Date: Tue, 28 Dec 2004 16:23:42 -0500
To: Andy Hilgartner
Subject: Re: An invitation
Hello Andy,

Although I can agree with some of your points or aims, I cannot agree with your assumptions or arguments, and I have difficulty with the lack of extensional examples in your presentation. It's highly abstract nature does not, it seems to me, satisfy the need to support abstract claims with specific extensional examples. You will find my comments embedded in your original text below. I refer at times to you by name rather than the pronoun "you" so that other readers will have an appropriate reference.

I also include some html link references where appropriate.

Your "invitation" with my remarks embedded:

On Mon, 27 Dec 2004 22:21:32 -0600, Andy Hilgartner wrote:

         As Ed Kellogg says, in this exchange of emails we have shared in a “heated” GS discussion.
         Like Ed, I regard that as approximating “a Good Thing”.
         But I do not see this exchange as intended to lead any particular contributor, or “lurker” (such as me, up till now), or any group of participants, to take specific action(s) intended to ‘clean up’ the environments of symbols we variously inhabit-and-create.
         GS provides a useful starting-point. But as a discipline, what I call “standard” GS does not recognize that the currently dominant world culture (one mega-culture, 96-98% of the current population, but not ‘the whole human race’) and “the entire Western system of rationalizations” (Whorf, 1956, p. 214) rests upon a fundamental theoretical error. Lacking that insight, the discipline of GS cannot and does not recognize that the currently dominant world culture functions as an abscess in human symbolizing, a lesion in the biosphere. By now, that lesion has grown so massive that it threatens to annihilate the whole human species, and perhaps the biosphere of Planet Earth as well. GS does not cut deeply enough to drain this abscess. It does not and cannot revise our symbolizing, heal our culture, and so avert the current survival-crisis.
         Perhaps the innovations which and my collaborators have set forth can -- or at least, can provide a perspective that enables us at least to begin addressing the planetary survival-crisis.

         (I do not “like” imagery taken from pathology. But here, it enables me to use a succinct metaphor instead of a more lengthy discussion. In the rest of this email, I won’t return to it.)

         So I drop in on this group only long enough to offer an invitation, addressed to whomever of you cares to look at it and consider whether or not to accept it.

         As perhaps my first adult act, I took on a big job. And it grew. To date, the job has continued growing for almost sixty years.

         The job has become more than our small group can handle. At this point, I need all the help I can get.

         I’ll present the context for the invitation in the form of two insights that I steal from other workers and use as my starting-point. I’ll follow with five key remarks. After each one, I’ll offer some comments expressing how I regard each remark as contributing to the invitation.

·           According to Goedel’s (1931) proofs concerning undecidable propositions:
No one can see (‘understand’) a symbol-system from within that system.

The above map of what is now known as "Gödel's incompleteness theorem" differs vastly from the territory Andy described above. Gödel's theorems are widely know about and equally widely misunderstood. If you don't have a faint heart, you can read about it here. And, if you have a really masochistic inclination, you can read a summary of the proof itself here.

Andy, you may want to remove the Gödel preface and offer the proposition without such support. Here's why.

A map of Gödel's theorem that is structurally similar to the territory can be stated:

Kurt Gödel demonstrated that within any given branch of mathematics, there would always be some propositions that couldn't be proved either true or false using the rules and axioms ... of that mathematical branch itself. You might be able to prove every conceivable statement about numbers within a system by going outside the system in order to come up with new rules and axioms, but by doing so you'll only create a larger system with its own unprovable statements.

(I personally studied the proof back in the early '60's as part of my mathematics education.)

The theorem is not about "understanding"; it is about decidability within a specific context. Furthermore, that context is strictly about two-valued logic statements based on a set of axioms. It is not generalizable to "understanding" or "seeing" unless the abstractor is making an identification between undecidability in a two-valued logic system and whatever he "thinks" the words "'see' ('understand')" refer to.

The best interpretation that I can think of for extending Gödel's result is that, IN A CLOSED LOGICAL SYSTEM OF AXIOMS, A third truth value is needed, "U" for 'undecidable', but that value is NOT INDEPENDENT of the other two, "T" and "F". Gödel only showed that there will be well-formed formula in the two-valued logic system which cannot be proved to be "T" or "F" without appealing to additional rules or axioms not originally in the system.

