February, 2002, Volume 9 Nr. 6, Issue 102


Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, PhD

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his book, Philosophical Investigations, attempts to establish a relationship between meaning and use.  Wittgenstein sees the relationship as one akin to "language games" and "family resemblance."  To Wittgenstein, the language game is the application of words to a particular situation.   The use of a word in a particular setting thus defines the meaning of the word.   It is the speaker's (or writer's) intention that defines the word according to the needs of the speaker (or writer). 

Wittgenstein negates the absolute definition of terms when the terms stand alone.  On face value, the meaning of words are ambiguous as there is no context within which to place them.  The Internet dictionary.com website defines Ambiguity to be,

1: an expression whose meaning cannot be determined from its context

2: unclearness by virtue of having more than one

One might thus surmise that the dictionary is itself a ledger of multitudinous ambiguous terminology awaiting term placement into a contextual setting supplying meaning through the process of language gaming. 

There are, however, words with obvious meaning.  My name is Jozef, and it would be a simple task to teach a child the meaning of the word "Jozef" by pointing to or touching me when saying the name.   With proper nouns, such as Jozef, the use of the term by itself thereafter without further verbal or written contextual reference clearly defines me.  What of a room filled with more than one Jozef, however?  Clearly, the possibility exists that two individuals hearing the name "Jozef" internalize differing meanings to the word depending upon whom they have experienced "Jozef" to be.  Words, thus are not absolute in their meaning, where, by absolute we mean (dictionary.com) a concept or meaning that is "not to be doubted or questioned"; that which is "positive...complete and unconditional; final."

Anathema to Well Being

Professor Bruce L. Gordon, in his course, "The Philosophy of Language", at Baylor College, states that Wittgenstein's family resemblance "is a vague grouping of things that are together because of their similarities, but have no one thing in common."  Multiple definitions of words, which most words have, are interrelated to each other with a vagueness, a family resemblance, where the one thing they have in common for certain, perhaps, the only thing, is the form of the word, that is, the word itself. 

Determining the meaning of words within a context, that is, in relation to other words in a sentence, helps determine which family-resembled definitions are conceptualized.  It is the ambiguity of terminology that opens the language, thinking and the human mind to higher possibilities of understanding -- something which unfortunately is not a common exercise in the contemporary America of the 21st century.

There are, of course, those individuals for whom ambiguity in meaning is anathema to their well being and comfort.  Preferring absolutism, it becomes the method of making sense out of life.  There is safety in the rigidity of believing in or, at least, being told what is.  The hesitancy, refusal of, or inability to undertake a further and more complete understanding comforts practitioners of absolutism.   The world is simpler with black and white contrasts and choices. 

The carryover of such comfortable modus operandi in viewing language and writing manifests a certain definiteness onto an otherwise uncertain and thus fearful world and universe.  There thus exists an imagined immovable permanence in the mind, a rigid reality of meaning, and by extension, of everything that is.  For these individuals, the nature of the words they use to describe existence and the thought processes which produce them, are in fact dangerously ambiguous.  Good and evil become terms readily and concretely defined, seemingly absolute, but always on the verge of one becoming the other.

Typically, absolutes are given definition and premised according to unchangeable doctrine from, and within, books and documents deemed sacred, sacrosanct, holy, authoritative, etc.  The only problem is, the meaning and the passages of these writings are in reality, either defined by the reader or more often than not, a reader who has a vested interest in the outcome of determining their meaning -- preachers and presidents alike, for the purpose of controlling others.

Ambiguous Absolutism

Such ambiguous absolutism is easy to accept as it takes little required effort, nor does the ambiguous absolute mind have a desire to challenge it.   Indeed, such challenge would threaten the absolute in that it would offer the potential and possibility of other meaning, perhaps, even the opposite meaning, derived   through word family resemblance.  It appears that there is but one language game for the absolute sayers and thinkers to play, that is, "my way or the highway".

