Manhood of Humanity

by Viliam6 min read24th Aug 20157 comments

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This is my re-telling of Korzybski's Manhood of Humanity. First part here.)

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Clear thinking is important, because human ideas have consequences. For example, if we believe that lightning is a punishment of God, we will not try to save a house struck by lightning, because doing so would be opposing God's will. If we believe that lightning is a natural phenomenon repeating periodically, we will try to extinguish the fire. And if we believe that lightning is an electric spark, we can install lightning rods on houses to prevent fire. These definitions are increasingly more correct and more useful.

For correct analysis of classes of life, we need some ideas about dimensionality. We can't compare entities of different kinds: volumes with surfaces, surfaces with lines, lines with points. The consequence in real life is that when we take a cube and make it five times larger in every dimension, the lines will be 5 times larger, the surfaces 25 times larger, and the volume 125 times larger. Ignoring units would make our architectural and engineering computations wrong.

In chemistry, we have inorganic and organic chemistry. In inorganic chemistry, we have 79 elements (written in 1921) allowing a few hundreds of reactions. In organic chemistry, Oxygen, Hydrogen and Carbon can produce practically unlimited number of compounds. Thus we should treat organic chemistry as having higher dimension than inorganic chemistry; the same basic chemical phenomena involved in all reactions, but also many unique properties, including new phenomena such as "life", "instinct" and "mind".

Speaking about "life" in e.g. crystals would be the same kind of mistake as saying that surfaces have a volume. Inorganic crystals do not have sufficient dimension to contain organic phenomena. Analogies - such as pointing out that growth is one of the characteristics of life, and that crystals do grow - are superficial and fall apart when we look at details of when and how specifically do living beings and crystals grow.

Plants can appropriate solar energy, convert it to another kind of energy, and store it up. Thus, plants are the chemistry-binding class of life.

Animals also have energy-transformation-and-storage abilities (although they use plants for food), but they also have a freedom and faculty to move about in space. Thus, animals are the space-binding class of life.

And finally, humans have both previous capacities, plus a unique capacity to summarise, digest and appropriate the labors and experiences of the past; to use what past generations achieved by trial and error; to increase the accumulated wisdom of humanity. Thus, humans are the time-binding class of life.

To treat humans as merely animals would be like confusing a cube for a square. In our geometrical analogy, zero dimensions (points) correspond to minerals, one dimension (lines) to plants, two dimensions (surfaces) to animals, and three dimensions (volumes) to humans.

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(I was disappointed with this chapter, because the author seems to have developed an affective spiral around the term "time-binding", and most of the chapter feels like repeating over and over again, using slightly different words, that everything good and noble about humans is caused by time-binding, and everything bad happens when people are prevented from doing time-binding correctly. The technical definition of time-binding, which in my opinion is value-neutral, somehow magically also approximates the CEV of humankind; unless I misunderstood something here. Similar stuff appears also in the following chapters, but this chapter barely contains anything else. Since I am unable to make a charitable rewrite of this chapter, here are quotations.)

Humans can be literally poisoned by false ideas and false teachings. Many people have a just horror at the thought of putting poison into tea or coffee, but seem unable to realize that, when they teach false ideas and false doctrines, they are poisoning the time-binding capacity of their fellow men and women. (...) There is nothing mystical about the fact that ideas and words are energies which powerfully affect the physico-chemical base of our time-binding activities.

On the other hand, when human beings are educated to a lively realization that they are by nature time-binding creatures, then they will spontaneously live in accordance with their time-binding nature, which, as I have said, is the source and support of the highest ideals.

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Sciences like ethics, sociology, economics, politics and government should be changed from their current pseudoscientific level to the level of genuine science and technology. They are "life-regulating" sciences, by which I mean their influence on human life is more immediate and obvious than the influence of mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy and biology. Most important of them is economics.

If we examine the origins of our wealth, it is almost completely a result of the previous generations. Not just what they built, but, foremost, the whole civilization and intellectual achievements that allowed us to build what we built.

Examining humanity today, from the engineer's point of view, we can roughly divide people into three classes: (1) the intellectuals, who possess the knowledge created mostly by previous generations; (2) the rich, who possess and control most of the material wealth; and (3) the poor, who possess neither and are limited to the struggle for mere existence, having little or no opportunity to exercise their time-binding capacity.

Both material wealth and knowledge are cumulative achievements of humanity. Material wealth is created by human work operating in time upon raw material given by nature. Knowledge is created by human intellectual labor of observation, experimentation, imagination, deduction and invention, all consuming the precious time of short human lives. For both of them, time is an essential factor.

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Material wealth created by previous generations is often short-lived. We still use some ancient roads and waterways; many railroads, buildings, machines and tools created today may be useful for more than one generation. But many old things are useless, or we can put them in the museums but they have no use in practical life.

On the other hand, inventions can be useful for centuries or millenia, and even when they become obsolete, it is often because some other invention based on them replaced them, so they still continue to contribute indirectly.

