Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Symbolater Syndrome, Pt. 1 of 4

or, Those Who Destroy a Great Value As They Perform Gestures That Symbolize Preservation of That Very Same Value

Stuart K. Hayashi

Due to the length of the original “Symbolater Syndrome” article, I am serializing it into four parts. This is Part One of Four. 

Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Entire Essay on One Page

Christian Bale in Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan,
prods. Larry J. Franco, et al., (Warner Bros., 2005).

I want to talk about symbols.

Courtesy Pixabay.

No, not cymbals! Symbols!

People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol . . . as a symbol I can be incorruptible; I can be everlasting.
Batman Begins (emphasis Christian Bale's)

Is Bruce Wayne right? Is a symbol incorruptible?

How the Use of Symbols Makes Us Who We Are
As human beings, we need symbols — without them we could not think. Every concept is a symbol of various particulars; the concept dog is a symbol of many different individual dogs of different breeds. Every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb is a symbol representing some concept. When you see the three letters d-o-g, you know they represent the concept of “dog”; when you see the word, the image of dogs comes to your mind. Even the word symbol is symbolic in another context. The suffix -bol means “to throw,” and the prefix sym- means “the same.” “Symbol” means to throw more than one entity of the same type. That is, when I “throw” the word or concept for a particular entity at you, you know that both the entity and the symbol of that entity are the same in that they both represent the entity. When I show you a dog and then I say “That’s a dog” to you, you know that the dog represents itself and the word dog represents the dog; conceptually, both the literal entity and the symbol for that entity are the same in your mind. In that demonstration I threw together the entity and the symbol for it, rendering them the same in your mind.

As Ayn Rand explained in the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, our perceptual awareness can focus itself on only so many particulars at once. If I show you three lines, as in | | | , you know those are three lines immediately. But if I show you too many lines at once, such as ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||, you do not know immediately how many lines there are. Hence, we have Arabic numerals — symbols —to help us out. As you perform arithmetic — perhaps calculating the number of monetary units you spent and how many monetary units you have left over in your custody — the symbols “38” are easier for you to work with in your mind than is ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||.

 A plan of action — such as a recipe — symbolizes in our mind the sequence of actions we are to take to accomplish a specific goal. Absent of symbols, we could not plan for the future; it is through symbols that we communicate our most complex thoughts. A punch to your face can convey hostility to you on a visceral level, but a motion picture is a set of symbols that conveys so many more emotions to you in a vastly more complex fashion.

A ritual is a set of actions that conveys a symbolic meaning. We human beings need rituals to remind ourselves of what we consider important in our lives. In the United States, it is a ritual on February 14 for romantic partners to exchange tokens of affection, such as flowers and candy and cards. People find meaning in this ritual because it is their method of reminding themselves of how much they value this romantic love during the other 364 days of the year.

At their best, symbols are cognitive tools that we use to help us expand upon our understanding of what is true in the literal, concrete context. (Note the very metaphor — that is, symbolism — in my referring to symbols as “tools.”) As I explained in the second issue of Hannah Eason’s Scout and Engineer magazine, when a work of fiction resonates with people, it is because on some visceral level they judge it to be a symbolic depiction of truths about human psychology that are applicable to real life — that is, our favorite works of fiction are symbols that remind us of what we consider important in reality.

Lex Luthor clone to Clark Kent/Superman [here]:
“The truth is, by the time you had dragged me to shore, something new had crept into your heart — pride, the most damning of the seven deadly sins. Now you wear that pride on your chest — right here in that self-righteous symbol.”

Symbols are so ubiquitous that we take them for granted; we are so accustomed to them that it would be cumbersome if, every time we encountered a symbol, we stopped to think to ourselves, “That’s a symbol.” In any instance wherein Y represents X in your mind, and X and Y are not literally the same, Y is a symbol for X. (I just used symbols to explain that.) A photograph is a symbol. A stop sign is a symbol. An obscene hand gesture is a symbol.

We use symbolism to explain to ourselves Aristotle’s Law of Identity and, upon having it written out symbolically, it becomes easier for us to apply it deductively to various situations. Take the expression of this Law, “If A = B, and B = C, then A = C.” Then take the syllogism, “If only birds have feathers, and if penguins have feathers, then penguins are birds.” Here, A represents birds, B represents the exclusive attribute of possessing feathers, and C represents penguins. “If A = B, and B = C, then A = C” is the symbolic representation of the fact that if the first and second item are the same in the pertinent context, and the second item and third item are also the same in the pertinent context, then the first and third item are the same in the pertinent context as well. As observed in psychologists’ Relational Frame Theory (RFT), this deductive application of Aristotle’s Law of Identity is something that babies that are 22 to 27 months old are able to apply on their own without any adult caregiver having consciously taught them to do so.

