cultural myths and misery

S.K. Harrison skh23ca at
Mon Dec 10 16:21:24 EST 2001

John, salut!

I appreciate your extensive reply. I was hoping
for something like this when the threads here
started dealing with these themes. I've formed
the desire to generate a list of questions from
your and Bob's posts regarding the veracity of
science. If I fulfill the desire, I'll post the
results here. Perhaps you could edit and augment.

> From: John Schinnerer

> Aloha,

You appear to use this for each of your posts
without fail, so I'm curious, do you use it as
anything more than a cursory greeting? How does
it translate?

> My point is that *all* science praxis 
> ultimately leaks out of the mythical ivory 
> towers through (and is sponsored by, thus 
> influenced by, or it wouldn't get done) one of 
> the filters you contemptuously name above, or 
> any number of others.  
> I don't disagree with your ideals regarding
> "pure" science; I'm just saying "pure" science 
> isn't relevant (doesn't happen) in circles 
> larger than ivory towers where all the 
> disciples agree.

I believe we return to some of Bob's points here.
As with him, I remain uninformed about specifics
of the science-politics relation.

As you may have read, however, I will be studying
social sciences within academe for the next
several years. And since I have a nose for abuses
of power, I intend to familiarize myself as much
with the campus social environment as with the
curriculum. Life willing, I will report my
discoveries here and elsewhere.

> I've read (and am still digesting - it's a
> heavy meal) most everything Bateson wrote;
> Maturana covers both that and the latter part,
> and much more "carefully" than either Bateson
> Korzybski.  

Yeah, this latest mention of Maturana on this
list has flagged his name for me. I will look
into him. As for Bateson, I tried reading him
several years ago when I had only a teenager's
ability and inclinations. I got bored. Seems I
should give him another go.

> His 'constitutive ontolgy' seems a penultimate 
> example of "multi-valued  orientation," though 
> it's really just a  scientific explanation of 
> basic Buddhist  theory/practice. 

Yeah, I came to Alfred Korzybski (AK) and science
after a few years of reading and playing with
internal alchemies of various sorts. I remarked
both to myself and to friends that AK had
synthesized an applied philosophy of the best of
both spiritual-nonverbal and abstract-academic
disciplines--and this synthesis performed without
much seeming awareness of the former. This
observation remains one of the main reasons why I
persist with study of him and similar others, in
spite of much poo-pooing from several prominent

> Korzybski (and who else do you recommend?)

Robert Anton Wilson's guerilla ontology served as
an intro to g-s and related fields. He has
informed me deeply and I love him still, like I
would love an eccentric old uncle, but I've left
behind most of his sci-fi speculation to begin
formulating actual demonstrable theories. I would
recommend him a little for the breadth of his
learning, but mostly just for fun.

Through a serendipitous web of events resulting
from RAW's work, I read and practised, compared
and correlated many different materials, which,
to name some of the more significant, included
general-semantics, critical thinking
(, metaphysical naturalism,
cognitive-behavioural therapeutic techniques,
performance and ritual arts, tai-chi, the
practical philosophy of G. I. Gurdjieff,
antinomianism, and sitting meditation. In the
last couple months I discovered Husserlian
phenomenology and hope to study more of it.

Most of my chatter in these threads has been
assimilated in varying degrees from this diverse
assortment, so I'd have trouble isolating good
recommendations for you. I will however mention
two books:

Drive Yourself Sane: Using the Uncommon Sense of
General Semantics, by Bruce Kodish and Susan
Presby Kodish. An excellent summary of g-s, if,
as some have said, a bit mystical.

On a brief interlibrary loan I skimmed an
exciting-looking book called Brain, Symbol and
Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human
Consciousness, by Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili.
I recommend it highly. The authors trained as
psychiatrists and anthropologists, and appear to
have used this training to evolve theories from
their practice in what looks like a broad gamut
of disciplines of the nonordinary (meditation,
ritual, etc).

