The Fictions We Create 1: Knowledge by Definition and Conception

Herewith four articles which treat an aspect of the theme launched centuries ago when it was claimed that if we managed to somehow integrate all the knowledge about things we have collected in the past — and which we continue to collect even now — we will attain a comprehensive, synoptic view of our universe, of our world. The assumption made was that we live in a finite world so that all that could be known about this world will become known!

This is a deceptive over-assessment of what can be done with such a “collection”, assuming of course that we had it! An opposing insight is that the task of getting to know everything is not possible because such a collection includes much that is at present contradictory. Much of this materials cannot be reconciled. For example, there are likely to be theories in the collection which are plainly incorrect, which yield contradictions and therefore should be viewed as “fictions” — not as facts — and that these cannot be part of a “totality of facts”. A “totality” assumes, I believe, that was has been collected also includes incompatible items. Anything contradictory would need to be excluded.

The Fictions We Create 1: Knowledge by Definition and Conception

We have a way of stating that something is “true”, or “is the case”, by definition, by convention, which avoids the suggestion that it is empirically true. But we lack a method for indicating that something is the case by virtue of our description of it.

How does one inform another person what “the Jabberwock” refers to? No real definition of this creature appears in the poem in Alice through the Looking Glass. However, we have an image of it from an illustration in the book, that is, we have admittedly only a vague concept of it which we share with all other lovers of the Alice books and its fabulous unique menagerie of characters.

I here suggest that we adopt the convention “x=cpt” to indicate that something, x, is the case but by virtue of its conception. Conversely, we would use “x=df” to indicate that it is true by definition or convention.

To refer to someone as “Pickwickian” also illustrates this point. Mr. Pickwick is a character described in loving detail by Charles Dickens. He has since become a universal image for a certain kind of 19th century person of the English middle class. He cannot be described well or adequately by a single, or even by a small set of sentences, but in a sense he “emerges” through acquaintance with the many descriptions given of him throughout the novel bearing his name. He has become what Freudians called an “imago”, a prototype based strongly on unconscious factors.

This, then, is what is meant by having knowledge by conception, for which I have now suggested the expression, “x=cpt”.

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 5: Summary of Terms

In this article I offer four formal definitions of terms which I have suggested as useful in the analysis of language.

Host-language. The language normally used by a speaker or correspondent. For example when an English speaker borrows a term from another language, English is the host-language into which any borrowed terms will be introduced. The borrower has the privilege to assigns a specific meaning to the imported word! It represents his/her unique contribution to their home lanuage! The importer assigns which of the different meanings this term already carries in its original language and which it will carry henceforth, after it has been imported into the host-language. (No use complaining after the fact!!) It is however customary that the borrowed term is assigned only one of the meanings it formerly carried in the language from which it was borrowed! To do otherwise would make little sense, and indeed would defeat the purpose of borrowing. So the rule is that a term which is borrowed and which may actually carry multiple meanings in its original language, sheds all such meanings in the new, except for one. It therefore enters the host-language as a unique item. This single meaning is retained — but perhaps only for short period before it “re-grows”!

Donor-language. This is the language from which one has drawn a term or a phrase in order to introduce it into the host-language. Since one has officially only borrowed the term the borrower is not obliged to return it or even acknowledge that it belonged elsewhere earlier! Example: nota bene usually shortened to “N.B.” and used quite regularly in English was borrowed from Latin. It instructs the reader to pay particular attention to what has been said. It is like wagging a finger as one speaks.

For nearly a hundred years German speakers raided French to express their thoughts more elegantly, in a more refined manner than to continue using what they opine were their crude peasant terms (?) of their native tongue. At least so thought their king, Frederick II, during the 18th century when he introduced and encouraged many acts of linguistic thievery. The Anglo-Saxons did likewise after they were conquered by French-speaking Normans and Vikings (c.1066 AD).

Analogical spread. This term is new. The term *spread* as here used, often also serves as a verb, and makes the compound word into a metaphor, as in “spreading jam on a bun,” or “spreading dung on a field.” *Analogical spread*, then, refers to a process which often happens relatively soon after a new term has been imported from a donor into the host-language! At first, the meaning of the borrowed term may be deliberately restricted, as usually demanded by the borrower who usually exerts their “right” to determine what the borrowed word means in the host-language. After all, they have borrowed because — in their opinion — the host-language appeared to lack a sufficiently closely defined term for which there appeared to be a need. But in time, and with increasing use, the newly imported term most likely also accrues additional meanings! When this happens — as it it will — the new term becomes increasingly ready to act in an analogical manner! It is case of “la Ronde”.

Neolidesm refers to when an existing word in the home-language is assigned a new meaning within that host-language. So it differs from an analogical spread — which was discussed earlier — in that the new meaning now assigned to an old word has nothing directly to do with the original word. To cite an earlier example: there appears to be no connection in meaning between the term “hip” — as in “he received a replacement of his left hip” and “It is now hip to be a vegetarian or even a vegan!” The concept of neolidesm was proposed and invented by Marc Hurwitz. I thank him for his poetic efforts!

