Time-Binding

by Viliam4 min read14th Aug 201519 comments

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Personal Blog

(I started reading Alfred Korzybski, the famous 20th century rationalist. Instead of the more famous Science and Sanity I started with Manhood of Humanity, which was written first, because I expected it to be more simple, and possibly to provide a context necessary for the later book. I will post my re-telling of the book in shorter parts, to make writing and discussion easier. This post is approximately the first 1/4 of the book.)

 

The central question of Manhood of Humanity is: "What is a human?" Answering this question correctly could help us design a civilization allowing the fullest human development. Failure to answer this question correctly will repeat the cycle of revolutions and wars.

We should aim to answer this question precisely, using the best ways of thinking typically seen in exact sciences -- as opposed to verbal metaphysics and tribal fights often seen in social sciences. We should make our "science of human" more predictive, which will likely also make it progress faster.

According to Korzybski, the unique quality of humans is what he calls "time-binding", described as "the capacity of an individual or a generation to begin where the former left off". The science itself is a glorious example of time-binding. On the other hand we can observe the worst failures in psychiatrical cases. This is a scale of our ability to adjust to facts and reality, and the normal people are somewhere in between.

Let Korzybski speak for himself:

If we succeed in finding the laws of human nature, all the rest will be a comparatively easy task - the ethical, social, economic and political status of Man should be in accord with the laws of his nature; then civilization will be a human civilization - a permanent and peaceful one - not before.

[...] if we humans radically misconceive the nature of man - if we regard man as being something which he is not, whether it be something higher than man or lower - we thereby commit an error so fundamental and far reaching as to produce every manner of confusion and disaster in individual life, in community life and in the life of the race.

Humanity must know the natural laws for humans, otherwise humans will not create the conditions and the customs that regulate human activities which will make it possible for them to have the most favorable circumstances for the fullest human development in life [...]

However, not everyone will share this goal:

Clearly police states of secrecy, withholding from the people knowledge of, and from, the world, or twisting that knowledge to suit their purposes, 'iron curtains', etc., must be classified as saboteurs among time-binders, and certainly not a socio-cultural asset to the evolution of humanity.

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Time-binding requires intelligence and means of communication. It creates an interdependence among humans, and leads to feelings of responsiblity, duty towards others and the future, various forms of ethics, morals, and culture. Our morality depends on our beliefs and rationalizations. Time-binding helps us judge humans not only against the statistical averages of our everyday experience, but according to human potential. Studying the mechanisms of time-binding is an important part of understanding humans.

Our communication creates another layer of our interaction with the world. It is very important to be aware of the difference between the verbal level, and the underlying "silent levels". The silent levels include the world outside our skins, but also reactions inside us, such as emotions. Otherwise we can get confused by mistaking the words for the underlying reality.

We can 'think' on the level of words, and 'contemplate' ('think' in feelings or pictures) on the silent levels. We usually need both.

When we try to solve everything on the verbal level, we can run into indefinitely long chains of asking "why?". The problem is that things on the silent level sometimes do not have a simple verbal explanation. But if we don't realize that we are no longer on the verbal level, we may be tempted to invent metaphysical "explanations"... and then at some point invent another metaphysical "explanation" for why asking "why?" is forbidden past that point.

A more fruitful way of dealing with the endless chains is to define our scope: In science, we limit our questions to the data we have, and avoid questioning without data. In mathematics, we start by axioms, which are not questioned later. If we limit our scope for asking "why?", we can explore within that space more easily, and we can expand the scope afterwards; this is generally a better strategy than following the chains of "why?" too soon too far.

Religion and science are both human attempts to explain the world, including ourselves. But religion is a 'primitive science' created unconsciously; science is a conscious attempt to satisfy our intellectual-emotional needs.

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Without human productivity, our globe would be too small to support the current human population. Humanity must produce or perish. Human factor is extremely important for productivity. We should act in conformity with certain psychological laws, which can be determined by studying human nature.

Production is essentially a task of scientists and engineers: discovering new laws and applying them to solve problems. Every engineer must understand the materials they work with, and the natural laws of these materials, discovered by observation and experiment, and formulated mathematically. Production requires science, and cooperation of the relevant sciences; it is not a task for barren metaphysical reasoning in vacuo.

