Thursday 3 July 2014

Eating your words

It's Alfred Korzybski's birthday (135!) today.  He forced us to acknowledge that we, almost all of us, think in the most unfocused and imprecise way that is (barely) compatible with survival in a hostile world.  This fuzzy thinking usually works just fine but can, when it really matters, lay our communications open to confusion because our language is not always sufficiently precise to articulate what we know. He is famous for the aphorism "The Map is not the Territory" or "The word is not the thing" which means I think (this is difficult for me to understand and articulate, must get a youtube education), that our minds have to process incoming information to such an extent that the image projected on our minds - our certainty - is at best a distortion of the true state of matter out there. All of his ideas were generated decades before the now emergent field of experimental psychology and NMR scans of the brain in real time. By focussing on the mistakes we make over optical illusions, partial data and in wholly artificial laboratory set-ups we are now beginning to understand how we understand.

What does this mean for the rest of us?  It means that when you are presented with new information, you shoe-horn it into what you already know in order to make sense of it. According to the great early psychologist William James "The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion . . .".  Thank god we can't remember what it was like; so that it didn't wreck our heads (and our entrails!) at the time we started by parsing out some elements from the sensory maelstrom to make sense of the world.  That was amazing, wonderful and empowering but as we grow up we get set in our ways and unable to accept new material - "Duh, my grasp of X seems just dandy to me". Korzybski advised us to to take new things on board with the attitude of "I don't know, let's see" what we really know or what science can tell us about it.  To help us achieve this better understanding he advocated adopting an inward and outward quiet or "silence on the objective levels". Cripes, sounds like mindfulness - this chap should be on the telly today he'd have a ready and fully-primed audience.

Korzybski stars in the following anecdote:
"Korzybski was one day teaching a group of students when he interrupted himself to pull a cookie out of a package wrapped in white paper.  He offered some to the students in the first row. Several students took one and Korzybski asked one if she found it tasty. When she confirmed this, he showed the original packaging, which was read "dog biscuits". The students were shocked and two spat out their mouthful. Korzybski turned to the class and said, "I have thus shown that what we taste is determined not only by direct experience in the mouth, not only but also by our version of reality."" (Source: R. Diekstra, Haarlemmer Dagblad, 1993).  At the very least this informs the Judgement of Paris.

Don't worry me none - I'm eating a little sheep mix [Barley flakes (steam cooked); Soyabean hulls; Cane molasses; Wheatfeed; Distillers dried grains (barley); Rapeseed meal; Maize gluten feed; Soyabean meal; Maize flakes (steam cooked); Small beet pulp nut 6mm; Soya Flakes (steam cooked); Citrus pulp; CaCO3 (limestone flour); NaCl] almost every day now: it's 17% protein and only 25c/kg: a damned good deal in these recessionary times: molasses and citrus and a dash of salt - mmmmm good.

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