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What do you know?

"How do we know what we know?" was a question posed by psychologist and Palo Alto Mental Research Institute member Paul Watzlawick (working with such prestigious alumnus as Gregory Bateson, Virginia Satir and Jay Haley) in a book he edited with a similar title.

So, how do we separate inferences and biases from our map-making or ideation of the world?

Consider an artist meeting a group of people. One works as an electrician, another as an accountant, the third a graphic designer. Introducing himself as well as his occupation, the abstraction process begins almost instantly. The electrician and the accountant, unfamiliar with art figure he is a painter of portraits. The designer, however, cannot accept his abstraction so easily and make a reversal of order and thus probes further. Suddenly, it is revealed that the artist sculpts figures from stone. What we seldom achieve is the self-awareness to ask ourselves how we arrive at our conclusions. Is it intensional assumption or extensional reasoning by way of evidence and testing?

If the accountant and electrician had not gone further in their inquiry they would only have partial knowledge of the artist's extensional occupation - they would have the word the artist used to describe himself and no other real, concrete knowledge. Their maps would be incomplete, shaded by unconscious biases and internal referential indexes based on what they had encountered previously, not in the present moment. Of course, artist1 is not artist2, yet it seems awfully convenient to coddle together all artists into an indeterminate class to save on time and mental energy.

I ask the question; does a culture that demands instant gratification inevitably demand the dissolution of knowledge into the manageable and familiar, possibly restricting the range and probity of thought and inquiry?

If expediency breeds increased probability for error, as has been demonstrated in so many cases, could the same lust for rapidity erode maps, distorting them to such a degree that it impairs sane and rational judgment? We are all guilty of this and oftentimes it leads us into despair and ruin. I would implore all people to use their nature's gift of self-reflection and self-awareness to avoid such semantic and symbolic traps and to use their nervous systems and the nervous systems of others for the greatest outcome. How? By routinely asking questions and (almost) never staying satisfied with the first answer you get.

In the words of Robert Anton Wilson: "Doubt. Doubt that you have doubted enough. Doubt your doubts." Never take anything on its face value; the world is infinitely complex and in constant flux; those that attempt to answer simply and definitely we should be especially skeptical of.


Strategies for Unsanity

In my dreaming last night, I saw more literal signals than symbolic, i.e, conversations in their entirety without adulteration by my unconscious mind (which would have to be taken with a grain of suspicion anyhow!)

A friend of mine called me out of the blue - he wanted something from me and I figured as much since I had never received a social call from him before. We got to talking and he hit upon his recent feelings about being depressed. I had noticed after much self-reflection that his depression was not innate or a priori, but learned and reinforced throughout his life.

If we maintain that the Structural Differential holds true-to-fact, then language shapes thought and thus behavior. So at which point can we define the fundamental causes of undesirable or depressive feelings being generated? In my opinion, identification at the evaluation level and its confusion with the event level effects on our feelings with greatest impact.

My friend would say (i.e., utter and most likely subvocalize) that his pursuits both for his work and pleasure were nothing to be commended; that they were "adequate" at best. He would mostly downplay his achievements and enforce irrational restrictions on his well-being.

The maps he had internalized in the past now bear claim to appearing as "reality", using broad and vulgar terms. Despite his activities being "neutral", he identifies them as good or bad by holding them up to unattainable comparisons (i.e., his writings are not read by millions, therefore it is a failure or inherently bad) or believing them as so instead of evaluating them as they are in their environment, or liking/loving them unconditionally as an extension of himself. He continually struggles to feel happy by placing demands on the universe when realizing it is neither benign or malignant but indifferent to his needs.

If you wish to feel inadequate or worthless, I recommend you start or continue to do the following:

  • Need rather than want, or have second-order needs: i.e, "I need my need for love."
  • Misidentifying others' problems for your own.
  • Reversing the order of abstraction by mistaking your evaluations of reality for reality itself.
  • By thinking either too negatively or positively in absolute terms.
  • By tying your well-being to external events and external evaluations (i.e., verbal praise)
  • By using outdated maps (i.e., past situations) to navigate present territories.
  • By merely hypothesizing and never testing situations to gain the facts.
  • By thinking the universe owes you something for services rendered or intentions pure.

