Friday, December 26, 2008

Runkel On Learning

I knew at least peripherally the late Philip J. Runkel, a great but not necessarily well-known social psychologist. Phil and I had corresponded because I was interested in Perceptual Control Theory (PCT)—he was one of the major figures in that 'school' of psychology—and Phil had also studied and respected Korzybski's work. I often dip into Phil's last book now, People As Living Things: The Psychology of Perceptual Control for a measure of both theoretical and practical wisdom. Here's a little quote on learning from that book:
You often hear people talking about learning as if it is something you do in school, or while reading a book, or while the drill sergeant is looking at you, but not otherwise. You hear utterances like, "She just won't learn!" or "He is a slow learner." Well, he may be slow about learning the things you want him to learn, but his neural pulses travel just as fast as anybody elses. (p. 241)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Null-A Continuum

On jury duty last week, I didn't manage to get out a blog post—not an excuse, but I hope at least for my readers' sympathetic understanding. It took four days with a lot of waiting to finally find out that I wasn't going to get picked to serve as a juror in a murder trial. The jury selection process fascinated me nonetheless and I actually felt a little disappointed when the D.A. knocked me off of the panel. Beside that, the waiting time gave me a chance to catch up on my reading. One of the books I finished was John C. Wright's Null-A Continuum.

I met John C. Wright last month at the 2008 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture weekend in New York City sponsored by the Institute of General Semantics. He drove up from Virginia, to speak on the last day of the conference about his book, based on the 'Null-A' world created by A.E. Van Vogt. Having read all three of Van Vogt's Null-A books years ago, I bought a copy of Wright's book, made sure that Wright signed it, and had a few pleasant minutes of conversation with him. I was amused when his young son, about 8 or 9 I guess, tried to get his father's attention while we were talking and Wright asked him to stop and take a "cortico-thalamic pause." More children should know how to do that!

The Null-A books, started as a series in Astounding science fiction magazine in the mid-1940s. Van Vogt's book The World of Null-A based on these stories came out in the late 1940s. It has continued to be in print in numerous editions (along with two sequels) since then. I read the Null-A books sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s. I was already a student of Korzybski's work and the books, with their 'weird' story of Gilbert Gosseyn, the Games Machine, the Semantic Institute on Korzybski Square, and a libertarian 'Null-A' society on Venus, had a compelling quality although I found the plot confusing. (Korzybski did too. He read the Astounding stories and when the book came out read that as well, three times in fact and still confessed confusion about what it was about. Korzybski wasn't actually very much of a science fiction reader.) The books stimulated a significant number of readers to learn more when they realized that Van Vogt based the non-aristotelian teachings of the book and the sayings that began each chapter on the work of an actual person named Korzybski. Though the books were my introduction to Van Vogt's writing, they are not my favorites among Van Vogt's writings. (I have since come to love much more The Voyage of the Space Beagle and some of his short stories (see The Best of A.E. Van Vogt).

The Null-A books were definitely a major influence and favorite of Wright, who as a young science fiction fan in the 1970s 'ate up' the stories which deeply resonated with something in him and provided a major inspiration for his eventual career as a science fiction writer. He got the permission of Van Vogt's widow to write a continuation of the series. And remarkably, he has managed somehow to capture Van Vogt's 'spirit' and voice in this book. For me, the book dragged a little toward the middle, which may have had something to do with the convoluted (to me) Van Vogt plot-line that Wright sought to continue. But Wright is a talented enough writer to have succeeded in grabbing my attention when I felt my interest lag (much as Van Vogt had the power to do) and I enjoyed the book. If you liked the Null-A books I think you will like this one, indeed you MUST get it since it gives a satisfying ending to the saga of Gilbert Gosseyn—one that Van Vogt could be proud of.

Interestingly, other than whatever he got from Van Vogt's books, Wright hasn't read Korzybski's work or any other G.S. literature (as far as I know). But he definitely has a feel for it, beginning each chapter with one of a number of apt 'Null-A' mottos that he has formulated, e.g., "The Laws of Men will never be just until they are sane," "Fear is the reaction of the living organism, not to threat, but to the perception of threat," "Analyzing the universe into simple binary opposites, while necessary, has limited value," et cetera. Null-A Continuum may even get some of its readers to seek to find out more about Korzybski and general semantics, just like Van Vogt's novels did.

Thumbs up to John C. Wright!


Wikipedia biography of John C. Wright (caveat lector!)

John C. Wright's Web Log

Null-A Continuum on

A comprehensive website on A.E. Van Vogt and his Work

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nothing To Fear But...

An amusing (to me) YouTube video, a comedy sketch from Israeli television, illustrates the multiordinal quality of human reactions, in this case phobias.

Multiordinality, in the korzybskian sense, stems from the self-reflexive capacity of the nervous system that allows us to react to our reactions.

The multiordinality of terms, reflects this capacity and refers to the fact that such terms have different 'meanings' depending on the level of abstraction on which they are used. Such terms can be applied to themselves at different levels of abstraction.

