scientific speculation behind his story conceit of Null-A Philosophy to lend verisimilitude, as a lesser writer might take the time to describe the internal workings of a spacesuit or atomic pile.

Null-A Philosophy blames human woe and shortcomings on neuroses fomented by imprecise thought habits. These habits are based on simplistic binary logic, and on inattention to the distinction between reality and the words used to describe reality, which are never perfectly fitted. The motto of General Semantics is: “the map is not the territory; the word is not the thing it represents.”

If this motto resembles adages of Neuro-Linguistic Programming or certain aspects of Dianetics or Erhard Seminar Training, it is because all spring from the same recent intellectual tradition, or even the same people.

As enamored as I was with A.E. van Vogt’s enthusiasm for this alleged discovery in semantic epistemology, age and education has robbed it of glamor. It now seems to me to be precisely what it claims to oppose, namely, a simplistic system based on a false-to-facts association, or, in other words, General Semantics is based on a merely semantic argument.

What startles me, looking back, is how much of lunatic modern and postmodern philosophy, from the writings of Noam Chomsky to the witchcraft of Carlos Castaneda, is based on similar axioms as Null-A, but lack the saving grace of Korzybski’s loyalty to truth and sanity. Korzybski did not follow the siren song of linguistic determinism all the way to the cliffbrink of nihilism; but he does take first steps in that direction.

This column is not a review nor criticism of A.E. van Vogt’s writing, nor, precisely speaking, of Korzybski’s, but is instead a criticism of the concept of multivalued logic and of the theory of linguistic determinism, which has also been promoted in slightly different forms, by other writers using slightly different terminology, behind General Semantics.

Null-A Philosophy has two parts: the theory of multivalued logic, and the theory of General Semantics. The metaphysical nihilism implied by General Semantics is an idea Korzybski avoided, but others following his same axioms did not. More on this below.

Aristotelian logic proposes that it is impossible for a thing to be and not to be in the same sense at the same time; hence, a statement that simultaneously and unambiguously affirms and denies the same predicate of the same subject cannot be true.

Note the qualifications: statements that are not meant to be taken literally, such as metaphorical, or poetical or rhetorical statements, do not fall under this rule. Statements of philosophy, physics, engineering, law, medicine, mathematics, or other formal disciplines are the only ones encompassed. And, again, a statement true at one time but false at another involves no logical contradiction, because the meaning changes: “It is dawn” may indeed be true at daybreak but not at any other time.

We call statements contrary that cannot both simultaneously be true, albeit both might be false (as when “All cats are black” and “No cat is black” cannot both be true). We call statements contradictory if the falsehood of one proves the truth of other (as when if “not all cats are mammals” is false, “all cats are mammals” is true.)

Null-A logic proposes that the binary logic of Aristotle, where “A” is not “Non-A” hence black is not non-black, is too simplistic, on the grounds that every category or word expressing it, being an abstraction, is imperfectly fit to the complexity of reality with its myriad shadings and indistinct edges.

All things are fuzzy. We cannot say “it is dawn” unless we can identify the exact degree of elevation of the sun over the horizon on a given day, at a given latitude, between 6:00 and 6:01 A.M.

Hence a multi-valued system of logic, where A may or may not be various shades or degrees of Non-A, so that not all choices are black and white, and dawn may be one of several degrees of twilight, is preferred.

An alert reader will have already noticed the paradox: preferring nonbinary logic to binary logic is itself binary preference.

And the various shades of Non-A, where cats might be various shades of white or grey, or tawny or dappled, while not being black, adds no clarity to any case where the distinction is not relevant.

If you ask me to look for your lost black cat, and I find a cat that is not black, she is not your cat, and it does not matter if she is white or orange or tabby.

Any case where a simple binary choice contains an ambiguity, because a word might have more than one shade of meaning, merely calls for more precise definition, and, at that, only when the ambiguity may change the outcome.