I do not claim to be a psychologist; I do however claim to be a student of General Semantics. By using the GS approach, much of his needless self-imposed suffering could be avoided and effectively remedied.


The 3rd Meeting of the Australian General Semantics Society, Melbourne Chapter

Over the weekend of February 13, 2010 and February 14th, Mr. Laurie Cox, President Emeritus of the AGS and Dr. Earl Livings and myself gathered at Earl's house to conduct several GS inquiries and discussions in an informal and relaxed setting. I was particularly surprised and humbled that Laurie had traveled all the way from Sydney just to talk with us! After a quick catch up, we launched into the mini "symposium"; a (very!) brief summary follows below.

Saturday, February 13 2010
Australian Internet Censorship and the GS response
Our first topic of conversation was the debate surrounding the mandatory censorship of Australian web traffic at the ISP level. After explaining it to Laurie in detail, we asked the questions: "What does it hope to achieve?" We surmised that the program was to halt the spread of child pornography and to protect children from it. As GSers, we concluded that the "time-binding" mechanism that is the internet could not be effectively policed with any degree of certainty using a traditional "old world" paradigm or "space-binding" approach.

Sanity, Unsanity and Insanity
The next hour or so was spent on finding an operational definition of Sanity, Unsanity and Insanity. It was almost instantly agreed upon that Insanity was a complete and marked identification of a higher order with lower orders or even the event level. Earl and Laurie posited that Sanity was the simple fact of having the Korzybskian "consciousness of abstraction" as formulated in Science and Sanity.

Pinning down Unsanity was much more difficult however. Laurie drew his own version of a Structural Differential to demonstrate the abstraction process and tried to throw up some examples of non-sane behaviors such as perception on the object level as the object level itself, misidentification, identifying with other person's feelings as one's own and reinforcing second-order feeling (which will be talked about later.) I drew on the teachings of Albert Ellis, Ph.D. and his Rational Emotive Therapy, defining one element of Sanity as "unconditional self-acceptance", and the use of rational thinking and the ABC model.

Laurie noticed the similarity to IGS member William Haney's "ROPE" model (Reality-Object-Perception-Evaluation). We reached a consensus that Unsanity was a mixing of maps and orders of abstraction and that Sanity, by contrast was acknowledgment that we, as humans, make inaccurate maps at times and can take steps to correct them as best as possible and to accept this without condition.

Modes of Male and Female Communication
After reflecting and critiquing our discussion, we moved onto the topic of Male and Female communication. We regarded honest and true-to-fact communication as a responsibility of GS students to "act" according to Korzybski's principle of time-binding.

Drawing on extensional examples such as the research done by Ken Wilber and Erich Fromm in their transpersonal philosophies and approaches we also talked about communication as whole - not just words, but body language and tone of voice. We also marked differences in outlook of males and females, such as inclusive (female) vs. exclusive (male) language and the difficulty or reluctance due to gender conditioning on the part of some males, to recognize the ability to state one's own feelings and needs at given times and to ask oneself, realistically, what those needs and feelings are.

We also wrote down the biological differences between men and women and how that forms behavior. Males are fueled by testosterone which strives for "achievement" and "agency." Females, by contrast are driven by oxytocin which is freed through physical touch and interpersonal communication.

We emphasized that a GS approach would seek complementarity instead of competition between the sexes, that female-driven "communion" and male-driven "agency" can be bridged by awareness and the recognition of the needs of the other and vice-versa while still maintaining our own.

We closed for the evening after a four hour session and resolved to meet the following day with Mr. Robert James to discuss the upcoming National Conference. Unfortunately I was unavailable to meet him due to a conflict of schedules and we instead met again at Earl's house for further studies.

Sunday, February 14 2010
Intensional and Extensional Language
Returning to Earl's house Laurie and I discussed the differences between extensional and intensional language, using Korzybski's definition of the overdefined (intension) and underdefined (extension) and the probability of both. We also used Kodish's example as well as Hayakawa's and Weinberg's interpretation.

