Monday, February 07, 2005

Not "To Be"

by AJ/Skald

E-Prime appears as a permutation of English in which the verb "to be" is eliminated (very hard to do; I couldn't even manage it in the first sentence). The point of this is to create a form of English more open to ambiguity and fluidity. Standard English, and especially the verb "to be", divides the world into false dichotomies and rigid categories. "John is an asshole" appears as a very sweeping statement; a rigid categorization. However, "John behaves like an asshole when at work" removes the black/white rigidity.

The following is (there it is again, dammit.... I feel like the knights who say "ni" from Monty Python) a short and more skillful explanation of E-prime by Robert Anton Wilson:

E-PRIME, abolishing all forms of the verb "to be," has its roots in the field of general semantics, as presented by Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski pointed out the pitfalls associated with, and produced by, two usages of "to be": identity and predication. Even linguistically sensitive people do not seem able to avoid identity and predication uses of "to be". Bourland pioneered in demonstrating that one can indeed write and speak without using any form of "to be," calling this subset of the English language "E-Prime."

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):

lA. The electron is a wave.
lB. The electron appears as a wave when measured with instrument-l.

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.

The "A"-type statements (Standard English) all implicitly or explicitly assume the medieval view 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.

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. 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 when constrained by a certain instrument behaved in a certain way.

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.

The reader may 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.

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