> Philosophy is head games, even philosophy of
> science, because it is philosophy first and 
> foremost.  The likes of Bateson and Maturana 
> (and Buber and Donaldson and others, myself 
> included) are concerned not with head games but

> with the very constitution of our experiences -

> how we know what we know, and what we can know 
> about that.  Digging into that is how I have 
> come to recognize "science" as simply one 
> manner of observing and explaining, with its 
> own set of advantages and limitations.

I don't know what examples you would consider
philosophy, but I'd appreciate a description
beyond the tautology you provide in the first
sentence above.

I would say that philosophy in general deals with
matters that cannot be addresses in a
quantitative or empirical fashion. As I posted in
a previous thread, it deals with questions like,

* Why is there something rather than nothing?
* What is the point of life?
* What is the good life?
* What is beauty?

Even if not answerable in any ultimate sense,
they do have practical value--far from mere head
games, they deal with the big questions upon
which probably everyone dwells for longer or
shorter periods at some point in their life, and
which can inform some major life choices.

Meanwhile, philosophy of science differs from
this in that it asks sociological questions
without becoming a social science replete with
statistical analysis. To the extent it rests on a
philosopher's actual practice of a science, then
it does not deserve the appelation "head game" 

Personally so far I've grounded most of my own
epistemology in the discoveries of the many
sciences. I dare say, however, that before I
enter into any sort of epistemological analysis,
I prefer to *play* with every idea or technique
or worldview that I can. I've churned through
quite a lot of stuff with this attitude, chucking
most, keeping a little.

> But to point out their limitations as human-
> created tautologies.  They certainly have 
> advantages in some contexts as well.

Yeah, and given this, I've been challenging some
of the comments on this list as stuff that can be
dealt with in the quantitative and empirical
manner in which scientific inquiry excels. I
don't challenge everything.

> > will have little effect if you
> > continue to evaluate using our millenia-old
> > institutionalized aristotelian two-valued
> > orientation --known in the vernacular as
> > "either-or" and used whenever you speak with
> > a couple of common forms of the verb "to be."
> I figure since you're using it, the least I can
> do is cooperate... ;-)

I welcome you to show me some examples of my use
of it. Please note that I said only "a couple of
forms," but at least four different uses can be
differentiated, not all undesirable:

* The 'is' of existence--"I am."
* The auxiliary 'is'--"She is going to the
* The 'is' of predication--"The apple is green."
* The 'is' of identity--"He is a man."

The first two forms I use without much
compunction, excepting the usual necessity of
fact-checking. The latter two give much greater
problems, which I'd rather not get into here. But
even they can be used appropriately, assuming the
practice of what general-semanticists call
consciousness of abstracting.

A debate has been raging for some time now among
different factions within general-semantics
regarding the need for e-prime, or english
without any form of the verb "to be."

See next comments for some technical references.

> A good exercise, by the way, to noticing what
> you mention above is to try going 24 hours 
> straight without using the word "the" or any 
> forms of "to be" in daily life.  I found it 
> quite difficult, and also illuminating.

I avoided any form of 'to be' almost without
respite for several months earlier this year. Now
I've ingrained it as a habit for writing and, in
vocal communication, for conflict resolution in
personal, professional and philosophical
contexts. In general, I prefer to use a mitigated
e-prime along with a form of english known as EMA
or english minus absolutisms.

See Allen Walker Read for his introduction to

And Ralph Kenyon for more on e-prime:

In case you're wondering, when I'm lounging with
friends or otherwise carrying out minor or
whimsical conversations, I lapse into lazyspeak,
a.k.a. good-ol' english.

