General Semantics and Evolution
Jerry Bergman Ph D
General Semantics is a school of language theory which has many implications for the study of human behavior. It is of interest because several of its core concepts as we will show, are derived from or influenced by creationism (Carroll 1956). The General Semantics viewpoint specifically stresses the relationship between words and behavior. It was first popularized by Alfred Korzybski (1979~1950) a Polish engineer who lived in the United States from 1917 until his death. A wide variety of scientific fields were utilized in its development; Korzybski's Magnum Opus, Science and Sanity, touches on virtually every science field plus logic and philosophy, One school of General Semantics produces a journal called Etc and has on organization called the International Society for General Semantics. Many of its ideas have been successfully applied to many fields, and it has had an influence in most all areas of study. Several of the basic conclusions of the general semantic field, as discussed by many of its authors, also have implications for creationism. The fuzziness of language, one of its principal concerns, is now a major impediment in much of the dialogue between the creationists and evolutionists.
One scholar identified with the early movement is Benjamin Lee Whorf of whom Stewart Chase (1956, V) states:
Once in a blue moon a man comes along who grasps the relationship between events which have hitherto seemed quite separate, and gives man a new dimension of knowledge. Einstein, demonstrating the relativity of space and time, was such a man. In another field and on a less cosmic level, Benjamin Lee Whorf was one, to rank someday, perhaps with such social scientists as Franz Boaz and William James.
Whorf is most well-known for documenting the strong connection between language and behavior, and the importance of language in shaping our innermost thoughts. Crucial is his conclusion that language is not the result of evolutionary survival, nor shaped by the advantage that it gave to adding survival, but is a complex designed structure. A graduate of MIT in the area of chemical engineering, his drive to study languages was partly related to his attempt to understand the scriptures. Some of his motivations, as discussed in the introduction to an edited volume of his works (Carroll 1956, 7) were as follows:
Whorf became increasingly concerned about the supposed conflict between science and religion deeply impressed by the fundamentalist shadings of his Methodist Episcopal religious background,... he wrote a 130,000-word manuscript on the subject, described as a book of religious philosophy in the form of a novel completed in 1925, (it) was submitted to several publishers and as promptly rejected by them, ... Another, briefer manuscript prepared about this time (was) "Why I have discarded evolution, "An eminent geneticist to whom it was submitted for comment made a very courteous reply, starting with the admission that, although the manuscript at first appeared to be the work of a crank, its skill and perceptiveness soon marked it as otherwise, but continuing with a point-by-point rebuttal of Whorf's arguments ... Whorf's reading led him to believe that the key to the apparent discrepancy between the Biblical and the scientific accounts of cosmogony and evolution might lie in a penetrating linguistic exegesis of the Old Testament, For this reason, in 1924 he turned his mind to the study of Hebrew.
His knowledge of anthropology was by no means small-of his many publications, most are in the area of anthropology and languages. Unfortunately, the "why I have discarded evolution" manuscripts evidently have not survived, but many of his other manuscripts have and in these his interests are clearly revealed.
Whorf is famous for his concept that a person's thinking skills - the conceptualization of ideas and their expressions are heavily dependent upon words. Words are first required for a human to have an idea, and without a word or symbol, one cannot have the thought for which the word stands. Thinking is this heavily dependent upon words or other symbols; the deaf use hand symbols which is their language, thus their words Whorf concluded that if language is inaccurate, it is bound to affect the person's thinking and the person's mental life. Since most of our words are ancient, along with them comes the excess baggage of ancient erroneous ideas which can cause problems in the present. Whorf, Korzybski and Hayakawa all believed that part of the solution to many modern social problems lies in a revision of our linguistic sets according to the research of modern science.
Mortimer Adler, who spent most of his career at the University of Chicago, was very familiar with the work of General Semantics and the various individuals who influenced it. Gardner (1957, 135) notes that Adler, "has for some time been carrying on a one-man crusade against evolution". In What Man Has Made of Man (1937), Adler brands evolution a "popular myth", insisting that it is not an established fact "but at best a probable theory, a history for which the evidence is insufficient and conflicting. facts establish only one historical probability: that types of animals which once existed no longer exist, and that types of animals now existing at one time did not exist. They do not establish the elaborate story which is the myth of evolution. By "myth" Adler refers "to the elaborate conjectural history, which factually exceeds the scientific evidence ,., this myth is the story of evolution which is told to school children and which they can almost visualize as it were a moving picture. " Adler discusses many reasons for his concern about evolution's effects on us, some of which he discusses in his book, The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes. An idea of his which is similar to Korzybski's, is that the adjustment of humans and individuals is dependent upon recognizing the difference of humans and animals. Beliefs about our connections to animal life have a profound influence upon our relationship with our fellow humans, our happiness and adjustment, as well as our relationship with God. As Adler concludes "the origin of the human race as a whole, and the coming to be of each human individual, cannot be adequately accounted for by the operation of the purely natural causes that are operative in the biological processes of reproduction or procreation, but requires the intervention of divine cosmology" (Adler 1967,286). This belief, Adler notes, exists "in most of the Protestant sects as well as in Roman Catholicism" all of which depend upon the special creation view for their theology to make sense. His view is that, man and man alone is made in the image of God, and has this special character among all terrestrial creatures by virtue of his having a spiritual aspect, or a non material component in his nature" (Adler 1967,286). These views have "consequences for thought" and also consequences which affect human behavior and adjustment.
