Word games and mythtical truth – part one

Every couple of weeks or so, I get an email from somebody claiming to have discovered some fundamental and important truth or another, particularly if it disagrees with something that I have written here. These “truths” usually fall into one of two categories. The first type comes under the heading of “gibberish”. Not just a silly idea, but actual, honest-to-goodness, incomprehensible gibberish. The second type comes in the form of some kind of simplistic philosophical platitude, which, if “Occult 101” was an actual class, would be taught in the first week, but these are stated with a revelatory air as if the correspondent is the first person in the universe to have ever had such an idea.

This week, I received on of the second type. It was in response to the Let there be no difference made entry, and I quote:

There is only one thing (ararita)
Every single part of this one thing is inherently the entire thing.

(Not surprisingly, the email actually began with the words “I did not read your entire story about this bit…Well, actually i only read the start”, which is never a promising explanation for someone claiming to be offering a better explanation of what was written.)

There are a couple of fundamental errors which are revealed by this “explanation” and which warrant elucidation. Each of these errors will be dealt with in a separate entry.

My initial response to the individual went along these lines: the explanation, as given is inherently contradictory. The statement “there is only one thing” cannot peacefully co-exist alongside the second statement, “every single part of this one thing”, because each of those parts is a thing in itself, and if each part were not a thing in itself, then there would be no parts. This elicited the response:

Being one thing does not at all preclude there being different parts of this one thing.

(As an aside, we can instantly notice the not-so-subtle change in argument from “there is only one thing” to “being one thing”. After all, it’s much easier to demonstrate that one can be one thing than to demonstrate that there only is one thing, so why not simply pretend that was the argument from the beginning and save some trouble?)

The error in question is an extremely common one, particularly among occultists, and I will state it here simply before examining it in more detail: all too often, people believe themselves to have discovered some kind of fundamental “truth”, whereas what they’ve actually discovered is an amusing word game.

It is easy to see the attraction of a statement like “there is only one thing”. After all, if we look at an apple we can see some pips, a core, some flesh, some skin, a stalk, and perhaps a leaf or two also, but the whole package together is “one apple”. We could also put a bunch of them together, and say that there is “one bushel of apples”. If we can do this, why not go as far as we can, and say there is “one universe”, and everything else is merely a part of it?

As far as it goes, there is nothing particularly wrong with a statement like this. The problem comes when one mistakes it for a “truth”, because when one does that, one falls into the trap of believing that the statement “there is only one thing” renders false the statement “there is more than one thing”. If the statement “there is only one thing” was a truth, then the statement “there is more than one thing” would be false, but since the former statement is not a truth, then the latter statement is not false. What we have with a statement like “there is only one thing” is not a truth, but a word game.

It is, of course, trivially demonstrable that there is more than one thing; as we already saw, the statement “every single part of this one thing is inherently the entire thing” requires that this be so. With the example of the apple, we saw how on the one hand there were pips, skin, leaves etc., but on the other hand there was one apple. At first glance this appears to be a paradox; we would seem to simultaneously have both “one thing” and “many things”. How can we solve this apparent paradox?

Well, we can “solve” it by abandoning the poison of philosophy that gives rise to its appearance in the first place – and it is a mere appearance. The reality is that there is no paradox, and the reason that there is no paradox is because neither “there is only one thing” nor “there are many things” are truth statements. A “thing” is an invention of the mind; it is nothing other than an arbitrary boundary drawn around a portion of perception by the mind and given an appearance of individuality for the purposes of processing. We can perceive an apple as a single thing, or we can perceive it as two or more things, at our leisure. Similarly, we can perceive a table as a single thing, or we can imagine it as the collection of millions of atoms that it is (it is considerably harder to actually perceive the atoms which make up a table).

