Revisiting his magnum opus Brave New World, Aldous Huxley cites the story of an institute founded by a group of philanthropists in New England in the late 1930s. Established to counter the Nazi propaganda-machinery rampant during those times, it was named “Institute for Propaganda Analysis”. Among other things, it undertook a venture to develop and distribute textbooks containing detailed instructions to analyse and refute various modes of propaganda for high school and university students.
Although developed to achieve the very welcome goal of exposing irrational propaganda, the initiative came under attack by a host of establishments: certain groups of educators thought that it would make students “unduly cynic”; the military thought it would adversely affect their command structure; the clergy feared that it would “undermine belief” and reduce church attendance; advertisement firms worried that it would disturb brand loyalties and adversely affect the market.
Despite the protests, the Institute carried on reasonably well until 1941, when the Second World War broke out. The war brought about a shift in the manner in which the institute’s activities were regarded. The situation prompted the Allies to resort to propaganda in order to boost the morale of their people. Thus any sort of rational analysis that could question authority was considered inimical to the war efforts. The Institute of Propaganda Analysis was closed down soon after.
If a retrospective overview were to be attempted, what appears a lot more interesting than the effect the IPA exerted on the 1930s political and cultural terrain, was the effect the institute was anticipated to exert. The nature of establishments that rose against it reveals a lot.
What is the common factor that rattled the church, the military and the advertising firms?
The abstracts of IPA’s work is available through the database of many Western Universities and public libraries.
The scope and depth of the work done by IPA is unthinkable in our times. They used methods of science in analysing newspaper articles, advertisement clippings, cinematic stereotypes, political pronouncements, racial relationships and so and so forth. It was only understandable that the IPA had to be closed down due to a “dearth of funds” when World War II broke out.
The necessity of an accessory tool like that propounded by IPA in analysing discourses in public space (news reporting, statements by politics, advertisement, media portrayal etc) is related to a significant deficiency in the Languages of Common Use (LCU) in processing information and conveying it accurately.
To examine this proposition, one has to follow the nature of information processing that is carried out in LCU.
INFORMATION PROCESSING IN LANGUAGES OF COMMON USE
People think in terms of the languages they use. Language serves as standardised conventions, which help to conceptualise one’s thoughts and thereby make sense of the world around. The more advanced the language, the more refined the capacity to think. Conversely the less refined the language, the more truncated the thought process. This is precisely because of the fact that just as language is a means of communication, it is a means of reasoning. Many of the threads of thought arise from the meaning that is identified with linguistic units than from the bare facts-of-matter. Propaganda acts by simplifying and short-circuiting correct reasoning through the deficiencies inherent in the way languages of common use are structured.
Consider for instance the statement, “Human mind has great powers”. This statement arose out of a corruption of language usage, which assumes there is something called mind, just as there is something like heart or liver. This, in turn, arises from the flaw in language architecture, which does not aid to distinguish a virtual reality or a phenomenon from an objective reality or the source of the phenomenon. Since this lacuna is not clearly articulated we tend to reason that the mind is an object, which can have all the attributes of a “real” object. We call such items that look “real”, but is in fact “virtual”, artefacts (facts of one’s own creation; an invention by means of a biased interpretation of reality. For discussion on what constitutes “reality”, see the article Model Based Realism)
English Philosopher Alfred Ayer demonstrates that a whole expanse of metaphysical speculation arises out of confusions pertinent to the grammatical structure of language. He, together with Bertrand Russell extended the argument to the degree that it lends to reducing the whole process of philosophising as investigations into the manner in which language is used.
NONSENSE AND THE STRUCTURE OF LANGUAGE
The idea that LCU performs, albeit badly, as an apparatus of reasoning is very significant with regard to the question of developing a tool for propaganda analysis – for propaganda, many a time is a collection of propositions that have no standing when put together.
The reason for the poor information processing capacity of LCU is that there is no “in-built” tool in it which distinguishes a good argument from a bad argument. This provides enough scope for anyone with a good command of language to mislead people into reaching faulty conclusions. This ability of sabotaging the line of reasoning using “flair of language” is the crux of what is known as “rhetoric”.