Problem is, people in general do not like precise reasoning, which usually manifests as "not liking math". Sure, sometimes we do not understand the domain enough to simply apply math and be done. But often people deliberately refuse to use math even in situations where it is possible; they prefer worse reasoning to the better.

We should have a science of Human Engineering. No, that's not the same as philosophy: engineering made verbal philosophy and metaphysics obsolete; the speculation itself is not productive. The Human Engineering should be done by scientists, because they are qualified for the task. The scientists should increase their sense of responsibility beyond their narrow specialization. Some may believe that the situation is hopeless, but such pessimism is just a blind belief. The scientists of all kinds should cooperate. The united judgement of scientists and engineers would be a tremendous power. But they must be coordinated, and foremost they must feel the desire to do so. Which is what Manhood of Humanity aims to do.

Educating people, not just the scientists and engineers, is how you can help at the beginning. We should not let the world be governed by people who don't understand it; that is too dangerous and expensive.

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When we look at arithmetical progression and geometrical progression, we see that the values increase really fast when instead of incrementing by the same difference there is a multiplier, a rate of growth. Analogically, if we want our scientific progress to be fast, we should discover and invent things which in turn make further discovery and invention easier. A steam engine, a printing press; analytical geometry, calculus; Newtonian gravitation, etc.; each of them stimulated further progress. Science and technology develops faster and faster.

We see rapid progress in mathematics, in physics, in chemistry, in biology, in astronomy. But what about ethics and jurisprudence and economics and politics and government? These have lagged behind.

"Social sciences" seem to focus on the past, exploring traditions and habits. They often use verbal philosophy and metaphysics, instead of scienfic method. They often serve political interests. But most importantly, they have a wrong understanding of humans. They usually regard humans as animals, or something supernatural, or a combination of both.

This progress of technology without a corresponding social progress leads to an inequilibrium, which sooner or later results in revolutions and wars.

Let's not despair though! There was a moment in human history when we didn't have science at all, only theology and philosophy, which kept bringing interesting but almost always factually wrong explanations. And yet, here we are now.

A science is more than just a heap of facts. Yes, it must have a lot of facts, but also testable hypotheses, theories that generate the hypotheses, and the natural laws. The primal function of a science is to enable us to anticipate the future in the field to which it relates.

Neither philosophy nor the social sciences fare very good under this standard. For example, they failed to predict World War I. (Note: The book was published in 1921.) They have different doctrines, each with its devoted followers, not much differently from religion.

And this was in a way already criticized by Francis Bacon who wrote about the "four species of idols that beset the human mind": Idols of the Tribe (biases shared by all humans, anthropomorphic and anthropocentric view of the world), Idols of the Den (biases created by our individual education and experiences), Idols of the Market (improper use of language, such as generalization), and Idols of the Theatre (dogma and philosophy, things that impress people).

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Korzybski fits into a larger intellectual pattern since the Enlightenment, where smart people think that human affairs have gotten disordered somehow.The intellectual reformer believes he can diagnose the problem, find a solution by arguing from plausible first principles, and then get humanity back on a normative path. Just think of Robert Owen, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, etc.

Basically these intellectuals think teleologically, and they assume that humans should have instruction manuals that intellectuals can deduce and make explicit so that humans can fulfill their proper "purpose," whatever that means. Considering that all of the attempts at writing these implicit manuals disagree on fundamental matters, perhaps we should just reject the assumption and acknowledge that we evolved as kludges with conflicting and ill-fitting components, which don't allow for the inferencing of a coherent instruction manual.

You mention the Enlightenment, (although it's a strange Enlightenment that includes both Marx and Rand), so I guess that you are intending a contrast with neoreaction. But your template fits NRx just as well: things have gotten disordered somehow, the intellectual reformer believes etc. They disagree on why things have gotten disordered and on what the cure is.

For NRxers, it is because we have fallen away from the wisdom of the past when Men knew better. The cure is to re-establish the wisdom of the past, for Man Now to live as Man did Then.

For Korzybski, it is because we have always muddled through things with inadequate forms of thought — to borrow your words, "evolved as kludges with conflicting and ill-fitting components". But (says K) increasing scientific knowledge, technological power and density of life have made this untenable. If Man Now continues to live as Man did Then, we will destroy ourselves. The cure is to use that knowledge to discover (not deduce) how Man can think better, and so live better, and establish the wisdom of the future.

