Robert Anton Wilson promoted E-Prime as a path towards enlightenment, but there are some severe flaws in his reasoning.
If it were not for Robert Anton Wilson I very much doubt I would be who I am today. His thoughts and writings sent me spiraling out into so many inter-disciplinary paths of knowledge that it kept my head spinning for twenty years before I was able to become critical of his works at all. I am not saying that I am a superior writer or thinker to RAW now, but I do think I am pushing even further than he could have taken me, which is what I think he would have wanted for his audience. So keep in mind that, even though I am once again being critical of one of my own heroes and his pet theories, I do so only from the utmost respect and desire to continue challenging dogmas in the spirit of his life’s work.
Killing the Buddha in the road, as it were.
I will be pulling quotes from Wilson’s Towards An Understanding of E-Prime and responding to them as I see problems arise.
“Korzybski felt that all humans should receive training in general semantics from grade school on, as “semantic hygiene” against the most prevalent forms of logical error, emotional distortion, and “demonological thinking.””
- Semantic Hygiene – This term is nothing less than disturbing, as it was about this same time that a rather famous fuhrer was talking about genetic hygiene. Tyranny calling itself cleanliness was all the rage in that era. Make no mistake, there is a judgement being made here.
‘You are unworthy. You are full of semiotic sin. You must seek repentance in E-Prime.’
I am disturbed by any suggestion of a standard which all must conform to in order to meet the ‘hygiene’ requirements of some ideologue(s). This is how terrible things get justified by unscrupulous opportunists.
- Logical Error – Again, another standard for the contents of others minds and speech is being set according to the desires of an ideological interest group.
- Emotional Distortion – Emotions are a normal part of our existence. They are not obstacles to some true rational self that is burdened by feeling. Emotions are what make life worth living, and any argument that cannot recognize and incorporate emotional elements is weak. If you must deny emotions to deal with them, buddy, you got emotional distortions.
- Demonological Thinking – Gee, that wouldn’t be an appeal to emotions would it? I guess we need some scary terms to frighten people into submission to the One True Semantic Way?
“To understand E-Prime, consider the human brain as a computer. (Note that I did not say the brain “is” a computer.) As the Prime Law of Computers tells us, GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT (GIGO, for short). The wrong software guarantees wrong answers. Conversely, finding the right software can “miraculously” solve problems that previously appeared intractable.”
- First of all, brain is not mind. This problematic equivocation belongs to an unspoken realism/physicalism that is apparent to a careful observer throughout, albeit embedded in assumptions, and not stated explicitly.
- If the MIND is not a computer, then how is this metaphor even relevant? You must actually believe the mind functions like a computer for it to make any sense at all, which gets us back to the problem of physicalism, and ignores unresolved issues about the nature of consciousness in favor of the widely accepted dogma.
- What eternal omnipotent agency can declare something absolutely wrong or right?
- This might be too nitpicky, but RAW seems to be confusing software with data in his already questionable analogy.
“Consider the following paired sets of propositions…”
- There are a few glaring flaws in his examples that I will list here, but a greater general critique in a few paragraphs will address the rest.
- If John told us he is lethargic and unhappy or has previously indicated a correlation between his internal and external states that we can reference, if we are not making statements of Johns internal state that do not disagree with his own assessments, then for all intents and purposes John IS unhappy and lethargic. We don’t need to gaslight him for semantic hygiene.
- Fascism is a well defined set of principles. It is an axiomatic construct. It is not difficult to recognize when an idea conforms to that axiom.
- Sexism is also a well defined axiomatic construct. If a movie portrays all men as smart and heroic and all women as dull and weak, and there is no satire or irony intended, then sexism can be definitively identified. It is not just a ‘personal perception’ unless of course you reject definitions of words altogether.
“Relativity, quantum mechanics, large sections of general physics, perception psychology, sociology, linguistics, modern math, anthropology, ethology, and several other sciences make perfect sense when put into the software of E-Prime.”
- Ahem…I believe he meant “make perfect sense to me”, as opposed to a general statement encompassing all individuals.
“Note that “the electron is a wave” and “the electron is a particle” contradict each other and begin the insidious process by which we move gradually from paradox to nonsense to total gibberish. On the other hand, the modern scientific statements “the electron appears as a wave when measured one way” and “the electron appears as a particle measured another way” do not contradict, but rather complement each other.”
- If we are being honest all we can really talk about is an experience of an electron or a wave. The nonsense only arises from an assumption that a single phenomena which appears to us as either electrons or waves must also exist outside of an experience of them, which is the proposition of the naive realists RAW critiqued elsewhere in the essay. As concrete objects that exist external to conscious experiences of them, we cannot resolve the discrepancy between particle and wave, but if we drop the assumption that there are concrete objects independent of experience, then the discrepancy never even arises.
That last point is an important one, and a good place to switch to a more generalized critique. If there are no concrete objects independent of and external to a conscious experience of them, then all statements are equally valid, as they only represent personal experience. We cannot misspeak of a particle or wave that arises within our own personal experience. That is the actual content of our experience. To assume that statements of personal experience are faulty is to claim that objects exist outside of personal experience. Since we cannot interact with the objects of our perceptions outside of an experience of them, it takes a massive leap of faith to assume those contents exist external to experiences of them. And consensus or repetition fail to make up for our subjectivity here, as multiple subjective experiences can not magically transcend the limitations toward objectivity.
If the essence of E-Prime is to keep subjectivity in check, then there is a defacto assertion that subjectivity is flawed in some way, and it is hard to follow that reasoning unless you are an objectivist. To believe that the properties of objects are the source of truth about reality is to simultaneously assert reality exists independent of consciousness; which is the essence of realism, which I have poked major holes in here and in numerous previous writings.
However if we believe that the properties of experience are the source of truth about only our own personally knowable reality, then all individual statements are precisely consistent with the nature of the individuals reality.
E-Prime is essentially “SPEAK CONSENSUS OR GET OUT OF MY REALITY!” It is thoughtcrime policing that seeks to force conformity by denying the primacy of individual experience. The Semantically Correct, as it were. Identity Semantics.
Now I know that was not RAW’s intent, nor Korzybski’s. I realize their intent was to clarify communication so that we could seek harmony. I think they just missed a subtle point, which is that harmony is a virtue of groups of individuals. not a linguistically contrived consensus of idea members. The virtue of the latter is conformity for the sake of efficiency at the expense of agency. Perhaps with that in mind we can jump a little higher from the shoulders of these giants.