For example, if you call your lost cat “black” when she has white mittens, the word is ambiguous. Black might mean all black or mostly black. If I find two lost cats, one black with mittens and one unspotted black, I may not know which cat is yours. But the exact same sentence, in other cases, may not be ambiguous and may need no clarification. If I find two lost cats, one black with mittens and the other a white Persian, I know the second cat is not yours.

In other words, ambiguity depends on circumstances, most particularly the circumstance of whether one is speaking in a literal way about a precise topic.

A choice that is not binary, because it contains three or more options, merely becomes a sequence of binary choices as each option is eliminated. If the choices are A and B and C and nothing else, these three can still be analyzed or put into mental boxes labeled “A” and “Non-A” where the box “Non-A” contains B and C.  In other words, any threefold choice is merely two binary choices.

If you ask me to go to the petstore and buy you a black cat, you have not asked me to buy the orange tabby nor the white Persian. These two can be distinguished from each other, but in this case, both are not black, hence not a cat you want me to buy.

Likewise, for example, suppose we wish to distinguish between a statement that is untrue because it depicts a false picture of reality, and a statement that is untrue because it is a nonsense-statement, which depicts nothing at all.

When this degree of precision is required, we might avoid saying a statement is true or false, if the word false does not include the nonsense statement, which we are holding to be a special category that is neither true nor false.

Instead, we would say the statement is true or untrue; and, if need be, we can then distinguish untrue statements into those which are untrue because they are false, and those which are untrue because they are meaningless. The threefold choice can be analyzed into two binary choices.

But, sadly, introducing nonbinary logic, where every choice is A or not-A or a third option of perhaps neither or perhaps both, clarifies nothing and adds nothing useful.

Other difficulties surrounding Aristotelian logic evaporate upon close inspection. Those who say that men can indeed hold two contradictory ideas in mind that the same time, due to the human power to ignore logic, are saying nothing about the nature of the ideas, but only about the nature of man.

Two contradictory ideas, no matter how firmly avowed, cannot both be true. You may say them, but you cannot create a reality where both unambiguously represent what they allegedly represent. Such is the nature of reality.

The second branch of Null-A philosophy is not formal logic, but is instead a branch of psychology.

General Semantics proposes that habituated attention to the difference between the denotation versus the connotation of words, the limitations of generalizations versus universal statements, will eliminate simplistic hence bigoted thought. Bigotry is taken to be an accidental byproduct of imprecise speech habits rather than expressions of willful human evil.

General Semantics proposes that precision in speech hence thought will integrate the emotional reactions of men by keeping these reactions based on reality, rather than on falsehoods created by imprecise or untruthful connotations created by misuse of words.

In essence, this is not distinguishable from similar theories, particularly the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which propose that the structure of a language filters hence determines the native speakers’ forms of perception and thought.

If this sounds reasonable phrased this way, keep in mind that it is on such foundations the edifice of political correctness rears its absurd chimera-head, and the belief that merely by saying “persons of color” rather than “colored person” bigotry and race-hatred can be reduced or eliminated from the human soul.

General Semantics, and all such theories of linguistic determinism, in sum, propose that linguistic habits are not an effect of one’s worldview, but a cause, perhaps the main cause, shaping one’s worldview. This wags the dog by the tail.

Such theories propose that we do not select words from the available common vocabulary, neither do we use creative metaphors to coin new words, nor grant new shades of meaning to old words, in order to express our views of reality.

Such theories instead propose that the forms of the words and their connotations determine our views and our worldview, in much the same automatic way computer output is determined by its punchcard instructions.

If true, men can be reprogrammed to cure human failings. Change the punchcard holes, change the output. Substitute words of positive connotations for those of negative connotation, and negative emotion is eliminated from human civilization, whereupon all men will soon sane, mature, and civil. So runs the hypothesis.

Does experience bear this out? Does changing the connotation of words control worldview?