A leader of the General Semantics movement today is S.I. Hayakawa, the former Senator who once studied semantics under Alfred Korzybski. Hayakawa is strongly identified with conservative politics, and is the leading spokesman for the movement to make English the official United States language. Hayakawa's 1941 best seller, Language and Thought in Action, is a good popular introduction to some of Korzybski's major ideas. A theme of his works is that, "the wiser people become, whether in science, religion, politics, or art, the less dogmatic they become, Apparently, the better we know the territory of human experience, the more aware we are of the limitations of the verbal maps that we can make of it" (Hayakawa 1972, 263).Korzybski's writings do not openly champion the creation world view, nor do they discuss much theology, but his conclusions show a clear leaning toward certain basic creationism beliefs, especially the design hypothesis. An example is his conclusion that a tremendous gap exists between humans and animals, and to become well-adjusted requires moving in certain ways away from an animalistic mode toward a human level, meaning a higher, more deliberate, rational, and analytical thinking mode. General Semantics seeks to make ordinary language more mathematical in fhe sense of being more precise. They do not deny words as devices used to reflect a deep and rich spiritual reality and the communication of love, concern and compassion. Nor are they trying to bind words into precisely defined meaning straight jackets, out are attempting to improve communication and avoid conveying erroneous feelings or incorrect information.
Korzybski (1980) concludes that sharply distinguishing mankind from animals, especially in their different use of' various mechanisms such as time-binding. is necessary to understand humans. He stresses that a "sharp difference exists between the nervous reactions of animal and man (kind)," and that to their detriment nearly all of mankind copy the nervous response of animals. This copying leads to "maladjustment" in our private and public lives, and even in our modern social institutions, By understanding our physiological mechanisms, we can learn how not to copy animals. We are not animals, he stresses, but merely copy animals in our behavior. Importantly, we cannot change what we are, but we can change what we imitate, The difference is: Smith may use his nervous system as Fido, but Fido cannot use his as Smith can; with Smith, it is a matter of using one or another mode. Fido, though, physiologically possesses only one mode, thus cannot use the higher level.
Korzybski uses the analogy that, to be most useful, a map should be physically structured like the empirical world, and a theory of mental adjustment should also fit the structure of our nervous system (1933, 11). He concludes that the Aristotelian mind set does not fit structurally in our nervous system, and that only the general semantic world view is in accordance with' it. As Korzybski's stresses, "human life... involves many more factors (than animal life) and is inherently of different and more complex structure (than animal life)" (1933, 12).
A chief contribution of Korzybski is the conclusion that the contrast between animal and human thought as expressed in words, is of major importance in our shaping a view of realty and consequently, aids in our mental adjustment. Inaccurate ideas and words lead to our producing an inaccurate view of reality. If the words that we use are inaccurate,we will not have an accurate thought map to find our way through life. Our view of reality also teaches us about life and what to expect. Not only words, but also our perceptions of reality serves as our life map, and inaccurate perceptions of reality cause many of our life problems. Our perceptions of reality are in turn highly influenced by words, both nonverbal communication as well as our perpetual conclusions. One's conclusions are based on past experience, plus half remembered experiences and the assumptions that one has formulated from past learning. The proper human response is to value ideas, meaning going beyond the symbols, which is the low level "animal response.
Words themselves are important, partly because of our personifying or confusing them with what they represent: witness how most people respond when certain swear words are used in some situations. The fact that many large hotels Skip the number thirteen in numbering their floors also illustrates this. The importance of symbols to the human mind is shown by Korzybski's rose example - a person allergic to such had violent fever attacks even when paper roses were presented to him. His nervous system interpreted the stimuli as roses, and he responded as if they were, even though the chemical precursors were not present.