For example, I can be in love. I can also be in love with being in love. I can hate someone or something. I can hate hate. And I can fear something as well as come to fear my fear. One can feel anxiety and also anxiety about anxiety. We react not only to our own reactions but to others reactions as well. Understanding the mechanism and being able to laugh at it can make a difference, I think, as the video shows.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Winning The War On Nerves: Becoming Aware Of Pathological Verbal Distortion

Korzybski, in his "Introduction to the Second Edition" of Science and Sanity wrote at great length about the general semantic (evaluational) aspect of the war against Nazi Totalitarianism. The Nazis, as he pointed out, spent much time and money in the service of propaganda for their cause. "Pathological verbal distortion" as Korzybski called it, provided a major tool in what he called their "war of and on nerves" against the Allies. He wanted the Allies—America had not yet entered the war when he was writing this in 1940 and early 1941—to pay serious attention to this and hoped that the U.S. government would realize that it needed to make use of professional psychiatric, psycho-logical experts as well as the neuro-semantic (evaluational), neuro-linguistic training that he was offering, in order to deal with the Nazi threat adequately.

I'd like to call the reader's attention to a little of what Korzybski wrote:
There are persistent reports that the Nazi government is utilizing a staff of psycho-logical experts for destructive purposes. Other totalitarian governments ape their successfully worked out and tested methods. The 'democratic' governments in this present fundamental nerve contest appear a tragic joke of ignorance, inefficiency, etc.In practice this amounts to betrayal, because they fail to recognize the overwhelming importance and vulnerability of the human nervous system, and do not utilize such experts in a constructive way. (p. lxxi, in S&S, 5th ed.)
On the next page he wrote:
The violation, through ignorance and/or un-sanity of the similarity of structure in the map-territory relationship (see p. 58 ff. and p.750 ff), and/or deliberate, professionally planned distortion of it, abolishes predictability, proper evaluation, trust, etc. This results only in breeding fears, anxieties, hates, etc., which disorganize individuals and even nations. There must be a correspondence and similarity of structure between language and facts, and so consequent thalamo-cortical integration, if we are to survive as a sane 'civilized' race. (p. lxxii)
Well folks, It appears we are now in another war of and on nerves. What Korzybski wrote about the free world's response to Naziism seems relevant today. We are now, in my opinion (but not just my opinion), in a war with Islamism (Totalitarian Islam) and our governments and media, to a significant extent, have already succumbed to—and indeed now help to promote—the pathological verbal distortions that those who have declared jihad against us want us to accept.

Steve Emerson writes eloquently about this in his article, "Yes the terrorists are winning. He condemns the 'contrived evenhandedness' which he noted in coverage of the Mumbai massacre by mainstream media outlets like the New York Times. He writes:
Watching and reading reports of the Mumbai attacks was an Alice in Wonderland experience. Even after an Islamic terrorist group took credit, TV anchors and reporters assiduously avoided the term Islamic terrorist. They must have consulted with the Thesaurus for the Politically Correct to determine that the word "gunmen" would not offend any jihadist.

The real truth is that there is war against the West and the Jews by Islamic jihadists.

On Wednesday, even though everyone knew by then that the perpetrators were jihadists, CNN constantly referred to the terrorists as "extremists"-with no modifier. Hell, they could have been the Basque ETA or the ultra right wing U.S. militia. Then a CNN anchor asked his guest with totally innocence, "Now why would an extremist group target a Jewish house of worship?" Because, my dear politically correct anchor, it was an Islamist terrorist group. ...

....It all comes together. After more than 7 years since 9/11, we can now issue a verdict: Islamic terrorists have won our hearts and minds. Let's thank those who made it happen: the U.S. government, European governments and the mainstream media. It's time to stop placating or being intimidated by Islamic front groups who masquerade as civil rights groups. In 2007, the perversity of [this] was demonstrated when the FBI released its annual 2007 hate crime reports. Of the total 1,628 victims of anti-religious hate crimes, 69.2% were Jewish and 8.7% were Muslim. Yet by my still unfinished account, there were at least 40 times more stories last year about Islamophobia than about anti-Semitism.

The Mumbai massacre was a heavily planned plot carried out by Islamic terrorists. Period. Memo to Obama: Until the onus of responsibility is put on Islamic "civil rights" groups that want to ban free speech and claim that anyone who uses the term Islamic terrorist is a racist, there is no hope of winning the battle.
To those readers who may feel offended by what they may consider a 'politically-incorrect' blogpost, I suggest (as I do for everyone else too) that they read Emerson's entire article—perhaps more than once—before sending 'nasty' comments and emails to me. This blog is about Korzybski and his work. If you are going to practice 'general semantics' and not just talk about it, you've got to face 'facts' whether you find them pleasant or not. We are still very far from the non-aristotelian reorientation of human civilization that Korzybski envisioned. We won't get any closer to it by ignoring the very big 'fact' of the Islamist War against the West, the Jews and Modernity.