Let us consider, for example, a statement rendered by a gentleman during a talk on Homeopathy – “In Homoeopathy, there are drugs for all diseases, but not for all patients.”
Although it sounds very pithy at the outset, the statement is a meaningless proposition. For one, the seat of the disease is the patient. And the disease cannot be treated outside of the patient. This very fact will make the statement unverifiable and thus nonsensical. Notwithstanding that, if you give allowance for a hypothetical situation in which someone could treat one patient with every conceivable disease, the statement remains unverifiable. The nature of the statement dictates that it is a principle, and a principle should have relevance across time – the past, present and future. Here, the person who delivered the statement can always assume immunity even if he is unable to cure a single patient after he has rendered the statement, thus making the statement unverifiable and therefore absurd.
It is important to clarify that a statement that cannot be falsified by any means is essentially a “nonsensical” statement.
For instance, the statement “today it may or may not rain” is not falsifiable because it involves all the possibilities that the statement can have. The statement is indeed always true. Yet it has to be considered nonsense.
On the contrary, the statement “today it may rain” is a falsifiable statement, because the statement carries a future situation that makes it liable to be proven or not. In other words, statements that can neither be proven or disproven have to be considered nonsensical statements.
In the classical treatise Language, Truth and Logic which gave birth to “logical positivism” Alfred Ayer gives quite a few examples of such nonsensical propositions.ii One instance cited is attributed to an idealist philosopher Bradman: “…..the absolute enters into, but doesn’t participate in evolution & progress…”
Ayer wonders whether this means anything at all. For one, we don’t know what this “absolute” is about, and for another we can never ascertain whether this unknowable absolute enters the process of evolution and participates in it or not!
Let us look at another passage by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
Philosophy must at all costs be idealistic; indeed, it must be so merely to be honest. For nothing is more certain than that no one ever came out of himself in order to identify himself immediately with things different from him; but everything of which he has certain, sure, and therefore immediate knowledge, lies within his consciousness. Beyond this consciousness, therefore, there can be no immediate certainty …
There can never be an existence that is absolutely objective in and of itself. Such an existence is positively inconceivable. For the objective, as such, always and essentially has its existence in the consciousness of a subject. It is the subject’s representation – consequently conditioned by the subject – and moreover by the subject’s forms of representation, which belong to the subject and not to the object.
According to Ayer, such statements have no meaning. They are just plain nonsense. They are the outcome of writers who get confused themselves and get entangled in the liberty provided by language and their own thoughts.
Although the creed of philosophers called logical positivists to which Ayer belonged had a decline, his statement on the nature of language remains true to a large extent. We come across a similar misuse of language in the writings of the so-called “postmodernist thinkers”. Physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have written a well-researched book on this. In the book, aptly titled Fashionable Nonsense, Sokal and Bricmont state that its subjects “manipulate phrases and sentences that are, in fact, meaningless”. They add that some of these authors exhibit a “veritable intoxication with words, combined with a superb indifference to their meaning.”
I shall quote a particularly hilarious passage to clarify the point. The following text is by Katherine Hayles, an interpreter of Luce Irigaray, a French feminist-psychoanalytic cultural theorist.
The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she ( Luce Irigaray) attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sexual organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids. Although men, too, flow on occasion-when semen is emitted, for example-this aspect of their sexuality is not emphasized. It is the rigidity of the male organs that counts. These idealizations are reinscribed in mathematics, which conceives of fluids as laminated planes and other modified solid forms. In the same way that women are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing only as not-men, so fluids have been erased from science, existing only as not-solids. From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conception of fluids ( and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated reminders.
Katherine Hayes seems to have “extracted” the above “meaning” from the original essay of Luce Irigaray which runs as follows:
—It is already getting around-at what rate? In what contexts? In spite of what resistances? – that women themselves according to modalities scarcely compatible with the framework of the ruling symbolics. What doesn’t happen without causing some turbulence, we might even say some whirlwinds, that ought to be reconfined within solid walls of principle, to keep them from spreading to infinity. Otherwise they might even go so far as to disturb that third agency designated as the real- a transgression and confusion of boundaries that it is important to restore to their proper order.
