The Name is not the Thing and…

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This is the story of the great change in the accepted understanding of human language that occurred in the last century and how it is forcing extensive public reevaluation of large bodies of “received wisdom.”

In less than one century a logical/linguistic misconception has become a hallmark of ignorance and illiteracy. It has so dominated popular thought as to give rise to so-called “Christian Fundamentalism” and numerous other literalist philosophies that greatly inhibit social progress. The second part of this story will explain another logical/linguistic misconception that continues to distort human understanding of the foundation of society, specifically the free expression of sex and gender.

Ignorant literalism led to the conflation of terminology with reality in public understanding of sex and gender throughout the last century, a problem that is now being corrected through death and technology. A complex literalism that insists human theories are more correct than observable facts, suppresses counter-evidence, and ignores the rich complexity of life in favor of simple categories and labels, continues to plague our society. However, the application of elements of the “scientific method” to address a wide range of non-technical issues is beginning the liberation of human thought from the simple man’s effort of trying to force the world to be something other than it actually is, again with specific reference to issues of sex and gender freedom and expression.

My first exposure to this dichotomy, the real world as opposed to the real world as described by random men, was when a classmate shared with me The World of Null-A by A. E. Van Vogt. At 13 or 14 years of age, I couldn’t quite understand the plot at the time, maybe because I could only sneak a chapter or two every afternoon during dramatics club rehearsals. Later I was to learn that most people had to stretch their imaginations a lot to make sense of a Van Vogt plot. At the top of every chapter, in italics, was a brief saying, such as “the map is not the territory” or “the word is not the thing defined” and it would be signed with an enigmatic “A.K.” Another classmate (we were all hooked) whispered “General Semantics” to me and I thought that sounded like something really neat, especially since this guy in the story, this Gilbert Gosseyn (that’s “go-sane”) has two brains and all kind of superpowers, especially including the ability to see and understand and react appropriately to whatever is going on. And, an S. I. Hayakawa essay was being taught in class at the same time, and he was a General Semanticist, whatever I thought that was.

Later, The Players of Null-A was published, giving me an even greater thrill of the rational mental powers unleashed by “non-Aristotelian” logical thinking. And, although it was clear that the novels were mid-century futurist fantasy stories, there was something that stirred my imagination and belief that the ideas were not just fantasy and might have some grounding in reality. Twenty years later, I decided to try to learn more about this and many other subjects in connection with my professional career developing computer architectures. I knew that “A.K.” was Alfred Korzybski, who had set forth a philosophy of rationality that he called General Semantics in his 1933 book Science and Sanity. Van Vogt was a believer in General Semantics and incorporated many of Korzybski’s ideas into the Null-A novels. But by that time (1970’s) something much more powerful was in motion.

One of the curious things about the rise of computer technology is that every fundamental and important thing for starting the revolution and interpreting its capabilities and limitations was already in place by the 1940s. In many ways, the developments since that time (before computers) have been in engineering technology to create increasingly better realizations of ideas that were well developed by metamathematicians like Alonzo Church and Alan Turing in the 1930s. Of course, each major generation in technology has brought greater capability, and increasingly powerful applications have abstracted and incorporated these capabilities to create increasingly useful tools for information manipulation; however, the fundamental process of computing conforms to the limits first understood by Turing and Church.

But beyond mere computing machinery and fundamental mathematical limits, we found the job of representing a task to a computer (programming) to require a kind of orderly thinking that leaked over and influenced the way we software designers think ourselves. We early learned to use “variables” or “handles” to allow us to identify and manipulate the data objects on which we wished the machine to operate. We understood that a name of a quantity can be assigned a meaning that has no relationship to the actual quantity or the literal letters of the name. We can use a name like “fuel” to allow us to designate a numeric quantity of liters. And we well know that the letter string “f-u-e-l” is not itself something you can run your car on. Although f-u-e-l identifies and allows us to manipulate such a number. The name is not the thing. Us geeks were first to use these concepts routinely in our work.

When I investigated General Semantics, I found amazing how many their basic ideas of cleaning up human thought by insisting on principles like “the map is not the territory” corresponded to patterns of thought required for success in computer programming and related subjects. In the 1930s, when Korsybski began to popularize this thought, relatively few people, except some professional philosophers, were interested in this subject, Today, this sentiment is so commonplace in many technological areas as to hardly be worthy of note, yet the less informed non-technical community, as well as insincerely motivated propagandists, will fall into this way of thinking or even use it to distort the behavior of their ignorant fellows.

Van Vogt captured from General Semantics and popularized the “cortico-thalamic pause.” Basically, this is the systematic consideration of every conscious reaction in the context of a stimulus. A very simple example suffices. If someone slaps your cheek, what do you do? Although you may instinctively react in some way, the goal of the c-t pause is to give you time to construct a superior, even optimal response. In short, life is not all about quick action/reaction, like a game of speed or agility. Rather, every reaction, no matter how quickly chosen, should be based on sound thinking about what has just happened. Van Vogt’s hero is always reacting in unexpected and superior ways to the actions of others, and, since this is science fiction and he has an extra brain, the mere act of c-t breaking always gives him enough shift of perspective to master the situation instantaneously (even when he has to teleport across the room or wake up in a different body—wow). Although we don’t have two brains, I have always found the c-t break to be rather wise advice and try to employ it when I can muster the patience and good sense to do so. In computer programming and debugging it can be very helpful in clearing the mind of incorrect binding of names as things. In managing one’s life it can be a life-saver.

Next we will examine how overly simplistic thinking and incorrect reasoning lead directly to sex and gender oppression.

—Dan Massey