George Spencer Brown and the Laws of Form
An e-mail discussion with "Tommy", a friend of George Spencer-Brown
Tommy: My 'interpretation' of the 1st Axiom is e.g., if
I say "Gerhard, Gerhard", it is no different than saying "Gerhard".
I am not certain as
to how 'translate' that ontologically. I think it could mean that, for
example, if you and I are standing side by side, and each one of us is a
'mark' indicating what is outside of us (say, the universe), then it is
no different than one of us indicating the universe, because really, you
and I are fundamentally the same being, aside from the distinctions 'we'
individually make. How about that?
My 'interpretation' of the 2nd Axiom is e.g., if I am standing inside of
a circle drawn on the floor, I step outside, then step back in, my
actions equal zero because no difference has been made. This one has been
the hardest to interpret. I cannot come up with an ontological example.
Do you have one?
gerhard: what about this: you distinguish yourself from the universe.
when you draw the same distinction within yourself, you create something equal to
that same universe.
from an engineering point of view, the first axiom is the basis of redundancy
reduction: repeating the same data pattern is redundant and therefore can be
omitted without changing the information of the data.
the second axiom is the basis of irrelevancy reduction: data that does not
contribute to the receiver's interpretation of the information is superfluous
and can be omitted, too.
my interest is not so much in the laws themselves but in their application to human
consciousness. to me, the laws are mathematics and clearly important
(just as any other part of mathematics), but the real interesting stuff is applying
them to what goes on in our minds. (just as a physicist applies mathematical laws
to her field of research.) is that of any relevance to you?
Tommy: Yes, this is relevant to me. I am interested in the nature of human
beings and how 'we' create a universe from Nothing.
My background is in Philosophy, which is one of my degrees.
I heard of G. Spencer-Brown around 1976 or 1977 from a tape by the Brithish
philosopher, Alan Watts. I got my copy of 'Laws of Form' and did not
understand it, so I went to the Math Dept at the University I was
attending to get some help. They referred me back to the Philosophy Dept.
where it was suggested I take a logic class. I did from Prof. William
Warren Bartley III, who had written the autobiography of Werner Erhard,
who created the EST Training (now the Landmark Forum). I found out from
Bartley, that G. Spencer-Brown had taken the EST training and was in San
Francisco at the time on a grant. I got his number and arranged to visit
with him for a couple of days. Brilliant man! I wanted some coaching in
his mathematics, but we mostly talked about how the universe comes from
Nothing and IS Nothing/Everything.
G. Spencer-Brown would say that Werner Erhard (the guy who invented the
EST training) got the ideas for the training from 'Laws of Form".
GSB did tell me that Werner had read LOF. They used to quote a passage
from LOF in the EST training.
Back in 1978 or 1979, I 'got' that Everything comes from Nothing. That
was my first 'taste' of freedom. When I told this to GSB, he said that
most people don't 'get' that: that it is all Nothing. He validated that
for me. He said that 'Everything' and 'Nothing' were no different; they
were formally the same. He said also that 'space' and 'things' were the
gerhard: yes. interestingly, relativity theory comes to a similar
conclusion. and quantum theory states that the observer defines the observed.
Tommy: He said that the universe was mathematics. (I think that
is how he put it. It was so long ago.)
Tommy: We also talked about the existence of 'things' and the
existence of 'Existence'. He said 'things' appear to exist because a thing
is distinguished from what it is not. You know where and what a thing is
because you know where and what that thing is not. Formally, they are
identical because the 'boundary' between them is the same for both. The
boundary is the 'definition'. The definition (boundary) is the 'same' for
what a thing is and for what it is not.
gerhard: this is something i still have to fully understand: doesn't
it make a difference on which side of the distinction you are?
Tommy: When it comes to the existence of 'existence' (the universe as
a whole) itself, he told me, it (existence or the universe) does not exist because
you cannot say or point to where it is, nor can you say or point to where
it is not. In other words, you cannot draw a boundary around 'Everything'
gerhard: i wonder whether this argument still holds if the observer has
a size of zero, i.e. if she becomes one with her own form like in a point.
Tommy: I called him a few times in the early 80's and then lost touch
until about 2 years ago. [remark: this is early 2001] He sent me a copy of 'Lion's Teeth', 'Only Two Can
Play this Game', some of his poems, and an interview he did with Gunther
Emlein called "On Clarity and its Relevance to Personal Liberation".
Later on in the late 90's, I called him up with the question, "If
Everything is Nothing, i.e., if it is Nothing, 'what' in 'Nothing' draws
a distinction?" He said something to the effect of "Nothing draws a
gerhard: and there was nothing ... and god created out of herself ... :-)
Tommy: He said: "In reality, no distinction has really been drawn
or is being drawn. The Universe as we perceive/experience it, is what would
appear IF a distinction could be drawn".
gerhard: this is a point where i do not agree: from the human
perspective, there seem to be two distinct realities: a physical (objective)
and a mental (subjective) one. one exists without observer and no distinction
is necessary or maybe even possible. one exists only with observer.
distinction is the basis of its existence.
Tommy: I think I spoke inaccurately when I said, "In reality,
no distinction has really been drawn or is being drawn" because in 'reality'
there 'appear' to be, as you say, two distinct realities. Reality is what
'appears'. Like you said, there 'seems' to be two distinct...... "SEEMS"
to be! But are there 'really' two distinct realities??
I am going to say it one way and then quote GSB in another way:
Outside of 'language', nothing (no-thing) exists. Nothing (no-thing)
exists outside of language. What we perceive or experience are
'distinctions' in language. 'We' arise in language. Apart from language,
there is no 'WE', 'Me' (Tommy)', 'You' (gerhard), world, etc. There is
no world independent of the observer of that world. You and I do not have
access to anything outside of language. "In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the
beginning with God. All things were made by him" (John 1:1-3).