General Semantics also stresses the difficulty that humans have in changing their ideas and general views. Older scientists, for example, may "think" the new way but "feel" the old; they understand the new symbolisms, yet their feelings may not be affected. The transformation is not complete, producing a split in their thinking process. Since the younger generation begins with a new Stimulus Response (SR), they at least began their career with fewer such difficulties.
A concern which Korzybski focuses on is that, in spite of our technological achievements, humans have not entirely emerged from many "primitive" animal views of themselves, and this is reflected both behaviorally and semantically. An example that he uses is "the more technically developed a nation or race is, the more cruel, ruthless, predatory, and commercialized its systems tend to become" (~933, 42). People must, he stresses, overcome our animal behavior habits, and strive to develop the divine so as to create a better society. To do this, one must recognize the myth of a human animal past," and the large gap that exists between humans and animals. Nothing in their works even hint at approving unkindness or disrespect for animals, only the conclusion that much animal behavior does not work well for humans. The main thesis of General Semantics could be summarized as "happiness and adjustment depends upon our way of looking at the world, which in turn is heavily dependent upon the symbols that we use and the meaning that we give to those symbols.
Much similarity exists between Korzybski's conclusions and that of Albert Ellis and his rational emotive method of psychotherapy. Ellis stressed the importance of both irrational behavior as well as symbols and language in causing emotional problems. He concludes that the ideas in our minds about life events are influenced by the labels that we give them. The labeling process problem, such as thinking that something is "horrible" when it simply is an event, is called co~slrophizing. Failing a test is an event which one could respond to by anger or studying harder in the future, or even by changing one's school major, career goals, or whatever. If it develops into a catastrophic event in one's mind. i. e.," I just can't go on with life now that I have bombed this course" this is not due to failing, but one's "words" about it, and thus one's thoughts and feelings about the situation. One could respond to test failure as follows: "The test has been very helpful to me because I now know my weakness so that I can make progress!" Ellis covers many of Korzybski's ideas. but has far more talent for making ideas extremely clear, understandable and convincing. Yet, the message is extremely similar, especially considering the thirty-years or so apart that each author wrote and their different purposes.
As to the application of his ideas to science. Korzybski (1933) supports the trend in science toward more and more experimentation (the application of empiricism) and toward more critical verbal rigor. Everyday language is of limited use in science because it lacks the precision needed. Most words in the vernacular language have a variety of meanings, something which is anathema to a scientist. In science each word must have only one clear meaning in a given context. This problem has also been identified as a major concern in human relationship problems, especially marriage difficulties. Lack of communication usually stems not from a lack of words. but from a meaning crisis.
A concern of the field which Whorf first stressed is that we all too often confuse symbols with the realities for which they stand. The American flag is not America, but in the minds of many it stands for a system of government and a philosophy which stresses freedom, equal rights and justice for all. The flag is not these things, but means them to many people, and thus burning the flag does not destroy or even affect these concepts. A major problem with all symbols is that they mean different things to different people. To persons who burn the flag, this act likely means something entirely different then to someone who objects vehemently to such behavior. Many problems result from a symbol meaning one thing to me, and something else to you. The impreciseness problem even enters in when one symbol means close to the same thing to two people. The General Semantics field has suggested various ways to make language more specific. Whorf's original concern in this area was related to the problem of Biblical interpretation.
General Semantics stresses that imprecise communication is at the core of many human difficulties It is either at the root or a major component in marriage, job and even mental problems. One reason our language is not clear is caused by our tendency to imitate animals in our emotional process. Thus, logic arrived at by training is extremely important so as to both think and communicate effectively, and also to deal with problems logically. A symbol is a sign which stands for something else and precision requires it to stand for one Thing. It unfortunately often doesn't, and therein lies the problem. Korzybski (1933,82) makes a distinction between arguments that can be easily settled (if it will rain today is determined simply by waiting). and arguments that cannot be settled so simply, such as "did the Roman government officials believe Jesus was guilty of sedition." unfortunately, in many cases arguments are such that they cannot be translated into the present reality framework so that they can be tested, and thus the statement cannot be proved or disproved.