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 4: Neolidesm

In an earlier blog I suggested that when a word from an established language — called the donor-language — is transferred — to a host-language, e.g., from French to English, the transfer ensures that the host-language acquires a new and unique word. It may give us two or more words whose reference overlaps as illustrated by referring to a “marathon” and “a long-distance run”. The two terms overlap in meaning and occasionally can be substituted for each other. In its new location such imported words lack ambiguity, a positive and desirable attribute. Ambiguity, as the reader will know, is often seen as an enemy of effective communication.

Several methods have already been tried to reduce ambiguity in daily speech, including borrowing a particular word from another (foreign) language, the so-called donor-language. When a transfer is made from the donor to the host language the (pilfered?) word is usually assigned a restricted meaning which — in a sense — tethers it. One cannot guarantee for how long this “remedy” will work and thereby stave of problems arising from ambiguity! We should keep in mind too that many language lovers (hobbyists?) like to “extend” the meaning of words, and actively look for new uses for these. The cure for confusion described here is known to work at least for a limited time.

But it has also become quite common to adapt an existing word drawn from a home (host) language and to assign it a new meaning which may — in the minds of most users — be unrelated to its earlier meaning. An example is the common verb *hit*, as in “I was hit by a flying saucer whilst walking down Mulberry Street” compared to “Miss Mabel was a hit at the fashion-show in her new bikini swim-suit”. The use of hit here is significantly different from, for example, “Mabel was hit at the fashion show by an unruly, over-enthusiastic member of the 21st Century Prude League”!

We propose to call all newly defined words in a language as cases of *neolidesm*, a word constructed from neo (new) and idein, whose root according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the Greek ἰδέα, or ἰδεῖν or idein, translated as “to see”. The etymology of the new word is not important in itself: it could be borrowed from another language or created from bits and pieces of the home-language too. However, the new word stands in contrast to a *neologism*, a word which refers to the special case where the word’s origin is independent of its newness as an idea, but where its novelty as a word is of interest to us That is, the word is unquestionably new in the language, but not necessarily the idea to which the word is said to refer. It also could be purely manufactured as is Mary Poppin’s almost unpronounceable creation *supercalifragilisticexpialidocious*. To the best of my knowledge this word has no meaning yet! The term *Jabberwocky*, however, is another matter. We are told that it is the name of a creature which is vaguely described, but not defined by Lewis Carroll in “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There”, (1872) in the following lines:
`
Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
the frumious Bandersnatch!

It could be argued that without an assigned meaning and/or without a reasonably full description of the object designated by a sounded word, sounds made or uttered during a spoken language — like “ah” or “mm” — are not components of the language either. I have seen many Jabberwockies in my life, but could not describe the creature! Could you?

Reprise: new words are continously being introduced into most modern languages, but their meaning may derive from several practises, including the practise of utterning a sound and concurrently pointing to some object or to some ongoing event, like a game of football or a cow chewing its cud, which the on-line Merriman Dictionary states is “the food that an animal (such as a cow) brings back up from its stomach into its mouth to be chewed again”!

Now If the emphasis is on the meaning of a word for a group of speakers, this should be classified as a case of neolidesm whereas if the word is just new, regardless of its origin or meaning, it is a case of being a neologism. The clarification given in Wikipedia can hardly be improved:

A neologism (/niːˈɒlədʒɪzəm/; from Greek νέο- néo-, “new” and λόγος lógos, “speech, utterance”) is the name for a relatively recent or isolated term, word, or phrase that may be in the process of entering common use, but which has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language.

So it is its relative newness that counts!

Here, however, follows the case of a new word which is not borrowed from another language but which was deliberately designed and introduced into everyday English — and probably is now also part of many other languages: pasteurized. If asked what does this word mean — no matter how pronounced in any language — the answer is simple because it is a “designer-term”, therefore akin to being “proprietary”! More recently another strategy for introducing new terms surfaced and is now increasingly used in some sciences. It too was designed to defeat ambiguity and to restrict what elsewhere I have called an “analogical spread” in the meaning of a word. The new strategy consists in adding and assigning a number to a word whose meaning is already fairly well understood, and which therefore could not develop multiple meanings. The example cited was Carbon-14. This term (word) is used in some areas of chemistry but not (yet — ever?) for naming, since in human societies naming has become a sacred act! Note, however, we also carry our social security numbers as an ID (footnote: For more on numbering as a method of identification see my earlier blog). In the nature of the case the combination of a name and a number is most unlikely to “spread” its meaning, but is more likely to be replaced (or renumbered?) should it no longer serve its earlier defined mission. This happens frequently in science.

