TOWARD UNDERSTANDING 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 in his 1933 book, Science and Sanity. Korzybski pointed out the pitfalls associated with, and produced by, two usages of "to be": identity and predication. His student D. David Bourland, Jr., observed that even linguistically sensitive people do not seem able to avoid identity and predication uses of "to be" if they continue to use the verb at all.
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." Many have urged the use of E-Prime in writing scientific and technical papers. Dr. Kellogg exemplifies a prime exponent of this activity. Dr. Albert Ellis has rewritten five of his books in E-Prime, in collaboration with Dr. Robert H. Moore, to improve their clarity and to reap the epistemological benefits of this language revision. Korzybski felt that all humans should receive training in general semantics from grade school on, as "semantic hygiene" against the most prevalent forms of logical error, emotional distortion, and "demonological thinking." E-Prime provides a straightforward training technique for acquiring such semantic hygiene.
To understand E-Prime, consider the human brain as a computer. (Note that I did not say the brain "is" a computer.) As the Prime Law of Computers tells us, GARBAGE IN, GARBAGE OUT (GIGO, for short). The wrong software guarantees wrong answers. Conversely, finding the right software can "miraculously" solve problems that previously appeared intractable.
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.
- 5A. This is the knife the first man used to stab the second man.
- 5B. The first man appeared to stab the second man with what looked like a knife to me.
- 6A. The car involved in the hit-and-run accident was a blue Ford.
- 6B. In memory, I think I recall the car involved in the hit-and-run accident as a blue Ford.
- 7A. This is a fascist idea.
- 7B. This seems like a fascist idea to me.
- 8A. Beethoven is better than Mozart.
- 8B. In my present mixed state of musical education and ignorance, Beethoven seems better to me than Mozart.
- 9A. That is a sexist movie.
- 9B. That seems like a sexist movie to me.
- 10A. The fetus is a person.
- 10B. In my system of metaphysics, I classify the fetus as a person.
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.
Similarly, "The electron is a particle" contains medieval Aristotelian software, but "The electron appears as a particle when measured by instrument-2" contains modern scientific software. Once again, the software determines whether we impose a medieval or modern grid upon our reality-tunnel.
Note that "the electron is a wave" and "the electron is a particle" contradict each other and begin the insidious process by which we move gradually from paradox to nonsense to total gibberish. On the other hand, the modern scientific statements "the electron appears as a wave when measured one way" and "the electron appears as a particle measured another way" do not contradict, but rather complement each other. (Bohr's Principle of Complementarity, which explained this and revolutionized physics, would have appeared obvious to all, and not just to a person of his genius, if physicists had written in E-Prime all along. . . .)
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. (Look back if you forgot the translations.)
"The first man stabbed the second man with a knife" lacks the overt "is" of identity but contains Aristotelian software nonetheless. The E-Prime translation not only operationalizes the data, but may fit the facts better-if the incident occurred in a psychology class, which often conduct this experiment. (The first man "stabs," or makes stabbing gestures at, the second man, with a banana, but many students, conditioned by Aristotelian software, nonetheless "see" a knife. You don't need to take drugs to hallucinate; improper language can fill your world with phantoms and spooks of many kinds.)
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. (This has contributed greatly to my ever-escalating agnosticism about the political, ideological, and religious issues that still generate the most passion on this primitive planet.)
When a proposition resists all efforts to recast it in a form consistent with what we now call E-Prime, many consider it "meaningless." Korzybski, Wittgenstein, the Logical Positivists, and (in his own way) Niels Bohr promoted this view. I happen to agree with that verdict (which condemns 99 percent of theology and 99.999999 percent of metaphysics to the category of Noise rather than Meaning)–but we must save that subject for another article. For now, it suffices to note that those who fervently believe such Aristotelian propositions as "A piece of bread, blessed by a priest, is a person (who died two thousand years ago)," "The flag is a living being," or "The fetus is a human being" do not, in general, appear to make sense by normal twentieth-century scientific standards.
This text comes from:
D. David Bourland, Jr. & Paul Dennithorne Johnston, "To Be or Not: An E-Prime Anthology," International Society for General Semantics, 1991, pp. 23-26
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