Prior to Gödel it had been assumed that any well-formed logical statement in an axiomatic system sufficiently strong would be either "T" or "F", and that, eventually, a proof could be found to show which applied to that statement. Gödel showed that that time-honored assumption was wrong.

The time-honored (but now false) assumption could be interpreted by the mathematically naive to mean that any declarative statement (about the world) must be either true or false, and that eventually a way will be found to prove or disprove any such statement. This perspective is an unwarranted application of the "law of the excluded middle" outside of logic. If one looks at the law of the excluded middle, paraphrased as "for any given statement either it must be true or its contrary must be true", Gödel can be interpreted as proving that within a sufficiently strong closed axiomatic system the law of the excluded middle is false, because there will be statements which cannot be shown to be true or false from within the same closed axiomatic system.

A corollary is that additional axioms can be added to the system that allows the first level statements to be proved true or false, but Gödel's theorem just "pushes" the starting level for undecidable statements up one level, as the new, extended, (closed) system will now have its own level undecidable statements. Are you beginning to smell the theory of types yet? :-)

Take away the (map !~ territory) Gödel justification and Andy's proposition is reduced to:

No one can see (`understand`) a symbol-system from within that system.

This "proposition" is contrary to the Sufi perspective. Only an "initiate" can understand a symbol-system as it is applied within its appropriate context. It is the uninitiated who are outside the system who cannot understand it. Here is a very vivid, delightful, and extensional illustration, by Idries Shah, showing the "outside the system" description.

It is the night of Saturday, especially consecrated to a ritual which is awesome to us, faithfully followed by the devotees of a certain cult.

Two groups of twelve, dressed in colorful costumes, carry out complicated movements within an enclosed space. They at times respond to musical stimuli applied through a primitive instrument by a man of seeming authority who, with a few assistants, supervises their activity. Entirely surrounding the arena devoted to the ritual, a congregation gives its responses. At times the people sing, sometimes they shout, sometimes they are silent. Some wield an instrument that gives forth a strange sound.

Much care has evidently gone into the planning of the geometrically designed arena. Around it are colorful insignia; flags, banners, decorations probably designed to raise the emotional pitch of the individual and the group. The atmosphere is eerie partly because of the abrupt changes in emotion. Their reaction to the ecstatogenic process being enacted in their midst is so explosive at times that one wonders why they do not spill over into the sacred enclosure. Both joy and sorrow are manifested among the votaries.

To see the "inside the system" description, go to <url:>

Andy's proposition, "No one can see ('understand') a symbol-system from within that system.", fails to satisfy what is known in certain circles as "content validity", in that it appears to be mismatched to the territory right from the start.

That would mean that any conclusions derived from such an apparently "wrong" premise would be immediately suspect.

·           Korzybski told his successors/inheritors, both by example and by precept:
We must revise our own assumptions

         Put those two sayings together -- then the operational questions become:
How do we know what we need to change? and
How do we change it?

These two questions do not depend upon the misapplied reference to Gödel. Andy could do without the entire preamble. Moreover, Andy's prior term was 'understand' not 'know', and these differ greatly.

1. Our theories of human behavior DON’T WORK.

This is a very broad sweeping and highly abstract generalization, as there are hundreds if not thousands of "theories of human behavior". How many and what theories form the base for this abstraction?

          Probably, you've heard this litany before: Theories such as psychoanalysis, behaviorism, etc., account for some observations, but usually not the ones any particular investigator wants to examine.

That's two, but I'm not sure that "behaviorism" can be called a "theory of human behavior". A more reasonable description of "behaviorism" would call it research methodology paradigm. Behaviorism calls for treating an organism more or less like a "black bock" with stimuli and responses. The methodology says to provide stimulus and record the response. Describe the organism in terms of a collection of recorded (extensional objective) stimuli and response patterns. Behaviorism as such served as a "backlash" reaction to abstract theories which postulated many non-observable entities for explaining human behavior. Behaviorism decried the postulation of "hidden variables" or postulated entities within the human being. The paradigm for behaviorism includes stimulus-response observations, but it does not make predictions about behavior that are not generated from statistical inference based on actual observation. Behaviorism could be characterized as "extreme extensional orientation".