So I think we have recently made several advances to our former socially driven habit of borrowing words excessively from “foreign” sources, including from (high prestige?) languages which are no longer in wide use, like Greek or Latin, but which will meet both our social and our epistemic demands for terms by which we can identify facets of our “universe”. New words are a “dime a dozen” — and seem to appear from everywhere to suit different social occasions and but also the demands of our knowledge (epistemic) needs. But what occasionally disturbed our slumber was the discovery that words may be around which can be sufficiently modified in use and meaning by relying primarily on our irrepressible propensity to distinguish matters effectively on the basis — but not only — of their contexts. It is — to give an analogy — as if humans have a refined ability to add or to subtract from a given context by selecting from it elements and thereby — inadvertently — creating singular items from something with has many meanings. It helps to enlarge the number of discriminable events that make up our world. Furthermore when we do so, we enrich our world — and then call it a form of creativity.

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 3: When Meanings Wander

Meanings wander? Does this mean that one cannot permanently bind a meaning to a word or to an expression? If the answer is that meanings do indeed wander, although one would need to state under what conditions this happens. It does not appear to be a universal rule. On the contrary, languages appear to grow, a euphemism which suggests that changes in a language will be largely unpredictable! It is a most common but also troublesome phenomenon to which I have given a distinctive name: *analogical spread*.

This name covers the idea that many words which are currently uniquely distinctive and therefore necessarily have a limited meaning, will nevertheless change over time. Indeed such words often exceed their original limits extensively. The original term then comes to encompass additional points of reference — a process which also increases their ambiguity, something which is often dreaded by others, except by poets and politicians. The term then assumes an analogical flavour: it now says much more than was originally (earlier) intended. It also means that many important terms can no longer be carefully, or uniquely defined. The term now is a suitable candidate for a Thesaurus, where each meaning overtly depends on the context in which it is used. It is a case of what may be good for poetry may be bad for scientific or for hyper-accurate communication!

One historical example to show how an analogical-spread can be aborted. It is a case where the need was to terminate, or even curtail, an existing spread and to replace it with a new method of designating objects. In short, 20th century scientists discovered that they can overcome the problems of “spread” by adding numbers to existing names, as is shown in the following example:

Carbon-14, 14C, or radiocarbon, is a radioactive isotope of carbon with an atomic nucleus containing 6 protons and 8 neutrons. Its presence in organic materials is the basis of the radiocarbon dating method pioneered by Willard Libby and colleagues (1949) to date archaeological, geological and hydrogeological samples. — from Wikipedia, March 2017

Not a whiff of an analogue here!

In other cases, whenever words and phrases lose their much appreciated and treasured specificity — and before these start to meander about — we may accept this state of affairs, yet do so for only a short period before taking drastic measures to curtail such spread. We say that language grows but it grows not only by accretions but also by adding more borrowed terms, and by expanding what existing and available may refers to. Most language users learn how to deal with this and many tolerate analogical spreads. But we also teach others that this skill needs to be acquired and mastered by each of us. We already and routinely have classes in our schools at all levels on literature and poetry where some of this this is taught, but there is room for considerably more!

Although the borrower of a word from a foreign language may have had noble aims, perhaps of eliminating or reducing confusion, he/she may not succeed in cleansing an existing language of its many ambiguities. Such an act of “cleansing” can however be encouraged by inventing new words (neologisms). Such new words may be constructed in a variety of ways, the most common method being to use a person’s name as a label for a new object, product, e.g., pasteurization, or for an idea, e.g., Freudian wish.

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 2: The Process of Borrowing Words

Let us call the language from which a word or a phrase was taken and borrowed the DONOR-language — say, French — and the language into which the word from another language is introduced the HOST-language, say, English. Clearly whenever a language imports words and phrases — become a host — that language also grows, regardless of whether its new terms are derived from a foreign source or are “home constructed” and therefore were invented by its current speakers!

Modern American English is full of such “home grown” words and phrases. The word *rap* for example has several meanings including the act of talking or discussing, freely, openly, or volubly (as suggested in Wikipedia). The word is also articulated in the same manner as the one spelled *wrap*, which means “to bundle up”. It is also related to the idea of establishing rapport, that is, refers to developing a sense of fellowship among speakers and members of a group. These group members will then determine which of several meanings also apply! It is a case where the meaning of a term will be strongly influenced by its context, not only by its dictionary definition(s). In short, the meaning of a word is usually — perhaps, most often — multi-determined. Conclusion: to search for a unique meaning of a word is, generally speaking, foolhardy.

But there are exceptions to this rule. The major exception relates to whenever a word has been deliberately imported from a Donor to a Host language. The import is commonly done by an individual, an anonymous agent who may believe that the home-language is currently somewhat short of a single word with which to expresses a unique and important idea. In this sense it is deficient, or his/her home-language may already be so muddled that a single, newly forged word may just cure it of confusion, indeed may “cleanse” it. The importation of a word which is borrowed from elsewhere may therefore — it is thought — have a therapeutic, a curative effect!