Considering that all of the attempts at writing these implicit manuals disagree on fundamental matters,

Where do you think L. Ron Hubbard, Buckminster Fuller and Timothy Leary have made points that they disagree with Korzybski on fundamental matters?

[-][anonymous]5y 1

I mean, L. Ron thinks that aliens cause our troubles...

That doesn't mean he thinks that Korzybski was wrong on something. The fact that people have ideas that other people don't have doesn't show that they disagree.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

Yes but we can infer from Korzybski not being crazy that if you went and explained L. Ron's theory of societal ills being caused by invisible aliens called thetans, that Korzybski would disagree - are you really trying to argue that that's not the case?

The core issue in this debate is whether the core of Korzybski's ideas is true. advancedatheist argument only works if other people disagree with his core ideas. Especially people who come after Korzybski.

The fact that other people disagree with the concept of thetans can tell you that Ron Hubbert isn't worthy of attention but it doesn't tell you something about Korzybski.

invisible aliens called thetans, that Korzybski would disagree

From Korzybskian perspective it doesn't really matter whether they are called "thetans" or "invisible aliens". Both seem like irrelevant identity statements. Having them be named thetans doesn't give the map a wrong feature but an irrelevant feature.

I'm not sure about Ron Hubbert but he might very well have thought: "Identity doesn't matter so there no real problem with calling it thetans. If I call them thetans I will sound more profound and revolutionary, so I will call them thetans."

Alternatively you could think of Ron Hubbert as a person who thinks they got a revelation. If that's the case he doesn't fit into the line of enlightenment thinkers.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

Here's what the conversation felt liked from my perspective:

Christian: Please show how L. Ron Hubbard and Korzybski have different views about what causes the ills in society

Matt: L. Ron believes that aliens cause the ills, Korzybski does not. I

Christian: Korzybski would say it doesn't matter if you call them aliens.

That seems like a very odd response to me. Believing there are aliens that live among us is not just a word, it makes material predictions at the fabric of what's wrong and how to fix it. It's a foundational difference in what's at the core of the problem.

Christian: Please show how L. Ron Hubbard and Korzybski have different views about what causes the ills in society

No, I asked for whether there disagreement between the two. Hubbard said basically that he mixed General Semantics with Cybernetics. Then he added a few of his own ideas. I'm not aware that he argued that either General Semantics or Cybernetics is wrong. Rather that they are incomplete.

Believing there are aliens that live among us is not just a word, it makes material predictions at the fabric of what's wrong and how to fix it.

Scientology has certain exercises that supposedly fix the issue. Whether or not those exercises are helpful has little to do with the question of whether it's aliens.

Lukeprog reported that he got a lot of value from those exercises: http://lesswrong.com/lw/58m/build_small_skills_in_the_right_order/

I think you fail at steelmanning Ron Hubbard and simply go for cheap shots. That's okay when you simply want to find reasons to not go to scientology but it's not helpful for understanding the underlying ideas.

In Scientology universe, it is always the irrational part of the mind that causes troubles. However, Scientology is not materialist, so "mind" doesn't necessarily imply a material brain. It could be a mind of an invisible alien spirit attached to your body.

In Scientology universe (but this is what you only learn at the highest levels, when Hubbard already ran out of anything remotely sane to teach), there are many alien spirits attached to our bodies... because they are brainwashed by giant space brainwashing facilities on the Earth orbit, installed billions of years ago by an evil space emperor Xenu... and the alien spirits irrationally believe that they are identical to us. Then, using the super secret and super expensive Scientology techniques, you can connect telepathically to them, provide them psychotherapy, teach them some basic rationality, and they will understand their errors and leave your body.

So, yeah, on some level it is batshit insane... however, if you could accept the premises of the Scientology universe, where immaterial spirits exist with immaterial minds, and can behave irrationally... then the Scientology exercises kinda would be the rational thing to do.

So, yeah, on some level it is batshit insane... however, if you could accept the premises of the Scientology universe, where immaterial spirits exist with immaterial minds, and can behave irrationally... then the Scientology exercises kinda would be the rational thing to do.

Yes, if you ignore the irrationality, the rest will look rational.

My feeling is that these people are right about some things where the society is wrong, but also wrong plus horribly overconfident about other things.

