TOWARD UNDERSTANDING E-PRIME.
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.
It seems likely that the principal software used in the human brain consists of words, metaphors, disguised metaphors and linguistic structures in general. The Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis, in anthropology, holds that a change in language can alter our perception of the cosmos. A revision of language structure, in particular, can alter the brain as dramatically as a psychedelic. In our metaphor, if we change the software, the computer operates in a new way.
Consider the following paired sets of propositions, in which Standard English alternates with English-Prime (E-Prime).
1A. The electron is a wave.
1B. The electron appears as a wave when measured with instrument-1.
2A. The electron is a particle.
2B. The electron appears as a particle when measured with instrument-2.
3A. John is lethargic and unhappy.
3B. John appears lethargic and unhappy in the office.
4A. John is bright and cheerful.
4B. John appears bright and cheerful on holiday at the beach.
5A. This is the knife the first man used to stab the second man.
5B. The first man appeared to stab the second man with what looked like a knife to me.
6A. The car involved in the hit-and-run accident was a blue Ford.
6B. In memory, I think I recall the car involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue Ford.
7A. This is a fascist idea.
7B. This seems like a fascist idea to me.
8A. Beethoven is better than Mozart.
8B. In my present mixed state of musical education and ignorance, Beethoven seems better to me than Mozart.
9A. That is a sexist movie.
9B. That seems like a sexist movie to me.
10A. The fetus is a person.
10B. In my system of metaphysics, I classify the fetus as a person.
The "A"-type statements (Standard English) all implicitly or explicitly assume the medieval view that has been called "Aristotelian essentialism" or "naive realism." In other words, they assume a world made up of block-like entities with indwelling "essences" or spooks--"ghosts in the machine." The "B"-type statements (E-Prime) recast these sentences into a form isomorphic to modern science by first abolishing the "is" of Aristotelian essence and then reformulating each observation in terms of signals received and interpreted by a body (or instrument) moving in space-time.
Relatively, 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. Each of these sciences generates paradoxes, some bordering on "nonsense" or "gibberish," if you try to translate them back into the software of Standard English.
Concretely, "The electron is a wave" employs the Aristotelian "is" and thereby introduces us to the false-to-experience notion that we can know the indwelling "essence" of the electron. "The electron appears as a wave when measured by instrument-1" reports what actually occurred in space-time, namely that the electron was constrained by a certain instrument to behave in a certain way.
Similarly, "The electron is a particle" contains medieval Aristotelian software, but "The electron appears as a particle when measured by instrument-2" contains modern scientific software. Once again, the software determines whether we impose a medieval or modern grid upon our reality-tunnel.
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 complement each other. (Bohr's Principle of Complementarity, which explained this and revolutionized physics, would have been obvious to all, and not just to a person of his genius, if physicists had been writing in E-Prime all along...)
Looking at our next pair, "John is lethargic and unhappy" vs. "John is bright and cheerful," we see again how medieval software creates metaphysical puzzles and totally imaginary contradictions. Operationalizing the statements, as physicists since Bohr have learned to operationalize, we find that the E-Prime translations do not contain any contradiction, and even give us a clue as to causes of John's changing moods. (Look back if you forgot the translations.)
"The first man stabbed the second man with a knife" lacks the overt "is" of identity but contains Aristotelian software nonetheless. The E-Prime translation not only operationalizes the data, but may fit the facts better--if the incident occurred in a psychology class, where this experiment has often been conducted. (The first man "stabs," or makes stabbing gestures at, the second man, with a banana, but many students, conditioned by Aristotelian software, nonetheless "see" a knife. You don't need to take drugs to hallucinate; improper language can fill your world with phantoms and spooks of many kinds.)
The reader is invited to employ his or her own ingenuity in analyzing how "is-ness" creates false-to-facts reality-tunnels in the remaining examples, and how E-Prime brings us back to the scientific, the operational, the existential, the phenomenological--to what humans and their instruments actually do in space-time as they create observations, perceptions, thoughts, deductions and General Theories.
I have found repeatedly that when baffled by a problem in science, in "philosophy," or in daily life, I gain immediate insight by writing down what I know about the enigma in strict E-Prime. Often, solutions appear immediately--just as happens when you throw out the "wrong" software and put the "right" software into your PC. In other cases, I at least get an insight into why the problem remains intractable and where and how future science might go about finding an answer. (This has contributed greatly to my ever-escalating agnosticism about the political, ideological and religious issues that still generate the most passion on this primitive planet.)
When a proposition resists all efforts to recast it in a form consistent with what we now call E-Prime, many consider it "meaningless." This view has been promoted by Korzybski, Wittgenstein, the Logical Positivists and (in his own way) Niels Bohr. I happen to agree with that verdict (which condemns 99% of theology and 99.999999% of metaphysics to the category of Noise rather than Meaning)--but that subject must be saved for another article. For now, it suffices to note that those who fervently believe such Aristotelian propositions as "A piece of bread, blessed by a priest, is a person (who died 2,000 years ago)," "The flag is a living being," or "The fetus is a human being" do not, in general, appear to make sense by normal 20th Century scientific standards.
ROBERT ANTON WILSON (*)
(*) Robert Anton Wilson has published science fiction, historical novels, poetry, futuristic sociology and he has two plays published.
(**) An earlier version of "Toward Understanding E-Prime" appeared in Trajectories, No. 5, the newsletter published by Robert Anton Wilson.
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|Author:||Wilson, Robert Anton|
|Publication:||ETC.: A Review of General Semantics|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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