Introduction to general semantics, science and religion
Both observation from daily life and psychological research indicate that people feel the need for stability in their lives. Some try to find this stability in authority. When confronted with multiple options they make their choice dependant upon other people. Often, however, the options are of such a nature that human authority does not seem to be adequate. Tomorrow’s weather, next year’s harvest, only a few will presume that a fellow villager is able to influence these factors. Already in ancient times people created gods for these matters. Later, more consistent minds turned this into a religion with one God.
Both deities and God have wielded power over humanity for a long time, although there have always been a substantial amount of people that were to a more or lesser degree convinced that the only thing that they could really depend upon was the physical reality. This is more commonly expressed in the saying ‘And the farmer, he ploughed on’.
In the days that God still provided the guiding principle for daily life, studying this God was the highest achievable and preserved only for the brightest of spirits of that era. Reality was of secondary importance as reality was subordinate to the almighty God anyway. So what was more plausible than going directly to the source?
The last real revolution in human thinking started when a number of individuals reversed this: Would it not be possible that reality provided more insight into reality than God did? A few went even one step further. Not only did they think it, they even lowered themselves to the use of self-produced tools to examine reality in order to check whether their theories were right. Experiment was the foundation of this revolution. Pure intellectual analysis about reality was useful, but Greek philosophers had already done that, often with remarkable success.
The names connected with this revolution are sufficiently well known: Copernicus, Galilee and Newton are the most notable, but there were so many others in so many countries that it is fair to presume that a general cultural turn-around laid at its foundation. The result of this turn-around is generally known as the Age of Enlightenment. This term, however, is misleading in the sense that it only covers the spiritual aspect. Characteristic and crucial for the turn-around is the material aspect. People started to validate new spiritual insights against the physical reality in material experiments.
If we had to provide a term for the cultural turn-around we could simply look at its largest added value: the emergence of science. Or, in order to avoid confusion: natural sciences.
Summarizing, we will refer to the cultural turn-around from “God is more real than reality” to “Reality is more real than God” as the scientific revolution.
The term scientific revolution is correct in the ideological sense as indicated by the definition, i.e. the reversal or revolution of God and reality. In a sociological sense, however, the term is not correct. The revolution was one that only concerned the higher circles of society, such as philosophers and clergy. It had no impact on the ordinary citizen, who remained faithful to his God. And that is also what he wanted to, because its replacement was more complicated and harder to grasp than a god and a holy book with commandments.
The centuries in between the scientific revolution and World War II were a gradual and more or less continuous development of a strengthening science, with as main results the mechanical Industrial Revolution and the subsequent electrical, second Industrial Revolution. These two revolutions caused a continuous chain of conflicts between cultures and countries, culminating into World War II.
The extend of the cruelties of World War II combined with the discovery of the atomic bomb, led to the general feeling that there was something terribly wrong in human thinking, in the sense that we apparently were capable of unleashing tremendous forces, but we were not capable of using them for the good. Nationalism and religion started to be scrutinized, the former as cause of conflicts, the latter for its failure to prevent them. In the short period of fifty years, religion lost a substantial part of its influence. This tendency was increased by a new period of strong scientific growth, resulting in the third industrial revolution, the information revolution.
The crucial result of the third industrial revolution was that the horizon of the average citizen extended from village and town to country and world. People started to realize that the scientific revolution was not a universal phenomenon, but a more local one, confined to the Western world. Other cultures had developed in completely different ways, both in terms of speed and direction. Even in our western world, clearly noticeable distinctions in the degree of penetration of the scientific revolution became apparent, with as most reliable indicator the popularity of religion.
The information revolution also meant that people in other ”remote” cultures could observe the proceedings of the Western world. The material impact was perfectly clear to them. They drew two conclusions. One was to try to participate in this scientific revolution and the other was to migrate to the West.