Here is an excerpt from an interview with GSB:
"Q: So you create a world by using words and the words do not have
anything to do with a world outside? And does this mean that we do not
portray the outside world like a photograph but invent an imaginary world
called our meanings which we then treat as if this was "reality"?
GSB: On the contrary, words have everything to do with the world that
appears to be "outside". There is no world outside apart from the words
we use to define it. There are not two distinct worlds, the one we create
with our concepts and the one that is "really there". They are identcial,
and if we do not employ 'concepts', which depend on imagining the
existence of a "subject" and its "object", we see that neither exists."
What sayeth you?
gerhard: i have heard this idea before that nothing really exists.
that would be fine with me except that i would be left with the question of
what the hell then am i (are we) doing here ...
with Descartes i would say: i distinguish, therefore i am.
and if i am, then there must be something from which i can distinguish myself.
this is also in line with my day to day experience.
of course, this "experienced world" only exists as long as i exist and care
to distinguish. but experience tells me that there is something that exists
independently of this i.
i am an engineer by training with an MBA degree and work in management
consulting. as an engineer, i was quite involved with this independent reality.
now, that i work in consulting, i am involved more with created reality.
for me, both are valuable concepts to work with.
and that is my benchmark. since, as we know, there is no truth but only models
(concepts of the truth), a concept that works is fine for me.
or, to put it another way: if all that exists is nothing, than no valid expression
can be made about this nothing because such an expression can not exist since
only nothing exists.
there is a direct experience outside of language. you can experience yourself
(whatever that is in language terms) but you may have a hard time expressing
that in words. same for "the world". as i see it, experience comes first
and then we try to create a reality out of it.
and it is here where the laws of form come into play!
Tommy: There is no 'experience' until I call it into existence with words.
"You", "experience", "pain" come into being when you draw those distinctions in
language. There is no 'direct experience' and then you give it a name.
What you call 'direct experience' outside of language is in fact
'Nothing'. You and I have no access to anything outside of language.
Outside of language, NOTHING, NO-THING!!!!
You said, "there is a direct experience outside of language". In 'words',
you are 'saying' that there is a 'something' called 'direct experience'.
You see, we are so much IN Language that it is difficult to see, yet,
that there is nothing outside of language. THERE IS NO THING CALLED
DIRECT EXPERIENCE OUTSIDE OF LANGUAGE!
You then say, " as i see it, experience comes first and then we try to
create a reality out of it." There is NO EXPERIENCE UNTIL YOU GIVE IT A
NAME!!! An experience and the name (description/distinction) arise simultaneously.
Let's say you are sitting at your desk, and there arise some
'grumblings' in your stomach or 'numbness' in your hand. You are saying
that before you call it 'hunger pain' or 'arthritis', there is this
'experience' which you call 'direct'.
I am saying that it is not ANYTHING until you CALL it (distinguish it)!
'Grumblings', 'Numbness', 'Direct', 'Expercience', 'experience that comes
first'---these are ALL words you are using.
I am saying NOTHING is there UNTIL you Describe, Define, Distinsguish it!!
I know that whatever I write or say or think is not THE TRUTH. It is only
what I am COMMITTED to at the moment; it is the model that I find most effective
at the moment.
I find that as I grow older (and hopefully wiser), I am less interested
in being RIGHT about my view. I am more interested in whether or not it
is EFFECTIVE in my day to day being-in-the-world. (Is it more effective
with my relationships and relating to the people in my life?) So,
therefore, at any moment, I am willing to give up my point of view for
something that makes a difference or has a more effective impact in the
'quality' of life.
And you think you are DESCRIBING something that is THERE before you describe it?
gerhard: yes. that is perfectly right and the result of our research.
of course, i cannot describe it without words, but i experience it.
fact is, children make experiences long before they can speak or
understand language (but which they can report later). fact is also, you
first jump off the heated stove and then start to think about it
(to use an example of R. Pirsig).
just because a mathematical law states something, this does not mean that
"reality" behaves like that. the question is always whether this law is applicable
to the reality (meaning the describable model, of course)
i guess, our problem is that i come from engineering, where experiments and
observation are the basis of knowledge and mathematical models are used to
describe what we see. you, on the other hand, come from philosophy and are
used to a more deductive approach. and, as we will probably agree, reality
is what we make out of it!
anyway, my point still is that based on observation there is a reality
beyond words which i (and some other people) can experience.
if you would like to repeat our experiments, i would be glad to help.
if this would improve your quality of life, i cannot say. it has improved mine.
Tommy: I don't know, Gerhard. My experience is that that I do not 'KNOW' of
anything beyond language. Knowing requires a 'knower' and something
'known' and that which is known is in some form of language, be it
English, German, Mathematical, Signing. If, as you say, there is "reality
beyond words which i (and some other people) can experience", how do you
'indicate' that there is something 'there' without drawing some
distinction in some form of language??
gerhard: my basic point is that distinctions are drawn along physical
experiences and marked by emotions.
verbalisation is something secondary!!!
i know that these are words again but i cannot communicate any other way
using this medium.
Tommy: I am really interested in this 'phenomenon' or 'non-phenomenon'
called Enlightenment. Like, What is it?
gerhard: o.k. let me give it a try:
according to GSB the first distinction is the observer.
and the first distinction can be drawn wherever it pleases!
therefore, the observer is free to define herself (and the observed).
by "not-distinguishing", she can also experience one-ness with the observed
which also can be described as unity or wholeness.
when she is able to invoke this experience at will, i would call such a being
enlighted and the state of her consciousness enligthtenment.
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