When George Bush, Jr., refers to those responsible for the September 11 horror as the work of "the evil one", he is invoking ambiguous absolutism in the minds of those whose world view is thusly constructed.  The evil ones, with obvious reference to Satan, are the absolute evil of evils, responsible for enormous 9-11 tragedy.   Only "evil ones" could have killed and targeted innocent civilians -- 3,500 of them.  "Collateral damage", on the other hand, is not committed by "evil ones".  It is, instead, merely a consequence of war, an "oops" easily dismissed as a necessary but unfortunate outcome of "our" necessary violence.  "Our" violence being  contrasted  to "their" violence, where "our" and "their" as it realtes to violence is about as ambiguous as it gets, though clearly profligated as obvious distinctiion, and, always in "our" favor. 

The absolute consequence of such ambiguous collateral damage is 3,700 "deaths of innocents" over there as contrasted with 3,500 "deaths of innocents" over here.   There is no need, however to bring attention to the deaths over there.  They are of absolutely no consequence.  The less  we hear or know about it, the better.  And, now, supposedly, the world is better off as the national psyche is soothed into a complacency of militarized satisfaction.  They killed us and we killed them is the reality.

Ambiguous absolutism is what the ruling elite of the world rely upon to shepherd the masses to follow along.  It is, after all, the path of least resistance, a consistency of sound-bites and sound-bite reporting scripture and lie, dogma and decree, that proliferates throughout the masses characterized by an intellectual laziness bordering on cerebral fascism.  There is a comfort, albeit dishonest, in "knowing" what it's all about, or, at least, in unconsciously thinking that one knows what it's all about.   Good triumphs evil!  Always!  And, we are good.  That is all anyone needs to know.  Of course, we are always the good, and the other, out of convenience, or worse, out of self-definition, is always the evil. 

Absolute Ambiguity

Contrast this to empiricism, the underpinnings of modern science.   Francis Bacon, the 18th century British empiricist, in his "New Organon", sees humans as being "the servants and interpreters of nature" who "can act and understand no further than they have observed in either the operation or the contemplation of the method and order of nature."  The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy adds that Empiricists deny, "that we are born with detailed, picture-like, concepts of God, causality, and even mathematics."  Such movement toward a recognition of human nature tending toward the ambiguous as a product of how we grow, think and learn, necessitates a review of that which we accept as acceptable.  It appears as utter nonsense then, to accept an absolute truth without question and challenge.  Such action erroneously elevates "the truth" to the status of "The Truth."  What we then think of as truth is anything but.

Modern empiricism is influenced mainly by the analytic and reductionist viewpoints.  The analytic is wedded to fact while the reductionist accepts statements of meaning to be logical constructs directly related to immediate experience.  What is outside immediate experience is not denied.  It is, rather, open to further pursuit at such time when conditions merit further inquiry and investigation, i.e., most of the time.  The negation of ambiguity in our culture is something to be avoided.  Ambiguity, however, fosters other possibility in the quest of finding more of the (small "T") truth no matter how uncomfortable it might prove to be. 

Absolute ambiguity engenders the search for that which is, without negating that which might be.  Science has often been accused by those who do not know what it is of a rigidity of thought that closes the door on "other" possibilities, these being anything other than the analytic and/or reductionist.   Quite the contrary.  As an example, while the ambiguous absolute mindset is quick to accept dowsing as a real phenomenon, the absolutely ambiguous mind looks to other possibilities and responds with an affirmation of possibility countenanced by testing dowsers' claims, such as with challenging dowsing and dowsers to find a location where there is no water.  Finding water wherever and no matter where a dowsing rod points is proof of nothing.  There is water everywhere (just about) if one digs deep enough.  Consistently  finding the exact place  where water does not exist would be much more honest exercise.  

Beyond honesty and intellectual laziness, one would expect more than mere correlation between dowsing and finding water.  There is tremendous danger in accepting the cause and effect between any two events as being the causation of one over the other.  The former, however, is the consequence of ambiguous absolutism leading to a "belief" without proof of everything from angels, aliens and alien abduction, god or gods, crystals, to psychic phenomenon, telepathy, witches, warlocks and evil spirits. 

It is not that the converse, absolute ambiguity, denies these so-called "phenomena".  Rather, it places the possibility on hold for further scrutiny, accepting the responsibility for continued investigation given the slightest modicum of evidence suggesting their possible existence.  The stand is to test and prove, not to accept according to belief. 