Even a principle or rule of conduct is a symbol. If society had no rules, no one would ever know how to behave around anyone else; we would all be in a state of perpetual culture shock. Rules of social conduct — such as etiquette — emerged through repeat interactions among people so that the next time those same people met for a specific purpose, they would have a better idea of what to expect from one another. A general rule of behavior is a symbol in that it represents, in your mind, the same sort of behavior you must repeat every time a particular social context repeats. I’m in the New York subway and I hear someone sneeze. I say “God bless you,” even though I am an atheist; the sentence is a gesture representing my goodwill toward people who are ill, or who feel awkward and undignified on account of the sneeze. Then I go back home to Hawaii and I hear an aunt sneeze. Again I say “God bless you”; the same goodwill is implied. Then I got to work and hear my secretary sneeze. I say “God bless you.” There are all of these different particular situations but they have a commonality — observance that someone sneezed, and the rule “Say ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezes” is itself a symbol that I use to remember what course of action to take in each instance where someone around me sneezes.

As of this writing, I am composing my own work of fiction that plays up symbolism heavily — some of it might be too on-the-nose (the very expression on the nose is highly symbolic, of course). If you want a hint on what the fiction is about, here is one of my favorite symbols:

A symbolic change to a symbol that symbolizes
another symbol. (This modifies a
fish symbol that symbolizes Jesus, and
Jesus is already a symbol.)
Courtesy Pixabay.

When you notice how strongly we human beings depend upon symbols to think, it becomes less surprising how emotionally invested people are in their favorite symbols. You may have heard of how, back in the 1980s, a very puerile “artist” created a work he called Piss Christ; this involved his dunking a crucifix in a bucket of urine. In 2013, Florida Atlantic University professor Deandre Poole commanded his students to write “Jesus” on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. Very understandably, many Christians were offended by these gestures. I am an atheist — even a Christopher Hitchens-style militant anti-theist — and I am offended by these gestures; they are gratuitously cruel. One might ask the offended, “What do you care? It’s not as if someone actually socked you in the nose; all that happened was that the symbol that is Jesus was shown disrespect.” Yes, that is true, but billions of people have pledged themselves and their families to the ideas behind that symbol.

When Professor Poole ordered his Christian students to stomp on a sheet saying “Jesus,” that was itself a symbolic act — he was ordering his Christian students to commit a symbolic act of disrespect toward so much of what they and their families hold dear and believe to be right. The same applies to Piss Christ — it was the artist’s symbolic gesture indicating his presumption that so much of what Christians value deserves to get pissed on. The reason why, as a committed critic of religion, I find zero value in Piss Christ and in Professor Poole’s orders is that they were not offering any real criticism of the myriad faults and fallacies in Christianity; theirs was just a symbolic gesture designed to convey hostility as such.

Symbolism is also at the center of the blowup over newspaper cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. A very obvious reply to Muslims is, “That was just a cartoon; it wasn’t smacking you around; what do you care?” To most Muslims, the act was a symbolic show of disrespect toward a set of ideas to which devout Muslims have dedicated their entire lives. I don’t think you appreciate someone else implying that everything you love and cherish ought to be so casually dismissed. Of course, it’s embarrassing that this even needs to be said: no cartoon, however offensive or vile, justifies a violent response in the form of riots. But the point here is that there is actually nothing unusual about anyone getting highly emotional over a symbol — as we will see shortly, that is a common occurrence in the more secular First World, among the religious and atheists alike.

Due to the intense emotional reactions that symbols arouse, it also should not surprise that the most effective forms of propaganda are the ones that make the most effective use of symbolism. The most notorious political advertisement in U.S. history is a television commercial from 1965, run on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson. The commercial depicts a little American girl pulling the pedals off a flower and counting the number of pedals she pulled. Then, off-screen, there is a voiceover of a man doing his own countdown from ten to zero. It turns out that the man's countdown is the countdown for the launch of a nuclear missile. Though it commences off-screen, the girl and everyone else presumably perishes. This heavy-handed symbolism was to imply that if Americans voted into office LBJ’s Republican rival, Barry Goldwater, nuclear apocalypse would be the result.

Indeed, people not only employ symbolism to emphasize what they like and wish to promote, but also what they wish to oppose. Many people who are paranoid about corporate control over the food system launch all sorts of fanciful and false accusations against Monsanto Corporation. Do those people have any sort of personal grievance against Monsanto? The truth is that they do not; they don’t know any Monsanto employees and can point to no instance of having been harmed directly by Monsanto. Rather, they are using Monsanto as a symbol; by denouncing Monsanto, they believe they are striking a blow against a phenomenon that is actually much larger than Monsanto (and a phenomenon that, in many respects, is actually beyond the control of Monsanto’s top executives). (See my refutation to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's smears about Monsanto and GMOs here).