> If you really live what you say Korzybski
> teaches you about meta-understanding and multi-
> valued orientation, then you understand
> that "32 ft./sec/sec" is nothing more or less
> than a *description* of *how* the apple falls, 
> based on certain implicit presuppositions (in
> this case, those of "scientific explanation,"
> or in particular "physics").  How fast did they

> fall before the "foot" was standardized?
>  And in the rest of the world they fall in 
> meters...I know, I know, another straw man... 
> ;-)
> It is one of an infinite possible number of
> descriptions of the apple falling, whether by 
> scientists or poets.  It does not *cause* the 
> apple to fall that way; it is not a "law" in
> context other than the tautology "science" (or 
> more precisely, "newtonian physics").  Apples
> (and before them, lots of other things) fell
> for countless millions of years without any 
> need for or benefit from this "law."  When I 
> jump off a cliff, I do not fall "because of" 
> the "laws" of physics. They do offer one 
> description of how I fall, and can even predict

> how much energy will be released when I hit 
> bottom. 
> This may be more than I really want to 
> know... :-p

:P to you too.

I ally myself with the pragmatists who ask the
purpose of a given invention, whether abstract or
material. This inquiry re purpose can be applied
to a poem, concert, or nonverbal contemplation as
much as to a scientific report. In this way we
can evaluate the different modes of awareness and
recognize that they do not all deserve to be
treated as one amorphous lump of mere

A poem has a different purpose than an
envirochemical analysis, than Mozart's Symphony
number 40, than resting one's gaze upon a pond or
one's sense of smell upon a steaming cup of tea.
We can't use a paintbrush to observe an amoeba
and we can't use a telescope to conduct an
orchestra (though we might use it as a dijeridu).
We don't ask a plumber to operate on our brain,
nor a neurosurgeon to fly a transcontinental jet.
Purpose determines the value of a tool or
profession as much as it determines the value of
a description.

> As a description that can be generalized to a
> certain extent (but not to the realms of 
> quantum physics, for example), it can be
> usefully.  I do not argue with that.  It can
> also be applied destructively.  As 
> can "media", "corporations", and "new age" 
> ideas be applied usefully or destructively.  
> Which happens depends on human actions based on

> human feelings, thoughts, ideas, passions.

Yup, so let's treat human beings and their
behaviours as a product of nature that can be
observed, and differentiate as best we can
between the behaviours that work and those that
do not. There's lots of theories out there about
the origin of our problems, but so far I haven't
examined or generated much of the data for
myself. If I were pressed to offer my guesses
based on the facts I have noted, I would mention
institutionalized stupidity, income inequality
and institutionalized religion, with the latter
two as subsets of the stupidity.

> Meanwhile, countless cultures without "science"
> and "physics" as we live them created their own
> explanations/descriptions of what they
> observed as consistent phenomena, and used them
> to build pyramids, irrigation systems, bridges,

> temples in the jungles and deserts, floating 
> cities, floating gardens, seaworthy boats, 
> terraced rice paddies on steep mountainsides, 
> surfboards, etc. and use wind and water 
> movement, seasonal cycles, plant growth, 
> difference in elevation, density of water, etc.

> etc. to their advantage (or disadvantage).

I'd love to see some anthropological comparisons
of our current and their earlier sciences. I
fail, however, to see your point here. Throughout
history, humans have performed sciences with
various degrees of success, whether with basic
observation ("sometimes lightning makes fire; I
can perpetuate that fire and cook or provide
light") or with extraneural aid (take your pick
of examples).

Far from a criticism of anything I've said, you
have given testimony here to my point in a
previous post regarding the anthropological
invariance of human learning--each person's
environment is mediated by hir nervous system.
Our immediate apprehension of the goings-on of
the universe occurs at a remove from the
complexity of flux we know constitutes the
universe at any level we choose to observe it,
whether cosmos, macros or micros. We have devised
varuious methods, of greater and leser efficacy,
to discriminate between our dreams, wishes and
wants, and the world as people can agree on it in
spite of those desires. As the sci-fi writer Phil
Dick wrote, "Reality is that which, when you stop
believing in it, doesn't go away."

I've sighted another furious agreement on the
horizon. Dare I attempt to scry its countenance? 

We both recognize some cultural variance and some
cultural invariance. Any differences you and I
have with one another's views will be found in
the details, also known as data, which we haven't
been discussing with much finesse.

