How can we integrate, construct, and articulate a deliberate, informed world view that’s predicated on this fundamental premise of differences? What basic understandings can we use as a foundation for learning and teaching the skills necessary to critically differentiate and discern in a world of differences?
A culture cannot be discriminatingly accepted, much less be modified, except by persons who have seen through it — by persons who have cut holes in the confining stockade of verbalized symbols and so are able to look at the world and, by reflection, at themselves, in a new and relatively unprejudiced way. Such persons are not merely born; they must also be made. But how?
In the field of formal education, what the would-be hole cutter needs is knowledge; knowledge of the past and present history of cultures in all their fantastic variety, and knowledge about the nature and limitations, the uses and abuses, of language.
A man who knows that there have been many cultures, and that each culture claims to be the best and truest of all, will find it hard to take too seriously the boastings and dogmatizings of his own tradition. Similarly, a man who knows how symbols are related to experience, and who practices the kind of linguistic self-control taught by the exponents of General Semantics, is unlikely to take too seriously the absurd or dangerous nonsense that, within every culture, passes for philosophy, practical wisdom and political argument.” — Aldous Huxley, 1963
Apply a Scientific Approach
- The application of a scientific approach or method has proven to be the most effective problem-solving process yet created by humans.
- Therefore it makes sense to apply a scientific approach in our evaluations and judgments about ourselves and our experiences.
- This means that we should continually test our assumptions and beliefs; continually gather new facts, data, and observations; revise our beliefs and assumptions as appropriate; and then hold our conclusions and judgments tentatively, in accordance with our own experiences, pending the possibility that new data, new experiences, might necessitate new theories or new assumptions to be tested.
- Unstated or hidden assumptions of which we are unaware can often drive our behaviors and attitudes. We need to make a special effort to recognize and become more aware of such assumptions or beliefs.
Differentiate the World ‘Out There’ from the World ‘In Here’
- “Is this world real? This is a venerable philosophical issue and I do not wish to be embroiled in the finely honed squabbles to which it has led. I merely state my own working hypothesis: that there is indeed an outside world, and that it is largely independent of our observing it. We can never fully know this outside world, but we can obtain approximate information about some aspects of its properties by using our senses and the operations of our brain. Nor, as we shall see, are we aware of everything that goes on in our brains, but only of some aspects of that activity. Moreover, both these processes—our interpretations of the nature of the outside world and of our own introspections—are open to error.” —Nobel Laureate Francis Crick
- Our awareness of ‘what goes on’ outside of our skin is not the same as ‘what goes on.’
- Our ability to experience the world is relative, unique to our own individual sensing capabilities (or sensory acuities), past experiences, and expectations.
- Our environment, the world around us (including ourselves), is ever-changing. We never experience the ‘same’ person, event, situation, or thing more than once.
- We have limits (due to evolution, genes, physics, etc.) as to what we can experience.
- We can never experience all of what’s to experience. We abstract only a portion of what we can sense. We experience incompletely on all levels (macroscopic, microscopic, sub-microscopic, cosmologic, etc.).
- We sense and experience on silent, non-verbal levels, from which we speak, think, infer, etc.
- What Happens ? What I Experience ? What I Report ? What I Infer, Believe, ‘Meaning’
- “You don’t get meaning. You respond with meaning.” —Charles Sanders Peirce
Apply Knowledge to Language Habits
- Humans can build on the knowledge of prior generations. Alfred Korzybski referred to this capability as time-binding.
- Language serves as the primary tool that facilitates time-binding.
- Language also serves as a determining factor in shaping our world view and influences our experiences.
- “The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group … We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” — Edward Sapir (1929)
- “Our brains are inextricably bound to the cultural milieu they are immersed in …” — Dr. V.S. Ramachandran (2004)
- We can apply the map-territory analogy to our understanding of language: just as a map represents an actual territory, so our language represents our experiences. To the degree that the map accurately portrays the structural relationships of the territory, it serves a valuable purpose. If the map exaggerates a certain aspect of the territory, or inaccurately depicts a relationship, it can cause trouble. Our verbal ‘maps’ ought to be congruent and consistent with the realities of our non-verbal ‘territories’.