Certainly a man who calls another man “homophobic” means to imply that loyalty to sexual norms is a psychopathology, namely, a phobia; in just the same way calling him a “reactionary” means to imply that his political beliefs are a thoughtless and fearful clinging to the past, thus utterly craven and utterly without merit.

But the only effect this may have on his categories of thinking is one of self-imposed blindness and imprecision, not insight and precision. The victim of such verbal word-play is merely internalizing an ad hominem accusation against all opponents of a given political party. As if he were to refer to an enemy group with a slur expressing hatred.

Like an act of lobotomy, the habitual use of such words merely prevents reasoning by pre-selected the desired emotional reaction such words are likely to provoke.

However, this is hardly a psychological breakthrough showing mankind the path to utopia via semantic science. Name-calling is an example of the type of lies that deceive the unwary and brain-lazy, lies which are meant as self-deception primarily. Ironically, terms like homophobe and reactionary, because they promote bigotry and narrowmindedness in those that use them, describe the psychology of the propogandists themselves.

Whatever hopes might be had to eliminate neurosis and bigotry, political correctness has done the opposite, and to an absurd degree. We now live in an era when mass hysteria and mass delusion is commonplace: In America, the average man on the street, when asked, will fearfully and faithfully pretend to be unable to differentiate women from men or men from women. This is done to elude a speech-taboo, not because anyone actually suffers an inability to differentiate the sexes.

Experience shows that adding precise qualifications to one’s common speech, or even during debate, is pointless. Whether it has any effect on one’s psychology is gravely doubtful. Only a child mistakes a generalization for a universal.

The statement, for example, “swordswomen cannot be swordsmen on the battlefield” is true because it is true in large part, and both speaker and listener can be expected to understand that rare and freakish cases to the contrary can be found with sufficient diligence. If, as rarely happens, the listener is honestly puzzled whether the statement is meant as a universal statement admitting no exceptions whatever, it might behoove the speaker to add a qualification “in most cases.”

However, even a diligent attention to qualifications will not prevent, and may have no effect at all, on the psychology of the speaker, as various theories of linguistic determinism hold. A man who holds that women should not vote because women are too softhearted will not change his mind merely if, each time he proposes this statement, he says instead women should not vote because women in nearly every case with remarkably few exceptions are too softhearted. If the first statement is based on contempt of the fairer sex, so is the second.

And if the man is actually motivated by contempt of women, and not by an honest assessment of their softheartedness, then adding a qualification to his statement, where he acknowledges that freakish and insignificant exceptions do indeed exist, would not diminish the contempt. At best it would remain as a general contempt rather than a universal. He would not hold all women in contempt, only the vast majority.

I am using an invented example, but I do notice that in my youth, it was commonplace among nearly every voice I heard to add such qualifications to statements about the differences between men and women. It was commonplace to offer women chances to compete with men in men’s work, if they so happened to be that one case in a thousand, freakishly strong and enduring, able to perform the tasks of lumberjack or marine.

As it turned out, an unqualified exclusion of women from men’s work would have been wiser, since allowing the exception for the exception had no effect but to lower standards.

Women, as it turns out, do have nearly universal psychological traits which made workplace interactions gentler but more unprofessional hence less efficient than an all-male environment would encourage.  There was no great need for HR departments to police jokes and glances of the eye in the name of deterring sexual harassment when offices were an all-male bastion.

I select this example because it is meant to offend the reader; but even if an inoffensive example were selected, the point remains that generalizations are used and useful because they are generally true, and are needed, as the default assumption for any decision where a more exact information carving out an exception is not available. In this particular case the attempt to grant exceptions to the exceptional backfired, because the non-exceptional objected.

Korzybski was wise enough to avoid the logical dead-end into which linguistic determinism lured other writers, namely, a metaphysical nihilism best called nonessentialism.

Korzybski proposed that reality was real, but that it was far more complex than any human mind could comprehend. Photons of all wavelengths cascade against your body day and night, waking and sleeping, for example, and the ratio that happen to be of the right wavelength able to stimulate the eye is but a small fraction; and, of those visual stimuli, the number that passes the filters inbuilt into the human brain meant to distinguish useful from useless visual information is smaller a fraction yet; and our habits, learned reflexes, memories and priorities of attention filter and alter the visual information before it reaches the conscious awareness.