People from non-Western cultures who migrated to the West originated by definition from cultures that had not or to a lesser degree experienced the scientific revolution and subsequent evolution. In the West they were confronted with ideas that directly opposed their own religious notions. This yielded two direct results. These migrants felt culturally threatened. Secondly, the balance of power between science and religion in the West shifted in the direction of religion.
As a result there is a renewed world wide conflict between science and religion, and more specifically the religion that is closest to the authoritarian structure of a single God ruling over reality, the Islam. The vigor of the opposition from the Islam is at this point in time most spectacularly visible in the suicide attacks. Apparently their faith is so strong that Muslims are willing to give their own life for their world vision. This is correctly interpreted as a moral challenge to the strength of the Western, scientific point of view, since it is obvious that the Western citizen is much less prepared to bring the same sacrifice.
So, the question we are confronted with at the time of going to press, July 2005, is how to respond to this new challenge posed by religion.
Concerning the fundamental principles of the development of our society, the answer is simply and boringly that we should not do anything. If we have to learn anything at all in this respect, then certainly we do not have to learn from people who are behind us on the same trail. We can learn a lot from people on a different track, but the followers of Islam walk the same track, only miles behind. Their point of view is only more of “God rules”.
What we do have to do in response, is changing our practical actions, since reality has changed. And since this change is on the social level, we must adapt on the social level. In order to do this adequately, we must apply the scientific method. This means we must examine reality, construct theories and draw measurable conclusions from these theories and validate the conclusions in reality.
Not withstanding how obvious this may sound, this is not usually the way it is done. In the creation of theories about society, i.e. in sociology and psychology, a majority of the participants follows the opposite pattern. They have a predefined theory and then try to fit reality into it. ‘All people are equal’, ‘cultures are equal’, ‘races are equal’ are only a few of the most obvious examples. And in the application of social studies, in politics, this reversed way of thinking is almost the rule. Privatization is a good policy, hence we apply it everywhere. Non-natives are pitiful, therefore we support them in anything.
The reality is that Albert Einstein is unequal to John Doe, and Muslims migrate to Western Europe because they hope for a better life, and not the other way round, and the 100-meter sprint is dominated by Negroes.
The humanities partly suffer from the same flaw as religion. Both are based on presuppositions that may not be tested against reality. It is impossible to publish the examples provided in the previous paragraph, because they are morally unacceptable in the eyes of scholars based on various presuppositions about cultural values. What these scholars mean to say is that the words formulated in the previous paragraph have a bad influence on the behavior of people. This cannot be caused by the facts these words stand for, because everybody knows that Albert Einstein is a genius and John Doe is not; and everybody can watch the finals of the 100-meter sprint on television. So, if it is not the facts that cause the problem, then it must be the words themselves.
Hence, the humanities do have a problem with the words they use to describe reality. It is safe to presume that this applies to the remainder of society as well.
The first assignment for a scientific approach to the field of the social sciences is therefore a method of correct application of words. Regarding sociology this is very clear. The only way to reach more people than our direct neighbors is by the use of words. Something similar applies to psychology. By now it has become clear that a significant part of conscious thought is a form of talking in the head to oneself is, using language.
Therefore our aim is to find a way of correctly applying words. We will now examine words as separate objects, similar to falling bullets, and do the same Galilei did when placed for the problem that falling bullets did not behave as we expected them to. We will introduce a new method for studying words. And much like Galilei we select a method in which not our ideas, but reality, are at the centre. The person who did this systematically for the first time is Alfred Korzybski. He called his methodology General Semantics. Semantics is the theory about the meaning of words or symbols. General Semantics is simply an extension.
To summarize, the Western world distinguishes itself from other cultures by introducing and applying natural sciences. Scientific thought is a method to describe reality as a replacement for the method provided by religion. As a result of various sociological processes the world of scientific thought has in recent years entered into a closer encounter with the world of religion, resulting in a cultural and an actual fight. In order to be able to fight the cultural battle, it is necessary to attend the scientific methodology of the natural sciences and the humanities, starting with the tool of the humanities: words.
Next article in this series here .