 Mostly, they don't deliver testable hypotheses. When they do, and someone actually puts one to test (and finds it disconfirmed), nobody revises the theory, or rejects it and seeks to replace it with one that might work.

It would be very nice here to see a list of some disconfirmed theories that nobody has revised that have not been rejected or replaced.

The theories don't lend themselves to examination or further development by the methods of Western mathematics. Etc.

If a theory does not lend itself to examination of further development, how could it have been one that was tested and disconfirmed?

         This litany amounts to a series of excuses for not using ‘scientific method’ in the so-called “life-sciences”. And I found that I couldn’t and wouldn't accept those excuses. I declared that I intended to work out some kind of theory of behavior that WOULD work.
         Soon, I found that I had to add biology to the list.

Hmm. I would not call "biology" a "theory", and where is this list you speak of?

If our theories of human behavior don't work, then, for similar reasons, neither do our biological theories. So -- my job grew.

Which theories do you classify as "biological theories"?

2. From Korzybski, I learned to assume that humans assume.
         Indeed, we humans cannot not-assume. We can assume this, or THAT, or something else altogether -- but we cannot assume nothing-at-all.

I agree whole-heartedly. The level for which we assume seems to be far greater than any has heretofore even suspected. Assumptions permeate our brain function as a continuous stream of memory recall. See

         A decade and a third later, this insight became the center of my first paper on human behavior (or more precisely put, on human behaving-and-experiencing). Only many years later did I come to call my main insight ‘a model for the protocol for surviving in the biosphere which humans appear actually to follow’. (Hilgartner, 1963, revised 1967)

I don't see this paper on your website. My extensional orientation suggested that I check it out.

3. Then I figured out what happens to a culture whose theories of biology and behavior don’t work:
         Its members, disoriented as to how to survive in a biosphere, make so many survival-errors that they eliminate themselves and their culture from the planet.

Can you list at least one example?

         Once again, the job grew: I chose to study the ways in which, without admitting this to ourselves, we seek self-annihilation. I chose to re-focus my studies of human behavior on that topic, and in so doing, opened up the field of studying self-destructive human behavior at the level of culture.

What do you mean by "at the level of 'culture'"? The term 'culture' represents a very high level of abstraction. Please provide some extensional examples.

4. Then I disclosed a hidden, untenable assumption encoded in the generalized grammar which underlies the discursive and notational languages which belong to the western Indo-European (WIE) family. (Hilgartner, 1978)

Another reference I could not find on your website.

Hidden: “These assumptions, [etc.] may be called [hidden] because they are totally unknown and unsuspected, unless uncovered after painful research.” (Korzybski, 1933, p. 506)

Edward T. Hall, in his book, "The Silent Language", discusses many such "hidden assumptions" as patterns of behavior dependent upon how different cultural regions handle both space and time. Extensional examples are included in the discussions. He also wrote, among others, two sequels, "The Hidden Dimension" and "Beyond Culture".

Untenable: We humans have reasons to believe that ‘maps’ that include that assumption among their premises DO NOT satisfy the criteria as similar in structuring to any ‘territory’ whatsoever.

You did not previously describe any particular, hidden or otherwise, assumption for "that assumption" to refer back to. Please describe the assumption that you refer to.

Discursive: Tongues spoken-and-listened-to, written-and-read, (signed-and-‘read’), etc. -- e.g., Dutch, English, French, …, Sanskrit …, etc.; American Sign Language, etc.
Notational: E.g., symbolic logic, set theory, analysis, topology, …, etc.
         To state this assumption so that it might make sense to someone previously unacquainted with it would take at least several pages of text.

Try to provide a limited abstraction anyway - be extensional.

For my purposes here, it suffices to say that those who (knowingly or otherwise) subscribe to this previously hidden, still untenable assumption find themselves tempted to pretend that they have god-like powers: “absolute certainty”, or “omniscience-and omnipotence”, etc.

Extensional evidence, to wit, all the self-help groups and counseling to help people get over their "low self-esteem" problems seems to go against your claim here.

         To date, I have not succeeded in imagining a more serious, more counter-survival mistake.

You, they, we, seem to be still surviving to the tune of 6.4 billion current world population, increasing (exponentially) at 1.14% per year. That's a lot of extensional evidence against a hidden ubiquitous "counter-survival mistake".