Thus, individuality – the quality of being one – is something created by the mind, and it is not inherent to anything in reality itself. There is no a priori reason why a boundary should be drawn anywhere in particular, including at the outside edge. In the absence of a perceiving consciousness there is no distinction between “this” and “that”. It’s possible, of course, to argue that there is a “difference” between the tightly packed collection of atoms that make up a bar of gold and the far more loosely packed collection of atoms comprising the air immediately above it, but there is absolutely no reason why this difference should be taken as the boundary of “individuality”, any more than the boundaries between a lump of steel, a lump of gold and a lump of glass should prevent an object containing all three of them from being an individual watch.

As we have already said, this is a very basic idea, and any student who is not a complete dunce will have come across this idea very early on in their training. Where people get into trouble with this idea is that after concluding that there is no physical reason to place a boundary anywhere, then it follows that there aren’t any boundaries, and that therefore “there is only one thing”. Anyone who comes to this conclusion needs to read their own idea more carefully. We said earlier that a “thing”, in this context, is what is inside a boundary placed somewhere arbitrarily by the mind. If there is no physical reason to place a boundary anywhere, then there are no boundaries of this kind “out there” in reality, and if there are no boundaries then there isn’t “one thing” at all; there are no things. (Incidentally, it is particularly curious that Thelemites make this mistake, since The Book of the Law spells this out pretty clearly in AL I, 27: “O Nuit, continuous one of Heaven, let it be ever thus; that men speak not of Thee as One but as None”.)

Let us be very careful to point out precisely the error that is being made, here. The beginner quite correctly points out that it is erroneous to think that “things” have any kind of absolute individuality – any essential “thinginess” – outside of perception. But, immediately following this, he makes that exact same error himself by asserting that “therefore there is only one thing”. He asserts the existence of a thing by denying the existence of things.

This is an excellent example of the dangers one can get into with philosophy, and if one refrains from confusing oneself with this discipline, then it turns out to be trivially easy to resolve this error. It is, as we have said, erroneous to think that “things” have any kind of absolute individuality outside of perception. Yet, that being said, it is perfectly correct – leaving questions of epistemology aside – to say, for instance, that “this apple exists”, or, to substitute a less definite noun, “this thing exists”. The apparent contradiction is resolved when we remark that when we say “this thing exists”, the individuality of the object in question is simply not being asserted. The word “apple” or “thing” is, in this context, being used simply to refer to a chosen subset of reality, and purely for the sake of discursive convenience it is being temporarily allocated a degree of oneness or individuality.

And that, right there, is the root of the error which was introduced at the beginning of this entry. A phrase such as “this apple exists” does not assert the metaphysical individuality of the apple in question, but when someone responds with “aha! this apple doesn’t exist, because there is only one thing!” they are mistakenly assuming that it is being asserted. They are, in short, not responding to the actual meaning of the statement in question, but to one that they have just invented.

This is not an easy concept for people to grasp, so we’ll break it down and take it piece by piece. The phrase “this thing exists” is a factual statement, asserting the reality of what is within the boundary that has been created – again, for convenience – by the mind. The individuality of that subset of reality is not asserted in this statement, and the existence or non-existence of that individuality is wholly irrelevant to the question of whether or not the subset itself exists. The phrase “there is only one thing” is not a factual statement, because as we have explained, individuality is not factual, but imaginary. This doesn’t mean that “there is only one thing” is a gibberish statement, just that it does not assert truth, and statements don’t have to. “Strawberries taste good” is another example of a perfectly valid statement that is, nevertheless, not factual; “I think that strawberries taste good” could well be a factual statement, on the other hand.

The problem is that the two statements – “this thing exists”, and “there is only one thing” – look sufficiently similar as to induce people into thinking that they are contrary. Because “this thing exists” is a factual statement, and “there is only one thing” looks like a factual statement that contradicts it, the correspondent in question – as many others do – made the mistake of believing that “there is only one thing” is a factual statement, and hence the error has taken root. A non-factual statement was incorrectly used to refute a factual statement simply because the two statements looked similar enough to give the impression that this was a valid approach, when it wasn’t.