> > You seem to have developed the impression
> > that scientists claim for themselves some 
> > kind of perfect conduct or perfect results.
> Perhaps some do.  I notice mainly that they
> tend to presuppose that theirs is either the 
> only way or the universally most appropriate
> of explaining everything, or both.

"mainly" and "they"? This statement provides
another example of unwarranted speculation.
Unless you can provide data (peer-reviewed
statistics) for this, I would estimate a high
probability that you are making mere arbitrary
selections in favour of your prejudices, based on
the claims of only a few scientists out of
thousands, even millions. In the absence of
statistical evidence, you can claim only "some,"
as you did at the beginning, and leave it at

> > I would rephrase that
> Go ahead, since I didn't say it... ;-)

No need to feel smug; I know you didn't say it. I
rephrased from my extrapolation of your
assumptions, which you did not discourage.

> > to say the results of modern
> > inquiry provide the most reliable knowledge
> > we have to date.
> What is "knowledge" to you?  I am curious as to
> your presuppositions in the frequent use of 
> that word.  I find it to be a "straw word" -
> meaningless without context and specificity,
> like "quality of life" or "better."  Science 
> does provide reliable descriptions and 
> explanations, within its own contexts.  Is that

> what you mean by "knowledge?"

To date we have accumulated a large number of
facts (aka descriptions of observed events)
cohering in more-or-less accurate theories that
have persisted with little change for varying
durations. Some of us have learned how to access
these facts with some efficacy toward making
better choices in our lives. Knowledge in action.
Does that suffice in response to your query? The
humanist eupraxopher Paul Kurtz explains this in
more depth in his book The New Skepticism:
Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge.

> > But when we've been studying things for
> centuries (i.e. since Newton), and we keep 
> getting similar results, we might as well admit

> that nature has varying predictabilities
> No argument there; and, all those other
> pre-Newtonian cultures did the same, and used 
> their observations of patterns and 
> predictabilities for various purposes as well. 

But this begs the question, With what rates of
efficacy did these pre-Newtonian cultures use
them? To paraphrase my earlier comment, "Our
differences will be found in the details, which
we haven't been discussing with much finesse."

> > Nature exhibits also some characteristics of 
> > relative *un*predictability as yet--mostly in

> > the social sciences, which remain fairly new 
> > in comparison to granddaddies like physics.
> "Nature" knows nothing of "social sciences" -
> and, both are human mental constructs.   We 
> observe some events that over time seem 
> relatively predicatble and others that seem 
> unpredictable.  As human observers there are 
> implicit limitations on what we can observe and

> how we can observe it.

Since you appear not to like my use of the word
nature, we can use 'the universe' or some other
synonym for the observable and inferrable
totality. Humans and their behaviours exist as
characteristics of the universe. Therefore, they
and their behaviour should not be treated as some
kind of artificiality called "constructs".
Although the theories of the social sciences have
existed only for a short period, the behaviours
they describe have persisted for millenia at one
degree of complexity or another.

Can you give examples of these "implicit
limitations on what we can observe and how we can
observe it"?

> > This doesn't qualify as genuine scientific
> > gathering of data. You have no peer-review.
> Well, perhaps you should gather peer-reviewed
> reports of how social/political/economic bias 
> affects peer-review of scientific data.

Do I detect an ironic tone in this?

There is a new field of science emerging--call it
the sociology of science or the "science of
science," an empirical field devoted to some of
that which has been addressed, until now, by the
philosophy of science.

As for your sarcasm, I'd say it represents
another misunderstanding of the process of
peer-review. Again, I ain't making claims of
perfect knowledge, only of something more
reliable than unaided guesswork and
observation--and yes, I can do this and leave
room still for corporate or other bias.

> > Again, please study some philosophy of 
> > science.
> I am still interested to hear what sources you
> recommend.  However, your assumption that I 
> have never done this does not seem 
> scientifically arrived at.