Given what leading neuroscientists and neurobiologists unequivocally state:
- Christof Koch: … what I see in my head is actually constructed by my head, by my neurons …
- Jeff Hawkins: Your perception of the world is really a fabrication of your model of the world. You don’t really see light or sound. You perceive it because your model says this is how the world is, and those patterns invoke the model.
- V.S. Ramachandran: Our brains are essentially modelmaking machines.
- Francis Crick: What you see is not what is really there; it is what your brain believes is there… Seeing is an active, constructive process.
We ought to easily recognize that ancient notions such as “objective” or “absolute reality” do not accurately reflect the limitations of our nervous systems as they interact with the outside world. Therefore language structures, patterns, or terms that rely on this false-to-fact notion that what I experience (or say) “is” the same as what exists “out there” in the world misrepresent, mislead, and misinform.
Implications on Language Habits
No language is perfect. Every language, being man-made and not inherent or inerrant, has structural flaws and cannot properly reflect the structure of the world we uniquely sense and experience. If we accept the view that language(s) shape, influence, affect, etc., how a given culture constructs the ‘realities’ of that culture’s experiences, behavioral norms, world view, etc. (Sapir, Ramachandran, et al), then it behooves us as individuals and societies to acknowledge these flaws and revise our language(s) accordingly.
In addition to these structural flaws, individuals are prone to commit other errors that result from lack of awareness of the abstracting/evaluating process, conventional language habits and usages, or careless inattention. Some of the symptoms of language misbehaviors include:
- We uncritically accept our perceptions of the world ‘out there’ as complete, accurate, and “the way it is.”
- We confuse the word itself with what the word stands for.
- We act as if words have ‘meanings’ on their own, without respect to individuals and context.
- We mistake or confuse facts with inferences, assumptions, beliefs, etc.
- We do not account for “shades of gray,” simplistically look for black or white, right or wrong, good or bad.
- We tend to look for and recognize similarities more than differences, which results in mistaken generalizations, stereotypes, biases, etc.
- We forget or overlook the fact that every person and every thing changes over time.
- We use language to verbally ‘separate’ what cannot be separated in the real world (ex. mind from body, thoughts from feelings, style from content, form from function, etc.).
To overcome these tendencies:
- Avoid unnecessary or inappropriate to be verb forms, especially those related to the is of predication (“the movie was bad; he is good-looking; the rose is red; the food was terrific”) and the is of identity (“he’s a liberal; she’s a feminist; they are Muslims”).
- Use active, operational terms that indicate awareness of “to-me-ness” and don’t confuse judgments with descriptions.
- Avoid inappropriate absolutistic terms such as all, none, best ever, totally, absolutely, no doubt, exactly, exact same, etc.
- Recognize shades of gray, not simply black|white, good|bad, either|or.
- Look for multiple ’causes,’ not just “the” cause.
- Maintain awareness of your own sense of “to-me-ness” and recognize other’s sense of “to-them-ness”.
- Differentiate facts from inferences, beliefs, and assumptions. Apply a high standard for what you consider to be a “fact” and adjust your reactions, behaviors, or attitudes accordingly:
- Facts can only be made after an observation or event. Inferences can be made at any time and can be speculative about the future.
- Facts do not go beyond what is observed. Facts do not speculate regarding intentions, motivations, or causes.
- Facts indicate assurances as close to certainty as possible. Inferences are best expressed in terms of degrees of probability.
- Recognize that people and things change over time, often in ways that are not visibly apparent.
- Avoid the “tyranny of categories.” Recognize that all labels, categories, classifications, types, etc., are verbal (abstract) constructions based solely on similarities. Apply indices to avoid generalizations or stereotypes (Muslim1 is not Muslim2; conservative1 is not conservative2; rapper1 is not rapper2).