Knowing that the wealth of the world is mostly a gift from the past - the fruit of the labor of the dead - to whom should it belong now? How should we distribute the wealth that exists because of the invention of steam engine et cetera?

Looking at the standard political answers: capitalists ignore the fact that without human work, the fruit of dead people's work is also dead; socialists ignore that fact that accumulation of wealth, when rightly used, can bring tremendous benefits to humankind. What would be a rational solution?

Even the greatest minds of humanity do not need to consume more food than their neighbors. And how many potential great minds were lost because they couldn't get even that much food? Yet in long term most wealth comes from inventions.

Exploitation is madness. But revolutions are also madness. The only remedy is enlightenment - knowledge of nature, science. But even the press, which could spread information, is often controlled by people who use it to exploit others.

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When people excuse accumulation of wealth in a few private hands, they often use the argument of "survival of the fittest". But this is an expression fit for plants or animals, which cannot be applied to humans unless we change the meaning profoundly. Humanity survives and thrives by using science (time-binding).

Our desire to transcend mere selfishness is a natural phenomenon for humans. We have already received material and intellectual gifts from the previous generations; we also have a time-binding impulse towards higher ideals. Just like animals (space-binders) try to survive in space by fighting each other, humans (time-binders) also try to survive in time by struggling for excellence; we want our ideas to be a perpetual blessing to endless generations after us. Human ethics is not the same as animal ethics.

The tendency of masses to let others think for them is not natural. It is a result of thousand years of subjection, when people in authority used their cleverness to stop others from thinking. Also, disagreeing with some official opinion could get one killed. Then the average people learned not to trust speculative language.  But they are much less "stupid" when using everyday language. Belief in inferiority of the masses is an excuse for the privileged classes to indoctrinate the masses in the church or in the public school.

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In WW1 Germany displayed tremendous power. It would be wrong to believe that this was all created by a "war lord". Yes, some individual has declared the war. But it happened on a pre-existing economical background. Germany was on the verge of bankruptcy, and only a victorious war could avoid a national catastrophe; but despite the gigantic power, after a long time Germany lost.

Germany applied scientific methods to build their national power. Their industry and military reflected each other. People were mobilized in industrial production long before they were mobilized in war. The consequence of the continuous mobilization was over-production, and war seemed like a cheapest and quickest way to acquire new markets.

We have laws that limit possible selfish behavior of individuals. We also need a system to prevent selfish behavior of groups, including nations.

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WW1 is the end of childhood of humanity, and the beginning of adulthood. We must learn how to deal with the past. There are three ways how to do it wrong: (1) ignore the past, give up the experience of former generations and drift aimlessly; (2) worship the past by ignoring all its vices, misery and ignorance, and magnifying its virtues, happiness and wisdom; or (3) scorn the past by doing the opposite, disregard its virtues, happiness and wisdom, and magnify its vices, misery and ignorance.

The correct way is to study the past and keep asking "Why?": Why the centuries of superstition and ignorance? Why the cycles of enterprise, stagnation and decay? Why wars and slavery? Why inventions, craftsmanship, commerce, and art? Why the belief in speculation without observation and experiment? Why science?

We need to go in history beyond Herodotus; he lived 2,500 years ago, humans were here for about 400,000 years. That's like a 20-years old man who only remembers the last 3 months of his life. To understand humans, we need the help of geologists, paleontologists, ethnologists.

We see that humanity has progressed exponentially. Compared with the past, what we have now is impressive, but that is merely a beginning. Our ancestors survived geologic and climatic changes: earthquakes, storms, seasons of flood and frost and heat and drought, which destroyed the accumulated product of previous generations and killed the people. But the most hostile circumstance is our ignorance of human nature.

The ethics of adult humanity will not treat people as animals, fit to be slaves, but will it also not take "wisdom" from ignorant priests. The economics of adult humanity will optimize neither for "capitalist" desire to keep, nor for "proletarian" desire to get; it will optimize for prosperity of the world and the future generations. Instead of patriotism, people will care about the whole world.

Where to start? The first step would be to establish a new institution which will help coordinate the groups of people who want to cooperate. It should have roughly the following sections: (1) section of mathematical sociology: sociologists, biologists, mechanical engineers, and mathematicians together developing the science of humans, promoting science, creating theory-of-value curriculum for elementary schools and wide public; (2) section of mathematical legislation: lawyers, mathematicians, and mechanical engineers together recommending legislation to bring jurisprudence into accord with human nature; (3) educational section: teachers, sociologists, mechanical engineers, and mathematicians together evaluating teaching methods and textbooks; (4) specialists of various kinds, giving expert advice to the supported groups when asked; (5) banking section: financial experts, sociologists, and mathematicians together giving financial advice to the supported groups when asked; (6) promoters' section: create plans, available only to societies which agree with this project; (7) farming section: agriculture; (8) foreign section: relations between the supported groups; (9) commercial section; (10) news section: publishing a large daily paper containing true information, with a special part reporting on progress of this project.