First and Second-Order Feeling
Earl had come across a copy of Harry Weinberg's "Levels of Knowing and Existence" as Laurie commented on using self-reflexiveness to take a positive view after scraping his knee in a fall. He, as Weinberg wrote, "liked" his "liking" of an eventual recovery, i.e., his second-order feeling could effectively change his first-order (non-verbal) feeling. This was part of the circularity of human knowledge as demonstrated in the Structural Differential. Once the second-order thoughts effect the object-level first order, they eventually "become" part of that first-order.

We also discussed "synchronicity" by aligning maps with others and looking at a broader map to give context to more complex or troubling situations.

We also surmised that this awareness was an example of the reverse order of the consciousness of abstraction and that putting assumptions first can be damaging. Furthermore, we explored what questions we can ask to arrive at these inquiries, and that some questions are unanswerable, i.e., are either ambiguous or meaningless. Ambiguous questions are unable to be answered by experiment and meaningless questions are similarly so unless they are modified to become merely unanswered; that an extensional, falsifiable and scientific methodology can be made to address the parameters of the question.

At this point, Earl conducted an experiment to demonstrate the Structural Differential. I was writing and he yelled out "STOP!", to which I did. We then drew this as a diagram, with Earl's want for me to stop (second-order), the command itself (first-order) and its transposition on the event level (the utterance as heard by me.) Then we drew the object level (my hearing of it) and my reaction (stopping writing.) We found this to be confusing as a diagram, so I suggested adding a dimension of time to represent multiple onlookers of similar events.

The Representation of Media
Using this revised Structural Differential, it was time to dissect the growing "relevancy of irrelevancy" as described by Neil Postman in current television media. I drew a figure of two SDs - one representing the conception and inherent biases in media (evaluation), the report (object level) and the report as an event being interpreted by an audience in a similar fashion, with both feeding into one another - does the public as an audience wish for softer news, or is it passive in merely accepting what is given to them? We used real world examples such as the Tony Blair inquiry into the Iraq War.

It seemed to us that Mr. Blair disregarded extensional evidence (no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq) over an intensional belief (help the American war effort) and misrepresentation (Saddam helped Al-Qaeda etc.)

We asked how one could prevent this from happening again. We could endeavor to achieve correct symbolism-to-fact; to test and hypothesize and act "sanely."

GS in a non-GS Practicing World
Moving along, we discussed the differences between GSers and non-GSers. For instance, we arrived upon the "Right Man" as Robert Anton Wilson called him, an abstraction (of his own admission) that holds rigid, inflexible beliefs, is intensionally minded and holds only a two-valued orientation (good or bad with no middle ground.)

The General Semanticist by contrast is extensionally minded, multi-valued in his orientation and acknowledges the processes of constant change.

Managing Stress - a GS influenced approach?
Earl and Laurie watched the news last night and came across an item about managing stress. The report stated that we all experience stress, and some stress called "eustress" could actually be positive. However, negative stress could be combatted by asking ourselves questions:

1) Is this important? If the answer is yes, then;
2) Is it reasonable for me to be angry? If yes, then;
3) Can I modify this situation?

It seemed reminiscent of GS and RET principles, and related to the cortico-thalamic pause to gather one's thoughts in moments of heightened confusion and to become conscious of abstraction and reaction once again.

Over 7 or so hours was spent over two days and it was some of the most beneficial, inspiring and insightful hours I have ever spent in GS study. My sincere thanks goes out to Mr. Laurie Cox and Dr. Earl Livings for hosting me and traveling to discuss GS with us!


Note: If you are a member of the AGS or IGS and read my blog, I encourage you to comment or contact me for online discussions. Over this weekend I was told my blog has a small "following" among some members and I'd very much like to talk with some of you!



A Note on Abstraction and Closure

Since we, as humans, perfectly imperfect as we have come to evolve, abstract all sensory perceptions from the outside world, we also abstract our relationships with these perceptions as they are constantly formed and re-formed. If, like Ellis hypothesizes by way of Korzybski, insofar thoughts create feelings and our behaviors, we must learn to accept that we cannot explain the totality of the outside world and thus, accept the nature of the universe as one of uncertainty and probability, not fact and absolutes.