What really happens in this type of example, when this type of confusion on the basis of appearance is made, is that people mistake words for reality, hence the deliberate choice of the phrase “amusing word game”, as which this error was initially described. The statement “this thing exists” referred to something real, but when the statement “there is only one thing” was used to refute it, it is not that reality that was being refuted, merely the words. The latter statement was not refuting the former’s meaning, only its appearance. I was recently criticised by Ian Rons as “tend[ing] to provoke tedious epistemological argument” for insisting that the meanings as opposed to the appearances of words be understood, and we shall see an example of his shortly showing precisely how failure to do this leads to error. (Moreover, the epistemological arguments which are “provoked” are provoked precisely because people fail to attend to the meanings of words, and as a result default to – incorrectly – assuming that if the appearance of words is challenged, then epistemology can only be what is at issue.)

As stated, this can be a difficult concept to grasp, and some readers will likely be struggling at this point, so we’ll provide a few more examples to make the point clearer. Probably the most famous is Anselm’s ontological “proof” of the existence of (the Christian) god. For those readers unfamiliar with this proof, it goes something like this:

  1. It is possible to imagine a being of which nothing “greater” can be conceived, which we call “God”. Even an atheist can at least imagine such a being.
  2. Existence is greater than non-existence.
  3. Therefore God existing is greater than God not-existing.
  4. Therefore this being that you are imagining – of which “nothing greater can be conceived” – exists, by definition, because if it didn’t you’d be able to conceive of a being which would be greater, which you’ve already admitted you aren’t doing.
  5. Therefore you are conceiving of a being which exists, and not a being which doesn’t exist.
  6. Since we defined this being to be God, therefore God exists. Q.E.D.

Got it? If you’re thinking “huh?” at this point, you’re on the right track. Amazingly, at least one modern popular introduction to philosophy asserts that “it is not easy to see precisely what is wrong with [the ontological argument]”. It is, in fact, perfectly obvious to see what is wrong with the argument, which is the fact that beings don’t spring into existence just because we conceive of them. It is a testament to human idiocy that anybody could have been fooled, even for a moment, by this utter nonsense. (Amusingly, it is possible to “prove” that God does not exist using a very similar argument, by remarking that a being capable of creating the universe while not even having to exist is clearly far greater than a being who has to restrict himself to lowly existence in order to do it.)

The applicability of this example arises from the fact that what is being attempted is the drawing of conclusions about reality from the appearances of words. To be convinced by the ontological argument, it is imperative that one not give a moment’s thought to the actual meanings of the words being used, because if one does then the argument crumbles instantly. For starters, one has to completely ignore the meaning of “greater”, both to blindly assert that one can conceive of such a being, and to accept that existence is “greater” than non-existence. If one were to stop at the end of the first point of the argument and say, “wait a minute, what do you mean by ‘greater’?” then the second point would never be reached. If you stopped for a moment to think about point number five, you might think along these lines:

  1. I can conceive a Ferrari belonging to me of which no greater Ferrari belonging to mecan be conceived.
  2. A Ferrari which belongs to me and exists is greater than a Ferrari which belongs to me that doesn’t.

As soon as you made the logical next step to “so, where’s my Ferrari then?” the ontological argument would cease to hold any mystery for you. And that’s even before we get to the fact even if such a “great” being does exist, it doesn’t follow that he is benevolent, that he send his son down to die for our sins, and all the rest of it which this “proof” is apparently supposed to demonstrate.

Thus, the “proof” only holds power to the extent that the meanings of the words used in it are deliberately ignored, and appearances only are taken in account (and even those only cursorily). Just an in the original example, a belief about reality has simply sprouted up by a failure to understand that appearances of words do not align perfectly with reality.