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I'm a big fan of Korzybski and General Semantics, and I appreciate your summary of Manhood of Humanity, as I never read it, but primarily it serves to show that the book was not the Manhood of Korzybski himself.

What a load of confused, moralistic, essentialist piffle.

Sciences like ethics, sociology, economics, politics and government should be changed

Speaking of category errors...

Sciences have moral imperatives?

How should we distribute the wealth that exists

What do you mean 'we', kemo sabe?

That goes double for all the squawk about "our", wants, desires, feelings, etc. Does he have data on all these empirical claims, or is he just projecting his preferences on everyone else? I'm thinking the latter.

It's hard to comment on so much that's not even false.

He turns the human capability for time binding into a moral duty to time bind. Do it for the children! And the children's children, ad infinitum.

I somewhat hold that time binding as a value myself, and wish people would appreciate it more, but I recognize those as my values, and don't project them on others, who for the most part are more interested in "peace and vittles in my time", if not "crushing their enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women".

The economics of adult humanity will optimize

Everybody all enthused about being "optimized"?

He simply stinks of a central planner who feels entitled to impose his vision of the anointed on "the masses".

I recall much of this juvenile moral and political philsoophy stinking up Science and Sanity in patches, but happily that wasn't the focus of the work. Ok, K is hopping up on his soap box to rant again. Fine. Whatever. Wake me when it's over. But Manhood of Humanity sounds like all rant and little signal.

Assuming you're doing the book justice and it really can be summarized as such, it comes off as an instance of the STEM mindset overstepping its boundaries. Did the author have any familiarity with the social sciences? I understand that the whole idea was to import the hard-science paradigm into the study of how to ensure the success of societies, but I've read scientifically-minded commentaries on society that didn't seem this... off. It's like he doesn't even know how the other side of academia approaches the matter, which I find hard to believe given that he wrote a book on essentially their subject matter. I mean come on, he thinks mechanical engineers are relevant to basically any discipline and role in society.

Moreover, the perspective of the book is, if I can call it so, pan-STEM and that appears to render individual contributions from all sciences useless. You can make use of evolutionary biology to understand matters such as human sexuality and morality. You can employ cybernetics to design and improve social networks. You can use math to get precise answers to problems in micro- and macroeconomics. You can analyse biomolecules in the brain to draw inferences about how the mind works and how to alleviate its pathologies. But what baffles me is how, by viewing society through all of the sciences, you can negate the insights derived from any of them, and abandon all of social science on the way.

To give a few examples of what I mean when I say the author sounds like he doesn't know his Social Sciences 101: dividing people by class into the rich, the poor, and the intellectuals is not so much a categorization as it is a trivial game of "odd one out"; the analogy human:cube::animal:square is so bad it's not even wrong, and there was no point in bringing up dimensionality here aside from pushing this strange notion of "time-binding"; related, saying that humans are animals is not a category error, it's a truth yet not exploited to its full capacity; knowledge of nature and science is not a remedy from, but orthogonal to, the failure modes of capitalism and socialism; chapter 9 is totally not how you build institutions; ethics changes less than one may think; economics is mostly not a study of transgenerational endeavours; prehistory is not just like history but older, etc.

Maybe it's the age of the book, and maybe it sounded insightful at its time, but going by this summary, to a modern reader it might justifiably sound sophomoric. Then again, I haven't read it and do not know exactly what the author claims in the book.

From reading his later book, I got the impression that he let himself get carried away easily with his ideas. Bayesian thought hadn't yet become respectable; so while he talks a lot about "the logic of probability", and much of what he says about it seems exactly right, he never seems to use the laws of probability or lessons drawn from them. He'll talk about the importance of recognizing uncertainty, and then suggest we should have known a priori the Universe was finite but unbounded. I don't know if he ever really tried to disprove his more unique ideas, or find evidence to distinguish them from alternative hypotheses.

On the other hand, I wonder if mainstream semiotics committed even greater crimes against probability, in which case the honest people in the field might have benefited from some Korzybski.

Assuming you're doing the book justice and it really can be summarized as such

Yeah, there is a risk I missed or misunderstood something important. I would appreciate if someone else would also read the book and either confirm what I wrote or add what I missed. The book it quite easy to find on the... uhm... shop.

it comes off as an instance of the STEM mindset overstepping its boundaries.

That was my impression, too. Actually, I think I toned it down a lot.

Well, this was the less famous of his books; the other one was written 12 years later and I am starting to read it now. Also, the guy was rather impressive in his era -- maybe it's because most of his good ideas already became so popular that they seem obvious in hindsight, and only the wrong ones stand out in the text.

Where to start? The first step would be to establish a new institution which will help coordinate the groups of people who want to cooperate.

Which is what free markets in a context of the rule of law and equality of rights to natural resources does.