Volume 13, No. 1
November 2000

Mercurial Matters

Annual Meetings

Letters to the Editor

Urban Legends & the Challenges of Standardization

Paul Israel Wins Dexter Prize

Email & Website Report

An Artificial Line, or Technology as Spectrology

A Daemon in Her Shape

Lincoln Labs Turns 50

Vogue Picture Records

Media Ecology Book Awards

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Truth & Myth & “Firsts”

To the Editors:

The stimulating remarks of Pamela Laird and Dag Spicer in two recent Antenna issues1 stimulated some thoughts in my mind that I’d like to share with my fellow Mercurians. I should warn the reader that my aim is not to deprive myself or anyone else of a belief in a supreme absolute Truth, although we may not arrive at it; it is deeply rewarding to strive to approach that Truth as much as we can.

Let me first state that Western society is based largely on “yes or no,” “true or false” decisions. We live in a “Boolean society.” The opposite of a Boolean society is an “ecstatic society,” in which reality is not broken down into pieces. Erwin Schrödinger would say that any decision destroys reality. Reality, in an ecstatic society, is taken as an indivisible Whole. The individual wants to be part of the whole, uniting with (and enjoying being annihilated in) the Whole.

In a Boolean society, knowledge means analyzing, dividing, and organizing. It means letting the left hemisphere of the brain take command and making an unending series of “yes or no” and “true or false” decisions. Conversely, in an ecstatic society, our right hemisphere, with its holistic and emotional (somewhat artistic) perception of reality, takes command. We all have moments of ecstasy, such as when we contemplate a summer sunset or make love or practice meditation using any of the acclaimed oriental techniques. “Ecstasy,” incidentally, means “union” in Greek.

In a Boolean society, there are numbers, there is competition, there is language, and time exists. Therefore, there are “firsts.” There are winners and losers, and there are bigger and smaller, along with all the derivations and variations of those words, words that are simply derived from the Boolean observation of reality.2

Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy warns us: “Consider your breed; you were not made to live like beasts, but to follow virtue and knowledge.”3 Thus, following virtue and knowledge is what we were created for. Virtue, however, adds quality to knowledge itself. It must be good knowledge, because it must aim to achieve the Truth and the Good.

I refer, of course, to the heroic times of Boolean society, long before the not too distant times in which lawyers and public relation managers became the major actors modifying our perception of reality, through their ability to play with words as well as, if necessary, through cruel interventions to modify reality itself. In this way, they create myths. All of this is carried out in exchange for huge amounts of money. As U. S. President John Kennedy maintained: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.”4

Let me add that the other enemy of truth is Communism. It still survives. Communism denies the individual and his or her achievements. It maintains that any achievement is the result of a group collaboration. There was a time in Europe when “the group” pretended to undergo examinations in school, claiming a score “for the group,” not “for the individual.” This has caused culture deterioration as well as discouragement and hindrance of valuable individuals in some countries.

“What is so compelling about being first?” Pamela asked. One answer may be “Reward from our (Boolean) society.” Christians may have a problem, because (not much different from Communism), they believe that in a better (ecstatic) society, the Kingdom of Heaven, “the least will be the first.” However, even in the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be “firsts,” though not the same as the “firsts” in a Boolean society.

Now as for Dag’s implicit question: “How about the Museums? What should we tell to kids that visit our institutions, they too, being hungry of knowledge?” (Some of them may remember Johnny Five, that amusing robot in the movie Short Circuit 2 [1988], that continually asked for “INPUT..”)

Let me once more resort to Father Dante, who wrote: “non v’è scienza, senza lo ritener lo avere inteso,” meaning “there exists no science without retaining that which has been learned.” Museums are the memory of our knowledge—of true knowledge, of course.

Regarding this, I remember a great statement by Bernard Finn when I visited him at the Smithsonian Institution in November 1990. I was in search of the truth about Antonio Meucci and the invention of the telephone. Dr. Finn said: “We are not interested in patents. History is something else!” Perhaps the truth, or true knowledge, may not necessarily reside in patents.

Of course, a museum that deals with sports, such as car races, cannot get rid of the words “first,” “second,” and so on. As for other disciplines, now and then new evidence arises on past events, new theories, new laws of physics. Thus, as Gödel maintained, we should cope with an “open system of truths” that need to be updated continuously. In this hypothesis, even the word “first” must be considered strictly as a “conditional first,” subjected to any daily confirmation or disproof.

In any case, we should never forget that people want some certainty, they being hungry for knowledge, for true knowledge, and that they hate myths.

Basilio Catania

1. P. Laird, “Seduced by a ‘First,’” Antenna, Vol. 12, No. 1, November 1999; Dag Spicer, “Not the First Word on ‘Firsts,’” Antenna, Vol. 12, No. 2, April 2000.

2. B. Catania, “The Physics of the Boolean Observer,” Proceedings of Communication, Meaning, and Knowledge vs. Information Technology, Lisbon, 13 September 1989

3. D. Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, cto. 18 (1321)

4. Commencement address, 11 June 1962, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.