Therefore, Korzybski concluded, reality is severed from awareness by several levels of abstraction and simplification. It was in order to prevent these filters from falsely blocking meaningful signals or falsely ascribing meaning to noise, that a rigorous psychological program of fitting language to reality was proposed. Korzybski held that these filters, at least in part, were influenced or controlled by word associations.

He reached the silly conclusion that adding lawyerly qualifications to sentences hence to thought, such as adding “et cetera” to any incomplete list, would render thought and perception more accurate to reality, and ergo eliminate erroneous and immoral mental habits, etc.

Korzybski ascribed neurosis and psychosis to the false pictures or models created when a series of improperly tuned filters of perception created an entire false world in the imagination. A neurosis is when the emotional reactions are false-to-facts, and psychosis is when memory and perception, reality itself, is false-to-facts.

In his lectures, as a prank, he would feed a student a cookie from a box of dog treats, only showing the label on the box once the student had swallowed, which, in one case, made the student gag. Korzybski’s point was that the mental picture of having swallowed dog food caused the physical reaction of the gag reflex, even when all five senses reported the taste and texture of a cookie.

Where Korzybski meant to free men from illusion, modern witchdoctors mean to entrap. Skillful propagandists have made a study of mass psychology and mass marketing, and use a variety of effective tools to create word associations with images or ideas and brand-names.

That this is an effective strategy is sad but true: the entirely of Marxism and Cultural Marxism is based on little more than word-fetishes, and yet, in the post war world, conquered the majority of the globe, crippled the West, and is currently one step away from total world dominion, and the end of civilization.

And yet it is merely by calling “wages” by the fetish term “wage-slavery,” so that word denoting a free man selling the services of his labor now is associated with the connotation of a helpless victim of slavery, and similar verbal tricks, that the Marxists successfully convinced multitudes and myriads to support totalitarianism of unparalleled hellishness.

Cultural Marxists do the same for words that refer to sex, race, sexual perversion, politics and religion.

Merely inventing a Latinate word to refer to some normal and natural thing of which every sane man approves, and then associating psychopathology with that norm, one habituates the audience into reacting to the normal as is it is abnormal, and to the abnormal as if normal: Islamophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and on and on demonize fidelity, patriotism, decency and chastity as mental disorders, and apotheosize barbarism, treason, mental disorder, and moral abomination, such as jihad, globalism, gender dysphoria, sodomy, as normal, natural, brave, and admirable.

If there is any evidence that precision of speech, by itself, without some external (and usually religious) commitment to truth at any cost will oppose or counter this cult of malignant falsehood and self-deception, I have yet to see an iota.

There is no reason in theory why it should. A man can be a pervertarian or Marxist and use precise definitions as easily as an honest man, without the definitions being any more truthful, or the false statements being any less false, if false or meaningless qualifications are added. “I ate the moon in June” is not made more true by saying “I at the moon on the 24th day of June, exactly an hour after noon.”

So perhaps the theory of linguistic determinism, including Korzybski’s formulation of it, does not open the door to moral uprightness and mental clarity. Perhaps.

But it does open the temptation to social engineering, that is, by controlling speech, one controls thought. Such is the point and purpose of the Newspeak hypothesized by Orwell in his chilling dystopia, and such is the point and purpose of the sillier but deadlier real-life version of Newspeak known as political correctness or wokeness.

Political Correctness is based on the unarticulated assumption that words have no intrinsic meaning. They are merely weapons to be used as best serves the party in power to maintain its power, and by revolutionaries to achieve power. No words are ever used to communicate between parties, since (according to the theory behind Political Correctness) all parties exist in a state of mutual warfare and mutual incomprehension where no communication between the two parties, no negotiation, no surrender terms, are possible or desirable.