A second example was committed, as advertised by Ian Rons, in the same thread referenced in this post (where he, still smarting over the last time he made himself look silly by arguing with me, correctly perceived that his chips weren’t looking for a second time, and accordingly took preemptive action to forcibly head off another embarrassment.) As discussed in the original post, the discussion turned to “testing” the theory that “Chokmah days” – 73 day periods – delineated one’s life in a meaningful way by “observ[ing] the events of your own life with reference to the suggested pattern” as another rather clueless poster suggested. Naturally, this is not a meaningful “test” because the theory directly implies that these periods are meaningful for everyone; if this were not the theory, then it would be absurd for someone to take another’s suggestion that one “test it to find out”. As should be obvious to everyone, it is not possible to sensibly test whether such a period has universal or even widespread applicability by restricting one’s observations to a single individual, and especially not when one avoids repeating the exercise for a number of other randomly selected periods to make sure one is not just finding “patterns” wherever one chooses to look. This observation provoked the following comment from Rons:

You assume that the combined experiences of more than one human are qualitatively different from those of one [Note: I assume nothing of the sort, as should be clear to any sane observer, but Ian struggles to stay on point – EH]. There is, in fact, nothing inherently true about this assumption; rather, it would seem to be prima facie true that personal experience is in fact the only experience for any of us. To utterly dismiss it is to dismiss everything as subjective in a big puff of smoke; but if everything is subjective, then experiencing life in 73 day periods exists as one equally valid experience amongst an infinite variety.

The important point to understand about the error in this particular comment is that the same word can refer to different things. In particular, the word “objective” can refer to different things. One meaning of the word is “existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality”. Another wholly separate meaning of the word is “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased”. Now, it should be clear to any day-one philosophy student that ultimately everything we know or experience is confined to the mind, and in this sense it is true that “everything is subjective” as Rons points out. But, as we have just seen, it is not true that “everything is subjective” when using the word “objective” in the second quoted sense. In this second sense, it is eminently possible, for instance, to reliably determine that the earth orbits around the sun (from the perspective of the solar system and the centre of the galaxy – no tedious appeals to general relativity and the lack of absolute space, please) instead of the other way round which is how it is usually “subjectively” interpreted. Similarly, it is just as possible to reliably (reliably, not absolutely, but this is unimportant – refer to Go-Go-Godel! for more) determine that a reported subjective experience of, say, “talking to God”, is objectively false. On a more trivial level, studies into areas as diverse as witness testimony and optical illusions demonstrate quite conclusively that people often “subjectively experience” things which are objectively not there.

The mistake that Rons makes – and be under no illusion, this mistake is absolutely huge for anyone interested in acquiring expertise in the “occult” field – is once again to mistake words for reality. He reasons that since “all is subjective” in the sense of the first definition given above, then all must be subjective in the sense of the second definition also, and he makes this logical error simply because those two concepts share the same label. He leaps from one concept to the other instantly and flawlessly, because he is paying attention to the words, and not to the concepts that they represent. Thus, when he claims that “experiencing life in 73 day periods exists as one equally valid experience amongst an infinite variety”, he has not discovered the truth that he believes himself to have discovered, but he is merely playing an amusing word game. And this, let us remember, from the individual who attempted to rebuke me (in absentia, naturally) for “tend[ing] to provoke tedious epistemological argument”! Ian could have easily identified and avoided his error if only he’d taken the time to understand the meanings of the terms under discussion instead of attempting to find truth in words, as I consistently advise people to do.

John Crow commits a substantially identical error in the discussion referred to in The occultist’s worship of gaps, which can be seen in its entirety on John’s blog. With regards to whether or not one enjoys the taste of strawberries, Crow remarks that “it cannot be tested objectively”. Again, in the “unbiased” sense of “objective” it certainly can be “tested objectively”, very easily indeed. As I said in my response, “I think you’re confusing yourself with philosophical concepts and losing a sense of perspective, here, because from where I’m sitting it’s trivially easy to an almost astonishing degree for me to discover beyond any conceivable doubt whether or not I enjoy the taste of strawberries. Whether or not somebody else can objectively test whether or not I enjoy the taste of strawberries is entirely irrelevant; I have determined that I enjoy it free from bias, and therefore I’ve determined it objectively.” To understand John’s error we need to introduce a third meaning of “subjective”, which is “pertaining to or characteristic of an individual; personal; individual.” Whether or not one enjoys the taste of strawberries is indeed a “subjective evaluation”, but this has absolutely no bearing on whether it can be objectively tested in an “unbiased” sense, because the concept of “subjective” in the first sense has absolutely nothing to do with the concept of “objective” in the second sense. Just as Ian did, John leaps to an incorrect conclusion due to confusing distinct concepts which happen to share the same name, and just as Ian did, John is not stating a truth in his comment, but is playing an amusing word game.