I have little to recommend. I skimmed
Feyerabend's Against Method and Kuhn's Structure
of Scientific Revolutions. Most of what I know I
picked up in dialogue with students of the field.
If you want more titles, I did ask some friends
for elementary texts.

As for how I arrived at my assumption, I don't
need a rigorous science. But I did what many
scientists do. From your simplistic description I
made an inference, based on my recollection of
philosophy of science, that most likely you
lacked awareness of some characteristics of the
process of scientific discovery. Likewise with a
high degree of probability, you would infer my
lack of familiarity with Hawaii if I said only,
"It has volcanoes and jungles."

To cover my bases, perhaps I should have said,
*Pay attention* when you study philosophy of

> > In short, yes, some people and corporations
> > use the *mystique*, the *appearance* of
> > for their own aims--but we owe the success of
> > this to laypeople's misunderstanding of the 
> > process of scientific inquiry--we do not owe 
> > it to some inherent truthlessness in those 
> > pursuits.
> Yes, that is "what is."  That is what happens
> in the world.  So what use is abstract 
> philosophy of science? Since only humans 
> do "science," and since no humans are free of 
> human loves, hates, desires, feelings, biases, 
> etc. etc., there is no "science" aside from 
> what humans do, and no science that is 
> not "used" in some way by humans.  All else is 
> a myth, an ideal, a utopian concept of science 
> that does not actually happen.  I prefer to 
> work with "what is."  

Many of the best-known philosophers of science
practised as scientists. So it does not remain
some abstract idealism as you propose. Nor,
however, does it qualify as the aforementioned
science of science. Both of us remain in the dark
to the extent that we haven't presented any
statistical evidence one way or the other
concerning the science-politics relation.

> I know that scientists paid by Monsanto are
> going to (except for a maverick martyr or two) 
> praise the safety and appropriateness of GMOs. 
> I know that the nuclear industry will 
> scientifically show how safe nuclear power is. 

> I recall the scientific reassurances that DDT 
> was perfectly safe.  And I see the scientists
> the other side of such debates struggling 
> to "prove" the opposite.  I know that both are 
> human beings doing what we human beings do, and

> that "science" is what we make of it and do 
> with it, nothing more or less.  That is why, as
> Bateson says, science never "proves" anything.

Someone observed that one can find a hundred
scientists to put their name to just about any
claim. But that's known as testimonial evidence--
and no matter whether given by scientists or
laypeople, to other scientists practising bona
fide science such evidence offers nothing of
value. If people at large knew and applied this
fact, testimonials could not be used to promote
anything. The problem from this perspective
becomes one of the efficacy of learning, not of
the futility of science.

> If anyone wants personal experience of this,
> get to know a candid statistician with lots of 
> experience, and ask about how scientific 
> studies are actually *done* (designed, 
> implemented, funded, etc.) in government, 
> business, non-profit, academia...they bring it 
> all right down to the ugly details.  ;-)

If anyone wants to get a grasp of the
science-politics relation, learn how to evaluate
reliable studies, then read in the sociology of
science, instead of relying on the claims of a
lone statistician who may or may not support what
John assumes s'he will support.

> > So although I'd be glad to persist
> > in this dialogue--if only for the practice at
> > debate--
> There's that darn "either-or" habit again...
> ;-)

There's that darn smugness again. I fail to see
what you are calling the either-or habit.

> I've put out about all the "data" I need to,
> including quite a bit about how I came to where

> I'm at for now, so I reckon I'll pass from
> now on and reduce the signal-to-noise ratio on
> the list.  It's been fun, I must say, and I 
> haven't found it all that contentious.  I think
> we're close to having a "furious agreement" in
> a lot of ways.  Perhaps I'll recognize them 
> more clearly after letting this thread sit for
> while.

I do not see any data, just a lot of anecdotal
speculation. And although a collection of
anecdotes can provide a good source for
hypothesis formation in the context of formal
research, they remain valueless to the extent
that they do not provide evidence for the
broadscale sociological claims your are trying to


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