Jeff’s comments also forced me to re-examine my previous position in several ways. Most importantly how new words enter an existing language. Are new terms just inventions — added on the spur of the moment by a rogue interloper, or do such terms enter a language in more thoughtful ways? What actually happens? To answer this question would require much empirical research — and therefore lies beyond the mission of this blog. A process seems involved which has been largely overlooked not only by philosophers, but also by others who are interested in the growth and modification of language, our principal — but not only — method of communicating with others. Let me clarify this a little.

When we run short of words and expressions in our HOME-language several options are open to rectify this deficiency including that we draw from the vocabulary of other languages for help. In short, we can make up a perceived deficiency in our own language by unashamedly borrowing from another. Our own language then acts as “host” to foreign entries. What is transferred are not only the sounds typical of another language (which can be fun — try Xhosa!) but a very particular meaning that the borrowed word already possesses in its original language. However the broader meaning of the borrowed term may get damaged or lost in transfer from donor to home-language, although this need not matter too much. Who cares? Whoever has borrowed would not necessarily know about such damage or of the loss of meaning which resulted from the transfer from a donor to a host-language. Jeff, for example cites the fact that the French meuble (furniture) also implies mobility, whereas the opposite is true for the English term, but in Italian mobili refers to furnishings and immobili refers to real estate! — a direct reference to its non-movement!

Let me summarize: A borrowed word from a donor-language enters a host-language but it routinely carries only one of its meanings. It therefore enters the host-language without ambiguity! Its meaning in the host-language is pristine, unambiguous. It only carries the meaning assigned to it at the time it was imported by whoever borrowed the term! The borrower called the shots although he/she cannot control its future uses. The word has become public property in the host-language. It may even “wander off” and acquire other additional meanings than those intended by the original borrower. Since words are social objects and therefore are subject to the vagaries of such objects, this would be expected! The borrower may have borrowed with good intent, including a wish to combat existing multiple meanings in the host language, but the truth is that he/she has no further control over the situation. A meaning may wander off!

Thoughts on the Growth of Language 1: Meaning

An issue raised in an earlier blog (see reply to Jeff Berg) needs an additional comment, namely, what aspect of the meaning of a term which has been borrowed from a foreign language and was then introduced into a home-language, is actually transferred. The assumption is that the borrowed term has more than one meaning in the original language whereas only one of its meanings was transferred. Which of its several meanings was transferred?

The answer lies in discovering what the recipient of the message understood by the original. The recipient may have misunderstood the message, as when he interprets someone who says “o.k.” that the recipient also agreed with the message. This “o.k.” may only imply that the recipient had heard, but had not understood the message and therefore had not “correctly understood” what message. If this is so the recipient cannot “interpret” the message correctly, or he may doubt that what he (thought) he had heard is what was said. As a result the recipient may have understood the contrary of what was said!

Now the term *meaning* itself is not clear to me, that is, the term seems ambiguous, has more than one interpretation. One can interpret *meaning* as a way of speaking about the relation of the words used and what these refers, i.e. it is used referentially. But it can also be a way or a manner of speaking about intentions, that is not what the words refer to literarily but what these intend when they are uttered by a particular person. *Intention* therefore refers to what a person wishes to say, not what was said when interpreted literally, as illustrated by the reprimand, “You did not mean what you said.” It does not necessary state that what he/she referred to, is what they want to happen. There is a mismatch therefore between what was said and what someone intends to convey!

An example of the latter is when a guest spills a glass of red wine over an immaculately laid table during the speech of another, perhaps even a person he/she is already known to dislike! Psychoanalytic thinkers have made much of this and have explained such happenings, which may look perfectly innocent and accidental to the “normal” person, as an unconscious expression of hostility towards the speaker, perhaps towards the host, or to other guests attending this festive occasion! Or examine the expression, “What Joan intended to say when she remarked that Maude was suitably dressed for the occasion was that Maude was a person who was sensitive to social demands and public opinion.” Maude, in other words, is a person who knows how to fit in well, and furthermore is socially sensitive and adept. Again, the comments from Joan were intentional in nature and are not necessarily complimentary.

We are correct when we distrust that words carry only their literal meaning: few of us use words in that manner. However, we do not get reliable signals on what occasions we should distrust a speaker’s words and intentions.

Thoughts on Language Expansion

Jeff Berg’s comments on my article The Factoid: A Revised Interpretation were most helpful. It raised one issue I wish to discuss further: about what aspect of the meaning of a term borrowed from one language and introduced into another, is actually transferred. To make things easier, may I suggest that we call the language from which a word or a phrase is borrowed the DONOR-language and the language into which a word from another language is introduced the HOST-language.

