A ‘News’letter About Nothing—and Everything
Reality is infinitely more complex than the words we use to make sense of it.
Dear Reader (Including those of you who couldn’t spell “murraya” until this week),
When I was a kid in grade school—third grade, I think—we had an English assignment where we were supposed to write a story in class using all of the sense and action verbs we could think of. “Johnny smelled the flowers as he walked to school,” or something like that.
Ever the rebellious spirit, I wrote a story about a “man who did nothing.” “There once was a man who saw nothing, tasted nothing, heard nothing, did nothing” etc. I filled a couple pages with variations on this.
Now, I thought I was a genius. I finished first, and used the most verbs with the least amount of exposition. It was like the literary equivalent of that wager where you say, “I bet you I can say all 50 states in 20 seconds.”
Then once the sucker takes the bet, you say, “All 50 states.”
In other words, I Kobayashi-Maru’d that mofo, though neither of those terms were in my vocabulary at the time.
Alas, the teachers didn’t see it that way. They called my parents, deeply concerned that this may be some sort of cry for help. Such nihilism! Such existential dread for a kid in a terry cloth T-shirt with a bowl haircut.
I bring this up mostly to talk about nothing.
I thought my meditation on nothing was really something to be proud of. Which brings me—duh—to the issue of doughnuts. Or, really, the fascinating nullity at the heart of the doughnut: the doughnut hole.
Is a doughnut hole a thing? I don’t mean the pastries our capitalist overlords have dubbed “doughnut holes,” which, if you think about it, are really just beignets. I mean the hole in the center of a dougnut. Is it a thing? I think it is. But it’s also nothing. Its very meaning is defined by the absence of a doughnut at the center of a doughnut. When you eat the doughnut, you don’t eat the doughnut hole, and yet by eating the doughnut you also destroy the doughnut hole. How can something be simultaneously nothing and something at the same time?
Let me back up. I recently came across the term dialetheism, and I’m a little embarrassed to say I didn’t know what it meant. So I poked around and found this great short discussion about the metaphysics of nothing (which I’m indebted to for this utterly indefensible “news”letter—at least so far—as well the first couple minutes of the Ruminant this week).
Anyway, a “dialetheia” is simply a statement that is both true and false, aka a contradiction. Now, contradictory statements are all over the place. Yogi Berra was famous for them. “When I came to a fork in the road, I took it.” “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
English actually has a word for words that are contradictory: It’s contronym. You may have heard me rant about the word “sanction,” which means to allow and to punish. But there are scores of them.
Buckle means to connect and to fall apart.
Custom is a common practice and a special order.
Dust means to sprinkle small stuff on something and to remove the small stuff.
Fix can mean to repair or restore or to geld.
Garnish can mean to add some extra stuff, or to remove something (like garnished wages).
Left can mean to depart and to remain.
Rock conveys solidity and shaking.
I could keep throwing out examples, even though “throw out” means both to get rid of something and to present it.
Of course, these are just words. And words are weird. They may help us describe reality, but they aren’t real, if you know what I mean. They help us make sense of the world, but they can also fill our heads with nonsense. “My sister is jealous of me because I’m an only child” is a contradictory statement because it’s nonsense. Meanwhile, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” isn’t a nonsense statement; it just conveys meaning in a funny way.
Sometimes, nonsense statements serve as windows into the limits of language and logic. (Which reminds me: What do you call a waterfowl that spies on you from behind a window curtain? A peeking duck.)
The best example of this is the “liar’s paradox.” If I say, “This statement is a lie,” am I telling the truth? If you believe I’m telling the truth then the statement is a lie. But if you think I’m lying then the statement is the truth. And if you’re one of Harry Mudd’s android friends, thinking about this too much will cause you to self-destruct.
[Note: An earlier version of this “News”letter incorrectly referred to Harvey Mudd — which is a college in California, not a 23rd century rogue. I regret the error.]
Most of these paradoxes are kind of like the warnings at the edges of medieval maps that declared, “Here there be monsters,” or the sudden appearance of a black cat in the Matrix. They give us a glimpse of the limits of language to describe a reality that is often infinitely more complex than the mouth sounds we use to make sense of it.
Still, the question remains: Can actual contradictions exist in the real world that lies beyond the world of words? Can things both exist and not exist or be true and untrue all at once?
Formal logic says, “Nope.” Such things would violate one of the three laws of thought, namely the law of noncontradiction. As Aristotle put it: “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”
A dialetheist is someone who believes such contradictions exist. The doughnut hole is both nothing and something defined by its nothingness. Zero is both a thing and not a thing, and it’s not-thingyness is what makes it such a powerful thing.
I know this will shock people, but I’m not an expert in quantum mechanics. But one of the reasons this fascinates me is that it seems to violate the law of noncontradiction, the way a violent, crapulent orgy of priests and rabbis would violate Judeo-Christian morality. Tiny junk can be in two places at once and exist in different forms at the same time. Unrelated, unconnected particles can seem awfully related and connected. Einstein dismissed this as “spooky action at a distance.” But quantum computing is trying to harness precisely this sort of thing.
Of words and things.
Whenever I try to understand quantum mechanics I get a similar headache to the ones I get when I try to figure out the plot of the movie Syriana or resolve the contradictions of Lost. I also get a newfound appreciation for Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
So let’s pretend this “news”letter is a burning plane full of rage zombies or vegans desperate to explain why you should give up bacon: Bail out while the bailing is good, and parachute back down to the world of words.
I think a lot of our problems today can be attributed to the confusion of words for things. When I started working on Liberal Fascism, a philosopher acquaintance of mine gave me some advice: “Don’t confuse words for things.” What he meant is that there are many labels people use to distort reality rather than describe it. If you compare what fascists did to what communists did, it quickly becomes apparent that the two things, while not identical, are far closer to identical things than opposite ones.