         Since the “disciplines” of the WIE tradition -- the Western logics, mathematics, sciences, philosophies, jurisprudences, politics/statesmanships, religions, etc. -- uniformly appear structured as ‘specializations’ of the generalized WIE grammar, that means that each of these “disciplines” includes that hidden, untenable assumption in its premises.
         In other words, this untenable assumption forms an intrinsic part of the Western system of rationalizations. Each of the Western disciplines contains its own version of the seeds of species-suicide. Whoever accepts that untenable assumption and ACTS on it cannot avoid enacting survival-errors.

Notwithstanding 1.4 billion pieces of evidence to the contrary.... :-)

         I found ways to reject that assumption and to replace it with my chosen premises -- the non-aristotelian premises set forth by Korzybski in 1941. In our hands, these premises have grown, shifted, changed, deepened.

5. In the last four years, I have recognized that I have spent my lifespan to date framing, asking and answering two related questions:

a. What do we, as members of the currently dominant world culture, assume that has us courting species-suicide and extinction, and perhaps, seeking to annihilate the entire biosphere?  and
b. What alternative assumptions might we adopt, that appear able to support us to generate viable, sustainable, life-affirming ways for humans to live?

This boils down to:
What self-destructive assumptions do we make?
What else could we assume instead?

         As I have implied, my collaborators and I now have robust, testable answers to such questions.


The kind of help I need:
         One key question remains unanswered: Now that my job exceeds my grasp and my reach, what can/must I do now? I need to enroll a group of humans to (further) revise their own premises, replacing those which don’t work with these which, to date, do appear to work -- the ones which my long-term research project assumes-and-implies. What must I say-and-do to get living, breathing humans to take up these new premises, try them out, and see whether or not they work? In action, do these premises empower those who use them, as I expect and claim they will? Do those humans who assimilate them thereby enable themselves to see, and undertake, the next steps required to avert our survival-crisis?

         I invite each of you to consider accepting this challenge: Work with me, undertake to make this altered theoretical system your own. And then talk with me concerning what comes next.

         This email should have a “signature” which gives most of the ways to reach me. Just in case it doesn’t, I’ll repeat my email address:
         I request that you answer me in a two-valued way -- Yes or No.
         But I do promise to do my best to figure out any alternative replies I receive, and to handle them in what I regard as constructive ways.

                                                                                         Warmly yours,
                                                                                         Andy Hilgartner

C. A. Hilgartner                   Phone:    660-627-2519
2413 North East Street             FAX:      660-627-2930 (voice contact first, please)       
Kirksville  MO  63501              Website:

This includes the presumption that if we are able to change our assumptions, then our behavior would automatically change.

For years the General Semantics Bulletins" supported a diagram illustrating the principle that one cannot get changed conclusions without first changing assumptions. This is a sound principle of logic, but "conclusions" are not "behavior", and the principle does not generalize from logic to behavior. That claim is yet to be argued, let alone shown, and it may be just another instance of the "naturalistic fallacy".

I agree that we need to change our behavior, especially if we are to encourage the development of a cultural system that rewards peaceful and cooperative behavior among various belief systems. I cannot agree that a ubiquitous "hidden" assumption somehow built into the structure of SAE languages is the primary and major cause of our problems.

Korzybski characterized mankind as a time-binding class of life because, he claimed, "knowledge" increased as an exponential rate though the use of language passing messages from generation to generation.

Korzybski was flat wrong on this point. It is not "knowledge" that is passed from generation to generation but "information". "Knowledge" is the ability to use information, and that must be learned anew by each generation.

"Information", however, does not differentiate between "good" and "bad", between "correct" and "wrong", between "true" and "false". In the context of time-binding and exponential growth, "information" includes "misinformation", false theories, speculations, fiction, and anything that can be expressed in symbols. The exponential growth includes all the trash, wrong information, and everything else that has been expressed. Since it's possible to see individuals holding and using theories that have been disconfirmed, but continue to be passed from generation to generation, Andy's claim above may have an understandable basis, and in the case of religions, especially those that conflict with each other, his view appears to be completely justified. But as somewhat of a "technocrat" I would certainly not suggest that this is the predominate case for technical information.

I can continue to provide my analytical commentary as my time continues to be bound.


Ralph E. Kenyon, Jr.

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