Clearly whenever a language hosts or imports words and phrases, that language grows, regardless of whether its new terms are derived from a foreign language or whether these are “home made”, that is, are invented by its current speakers! Modern American English is full of such “home-grown” words and phrases. The word *rap* for example has several meanings including the act of talking or discussing, freely, openly, or volubly (as suggested in Wikipedia). It is also related to the idea of establishing rapport, that is, developing a sense of fellowship among speakers and members of a group. These group members will then determine which of several meanings also apply! It is a case where the meaning of a term will be strongly influenced by its context, not only by its dictionary definition(s). In short, the meaning of a word is usually — perhaps, most often — multi-determined. Thus, to search for a unique meaning is generally speaking, foolhardy.

Yet there are exceptions to this rule. The major exceptions relate to whenever a word has been deliberately imported from a Donor to a Host language. The import is commonly done by an individual agent — that person usually remains anonymous. The agent may believe that their home-language is currently short of a single word to express a unique and important idea, is deficient, or that his/her home-language is already so muddled that a single word given enough publicity or expression may just be enough to cure it of confusion, indeed may “cleanse” it. The importation of a word which is borrowed from elsewhere may therefore — it is thought — have a “therapeutic”, a curative effect!

Jeff’s comments also forced me to re-examine my previous position in several ways. Most importantly how new words enter an existing language. Are new terms just “inventions” — added on the spur of the moment by a rogue interloper, or do such terms enter a language in more thoughtful ways? What actually happens? To answer this question require much empirical research – and therefore lies beyond the mission of this blog. But clearly a process is involved which has been largely overlooked not only by philosophers, but also by others who profess an interested in the growth and modification of a language. Language remains, of course, our principal method for communicating with others. But it also seems that it may involves a very human disposition: a little pilfering or theft! “Seize from others what you fancy, or what you think you currently need!” Let me clarify this a little.

When we run short of words and expressions in our HOME-language we have several options open to rectify this deficiency including that we can draw from other languages for help. In short, we can make up a perceived deficiency in our own language by unashamedly borrowing from another. Our own language then acts as “host” to entries from elsewhere. What is transferred by this act are not only the sounds typical of another language (which can be fun — try Xhosa!) but a very particular meaning that the borrowed word already possesses in its original language. However the broader meaning of the borrowed term may get damaged or lost during the transfer from donor to home-language, although this need not matter too much. Who cares? Whoever has borrowed would not necessarily know about damaged done, or of the loss of meaning which resulted from the transfer from the donor-language to the host-language. Jeff, for example cites the fact that the French “ meubel”, i.e. furniture, implies mobility, whereas the opposite is true for the English term, but in Italian mobili means “furnishings” and immobili means property! — therefore non-movement!

Let me summarize the above: A borrowed word from a donor-language enters a host-language but it carries only one of its meanings. It therefore enters the host-language without any ambiguity whatsoever! Its meaning in the host-language is pristine, unambiguous. It only carries the meaning assigned to it at the time it was imported by whoever borrowed the term! The borrower called the shots but he/she cannot control the future of the imported term. It has now become public property in the host language. It may even “wander off” by itself and within a short time, acquire other meanings than assigned by the original borrower. Since words are social objects and therefore are subject to the vagaries of such objects, this is as expected! The borrower may have borrowed with very good intent, including a wish to combat existing multiple meanings in the host language, but the truth is that he/she has no further control over the situation.

Meanings wander off? Does this mean that one cannot permanently bind a meaning to a word or to an expression? If the answer is “ one can indeed do so, one can tie a word and a meaning” one would also have to state under what conditions this becomes possible. It does not appear to be a universal rule which applies to a living and therefore developing language. On the contrary, such languages appear to “grow”, a euphemism which suggests that changes will be largely unpredictable! It is a common but also troublesome phenomenon. It can however be given a distinctive name: I propose to call it an “analogical spread”.

This name given the phenomenon covers the idea that many words which are currently uniquely distinctive and therefore have currently a limited meaning will nevertheless change over time. Indeed such words often extend their original limits quite extensively. The original term then comes to encompass more and more points of reference — a process which of course also increases their ambiguity, something often dreaded by others, except by poets and politicians. The term then assumes an analogical stance: it now says much more than was originally (earlier) intended. It also means that many important terms can no longer be carefully, or uniquely defined. The term has now become a suitable candidate for a Thesaurus, where each meaning overtly depends on the context in which it is used. It is a case of what may be good for poetry may be bad for scientific or for hyper-accurate communication!

Although the borrower of a word from a foreign language may have only noble aims, perhaps of eliminating or reducing confusion, he/she may not succeed in cleansing an existing language of its many ambiguities. Such an act of “cleansing” can however be encouraged by inventing new words (neologisms). These may be constructed in a variety of ways of which the most common method has been to use a person’s name as a label for a new object or product, e.g. *pasteurization*, or for an idea, e.g., *Freudian wish*.

In the second article of this series I will give a a short guide to three terms which appear critical for the analysis given so far. I shall also suggest a fourth term, which covers new ground.

The Factoid : A Revised Interpretation

This article is a revision of an earlier version which was published in 2013.