So we shall have to turn back to “science” in order to ask it some questions. Ask, for example, about its historical in elaborating a “theory” of fluids, and about the ensuing aporia even in mathematical formalization.
Now if we examine the properties of fluids, we note that this “real” may well include, and in large measure, a physical reality that continues to resist adequate symbolization and/or that signifies the powerlessness of logic to incorporate in its writing all the characteristic features of nature. And it has often been found necessary to minimize certain of these features of nature, to envisage them, and it, only in light of an ideal status, so as to keep it/them from jamming the works of the theoretical machine—
— And how are we to prevent the very unconscious (of the) “subject” from being propagated as such, indeed diminished in its interpretation, by a systematic that remarks a historical “inattention” to fluids? In other words: what structuration of (the) language does not maintain a complicity of long standing between rationality and a mechanics of solids?
Katherine Hayles’ work interpreting Luce Irigaray was titled Gender Encoding in Fluid Mechanics: Masculine channels and feminine flows. Irigaray titled her book on feminism as The ‘Mechanics’ of Fluids.
It was heroic of Sokal and Bricmont to get into the territory of postmodernist mumbo-jumbo and state that their utterances mean nothing. They did so in the late 1990s. Alfred Ayer did it much earlier in 1936. In fact, he was prescient of what was to come in the form of postmodernism.
Majority of these so-called “intriguing truths” that one finds hopelessly unintelligible are nothing but quagmires of linguistic excesses. Such examples of linguistic waywardness are so rampant in texts of idealistic philosophy that one finds enough reason to shelve them en masse into the dustbin of cultural history.
One example may suffice. A highly celebrated aphorism from Ishavasya Upanishad states: “if whole is taken from the whole, what remains is still the whole.” Again, although it may sound very profound at the outset, this statement directly defies all mathematical wisdom. For, if you tend to take the whole from whole what you get is definitely not the whole, but something less – and that is not the whole. The contrary will be true only if the whole you consider is either zero or infinity. However, in both these cases the statement can only be true as a literary statement, but not factually or conceptually. Reason one: zero cannot be considered as a whole. Reason two: both zero and infinity are virtual entities that have no real existence, ie. neither zero nor infinity is conceivable in the absence of a conceptual device like the numerical series.iii In other words, zero and infinity exist because of the peculiar make up of the numerical series than notwithstanding it, i.e. both these entities are conceptual virtual realities (or virtual reality of virtual reality).
Thus, the statement has to be absurd even if it has been framed with the object of the “whole” as zero or infinity, for the simple reason that any statement which is the virtual of the virtual cannot be a philosophical statement intended to explore the nature of the sensate world (sensate world is a world that is perceived through the means of sense organs).
Indeed, logical positivists like Alfred Ayer question the authority of philosophers to “explore” the “nature” of the sensate world thus denuding an area hitherto considered as their exclusive bastion. Instead, he highlights the job of philosophers as that of clarifying the significance and validity of linguistic terms vis-a-vis the purported meaning, and thus set the stage for philosophy as a tool which is as rigorous as that of mathematics.
This can be further clarified if we examine the significance of the process of reasoning, and then go on to substitute the conclusion with the status of reasoning in LCU.
Reasoning is the process of drawing a conclusion from a premise. It is the means by which we justify a proposition through a series of intermediary propositions based upon a foundation.
The proposition that is justified is the conclusion.
The foundation upon whose basis the proposition is justified is the premise.
In the process of reasoning the premise is an assumption and the conclusion the “fact”, drawn based on the assumption.
What aids this process of drawing a “fact” from an assumption is the series of propositions that come in-between the premise and the conclusion.
An argument can be a good argument or a bad argument depending on how the intermediary propositions are laid in relation each other and to the conclusion and the premise.
A bad argument means that the conclusion does not follow the premise.
And a good argument signifies that the conclusive facts necessarily follow the assumption of the premise.
To give an example – people see food items kept overnight without storage becoming stale and sometimes behaving as a poison. Seeing this phenomenon over multiple times, one may deduce – in the absence of knowledge about microorganisms and causes of putrefaction – that the “night” itself causes the food to be stale.