Maybe it is a curse of being significantly more intelligent than most people around you. Nine times of ten, people around do something obviously stupid. Once, it is you who is stupid about things that most people get approximately right, but you cannot distinguish it from the former case -- also you are already stuck in the belief that the other people are always wrong (especially if they don't have enough verbal skills or academic credentials).

Also, underestimating domain-specific knowledge, and thinking that general intelligence can solve everything even without the relevant data. Not necessarily arguing literally from the "first principles", but rather having very little and very unrepresentative data (an equivalent of seeing a few youtube videos on the topic today), and believing that this is enough as long as you use a lot of brainpower to extrapolate from these data.

Recommend moving to Main; bringing Korzybski to LW is a worthwhile endeavor that represents no small amount of work.

The central question of Manhood of Humanity is: "What is a human?" ... Failure to answer this question correctly will repeat the cycle of revolutions and wars.

As may answering it correctly, depending on what the answer is.

I haven't read the book. Here are some of my thoughts on the content in the above post. These thoughts may be invalidated by other parts in the book as I haven't read the book and this is only the first quarter summary of the book.

According to Korzybski, the unique quality of humans is what he calls "time-binding", described as "the capacity of an individual or a generation to begin where the former left off".

Robert sussman here posits that there are three human behavioural traits not found in chimps or any other animal; they are unique and exemplify what it means to be human.

  • Symbolic behaviour - the ability to create alternative worlds, to ponder about the past and future, to imagine things that don't exist.

  • Language - the unique communicative venue that enables humans to communicate not only in proximate contexts, but also about the past, the future, and things distant and imagined, allowing us to share and pass our symbols to future generations.

  • Culture - the ability found only in humans for different populations to create their own shared symbolic worlds and pass them on. Although chimpanzees can pass on learned behaviour, they cannot pass on shared and different world views.

Time binding seems to be the same as culture.

But religion is a 'primitive science'

Aren’t religion and science disparate concepts? I get that they both provide theories about how the world is, but to refer to religion as scientific in any way seems strange to me.

Manhood of Humanityis: "What is a human?" Answering this question correctly could help us design a civilization allowing the fullest human development. Failure to answer this question correctly will repeat the cycle of revolutions and wars.

This seems to be a pre 1900 view of the world, i.e. before relativity, quantum mechanics, complexity theory etc.

This book goes over what I mean. Below is part of the abstract that explains it.

“Early theorists believed that in science lay the promise of certainty. Built on a foundation of fact and constructed with objective and trustworthy tools, science produced knowledge. But science has also shown us that this knowledge will always be fundamentally incomplete and that a true understanding of the world is ultimately beyond our grasp. In this thoughtful and compelling book, physicist F. David Peat examines the basic philosophic difference between the certainty that characterized the thinking of humankind through the nineteenth century and contrasts it with the startling fall of certainty in the twentieth. The nineteenth century was marked by a boundless optimism and confidence in the power of progress and technology.”

So, I basically I disagree that knowing “what is a human” is all you need to build a utopia.

Second, I don’t think that there is necessarily any way to set up society so that everyone is perfectly satisfied. People are both similar to each other, but divergent as well. We are individuals, but have an underlying human nature. There is no human template or certain way that things can be so that it is exactly the same for everyone and perfect for everyone as well. There is going to be conflict and this, to an extent, is necessary. Perfection like certainty may be forever elusive. There is of course underlying common patterns or human universals. I take the view that non-teleological evolution means that human nature is not immutable or timeless. Human nature does not refer to an unchanging essence. Instead, it describes what the members of humanity currently happen to be like. People have common propensities, predispositions, norms and needs and these cause a certain probability and likelihood for humans to have certain traits. Another way of putting this is that there is 'species-typical' behaviour, but the resultant behaviour is going to be diverse. An example is laughing. We laugh because of our biology, but what we laugh at is extraordinarily variable. The cognitive ability of human’s means that their behaviours are more diverse than other animals and that their thought patterns have a greater impact on their behaviour.