The idea that reality is severed from awareness by layers of abstraction, or, as Kant would have it, that noumenal reality is forever severed from phenomenal, naturally suggests that reality is not reality, but merely opinion, delusion, fabricated perhaps by the individual, perhaps by the  consensus to which he ascribes, or to which he belongs.

If so, the basic reality of language evaporates. In reality, all objects, are individual and distinct, so that one cannot step in the same river twice; but all objects participate in Platonic forms which make them distinct from each other, so that all rivers can correctly be called by the same one word, whenever a large volume of water runs in a channel.

Words therefore always refer, not to an object, but to a set of objects. If we see a red ball and a red block, a blue ball and a blue lake, the word ball correctly refers to the first and third, whereas the word blue refers to the third and fourth object. The essential property of the first two is their redness, of the second two their blueness, and of the first and third their round shape.

Perception and education partly causes natural groupings of objects into sets, according to the ideal form they copy, some more clearly than others. An egg, for example, or the globe of the Earth can be called round, even though both are oblate. Man can be called a featherless biped, even though a Red Indian in a war bonnet might look like he has feathers, and Long John Silver with his pedleg is not technically bipedal. Again, this is because the words are generalization in such cases.

This is because man is an ambiguous case. Are slaves men, or children, or idiots, or comatose patients? What about Martians, elves, Eskimos, or angels or other fictional or mythical creatures capable of reasoning? A ghost is not a featherless biped — is a ghost a man?

The silliness of these questions reveals the nature of the essential property being discussed is a formal one, and the definition of man is imprecise. It is an attempt to define the Sons of Adam by a non-essential characteristic, such as his number of feet or absence of plumage.

In other cases, the words might be coined to set down a precise demarcation, where no ambiguous case can arise.  A triangle is a plane figure enclosed by three straight lines. An essential property of triangles is that the three internal angles equal two right angles. Adding area to a given triangle will not change its essential properties: the larger triangle’s three angles still sum to two right angles. But adding a fourth line makes the figure not a triangle, and doubles this sum, no matter where or at what angle the fourth line is added.

Man is a thing that we know before we can define; triangles are abstractions we define in order that we may know them. The first kind of definition is descriptive, and the second is proscriptive.

But the radical version of linguistic determinism in place these days abolishes both forms of definition. If, for example, the word “woman” refers neither to social roles expected of the human female, nor to the biological and psychological differences between male and female animals, nor to the spiritual differences between Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, then the word means nothing at all.

We are currently suffering a crisis of non-essentialism. All things are merely clusters of secondary side-effects, visible outward manifestations, with no invisible reality shared in common. All ideas hence all sets hence all words are taken to be arbitrary. The fact that some chairs have different shapes or are made of different materials is used by such socialist writers to repudiate the concept of words. H.G. Wells once denied that the abstraction “chairs” exists at all, on the grounds that all chairs are quite different.

Mere humbug, of course. As G.K. Chesterton famously said if all chairs were quite different, you could not call them “all chairs.”

But the Wellsian concept of all words as illegitimate, which is a perverse exaggeration of Korzybski’s observation that reality is more complex than abstraction from reality, is a self defeating paradox. Wells uses words to denounce words.

But this paradox now rules the modern age, for, as said above, we live in a land where few are bold enough to dare say what a woman is, or how or if she differs from a man.

This is by design. It is meant to rip out the tongue. If one cannot say what is male and female, one cannot even say if one exists or not. What is existence, after all? A mere list of the external and ever changing outward properties of a man or any organism tells you nothing of his immortal soul, much less informs you of his God-given rights. Destroying the legitimacy of words, hence of existence, destroys the legitimacy of any other claim, political or philosophical.

All speech stops. All thought ends.

If this is where Non-Aristotelian logic and linguistic determinism ultimately might lead, wiser to remain Aristotelian, in the fine company of the Thomists and medieval schoolmen. We may not be modern, but we are sane, and our words are our words.