If the “night” has an agency of making food stale ( and therefore poisonous), one could also develop a “reasoned” strategy of understanding the eventuality of a complete solar eclipse, where the “night” reappears in the middle of the day. What would be the policy of handling food items when the night reappears for a short time during the regular daytime?
In this passage there are multiple logical errors.
The empirical observation is the “fact” of food becoming stale after overnight storage. Let’s call this the First Proposition.
An overwhelming phenomenon during night is night itself. If this idea ( of night being an agent in itself) and its linked correlation is joined together with the empirical observation (First Proposition) without employing a testing of a second proposition: “night” indeed has an agency of itself – by keeping the the same kind of food for the same duration in the morning hours, for multiple times, and deciding whether the item is affected by the change in the state where nightfall does not occur.
Here, we also need to know the independent rule that how many times the trial need to be conducted before the trial can be considered positive ( in daytime the food does not become stale irrespective of the duration of its stay), negative ( in the daytime the food becomes stale as quickly as it get spoiled in the night) or neutral ( in daytime the food sometimes become stale, sometimes it does not). One needs to know when to consider the trial’s results positive, negative or neutral as conclusively true for taking it as a “valid” intermediary proposition linking the phenomenon of night and the phenomenon of food getting stale.
If these kinds of independent rules of logic are not established, it is easy to give agency to night, and take the empirical observation of night and food getting stale as a “true” statement to be applied when you encounter a situation when daytime suddenly ceases for a few minutes (night as an agent reappearing unexpectedly). A bad argument is when these rules of interpreting empirical propositions are not regarded and people start to link items randomly as they wish.
An entire branch of thought has been laid down to decide what the necessary elements are which distinguish a good argument from a bad argument. The laws and principles of this body of thought is “logic”. In simple words, logic is nothing more than the necessary set of principles that help one distinguish a good argument from a bad one.
Logic never comments on the “fact” of the premise. Rather, it just helps to demonstrate whether a conclusion follows the premise. It is, as a rule, a unity; it exists independent of time, place and person. This is best exemplified by the statute of its formalised adaptation, mathematics, emerging in almost identical moulds in different civilisations, in different times but as surprisingly independent stretches of imagination. This universal validity of formal logic stems from the fact that it is nothing but a procedural convention developed to verify the consistency of reasoning; it does not comment on the facts of reasoning so much as the process of reasoning.
WHY DO WE NEED REASONING AND LOGIC?
The significance of the commentary of logic on the process of reasoning is rooted in certain modes through which knowledge has evolved. Reasoning as a process is necessary because of an inherent deficiency of human intellect. It points to the inability of human intellect to ascertain the full significance of a statement at first attempt. If we had infinite intellect, we would not require reasoning, things could have been grasped instantly. It’s like travelling in a car with a headlight that lights the road 50 metres ahead versus a car that has a headlight that illuminates up to 100 metres. The length of the head beam is the grasp, while the remaining assumption of the way further is arrived at by connecting the information shone by the length of the head beam. If people had infinite capacity of intellect – say if a human was ‘God’, they would not need the tools of reasoning. But as human intellect is limited, they need to have tools to connect bits of information. While reasoning is the tool, logic is the formal rule-based system that ensures correct methods of using the tool of reasoning.
Subject to the capacity of our intellect, a fact or a proposition drawn from it tends to have two levels of meaning: one explicit and the other implicit. The explicit meaning of the proposition is the evident meaning; while its implicit meaning is that which arises out of its relationship with the established body of knowledge.
Elucidation of the significance of the relationship of a proposition with other bodies of knowledge, is the process by which the implicit meaning of it is drawn out.This process of establishing the relationship of a given proposition with the established know-how is at the core of reasoning. Logic is the tool that lays the essential principles by which valid reasoning has to be carried out.
How eminently this process is carried out by a pure body of logic is illustrated by the history of mathematics as a tool of reasoning in a pure science like physics.