The term *factoid* was coined by Norman Mailer to express the idea that many things we believe to be true — and therefore do not challenge — are products of endless, ill-intended and often vicious reiteration by some of our news media with the intent to mislead others. It is usually done for personal gain rather than the ignorance of journalists and editors. What is proclaimed to be true is too often found to be inversely related to truth. There may be a smidgen of truth under hidden under the surface, enough to get by, but most of what is claimed is false. When factoids are promoted by higher authorities, like governments or by special political interest groups, or party-machines, such material is known as propaganda.

The underlying principle was already voiced and practiced with consummate and diabolical skill by Josef Goebbels, the infamous henchman of Hitler during the long nights of 1933-1945. His mantra can be expressed as follows:

“Repeat an untruth often enough and people will accept it as truth.”

Of course, it was not invented by Goebbels — but was adapted from the practices of religious organizations who controlled whatever media were available in their respective times. Such control was in force throughout Europe for nearly two thousand years, often with a little help from their skilled enforcers.

George Orwell also wrote extensively about this; how all of us easily become confused by willful deceit and how our language, our most powerful method of molding other people’s opinions and mind-sets, gets misused in the process (see both Animal Farm and 1984).

Both here and elsewhere I have assigned a different meaning to factoid than the one invented by Norman Mailer. I argued that we already have terms which cover the idea that endlessly reiterated assertions may come to be accepted by others as statements of truth even when there is no scintilla of truth for this: *propaganda*. The meaning I propose is not as pejorative as Mailer’s, but focuses on the a historical feature of statements, namely that many facts become dated because they are overtaken by new discoveries and therefore no longer reflect the evidence they were meant to summarize. Sometimes the evidence supporting a claim is only, “People say that…”. However, it is often critical to know which people supported a particular claim when there is more than one claim, who subsequently contested it — and for what reasons they support one rather than an alternate version.

For example, which toothpaste really, truly, reliably whitens teeth? I now propose that the new meaning of *factoid* implies that whatever evidence previously supported a specific claim has now become less compelling. This may be due to improved research or because new remedies have been discovered since the earlier claim was made We should always ask whether any claim can be improved upon, can be corrected, or whether it remains true in the face of new evidence and finally has withstood the test of time. To ask these questions is obligatory.

Many things, as we all now know, have failed tests over time, have not survived, for example:

  • that the earth is a stationary object in the firmament
  • that light always travels in a straight line
  • that women are inherently evil
  • that water must boil at 100 degrees Celsius
  • that the Jews killed Christian babies to use their blood in ceremonies or to bake unleavened bread
  • that the earth is flat
  • that hallucinogenic drugs enable one to see into the future
  • that language skills reflect innate intelligence

It seems as if there is a direct coupling between progress in science and technology (a distinction increasingly difficult to defend) and the abandonment of what were once thought to be indubitable verities!

The transition from a fact to a factoid refers specifically to those cases where something which had at first met all the criteria used to certify that an event was a fact, subsequently failed new tests. It means that the former statement of fact has to be de-certified! It now no longer meets critical criteria and therefore transitioned from fact to factoid.

I therefore view a factoid as a fallen angel, a verity which has become a liability. It now lacks truth. Whenever we assert that a given statement is true, we should also add that this is most probably so only for the brief moment, and not for all eternity – not even for the foreseeable future! For a wise man the future is largely unpredictable, even unfathomable; for the ignorant person the future is an extension of the present. For such persons all earlier explanation of the present must also hold for the future.

To conclude: I have rehabilitated the term *factoid* by assigning it a meaning which helps us to understand our current world better as a part of a developing situation. A factoid is therefore a claim that was made about some feature of the world which had once been secure, was viewed as part of its unchanging furniture, steady as a rock, anchored in reality, etc., whereas the test of time has demonstrated the contrary: that is was transient, not a permanent phenomenon. Indeed, the notion of a permanent phenomenon is ambiguous, and is an idea which needs to be revisited and reappraised.

In the scheme of things as outlined here, facts are viewed as the latest kids on the block but they too will become fallen angels, and pass into our history, some unnoticed, some celebrated. Some may enter a hall of fame, even after they have become blemished: e.g., the claim that the earth is flat.

One understands the present inevitably in terms of the past, that is, one has to know about the critical, salient errors made in the past since, as far as I know, there is no error-less learning, no future science without a past science whose paths were studded with pot-holes and major diversions into the unknown. Humans may stumble but many find a path that leads to somewhere.

Dedicated to Mark Reczkiewicz in grateful thanks for reminding me that one should not take human attributes, like language, out of their social context, and that our history also becomes a part of our destiny.

Jabberwockians Part 3: J’s, Theists, and Causes

This is a continuation of Part 2, which can be read here.