I do believe that understanding these common patterns or human needs is extremely helpful. An example is that infants who are touched gently on a regular basis gain weight and grow at better rates than babies who lack this contact. If you are designing a society or writing a policy, then understanding these needs can be immensely helpful. Some work I have found on human needs are below:

  • Maslows ranking of needs, but I don’t think the current research backs up the order or idea or ranking.
  • Manfred Max-Neef talked about fundamental human needs
  • There’s also this book by Martin Seligman and others which classifies the character strengths and virtues Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Summary here:www.viacharacter.org/www/C...ths/VIA-Classification#nav

I think, though, that people intuitively know the human needs because they are human themselves. The greatest atrocities that are commited by humanity to other humans are not due to a lack of understanding of the human needs, but because certain people are excluded from being deserving of being able to meet these needs. In the past certain discriminating factors, for example, melanin in skin, religion, and patriotic allegiance have been used as indicators of bestiality, lowliness, inhumanity and other degrading qualities. In summary, I think the issue is more of a perspectival one, i.e. with people’s maps. You need to not only ask what are the fundamental human needs, but you need to also ask how you can get people to create maps that allow them to best fulfill these fundamental human needs. I am sure that there are also a multitude of other considerations that you would need to think about if you were to design a civilization that allowed the fullest human development possible.

This seems to be a pre 1900 view of the world, i.e. before relativity, quantum mechanics, complexity theory etc. [...] Early theorists believed that in science lay the promise of certainty. Built on a foundation of fact and constructed with objective and trustworthy tools, science produced knowledge. But science has also shown us that this knowledge will always be fundamentally incomplete and that a true understanding of the world is ultimately beyond our grasp.

Not really. Korzybski speaks strongly against the idea of certainty and how recent advances in science have shown it to be wrong. That's a substantial part of what Science&Sanity is about.

In summary, I think the issue is more of a perspectival one, i.e. with people’s maps.

Korzybski was the person who came up with using the word map in this way.

[-][anonymous]5y 0

According to Korzybski, the unique quality of humans is what he calls "time-binding", described as "the capacity of an individual or a generation to begin where the former left off".

I hate this definition. At its simplest level, it suggests any creature capable of remembering long enough to do as their parents did, and the capacity to improve on their parent's choices is a human, but that's clearly not what Korzybski means as it would include many animals. A stronger interpretation might be people capable of building up over several generations, but wouldn't this require a writing system of some kind soon enough? African and Native American societies never developed a writing system, and seemed to never get much past very basic agriculture. Indeed, humans prior to 5,000 BC were going nowhere for hundreds of thousands of years. Does that mean they're not human? If we break it down, I bet the majority of progress in our society was achieved by a tiny minority of the population. If say, the top 5% most productive individuals in history were removed, would we as a society have ever reached industrialization before going extinct? I'm not so sure.

I like Robert Sussman's definition mentioned by ScottL better, but I'm still not satisfied. His three are:

  • Symbolic behaviour - the ability to create alternative worlds, to ponder about the past and future, to imagine things that don't exist.
  • Language - the unique communicative venue that enables humans to communicate not only in proximate contexts, but also about the past, the future, and things distant and imagined, allowing us to share and pass our symbols to future generations.
  • Culture - the ability found only in humans for different populations to create their own shared symbolic worlds and pass them on. Although chimpanzees can pass on learned behaviour, they cannot pass on shared and different world views.

There are over 7 billion humans on the planet. 7 billion! That's a lot of room for variation. There are humans in history who never learned a language. Does that make them not human? Then there are many other variations. There are humans who can't remember anything. There are humans who can't count to 10. There are humans with no vocal function to speak with. There are humans who cannot read. There are humans in a permanent coma with barely any brain function kept alive only by machines. How do you create a definition that encompasses all of them?

It's a problem I've thought a lot about, and I don't think there is an answer to it; at least not one that fits normal people's perceptions of humanity. If we investigated, I'm sure we could identify a DNA sequence or group of possible sequences that all humans have at least one of and no animals do. But what if a human is discovered with a mutation that doesn't fit? What if an ape is discovered who has one of those sequences? Does the human lose his/her rights? Does the ape legally become a human?

This problem will become less transparent over time. The population is growing, and our ability to modify people is increasing. The solution is to stop thinking about it in binary terms: humans are 1, not humans are 0, but this is so radical that it's doubtful such an idea will become mainstream any time soon.

I bet the majority of progress in our society was achieved by a tiny minority of the population.

Maybe we shouldn't be calling those people human... "superhumans"

[+][anonymous]5y -8