MATHEMATICS AS A TOOL OF REASONING
The pre-17th century occidental inquiry into the phenomena we come across in present-day physics was so full of wild speculations and blind dogmatism that one could easily compare it with any of the social sciences in their present state. The study of physics was regarded basically as a part of Aristotelian theology, and was largely restrained to the confines of textual interpretation of views laid down by the Ancient Greek veterans. The scope of controlled observation and its systemisation was absolutely unrecognised, and what was known as investigation into the nature of physical phenomena was nothing but a naive translation of nature “appearing” as is. With it came the interpretation of an “overtly revealing” universe, “explicitly” geocentric (for it was very obvious that sun & stars move around earth and not otherwise), platy-surfaced (no one could ever have doubted that earth was anything but flat to eternity) with an all- powerful man as the facsimile of god. ( See discussion on Scholasticism in In the Cradle of Renaissance)
Then came Kepler and Galileo. In all their works they questioned the validity of the Aristotelian method of physics cooked around “facts” as they appeared. For the first time they adapted what is now known as the spirit of scientific inquiry – of following an event through a series of observations, analysing the data by controlling variables and systematising it through the apparatus of mathematics. Perhaps for the first time it was recognised that what is explicit is not always true, and the essence of intellectual inquiry is to transcend the mirage of obviousness.
The singular tool that could be used to analyse things, notwithstanding their explicit reference, was the system of mathematics. Subsequently it was recognised that mathematics is indeed the only tool through which one could establish the unattended link between a number of discrete, controlled observations, thereby bringing about the significance of their relationship undistinguished when they are viewed just as they are. The validity of this process was so established that there is an entire clan of physicists devoted almost exclusively to theoretical reasoning, the tool of which is the system of mathematics. The significance accorded to this process of reasoning is such that a fact of observation is considered devoid of its conceptual elegance in the absence of a theoretical intervention that could reduce it into mathematical notations.
The result of this integration of mathematics and the study of physical phenomena is central to the colossal strides of physics as a discipline of “certain” knowledge. Needless to say, it is this toll of reasoning, which has elevated the garbage of Aristotelian theology to the marvel of modern physics.
THE RISE OF PHYSICS
The rise of physics to its current prominence now owes its due to its enormous capacity to undertake a process of theoretical prediction. Thus we see the phenomena of Bose-Einstein condensation which was predicted by pure theoretical deduction in the late 20s, took sixty years for it to be experimentally demonstrated. Quantum physics exemplifies the device of theoretical reasoning, running far beyond the “native”(obvious) reason of everyday life, so much so that many of its deductions, while eminently lucid in the pasture of mathematics, seem esoteric and mystical within the schemes of languages of common use.
This almost “supernatural” prowess for theoretical prediction that physics demonstrates, celebrates the capacity of the process of reasoning and thereby that of the laws of logic upon which it is structured.
THE PROCESS OF REASONING
Reasoning, we saw, is a process of drawing the implicit out of the explicit – a process of linking discrete information bits to the intricate matrix of a body of information and thereafter elucidating the significance or meaning of such a linkage. This means that the information regarding the phenomenon of B-E condensation was “there” even before Satyendra Bose and Albert Einstein put up their theoretical projection, but was unrecognised. It was unrecognised because the linkage between the information bits that carried the information regarding the phenomenon was not established. What Bose and Einstein did was to merely facilitate this linkage in the correct sequence so that what was implicit until that point suddenly became explicit.
Should the process of linking one proposition with another be faulty, the result of the investigation would be of no predictive value. Not only that, such instances of faulty constructions create fallacies that tend to build up on their own until they become “reality”. Unchallenged perpetuation of these lines of reasoning results in making things so intricate that at the end of the day one fails to see what is real and what is invented. Such invented facts are “artefacts”.
VIEWPOINTS, ARTEFACTS AND REASONING
Creation and perpetuation of artefacts is linked to the problem of interpretation, which, in turn, is a problem of faulty reasoning: Two different points of view arise out of a single subject matter because the reasoning of either or both, which lead to the viewpoints being faulty. In other words, if we adapt a strictly logically formatted tool as the device for reasoning, we can get, for a given amount of information, only one valid viewpoint.
But this does not mean that logic will ensure you a unity of viewpoint to eternity. Over a period, the amount and nature of information that is available for undertaking reasoning alters, and therefore the resultant viewpoint will also undergo change.To put it succinctly, logic ensures a unity of viewpoint up till a point of time, but may change over a period of time.