While the ambiguous absolute system places everything into the realm of possibility without evidentiary duplicatability, absolute ambiguity requires as much and nothing less.  Those who operate under the former premise would be the first to complain should they, in a court of law, be accused of  legal indiscretions by those whose accusations are based upon this same operating premise.  We are after all, innocent until proven guilty.  Most people prefer it that way and the Constitution thus so state.  As extension, therefore, the burden of proof of those making a claim rests with the claim maker.  And, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Absolutism and Sheep

Absolutism, may be historically defined as a sovereign power vested in an ultimate authority of the state resting in the hands of one that rules, often, by perceived divine right.   Countries that are ruled by individuals who claim the authority to rule by divine intervention or those whose leaders talk to God claiming that divine power has chosen them to be in power, are ruled by absolutists.  What tolerance is there in such an environment for dissent?  Consequently, as dissent disappears, being chastised absolutely, advancement in democracy suffers.  The prospect of democracy further deteriorates in such a poisoned socio-political and philosophical landscape.  "If you are not with us, you are against us."  There is the danger of an absolutist cartel wielding power, stifling any attempt of any other explanation of anything.  One might ask, "What is there to hide?"  Very much, actually.

Institution Thinking

The Educare on-line column at Middlebury College dated October 14, originated by Hector Vila, suggests that,

We have tragically been asleep. Institutions have created and evolved in us "institution thinking," a sense we all have that there are certain standards for determining things, such as actions or truths. Nothing could be further from the truth, though -- and we know that, especially now after September 11.

Institution thinking is ambiguous absolutism at its worst, that is, unless one takes the Bush claim that he had "won" the presidential election of 2000 into consideration.

Ellen Goodman, of the Boston Globe staff, in her piece, "Angry divide between the absolute and the ambiguous", writes:

We have seen the divide between the absolute and the ambiguous in issues far more difficult to determine than the status of a pregnant chad. It's a constant thread in international conflicts and ethical debates. It even underlies arguments over abortion or euthanasia. Some believe that the moment life begins or ends is an open case; some believe it's shut.

But one thing that's become clear in this post-election haze is that absolutists often have anger - if not God - on their side. In the weeks since the election, the Angry White Man of 1994 has jumped out from behind the Compassionate Conservative of 2000. In the public debate between the passionate and the ambivalent, the true believer and the neutral, it seems that anger gets a competitive edge.

Ambiguous absolutism thrives on anger, and, anger thrives upon ambiguity absolutely.  The truth matters little.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The masses easily become or are manipulated on the power of anger and on the power of absolutism.  The masses do not simply follow along, they   march. 

In an October 1, 1999, on-line discussion of good and evil, Cliff Walker of Positive Atheism magazine, posits,

In a society, it is the society or its leadership that determines which behaviors are compulsory, allowed, or forbidden, but we all know that this is not necessarily a measure of good and evil. The best societies know better to pronounce something as good or evil, but stick to pronouncing what is allowed or forbidden...

If we cannot determine good from evil, so that we need a god to tell us right from wrong, then how do we know that what the god tells us is right or wrong? How do we even know if we have chosen the true god from among the over 5,000 mutually exclusive gods that humankind has endorsed?

If we can tell good from evil on our own (to the point where we can determine if we have chosen the true god from among the hoaxes), then why do we even need a god to tell us right from wrong?

Clash of Absolutes

Of even greater concern is the clash of absolutes.  The world may be entering an era, in this the new millennium, where violence is an acceptable solution to resolving the difference between absolutes.  One often hears that everything changed on September 11, 2001.  I'm not so sure.  My sense is that humanity is now more visibly doing more of the same thing, that is, more of clubbing each other over the head but with bigger sticks, throwing bigger rocks, rocks as big as and including airliners and laser guided Daisy bombs.   So what has changed in the history of humanity?  Apparently, not much. 

Does the ambiguous absolute fear the absolutely ambiguous, or the other way around?  The answer is quite telling.  Tolerance as being proof of conviction, suggests an ease in, at least, entertaining other opinions or explanations.  Those steeped in faith, operating under the supposed protection of the divine or mystical, seem to fear the most.  The empiricist, quite content with absolute ambiguity, sees little or no threat in the other, except perhaps from the violence that the absolutist uses against other absolutists turned on the empiricist.   Preposterous statements require challenge.  Unfortunately, in these so-called fragile times, the masses prefer the preposterous to the challenging.  We'll all suffer as a consequence.

2002 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, PhD

Return to Homepage