The great majority of Western people usually speak and imply that there is only one deity. Many go as far as to claim that their “god” is also the cause or creator of everything that exists — and which will exist, of all creatures yet unborn and those that no longer are. Frankly, I don’t know how they know this, how they can be so sure in this matter, how they get to have this all inclusive knowledge or where and how they found the key to this treasure-trove.
A particular version of this deistic belief claims that their god not only programmed and planned the universe as we have come to know it so far, but that their deity also has plans to dismantle it at some time in the future. It is part of an apocalyptic vision — which is not shared by all deists — and is distinctly Jabberwockian, as previously defined. So it is argued that there was a beginning, perhaps a prelude to the show, there will also be an end-play, a Gotterdamerung. The “gods” will move out and find a better playing field but before they do so they will curse our world. Something to look forward to, especially when “all those arms and legs and heads chopped off in a battle, shall join together in the latter day” (Henry V Act IV, Scene 1) — a happy end game for some and perdition for most others.

Those who deny the fantasy I have just described and who claim that the world is as it is, that it may have had some sort of beginning and may well have some sort of grande finale but that — in sum — all else is fantasy and delusion, are AJ’s! These non-believers are often reviled and called “a-theist” (“a” for “anti ”). Atheists, we are told, will face particularly severe punishments and retributions (perdition) by an otherwise benevolent deity in the afterworld, since their denial of a god is a particularly heinous crime which demands heavy retributions.

I will take my chances.

However, not all J’s are theists. It is perfectly possible to construct a vision of the world without having a vision of a maker or a first cause. Deists have to face an epistemic question: “What set of circumstances destroys a particular thesis, including that of deism?” The point about J’s is that they claim rights to populate the world with their creatures whereas their opponents enforce rules of inclusion and exclusion and thereafter remain forever watchful that these rules are strictly followed by all players. AJ’s insist on spelling out rules for inclusion and exclusion and that one states clearly out under what conditions one is permitted to replace one position by another. Not all visions, according to this credo, have equal legitimacy.

What is the strong card in the deist’s pack? What set of circumstance, in their view, would undermine their deist position? The general public is growing in numbers as well as in its level of education/sophistication — and for this reason is probably more influenced by pragmatics than by first principles. But the general public have been tutored to follow rules of method and therefore every now and then question whether a viewpoint now touted was arrived at by following such “accepted rules”.

I suspect that we are more tuned into the idea that some positions are more valid than others, which means, that when two viewpoints conflict there is a tendency to rally around the most favoured position until ultimately this position becomes a flag-bearer. Woe unto us! The recent debates between creationists and traditional evolution-oriented biologists, for example, could continue for some time yet, provided that the issues discussed have empirical entailments which can make a difference to both parties. Current debates between the parties do not appear to have quality, but the debates are too esoteric, too convoluted to influence and sway public opinion or change mind-sets at all. In that sense, the debates may be irrelevant.

However there is a variety of beliefs which falls into its own class. I have called these Ajabberwockisms. These are beliefs that the Jabberwock and others, such as the pushmi-pullyu described in Dr. Dolittle, do not necessarily exist beyond the imagination. They are fictional characters, imaginary objects. Our imagination consists of conjectures about such objects, creatures and events, but the conjectures also have to be vindicated, and the possibility that these exist has to be independently established.

Not always an easy task. “If only I could see what bites me!” That which bites is sensed, but may not be visible yet. It has taken a few hundred thousand years to fulfill this wish by humans. Do other living things pine away for lack of adequate devices for observing things? Probably not. However, the Jabberwockists have develop persuasive arguments to support and strengthen their claims. Furthermore they meet regularly at scientific conferences to reaffirm their beliefs, their causes which bind them — and their creed. Some are dressed to look like Druids, but others go about their daily business in normal attire, although they may carry a copy of Lewis Carroll’s great poem in their proverbial briefcases or in their trouser pockets or handbags in modern miniature editions, together with their smart-phones and similar memory devices.

What are the distinguishing features of Jabberwocky beliefs? First and foremost that all questions can be answered — often conclusively answered — regardless of the nature of the question. If one wants or needs an explanation, the Jabberwockists have one well-prepared. Their answers take the simple form of asserting that in addition to standard replies to any question there is always the answer that a special being exists who already has the answer to any question posed.

So the art lies in the articulation of a question, not in finding its answer. When in doubt one has permission from the priests to invent a series of beings, called “causes” which when well selected will provide an appropriate framework for a question.

The astute reader will recognize that this approach has a catch: one can always phrase a question in a manner which suggests its answer. The question is not necessarily directed to getting an unexpected reply. On the contrary: only those issues can be legitimately raised to which ready-made answers already exist. It is more like saying, “did you already know that such and such is the case?” Thus, one starts all enquiries by assuming that the answer is already known — but not handy!

The most famous example come from our most famous and rightly exalted thinker: Socrates, who demonstrated that we already know what there is to know about basic principles. When these principles are applied we can generate all solutions.