A comparison of the stature of knowledge in pure science as physics with that of any of the lesser disciplines shall clearly draw the distinction.
In physics, there can be any number of hypotheses, conceding to every tendency to speculate, but these speculations are never allowed to meddle too much with the body of knowledge that constitutes the discipline. Hypothesis, until and unless systematised with appropriate mathematical interventions is not given the validity accorded to finished products of knowledge termed as theorems.3 Theorems, by virtue of the mathematical fool-proofing it undergoes, never assume a multitude of positions for any identical period of time. They are the “certain truth”* until new breaks of information emerge to provide a better refinement for the truth.
In the absence of a rigorous tool of logic such as mathematics, such distinction between hypothesis and theorem would not exist as we see in the case of lesser sciences like biology or the humanities.iv In these branches of knowledge, a hypothesis, which can be nothing but fancies of unbridled imagination, squabble freely in the body of the discipline as if it is “definite” knowledge. This greatly compromises the validity of information conceptualised in the discipline. For a hypothesis is intended just to explain, while a theorem, thanks to the systemising machinery of logic it subscribes to, is endowed with a phenomenal capacity to predict. Moreover, there can be any number of hypotheses at a given point of time, all equally competent to explain the phenomenon it is supposed to, but nonetheless equally incompetent to be anything decisive beyond the plain act of interpretation. In other words, a hypothesis is just a resourceful imagination, while a theorem is the imagination approximated to certainty.
The cutting edge between pure imagination and its approximation to certainty is the device of logic, and it is only through logic that one can ascertain that what one thinks and feels (so-called intuition) as true is indeed true.
We see that the more a subject follows the rigorous conceptual discipline imposed by logic, the more successful the subject tends to be. Thus while we see physics at the tallest peaks of intellectual achievement, there are vagaries such as homeopathy (which summarily refute any nuance of logic), quivering in a quagmire of imprecision and indecisiveness. This gulf of disparity was foreseen by Immanuel Kant way back in the 18th century when he used to regard disciplines with no backing of mathematics as “a Science”, but not as “the Science” a position he exclusively granted to physics (“eine Wissenschaft, aber nicht Wissen schaft”).
This process of “short-circuiting” reasoning with a sleight of language is known as rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion using oratory skills. If logic helps to approximate truth, rhetoric lends to appropriate it. Through its means, it sabotages whatever vestige of logic there is in the language of common use. Indeed it is the single most important trump card every politician, evangelist and military man uses as a tool of survival. And quite often, this treacherous trump card wins even as the whole pantheon of reason and rationality looks on.
A tool to analyse propaganda means a tool to question the ghost of all things familiar – whether it is religion, politics, military or ad firms. But such an effort appears sacrilegious, as the ghosts of our familiarity have become more real than reality itself.
i. This example was actually used by a busy homeopathy practitioner in a speech, delivered in an informal discussion club in Calicut Medical College two decades ago.
ii. In 1999, just after my graduation, I came across Alfred Ayer’s book Language, Truth and Logic. This book was a sort of watershed in my understanding of the literary world. Ayer provocatively stated that many things written and considered as “part” of great philosophies is just “nonsense”. Many of these so-called philosophies arise as a result of confusion in the usage of language, and can be deciphered only when we know the limitation of our language and our ability to know. This present article is an updated version of the article published in a student magazine of Calicut Medical College 1999. The article was evidently inspired by Alfred Ayer’s statement on nonsenses in languages. However, the article extends the argument well beyond the territory initially articulated by Ayer. In many ways, this article and the thoughts discussed in it has been a “torchlight” through which I saw the world ever since.
iii. I have seen distinguished science communicators using the example of division of any number by zero as a phenomenon as daunting as issues around the “Event Horizon” in cosmology. The issue of division by zero is an artieact of the way numerical system is created. It is a no-problem. To distinguish artefactual problems from real problems is itself a Herculean work in the “art ( and science)” of accurate communication through LCU.
iv. Theorem is an established statement in mathematics. The term is not really used in physics. But as mathematics is closely linked to physics, I am using the term here for illustration purpose. I plan to revise the term if I come across more appropriate terminology.