If a statement is cast into precise form, it can be manipulated in accordance with abstract rules (which is evidently how the human brain processes work, but not the animal). The most precise language. mathematics, consists of both symbols and propositions, All languages consist of 1) labels for things (both physical things and feelings) and 2) relational terms which express relations between the labeling terms. The method and structures that mathematics uses has produced results of enormous importance. If such precision could be achieved with words, improvements in interpersonal relations and better adjustment would follow. As precise manipulation of data produces precise results, precise manipulation of ideas also produces precise conclusions. Problems in a marriage, a business, and school often boil down to communication problems which would not exist if our language was more precise. If a mathematics problem is done correctly, the correct answer will always result. This is also true of interpersonal communications: if an "idea problem" is done correctly, the correct answer will always ensue, meaning the problem will always be resolved (at least on paper). The major steps necessary to facilitate language precision (and thus mathematical accuracy of the results) are: one basic meaning for each word, a set of rules which clearly define the relations between things and concepts, and clearly specifies delimiters.
An illustration of the need for definite single meanings for all words is that they can be twisted by evil people to the harm of society. As Korrybski concludes, some "quite influential philosophers were mentally ill" and "some mentally ill persons are tremendously clever in the manipulation of words and can sometimes deceive even trained specialists." Governments are especially adept at manipulating symbols to their own benefit. The lack of communication between rulers and the people produce a situation which, Korzybski concludes, results in governments being "pathological in their reactions" (1933, 78).
General Semantics concludes that the ideas of Aristotle have had an "unprecedented influence" on the development of our civilization. Consequently, a study of Aristotelian thought can help us to understand specifically how our faults must be dealt with and ideally overcome. Aristotle attempted to build a system of thought which did not have a logical, but a biological basis, He was the classical extrovert who focused on animal senses to the detriment ot thought (Korzybski 1933,88). Aristotle's worldview and language is oriented to animal habits and feelings, and minimally on empiricism and logic. We inherit our somatic forms, and that which they carry in terms of habits, customs, prejudices, biases, etc.. from our parents. The basis of a language is a metaphysics which ascribes some sort of structure to the world that we live in. The philosophers of old ascribed animal trails to humans (as illustrated in expressions such as sly as a fox, wise as an owl, fast as an eagle and strong Os an ox) and this has influenced our view of how humans behave. This delusion which our ancestors used to build a language picture of their world and give it form is still very much with us. Thus, along with our language, we have inherited many false conceptions, misbeliefs, and erroneous ideas which still influence our behavior, and this is part of the problem of our unhappiness. Re-orienting our view of reality, and consequently, our language. is thus part of the solution. We must understand ourselves as having human minds, not animal brains, and develop self-images that slough off all assumptions that we are controlled by animal behavioral instincts and attitudes. General Semanticists continually refer to the difficulty in breaking the use of old terms and adopting new ones, by which they mean the difficulty in breaking old behavioral habits and replacing them with new thought habits. It is not just the problematic terms that must be dropped. but the corresponding animal mental process habit and behavior (for example, see Korzybski 1933,108).
An advantage of humans over animals is our ability to do "word experimentation." Determining by physical trial and error if something works is often very time-consuming. Humans can do experiments in their minds with words or mental pictures, and thereby determine if an idea will or will not work, saving much time and energy. If an idea does not work, this enables one to immediately mentally go on to other possible solutions. The "thought experiment" gives humans a clear advantage over animals who must rely on either simple stimulus response learning. or instinct, and are only slowly reconditioned to new ways
The connection that exists between ideas and realities includes the relations of space to time, of symmetrical to asymmetrical, of multidimensional to one-dimensional and related. Concepts such as Infinity illustrate this: it is impossible for animals, and even difficult for us, to reason about such things, yet intriguing for us to try to do so. How can time go on forever into the past and forever into the future? It is also difficult for us to conceive that this description of time is not reality. The inference is that, given enough time, anything becomes possible leads to the conclusion that an extremely rare incident which has a likelihood of occurring one out of a million times, given an infinite number of years, would happen an infinite number of times. This presupposes an infinite number of years, given the proper set of conditions but if one or two conditions are finite, the whole analogy breaks down. As a very finite number of years is all we know exists for our material world, we thus must determine the probability of something happening within that very limited time period. When the limits of the universe are reached, what lies beyond them? There must be something beyond them, if only nothing but space, and this is also part of the universe, Thus it must be infinite. Such mental exercises help us to develop our mind and is also how we become human.
General Semantics stresses that the mind's health affects the body. me "holistic" method, the term used today, is extremely important in healing. The work of Norman Cousins (1983) and others has helped this approach to become main line science, and even the orthodox medical professions now recognize the importance of the mind in The healing process. Reports come out weekly relative to the important influence of the mind on the body in areas such as cancer and heart disease. Korzybski emphasizes not just the influence of the mind on the body, but the fact that the body functions only as a whole.
