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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Abortion & Logic by Robert Anton Wilson

(Editor's note: Here is another Robert Anton Wilson article recovered from an obscure journal and made available on the Internet, and I rather like this piece. It's from New Libertarian Weekly, No. 87, Aug. 21, 1977. I want to thank Mike Gathers, who made the article available to me, and Jesse Walker, who collected it and made it available to Mr. Gathers. -- Tom)

Abortion and Logic by Robert Anton Wilson

Libertarians, like the citizens of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, are "quick to sacrifice common sense at the altar of reason whenever a logician arises among them." For instance, the unending debate on abortion in NLW has demonstrated a great deal of ernest and turgid logic on both sides, but very little common sense.

Now, I am a great admirer of logic in its proper sphere, as I also admire mathematics in its own sphere, but I refuse to let either of those tools become my master or lead me around by the nose.

Logic and mathematics are both perfect (more perfect than any other arts) because they are entirely abstract. They have no content whatsoever; they refer to nothing. This has been demonstrated very rigorously a variety of times, in a variety of ways. Godel's Proof shows that no system of symbology, mathematical or logical, is ever complete. Russell and Whitehead in their great Principia Mathematica demonstrated that all mathematical systems must rest upon undefined terms. G. Spencer Brown, in Laws of Form, showed us that the content of abstractions is the abstractions themselves and nothing else. Korzybski, in a sense a popularizer of Russell, Whitehead and Godel, proved that there is not one logic but many logics, by simply producing a second logic different from Aristotle's and showing how an indefinite number of similar logics could be manufactured.

As Bertrand Russell said, "Mathematics is the science in which we never know what we're talking about,  nor if what we're saying is true." Mathematics, which includes logic as a subsystem, is formal and has no particular content. This is why Einstein warned us so pointedly, "Insofar as the laws of mathematics are true, they do not refer to the real world; and, insofar as they do not refer to the real world, they are not true."

If you want to solve a gravitational problem involving interstellar distances, you will introduce a large error by using Euclid's geometry. You will find a much smaller error if you use Reimannian geometry. But this does not mean that Reimann's geometry is true and Euclid's is false. Reimann's is truer for large distances, but Euclid's is just as true for small distances. There is a distinct possibility that Lobatchevsky's geometry, or Buckminster Fuller's, may turn out to be better for very small (sub-nuclear) problems.

Accepting the fact of symbolic relativism -- the fact that the human mind can, as has, generated several mathematics, several geometries, several logics and semantics, several physical models for quantum behavior, etc. -- need not cast us adrift in omni-undifferentiated agnosticism, as Objectivists seem to fear. The important thinkers in mathematics and scientific philosophy of the past hundred years have all accepted this epistemological revolution (or helped to produce it); and they were scarcely paralyzed by their new freedom. On the contrary, this has been the most productive century in the history of science.

Mathematics and symbolic logic are perfect because they do not refer to anything but themselves. When one uses these tools to refer to the events in the sensory-sensual universe of experience -- the existential  universe -- one obtains the best results by skeptical detachment, checking how well the model sheds new light (reveals the hitherto unsuspected), how often it merely leads to confusion (generated paradoxes) and where and when it breaks down. (All models break down somewhere or other, sooner or later.)

The quark model shed a great deal of new light several years ago, resolved a few paradoxes without introducing new ones, and definitely contributed to our understanding of sub-nuclear forces. Now, some think the quark model is breaking down, or will need to be revised. Models (symbol systems) come and go faster in modern science than ever before.

Models come and go so fast these days because scientists have learned to use them only as long as they yield operational results, and to modify or revise them as soon as more successful predictions can be obtained from a newer model.

In ethics and politics, alas, most people, including libertarians, are still attached to one model, which they consider the only possible model. Thus, most debate comes down to, "My model yields this consequence, logically." "Yeah? Well, my model, just as logically, yields this consequence." "Well, there must be something wrong with your model." "The hell  you say. There's something wrong with your model." Neither side is interested in experimental results, since the point is not to obtain such results but to "prove" a pre-existing prejudice.

The scientist uses logical and mathematical systems to obtain predictions which will be confirmed or refuted. The ideologist uses logic to prove that you should do what he or she thinks is right. The scientific use of formal symbolism produces eventual agreement, when experimental results are obtained. The ideological use of formal symbolism merely perpetuates disagreement.

Thus, by picking the right logical structure, one can "prove" that a fetus is a human being. (By the same logic, one can "prove" that a caterpillar is a butterfly, or a live man is a corpse; this is a static logic that ignores change and time; but let that pass.) Such logic will never convince anybody who doesn't already think the fetus is a human being, since it rests ultimately on multi-ordinal terms.

To an anthropologist, a human being is a tool-using mammal. The fetus, not being a tool-user, is not human in this model. To a biologist, a human being is a member of the species, h. sapiens, of any age. The fetus is a human being in that model. Pick three other social sciences, and see for yourself if the fetus is, or is not, a human being by the current models in these sciences. Scientists can communicate with each other, despite these differing models, because they recognize that models are without content and take content only from the field to which they are applied. Ideologists cannot communicate with each other, because each thinks his or her model is the only possible model.

The scientific method uses logical systems creatively, to seek new discoveries. The ideological method uses logical systems fallaciously, pretending they prove something when all they do is offer models to be tested by experience.

Am I saying that logic should never be applied to ethical-political questions? Not at all; I am saying that it should be applied very gingerly, pragmatically and undogmatically. What a person's logical system demonstrates is never a truth but rather the structure of that person's reality-model. By contemplating other people's reality-models, we can learns ways to make our own models bigger, wider, more inclusive, hopefully more empirical. That way we can learn from those who disagree with us; and, as Benjamin Tucker said, "In all intellectual dispute, he is the real victor who gains the most light."

In that connection, I once learned an important lesson from the granddaddy of Conservatism, Edmund Burke, who gave an unforgettable answer when somebody else in the Parliament of the time proved logically that the American colonists had no rights to rebel against their legitimate king. I no longer own my edition of Burke's speeches, but he said, in effect, "They will throw your logic in your teeth. Nobody will be reasoned into submission; drive the boar too hard and he will always turn on the hunter." People will live by their own reality-models, not by those of any logician; the American colonists created their own logic in which the term "legitimate king" denoted a null-class.

Thus, the best the anti-abortion logician can achieve is show in more detail the structure of the reality model which causes him or her to oppose abortion. Ms. X will decide in her own case, on the basis of her own reality-model, whether or not to give birth to a given fetus. Pass a law to make your model binding upon her, and she will violate that law.

My wife and I had to decide on abortion twice, when there were economic reasons against another child. We decided against abortion each time; and we were glad afterwards. But we would never tell Ms. X that she must live in our reality-model; we will always grant her the dreadful existential loneliness of living in her own reality-model and making her own decisions.

-- Robert Anton Wilson

1 comment:

Confused Guy said...

"Godel's Proof shows that no system of symbology, mathematical or logical, is ever complete"

As far as I'm aware RAW is rather overstating the case here. Godel proved that for any formal system of axioms and rules of inference strong enough to include basic first order arithmetic on the natural numbers there would be statements about the natural numbers that you could encode within the system but that were neither provable nor disprovable within the system. In fact there are formal systems that you can prove to be complete, you are just very limited about the kinds of thing you can prove using them.