I’ve come to believe that we have a horrible glut of people who manipulate language for a living. I don’t just mean writers, though many are guilty of what I’m talking about (or, what I’m about to talk about). I mean the caste of people in our surplus of elites who think they can change reality by changing the language we use to describe it. Get everyone to use “birthing person” instead of “mother” and—ta da!—the massive storehouse of meaning the m-word represents will just disappear or be requisitioned in the way we want.
Perhaps the best example of this was the “Sokal affair,” in which Alan Sokal, a physicist, submitted an article to the journal Social Text in which he claimed that physical reality is merely “a social and linguistic construct.” The idea of “an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being” was merely “dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook.”
This was catnip for hermeneuticists, postmodernists, and critical theorists—fields that have important things to say but often veer into the fallacy of thinking that words have some magical power over reality. That’s what Sokal was trying to demonstrate by submitting his deliberately ridiculous paper. He succeeded.
But while the incident is largely forgotten, the phenomenon Sokal exposed is everywhere—and not just among pointy-headed academics. Some of it is about power. As Orwell tells us in 1984, if you control the language, you control the argument, which means you control how reality is perceived. “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Syme tells Winston. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’”
At least this sort of enterprise has a certain cynical honesty to it. Lying and manipulating words for social control has been part of politics since the concept of the political was invented. Heck, it’s what made George Lakoff rich.
But the bigger problem isn’t that people are lying to manipulate people with words, it’s that they’re telling the truth as they see it. For a couple of generations now, we’ve been teaching some of our smartest young people that their interpretations of texts are entirely valid as long as they feel their interpretations are true. You can’t read Tom Sawyer because it has a demonic word in it, even though the larger meaning of the text stands in opposition to what the n-word stands for. I’m sure the linguistic commissars trying to ban the word “trigger” from trigger warnings believe they’re right.
And that’s the problem. We’ve moved from thinking texts are infinitely interpretable to thinking the world at large is just another text to be manipulated and reinterpreted.
In The Decadent Society, Ross Douthat argues that innovation in the intangible world of words and images—including the vistas of digital adventures—has overtaken innovation in the physical world. Or, as Peter Thiel once put it, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Of course, since he said that, Twitter has advanced to 280 characters while flying cars are still mostly on the drawing board.
Indeed, Twitter is a perfect illustration of my point. Denizens of political Twitter routinely mistake it for reality. Will Saletan pointed out something striking to me yesterday: Bernie Sanders won among Twitter users in the Democratic primaries, which would explain why so many of his fans on Twitter couldn’t understand how he lost.
The primary driver of politicized unreality is romantic in nature—by which I mean it’s driven by feelings.
I understand that people have always wanted the truth to be what they desire. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Wish is the father of the thought.” But it just seems to me that there was a time when people understood that calling a rose by any other name wouldn’t change its smell. I don’t think that’s as true as it once was.
The combination of the intellectual wet market that is our digital age with generations of educational indoctrination that elevates feelings over facts has led to a world where serious—or once serious—people can claim the 2020 election was stolen because they want it to be true. The lack of evidence for the theft is ackshually evidence of the conspiracy to hide it. People who aren’t black or Korean can “identify” as black or Korean because their feelings tell them it’s true. Others claim that blacks are suffering from “genocide” at the hands of police, that surgical masks are equivalent to the yellow stars of the Holocaust, or that vaccines make you magnetic. Activists say that men can have babies because it’s too hurtful to surrender to the Enlightenment-fueled hegemony of physical reality.
Indeed, the ongoing war on Enlightenment principles is perhaps the grandest example of people confusing words for things. According to a lot of eggheads, starting with Rousseau, the Enlightenment poisoned the mind of the West and the only way to liberate ourselves is to do away with the ideological chains we inherited from it. Now, I’m not going to deny that the Enlightenment changed the way we think. But it primarily changed the way we think by illuminating reality (hence the term “Enlightenment”). The words and concepts created by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution weren’t used to control reality a la 1984. They were words and concepts that allowed us to better understand the real world.
Sure, some people are just at war with the words and concepts we get from the Enlightenment, but a lot of them mistake the illuminated reality for mere words that are as malleable as we want them to be.
Indeed, if the greatest accomplishments of Western civilization get in the way of our feelings, then it’s Western civilization that has to go. For instance, if you think fatphobia is evil and the only way to get rid of it is to dismantle Western civilization, then you have no choice but to grab a crowbar.
Words are not nothing, but they’re far from everything. We’re creating a world where we think words have eldritch energies that can transform reality if we really, really mean it—and take as much offense as possible when people disagree. Maybe we need a Goldberg’s law: “Any sufficiently self-absorbed society will use language as if it’s indistinguishable from magic.”
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Zoë and Pippa were very glad I came home from my 10,000 year trip (three days in human time). The girls are getting really terrified about all the thunder. I don’t know why this happens to dogs when they get older, but it’s been true of every dog we’ve had (and yes, we’ve tried Thundershirts). The Fair Jessica bathed them both without me this afternoon, for which I’m grateful. But I’m not sure gratitude alone will make it up to her. The good news is that they now smell quite nice—a bit like corn chips in a bowl that used to have potpourri in it. They still don’t understand what the fuss about stinkiness is. Pippa can’t seem to get enough TLC and still doesn’t understand that the car cannot move when she’s in the driver’s seat. Zoë is still obsessed with her frog. Gracie, meanwhile, is still not getting the minimal amount of attention she feels she deserves.
And now, the weird stuff