The Proper Study of Mankind

from, 2000 02 01

Man, Truth, Semiotics, & Survival

The centers of art & science are distinct;
their borders overlap (in a blur).

The proper study of Mankind is Man. At least so wrote Alexander Pope in the cap line to one of the most famous of his heroic couplets. From a post-Renaissance standpoint, the remark seems “obvious.” Few today recognize the line’s stark contrast to the medieval view in which, for literate Christians,
 the proper study of Mankind is God. Of course that’s not quite right: God can’t be studied. The Bible can be studied, the Patristic Fathers can be studied … but God is a mystery Christians have to accept, not reason about. The dichotomy of the Renaissance, between sacred studies and Humanism, has so saturated Western thought that many see that dichotomy as the only right and proper conflict.

I believe that the Church had one point on the money. Rather it becomes correct provided you rephrase it: “reasoning” in a natural language can lead you in circles: don’t trust it.

We shall return to that point but first let me try a different rephrasing.
 The proper study of Mankind is Truth. The medieval cleric might say, “Why, that’s the same thing. God is the Truth, the only Truth.” Would a neo-Humanist claim that Man is the Truth? I suspect that the attitude most common these days is neither God nor the Truth matter; only Man counts. (1)

(Footnotes are at the end of each component document. Note where you are in the file before going there.)

I no longer find God (2) to matter (there’s an Alan Watts-like pun there if you wish to notice it) and I no longer care much about Man, but I care very much about the Truth. Or am I still making a very Christian-like error?
 (What is Truth, said jesting Pilat …[Bacon]) If one trained in Christian universals comes under the influence of Peter Abelard and his intellectual forebears and descendants, Occam, for example, Truth becomes still another thing one can’t study because it isn’t really “real.” Let’s try rephrasing that. There is no Truth unless you mean Pleroma [Bateson], the physical universe, the territory itself [Korzybski]: what we describe and map, whether well or badly. That truth is unutterable not only according to Korzybski, but to Wittgenstein as well. The best we can have in the sentient subsets of Creatura — the universe of life, information, description … — are descriptions of the territory not exposed as not corresponding to the “things” described. Genesis seemed true until Eritosthenes, Kepler, Copernicus, Darwin … Man seemed true until Darwin, Freud, Morris, Diamond … Newton seemed true until Einstein. Einstein seemed true until … another decade or two had passed, until quantum problems arose, and now: until Ilya Prigogine reexamined the arrow of time … (3)

What matters to me now isn’t God or Man or Truth, but good descriptions.

Why? For esthetic reasons? Certainly esthetics dominated much of my first six decades of life, but I don’t care much about that any more either. Even good descriptions I care about only on a temporary basis: I see them as, for the time being, essential to the survival of this once-complex Earth biosphere. Bad descriptions saturate the hubris of both sacred and Humanist kleptocrats. The latter hire scientists to make sure that the signal for their bad descriptions is strong and clear. They want matter studied assiduously, not the content of their signal rationally critiqued. I see Science as just as unreal as Truth: doubly so while “scientists” feed at funded troughs.

The current study that I see as potentially liberating is information. The purpose of this paper is to suggest a series of ways in which information studies might better serve survival, might help to housebreak us so that the interplanetary and interstellar travel of my youthful dreams, if we survive to realize it, might not be a disaster for whatever system we clog.

The most dangerous bad descriptions are those we inherit as sacred. One cannot with impunity look reasonably, try different descriptions, on a taboo object. Many of my contemporaries seem to believe that ridiculing sacred texts while vulgarizing their diction “proves” that they have no taboos. (4) No. The Bible isn’t the only set of descriptions we’ve been handed as sacred. I don’t mean Marx either. I don’t even mean Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes economics. Neither do I mean just media and advertising. Try the Humanities: philosophy, criticism … the criticisms of literature, music, and the plastic arts.

Your author is self-taught in information as well as in science. Isolation, poverty, and ignorance handicap his study of even his most favorite subjects. If you can temporarily tolerate my diction not having been tested in any information fraternity, my not knowing many of the accomplishments or specialized applications of information studies, I plan to demonstrate ways in which the concept of information as I understand it can upgrade traditional critical arts the way a halogen lamp upgrades a candle. That too needs to be rephrased: by myself I can merely sketch some elements of possible demonstrations. I need feedback and collaboration, not to mention access to resources, before full scale demonstrations will be possible.

I now return to the point about not trusting reasoning done in a natural language and tie it to the trick I’ve tried here of phrasing and rephrasing. Don’t trust reasoning done in any particular artificial language either. There is a saying in the Middle East that important problems should be pondered at least twice: once drunk and once sober. My experience casts doubt on the wisdom of wine (I readily suggest that some degree of inebriation may inhibit the inhibition which blinds the trained intellect to much of the bulk of macroinformation-I similarly suggest that the intellectual suppression of women may in fact have contributed to their reputed intuition: they may be less inhibited by what’s actually, macroinformationally, in the subject); but I heartily endorse the binocular vision gained by synchronous descriptions. If you can “prove” something in, say, geometry, but can’t also prove it in algebra, in the lab, or in your garden, watch out. The Case of Synonymous Languages [Bateson] will loom large in Macroinformation.

As I “apologize” for the limited experience of my scientific diction, I should also confess to my near innumeracy. I can’t multiply or divide or even add very well (my interpretation “why” has been expressed elsewhere) (5), but I think in mathematical metaphors all the time. Thus, I seek feedback on my jargon: I will cooperate with any legitimate upgrade. Thus also, Macroinformation sorely needs collaboration from mathematical adepts who see Macroinformation’s potential. Similarly Macroinformation needs collaboration from artificial systems experts. On its feet, Macroinformation could itself become a field, one which will invite adepts of any field to bring their tools for review. From then on the upgrading may be mutual: a curator or a musicologist may bring us something precious we’d been missing.

Note: Principal references for the set of component parts follow the Coda.
Note also: I divide and subdivide the papers for my convenience while working on them: like taking the carborator out and moving it to the work bench. The reader benefits by faster load times, suffers by having to click: the inconvenience of a construction site. Perceive what it’s about and you shouldn’t mind.
Man in this case means the hegemony with which we associate ourselves.
(2)   See gods, God, & god.
(3)   Prigogine, Iyla, The End of Certainty, NY 1996, p. 1, passim.
(4)   That’s like a NAZI thinking that kicking a Jew proves him to be fearless.
(5)   See Math … Prigogine is Right!
(6)   Proof here is of course a pun of sorts. Both ambiguity and multiple reference are candidates for analysis below.
(7)   I paraphrase a relevant part of Shannon’s
 Mathematical Theory of Communication. My italics above are for emphasis merely.
(8)   Bateson, Gregory, Mind and Nature,
NY 1979, p. 228.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in information, pk Teaching, thinking tools and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s