It is easy to conclude that we know all we need to know. But the message had dreadful and alarming practical consequences, including that there is no basis for discovery, only for uncovering secrets. We learn how to do things, but we discover what there is to know. The two are distiquishable and should not be confused.

Jabberwockians Part 2: Creatures in the Mind and Those in the World

This is a continuation of Part 1, which can be read here.

We could also talk about the itch on the sole of my foot as something that occurs “in my imagination”. It is not that I imagine the itch — the itch is very real, all encompassing for me! But I agree that it is different in many or most respects from the lamp-post. We refer to items in our imagination in two ways: (a) as independent of anything that is happening in the world (b) as something which also has a counterpart in our objective world.

To give an example: the Jabberwocky, described by Lewis Carrol in Alice through the Looking Glass, is an imagined creature that has no counterpart in our normal world although it is kith and kin to other imagined creatures of the “monster class”. Compare this to a predatory tiger which stalks the open fields in search of a prey. This tiger is not described by “Tyger Tyger, burning bright” but can be described in many ways in ordinary language. We can therefore talk about an AJ creature — short for Anti-Jabberwockians — as well as a J creature, which may have “eyes of flame,” whiffles as it moves and “burbles” too. It had a neck! The rest is left to our imagination, stimulated by the sounds of a set of non-descriptive words. Such creatures only exist in our minds, in our imagination and have no counterparts in nature. Don’t look for them! One can add to their attributes, but we do not expect that the same additional attributes will be discovered by other people as they roam through their imaginations.

This difference in the conditions under which one believes in the reality of things between J’s and AJ’s is important.

What is an AJ? What is a J?

Those of us who are J’s are traditional believers; their beliefs could include that Jabberwockies exist, so that if there is one presumably there are many! This conclusions follows from the more abstract belief that all creatures have parents even when these have not been sighted, i.e. they could be sighted, could be discovered, are discoverable — therefore must be found!

AJ’s, on the other hand are believers who demand that on every occasion solid grounds must be given for things/events in which we are asked to believe. They advocate a rigorous acceptance-principle, which is applied to every instance where a belief is actively promoted. Such beliefs are often promoted by an interest group — of which there are very many! I think Alice herself is an AJ. Even very young little North American girls (and boys, of course) often become convinced AJ’s quite early in their lives, e.g. most believe in Father Christmas, as toddlers, or in the tooth-fairy, but both beliefs are gradually shed.

Furthermore, AJ’s adopt moveable, flexible demarcation criteria, which change over time and experience. Thus, they tend to be comfortable with the idea that what was “ true” — and therefore real — yesterday (!) may not be so tomorrow. Indeed reality itself becomes a changing idea: the world may not be a sea of chaos — as many philosophers once surmised — but it is not a like a sheet of calm unruffled water either.

AJ’s therefore reserve judgements about whether creatures of the imagination can (or do) retain their legitimacy for long or whether legitimacy implies that there are strictly enforcable legitimation rules which are unbreakable, and cannot be revised. Of course, such rules need to be justified on other grounds than that these are mere momentary convenience! Much of the work by contemporary philosophers of science (a separate breed!) has been devoted to this task. Often their work has de-legitimized earlier research by demonstrating that so-called firm conclusions were prematurely reached, since the methods of data collection and date treatment was unwarranted, that is, cannot be justified by today’s standards. Medical research has been particularly hard hit since all too often studies on, for example, the short and long term effects of medication, require elaborate designs and procedures which could endanger the subjects of the investigations — and could therefore not be undertaken at this time.

But placing restrictions on what can be done in an experiment also places limits on the interpretation of the data collected on such occasions: the jury is out, so to speak! Of course, when this is so it limits the validity and generality of any conclusion reached at the end of the investigation. “The jury is out” is in fact an important contribution to research: it limits what can be concluded, what matters can be temporarily included in the “Book of Truths”!

It therefore immediately influences the integrity of any model which was involved in the inquiry itself and therefore also of the theory being “tested” directly or indirectly by the experimental investigation. From one point of view, this scenario is a downer for researchers, for people who are usually committed to the theory being tested. To be sure, there are those whose primary interest is in “discovery” — or as is often said “in the facts” — whereas others are tuned into the validity of the theory which generated the predictions being tested. Theories — one could say — are not discovered, but created, whereas facts are uncovered.

It seems from all this that Jabberwockians (the J’s) are the salt of the earth given that they are willing to entertain a world which is by no means coherent, and are those who are willing to walk into positions which are not laced up by tight strands of logic. Anti-Jabberwockians (AJ’s), on the other hand, can be insufferable because they insist that creatures like the Jabberwocky don’t make sense, that creatures of the imagination always have to stand the test of logical coherence before these creatures can be declared as real. It is not a matter of “value”, but a matter of what furniture has been placed into each room in our complex living space and of how flexible we are in our demands for attains the best of all possible worlds.

This is the second of a 3-part blog. Part 3 will appear in a few days.