Many friends and relatives with myself included have gone through almost soul-shattering, life-altering break ups, deaths and other tragedies. Many seek "closure." They believe that healing words - the sounds that come out of our mouths - will cure what ails them as if they were a magic incantation.

My advice to those seeking closure is this:

1. Stand in front of a door. Push it open.
2. Pull the door towards you.
3. Realizing that the door has closed and the reality of your present situation has not changed, be content that you are a functioning human being with the ability to know better than to search for answers that have no sensible question.

I to elucidate further on constructing one's own reality, I was talking with my father the other day about time. He said to me that "whoever discovered that there was sixty minutes in an hour was a genius." I replied that he was a master manipulator. My father looked at me quizzically. "Well," I said, "If the dude can make people believe that time is specifically delivered in parcels of sixty minutes and divisions thereof, he should probably have been King of the World."


The 2nd Meeting of the AGS, Melbourne Chapter

It was chilly in Melbourne, Australia as the 2nd Meeting of the AGS, Melbourne Chapter commenced last Thursday. It was brought to my attention that AGS President Robert James took a liking to my coining of the name "Melbourne Chapter" for our group which expanded to include my friend Shai, a PhD student in neurological disease - specifically Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease at the University of Melbourne.

In attendance was also Mr. Laurie Cox and Mr. Earl Irvings, the 2nd "certified" member of AGS, Melbourne Chapter. Although a multitude of subjects were covered in volume, I shall attempt a brief summary.

Laurie led the discussion, describing GS as an "epistemology" - Shai provided his own definition, calling it a "theory of 'our' knowledge." We also tried to pin down a working definition of "fact", using GS texts such as Irving J. Lee's Language Habits in Human Affairs and the insiders' look at the legal system by Chester Porter, QC in his Gentle Art of Persuasion.

Laurie professed with great vigor that "talking is not enough, GS must be practiced and applied" to gain any usefulness from the techniques and theories. That said, GS as a discipline attempts to stop "identification" by confusing "reality" and "perception" as it passes our non-verbal observation. We must be conscious that whenever we see/hear/sense, we are not sensing the entire event on each level; we, as humans are simply unable. GS, as Laurie says, can be seen as a "basis for any form of knowledge."

Laurie then presented a short essay to familarize Earl, Shai and I with his understandings of GS, starting with the Map-Territory relation as Korzybski termed it. Seeing as we cannot establish "absolute" facts, we must be reminded that "facts" always carry a degree of probability and uncertainty. Visually, he drew his own interpretation of the Structural Differential, saying that words "leave out a lot of what one has taken from an event" and that inferences may be overgeneralizations or false knowledge. He also says that we should silently remember to include the "etc." when making descriptions, to acknowledge that we do not catch "all" characteristics when conveying information to others. We then talked about the consciousness of abstraction, being aware that our words are not things, that our perceptions (or constructions) are not reality
and that thing(1) is not thing(2) and new experiences are colored by past, unconscious biases.

Laurie insisted that GS may solve problems in such a way that we may properly evaluate situations and events to prevent unsanity or "neurosis" - that defining things/events closely on a "descriptive level" - as close to the actual event as possible - could more likely yield a solution. For example, in a relationship, a boyfriend and girlfriend may fight due to having one map of the situation different to the other. GS encourages to describe these mental "maps" as accurately as possible to synthesize the two or to "agree to disagree." Robert also advocated the use of a GS diary to jot down instances where GS was being applied consciously and to make observations from a new, GS perspective.

We closed the meeting with a discussion for a possible National AGS Conference/Seminar in Melbourne early in 2010. We set a framework for topics, the opening one day of three to the general public, possible speakers and getting the Institute of General Semantics and other international affiliates to contribute their ideas. I also resolved with Earl to hold monthly meetings when time permits and to open an AGS forum for all members to use. A highly intriguing night for all!

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