The philosophy of General Semantics stresses that the key to both mental and physical adjustment is understanding the contrast between the mine of mankind, and the brain of animals (Chisholm 945). Instead of imitating an old behavior, often inadvertently and largely because this behavior is part of our cultural tradition, we must deliberately contrast humans with animals one develop our differences. Those humans who achieve a high moral order and become exemplary in their behavior and habits show that such achievement is at least possible for all humans. For this reason, society must help all of us to develop these skills. The trend of evolution is the opposite. By teaching that we have animal origins and our behavior is based on our animal origins. it either cannot be improved, or we must strive by evolutionary means to improve it. Stressing that our origins are not animal, and that only mankind has a mind (all animals have at best a brain, many have merely nerve conglomerates) puts us on a different plane than animals. Although many people in Western society accept at various levels the creationist interpretation, the view of animal ancestry and the similarity between man and animal has been a major part of our folklore since earliest history. The writings of Aristotle and others clearly stress a blood relationship and sometimes even a direct kinship between humans and animals. Although many evolutionists try to harmonize the two, this harmonization breaks down under scrutiny.
The most controversial person in the General Semantics movement was Korzybski himself. Gardner, in a critical review of General Semantics stated, "he enjoyed immensely his role of orator and cult leader and so likewise did his students." Gardner even concluded that Korzybski put his followers under a "spell of a dynamic leader" adding that "Korzybski's strong ego drives were obvious to anyone who knew him or read his works carefully. He believed himself one of the world's greatest living thinkers and regarded Science and Sanity as the third book of an immortal trilogy. The first two were Aristotle's Organon and Bacon's Novum Organum" (Gardner 1957, 283-284). The movement's ideas have had enormous influence in American society, primarily through the works of Albert Ellis and its current leader, Hayakawa. Also, contrary to Korzybski's follower's claims that his work is "the first great synthesis of modern scientific philosophy and psychiatry," many of his ideas were a collection of nations drawn from a variety of sources. Many of his ideas also "give a false illusion of freshness merely because he invented new terms for them" (Gardner, 286).
The implications for the worldview that General Semantics condemns are vividly articulated by George Roche, the president of Hillsdale College. Roche concludes that evolution has replaced religion, and now that evolutionists insist that it is a fact, scientists are forced to conform the other sciences, including psychology, to this "fact. " He adds that "more than a century of searching has at best barely improved the hard evidence. The case for evolution remains deductive, not factual. There is no 'fact' of evolution. Insisting on the 'fact' is simply the anti-heroes way of saying that he believes in evolution, regardless of the evidence... Natural selection, so goes the myth, molded us from the dust, raised us to the highest form of life, and promises our future salvation" (Roche 1987, 253-254). The effect of this belief is to "push God off his throne and make man the new ruler of the universe." The implications of this is the purpose of Roche's book, A World Without Heroes.
Many of General Semantics concepts appear to have been drawn from or influenced by Scripture, Paul and other writers stress that we need to rise above the child and when we become a man, we should learn to think like an adult, and not a child (1Cor. 3:11). The tendency exists, Korzybski stresses, to imitate animalistic behavior, which we must literally fight against so as to rise above the child Paul stresses that this fight is not easy, and only If we strive to imitate the divine can we do so. We must strive to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), This goal is facilitated by realizing that we are not animals and can strive to reach, and be much like, the divine. The divine is our role model which we must strive to approach parity with. The belief in an evolutionary heritage both works against this striving, and is also often used to rationalize much non-functional behavior (Roche 1987), Believing that we are animals, we tend to behave like such, or at least use this to excuse much of our unacceptable behavior, Believing that we con imitate the divine, and that animalistic tendencies need to be and can be overcome, facilitates our rising above this level.
Mortimer J. Adler. The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.
John B. Carroll, Language, Thought, and Reality': Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf Published jointly by Technology Press at MIT, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. ,Chapman and Hall, Ltd., London, 1956.
Stuart Chase, "Foreword" in Language, Thought, and Reality': Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf
Published jointly by Technology Press of MIT, John Wiley and Sons. Inc., Chapman and Hail. Ltd., London, 1956.
Francis Chisholm. Introductory Lectures on General Semantics, Lakeville, CT: institute of General Semantics, 1945.
Norman Cousins, The Healing Heart. New York, NY, W.W. Norton Company, 1983.
Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name at Science. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc,. 1957.
S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action: Third Edition. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, Inc., 1972.
Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics: 4th edition with preface by Russell Myers, M.D. Lakeville. CT: The Institute of General Semantics, 1980
George Roche. A World Without Heroes: The Modern Tragedy Hillsdale, MI: George Roche and the Hillsdale College Press, 1987