George Walford: NIAT (62)

IC stands committed to the proposition that Nothing Is Absolutely True (giving the acronym NIAT). The journal concerns itself with discussion, with propositions, and NIAT asserts that no one of these is completely true in every sense, at all times, without reservation and under all conditions. It is an instance of the only fully universal principle, namely: Nothing Is Absolute. (Other ‘universal’ principles repeat this assertion in particular connections; ‘everything changes except change itself,’ for example, tells us that even change is not absolute). If it be established that nothing is absolute, NIAT follows; if nothing is absolute, then nothing is absolutely true.

In formulating and discussing this proposition we take words in their full meaning, without hidden or implied reservations. In normal conversation we don’t speak in this way. We will say there is nothing in a jar when it is full of air, or that Louis XIV was an absolute monarch while knowing, if we stop to think, that his power depended (as Louis XVI was to discover) upon meeting the expectations of his people. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines an absolute monarch as one ‘unlimited by a constitution or the concurrent authority of a parliament,’ not as one completely free of restriction by any countervailing power whatever). Even science does not always use words in their full strength; the speed of light is said to be an absolute, but this means only that it is constant and cannot be exceeded; it has been measured, and thereby shown to be limited rather than absolute in the full sense. (This does not mean that science is wrong, only that it uses ‘absolute’ in a special, restricted, sense). Let us take the component words of our proposition one at a time.

First: ‘nothing.’ This is the easiest of all words to understand, for there is nothing about it to misunderstand. It is not the mathematician’s zero, or the physicist’s space, for each of these is a something, zero a term in a series, Newtonian space a medium in which action occurs and Einsteinian structured by gravitational fields. In our sentence ‘nothing’ means, in total simplicity and utter self-identity, exactly what it says: nothing. People commonly deceive themselves into believing that they have failed to understand the term, complaining that they cannot grasp it. Of course they can’t, for there is nothing there to grasp. Neither is there anything to define; OED devotes six columns to usages which all take the term to mean something.

Next, ‘is.’ OED defines this as the singular present indicative of the verb ‘be,’ referring the inquirer to that entry for further information; it occupies almost eight three-column pages. IC uses ‘is,’ in NIAT, as a copula linking subject and predicate. Since the subject is nothing there can be no relation between it and any predicate; if linked at all, if not totally separate (a condition carrying its own complications) they can only be identical.

Next, ‘absolute.’ OED gives the meaning of this under three main heads, with 11 subsidiary entries. These meanings all diverge (though not by much) from two main stems. First: completeness, perfection, entirety. Second: detachment, independence, freedom from restriction or limitation. Our use of the term combines these two: the absolute is the independent, unconditional, unlimited, unrelated or (since it is itself and self-identity constitutes a relation of sorts), that which is related to nothing outside itself. The phrasing may seem to omit the element of perfection, but this appears in the stipulation that the words be taken in their fullness, without qualification or mental reservation. This being specified, we should add nothing by defining the absolute as that which is totally unrelated to anything outside itself. I am not going to claim that no other meanings, for any of these words or for the proposition as a whole are permissible, only that to take them in other senses is to discuss a proposition other than the one IC puts forward.

How does this question of an absolute arise, and why should it be thought worth attention? In ordinary daily life it does not arise, making its entrance only when we undertake to think rigorously. Then we need to examine our own thinking, to find out whether there are any limits to thought, to ask (among other questions) whether we can formulate a thought which comprehends everything and (since that question answers itself) whether such a thought would exhibit any special features.

Whenever we think of anything we distinguish it from other things, and so long as we think of something no fundamental difficulty arises. When we try to think of everything, taking the term in the full sense to mean everything that is, the totality of being, material and immaterial, real and imaginary, true and false, this changes. For what can we distinguish it from? Since it includes everything, it excludes nothing and is distinct from nothing. Distinct from nothing it is not distinct at all, and if it is not in any way distinct, then it is not distinct from nothing. Not distinct from nothing, it is nothing. The old saw contains more truth than is often realised: Everything in general is nothing in particular.

In general logic ‘A is B’ does not imply ‘B is A’; apples are fruit, but fruit does not have to be apples. In this one case, however, where A is the absolutely exhaustive category of everything in the fullest sense, B does have to be A, for there is nothing else, nothing outside A, that it can be. Nothing is identical with everything, with the totality of being, with the whole which is related to nothing outside itself, with the absolute. Nothing is absolute.

Only that which is not absolute, that which is related to something outside itself, can be distinct from nothing, can be something, and this appears in every discussion. For a statement to carry meaning it must be related to something outside itself and thereby barred from being absolute. Although such statements vary, some being more true than others, they are all relative; relatively true, relatively false. The only absolutely true statement is one related to nothing outside itself, a statement which is not about anything (since ‘about’ expresses a relation), and therefore amounts to nothing. Nothing is absolutely true. NIAT. People who say the statement means nothing are absolutely right.

Even if all this be accepted, it may still not be clear why IC should concern itself with such issues. What does absolute truth or the absence of it have to do with systematic ideology more than with any other study?

The answer appears when we recall that whenever we think we think in one mode or another, and although ‘mode of thought’ can be used to mean something less extensive than a major ideology, all such minor modes fall within one or another of these major ones. So long as it be held that a statement about anything less than the totality of being (which we have seen to be identical with nothing) can be absolutely true, it can also be held that one ideology may be absolutely true, the others therefore absolutely false hardly need to be detailed.

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EASTERN spirituality: Salamat Masih, a 12 year old Christian boy, is on trial in Pakistan, accused of demeaning the Prophet. The charge carries a mandatory death sentence. Three other people accused of blasphemy within the last two years have been killed by religious fanatics before getting into court. [Observer 28 Nov.]

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WHO said this: ‘The Budget should be balanced, the Treasury refilled, public debt reduced, the arrogance of officialdom tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign lands reduced lest the state become bankrupt. The people should be forced to work and not depend on Government for assistance.’ Not Thatcher, not Regan; Cicero, 106-43 BCE.

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PUNK? Yes! It’s good to see young people taking pride in their appearance.

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CAPITALISM is a consequence of volitional – which is to say ideology-governed – behaviour. So would socialism, communism and anarchism be.

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PEOPLE of conscience must always worry about violence, but a rational approach has to take it in context. Compared with London, Dresden or Hiroshima through 1940-45 the inner cities now enjoy near-total security.

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EINSTEIN invented relatives. Newton discovered the headache.

from Ideological Commentary 62, November 1993.