With these three additional examples under our belt, we should be in a better position to understand the original error: “all too often, people believe themselves to have discovered some kind of fundamental ‘truth’, whereas what they’ve actually discovered is an amusing word game.” In the original case and in all three of the additional examples, the error resulted from drawing conclusions based on words instead of based on the underlying reality that those words represent:

  1. In the original example, the correspondent made the mistake of attempting to refute a factual statement with a non-factual statement, purely because they looked similar, and arrived at a factually incorrect conclusion (i.e. “there is only one thing”) because of it;
  2. In the first illustration, Anselm made the mistake of incorrectly concluding that his God – along with all his traditional attributes – exists because he constructed an “argument” which, while being utter gibberish, nevertheless looked kinda clever to him; and
  3. In both the second and third illustrations Ian and John arrived at factually incorrect conclusions by mistakenly transferring conclusions drawn on the basis of one concept so that they were believed to apply to wholly separate concepts which just happened to share the same name in the English language.

As we constantly stress on this web site, it is critically important for anybody seeking expertise in this field – remember, the “occultist” is supposed to be discovering that which is hidden, not hiding that which is in plain sight as most often happens – to pay attention to reality as opposed to the imaginary universe which they have constructed in their minds. In all of the examples and illustrations we have described in this entry we have seen concrete occurrences of the imaginary representative world becoming even more divergent from the real one as a result of drawing incorrect conclusions because of paying attention to words – which are mental “imaginary” representative constructs – instead of paying attention to the reality that they are purported to represent. In the case of the “subjective-objective” debate which, via the “create your own personal reality” crowd has resulted in a vast and almost fatally pollution of the study of reality with which “occultism” is supposed to be concerned, just one, tiny error of this sort can and routinely does result in a complete and frankly bizarre misunderstanding of the subject down to its very fundamentals.

There is a second error illustrated in the original example which is responsible for the transformation of the study of the “occult” into a worthless and puerile endeavour, and it is to this second error that we shall now turn.

4 Comments on “Word games and mythtical truth – part one”

By alectrum. August 22nd, 2008 at 10:25 pm

Spelling mistake in header. Mythtical?

Works fine with a slight lisp. ;)

By Erwin. August 22nd, 2008 at 10:32 pm

Spelling mistake in header.


Works fine with a slight lisp.

See, this should have been your first clue that the spelling was deliberate.

I’m certainly not immune to making typos as any regular reader of this blog will attest. However, you may safely assume that I’d spot something that blatant, which means it’s thinking time for you. Reading the second part will help you, once it’s up, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to come up with a good guess.

By alectrum. August 25th, 2008 at 9:00 am

I did assume if the spelling was deliberate Monty Python, but do you really want me to make assumptions about your abilities? And if so – where would you like me to stop? When you decide that the imaginary picture I have in my head that represents Mr Erwin Hessle has diverged from reality?

By Erwin. August 25th, 2008 at 4:51 pm

I did assume if the spelling was deliberate Monty Python, but do you really want me to make assumptions about your abilities? And if so – where would you like me to stop?

As you said yourself, you started with the assumptions, so what are you asking me for? As for what I “want you to do”, you can do what you like, I don’t care.

If you are going to make assumptions, then at least have the gumption to make the best ones you can. If your choice comes down to the two mutually exclusive options:

1. Erwin screwed up; or
2. Erwin didn’t

then yes, plumping for (2) is going to land you in the “correct assumption” camp considerably more than 50% of the time.

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