- Take responsibility for your own actions; don’t say “you” when you should say “I.”
- Take responsibility for your reactions; “I felt hurt,” not “she hurt my feelings.”
- Look for differences among generalities to avoid stereotypes: let’s get a woman’s perspective?
- Avoid objectifying (or reifying) processes and high-order abstractions: the weather, the economy, politics, the media, truth, technology, justice, …
- Avoid perpetuating inappropriate “word magic” or “magical thinking” behaviors such as superstitions, myths, jinxes, etc.
Consequences and Benefits
- Our language habits can affect our physiological behavior; we can allow what we see, hear, say, etc., to affect our blood pressure, pulse, rate of breathing, etc.
- As we become more aware of our verbal and non-verbal behaviors, we can practice techniques to achieve greater degrees of relaxation, less stress, greater sense of our environment, etc.
- We have the ability to respond conditionally to non-verbal and symbolic stimuli. In other words, we have some degree of control over our response to a specific stimulus.
- When we respond automatically, without exercising control over our response, we allow the stimulus to condition or determine our response. In other words, we behave more like Pavlov’s dog than an aware human being when we let someone or something “push our emotional hot buttons.”
- “After mulling over this idea all weekend, I have come to the conclusion for myself that I believe perception is not reality. While we all glimpse reality, we always view it through a lens that is tinted by our own experiences, beliefs, values, and what angle we perceive from. As we have discussed at other points in time throughout the course of this class, we can never know or see or sense everything; it’s impossible. Also, it is impossible for us to not be biased to reality and see it exactly as it is. We are only able to see one angle of reality, and even that one angle is tinted, fragmented, and shaped according to us. Therefore, what we perceive is not reality.” — Anna Ruth Overbey, Student, Spring 2008
- Our ability to achieve “maximum humanness” and evolve to our human potential is a function of how accurately our language-behaviors (what we do) reflect and are consistent with what we know.
- We ought to maintain an ongoing attitude of “to-me-ness.”
- We ought to hold our opinions, judgments, beliefs, and assumptions with a degree of tentativeness and willingness to change if new information or experiences warrant.
- We ought to live comfortably with uncertainty.
- We ought to exercise a healthy degree of skepticism and inquisitiveness.
- We ought to strive for more description and less opinion when it’s appropriate.
- We ought to strive for more unique and personal observations in our pronouncements, and fewer cliches, stock phrases, aphorisms, and conventional wisdoms.
- We ought to look for differences among similarities, as well as recognize similarities among differences. We ought to be able to see both the forest and the trees, depending on the circumstances.
- We ought to maintain a deserved sense of humility, and minimize know-it-all attitudes.
- Know what you do. Do what you know.
- “What is demanded is a change in our imaginative picture of the world — a picture which has been handed down from remote, perhaps pre-human ancestors, and has been learned by each one of us in early childhood. A change in our imagination is always difficult, especially when we are no longer young. The same sort of change was demanded by Copernicus, when he taught that the earth is not stationary and the heavens do not revolve about it once a day. To us now there is no difficulty in this idea, because we learned it before our mental habits had become fixed.” —Bertrand Russell
Putting It Together – All Videos
Applying Knowledge (2:41)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)
Scientific Attitudes, Richard Feynman (3:30)
from The Best Mind Since Einstein, Richard Feynman ()
Visual Misperception, Christof Koch (2:26)
J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture (2005)
A General Semantics Perspective (8:21)
from Lay Off My Persuade Shoes, Steve Stockdale (2009)
The Map-Territory Analogy (7:13)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)
Brains Develop over a Lifetime (2:10)
The Brain: Our Universe Within (1994)
Teaching the Implications (3:44)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)
Words are not Things – So What? (:39)
from Talking Sense, Irving J. Lee (1952)