Symbolism is also the basis of politically motivated “debunking biographies.” Some historic figures are taken as symbols of particular ideas. To many Americans, Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand symbolize the principles of free-market capitalism. For that reason, some anti-capitalists have penned biographies to besmirch Jefferson and Reagan and Rand. The implication is that if Jefferson and Reagan and Rand — the symbolic representations of free-market capitalism — are discredited, then the practice and implementation of free-market capitalism shall likewise diminish in reputation. To many on the political Right, Barack Obama symbolizes political leftism. To them, if Obama’s reputation is tarnished, then the reputation of political leftism should be tarnished with it.

That also happened in the case of Matthew Josephson. During the 1930s Josephson — then a member of the Communist Party of the USA — resented the Du Ponts and other businessmen who opposed the New Deal. Considering such historical industrialists as John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and John Pierpont Morgan, Sr., to be symbols of laissez-faire capitalism, Josephson wrote a scurrilous book smearing them as robber barons (Josephson says that these men were already being called this name by the populists of the Granger movement in the late nineteenth century; he neglects to mention that the association of industrialists with “robber baron” was esoteric to everyone outside of the granger movement, and that it was Josephson himself who brought the robber baron epithet into the mainstream). Josephson figured correctly that if he ruined the reputations of particular famous industrialists, he could contribute to the negative image of for-profit enterprise as such. As was hoped, the Du Ponts and other industrialists who criticized the New Deal were dismissed by the public as the moral equivalent of the previous century’s “robber barons,” and the New Deal went on facing less opposition thereafter. (For a rebuttal to Josephson’s falsehoods, read Maury Klein.)

Yes, Bruce Wayne, a Symbol Is Corruptible
And one symbol can spawn another. For instance, a male lion has come to symbolize royalty because it reminds people of a symbol of another symbol. The male lion’s mane, with so many strands sticking out, reminds people of the spikes on a crown; crowns and coronets are themselves symbols. The spikes on a crown represent the rays of the sun, and it was ordinary for early civilizations to worship the sun. The ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun. So did the Mesoamericans, and the spikes sticking out of their priests’ headdresses, too, represent the sun’s rays. The Japanese have also, and that is why the sun is on the Japanese flag. The halo around the head of Jesus and angels in paintings represents the sun as well. The sun was considered divine — godly — and, to emphasize to his subjects his own godliness, many a European king would wear a coronet that reminded everyone of the sun, that symbol of power and divinity. Hence, the lion’s male symbolizes royalty because it reminds people of a king’s crown, and the king’s crown was a symbol of the sun, and the sun was used as a symbol of power, both social and physical power.

Yet one sun symbol also demonstrates that, in some contexts at least, Bruce Wayne was wrong. A symbol can be corrupted. The people of ancient India created their own distinctive emblem to represent the sun, and this was also associated with mystical energy. This sun symbol was then culturally appropriated by a European mystic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, for her new neo-pagan religious movement Theosophy (theo- as in “god” and -sophy as in “wisdom”; it was about “God’s wisdom”) . Theosophy became popular among Germans obsessed with race and ethnicity and of their own ethnic group’s history in a particular region — this was the pan-German Volkish movement, the alt-right “White Identitarian” movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As many members of the Volkish movement were mystical and wanted to revive the iconography of the religions that dominated Europe and Asia Minor before Christianity, the Volkists were greatly interested in Theosophy. They added their own racist components to Theosophy and called this new hybrid philosophy by the name of Ariosophy — wisdom about the Aryan race. The Ariosophists appropriated the symbol that Madame Blavatsky had appropriated from India. Adolf Hitler helped turn Volkism into a political movement and, due to Volkism’s ties to Ariosophy, Hitler adopted that same sun symbol that the Ariosophists got from Theosophy. That was the swastika.

Nowadays, when most people in the West see the swastika, India does not come to mind at all; nor do people think of the sun. They are instead reminded of racism, prejudice, and mass murder. What was once a symbol of the sun became a symbol of supernatural power and then it became a symbol of hate. Contrary to Bruce Wayne, the meaning of a particular symbol is not “everlasting”; one group of people can steal someone else’s symbol and then add new cultural meaning to it, a meaning quite different from, or even contrary to, the original meaning. Unfortunately for Master Wayne, a symbol is not incorruptible — as the creator of the “Pepe the Frog” character learned all too tragically.

Some of the great evils taking place in the world today relate to a specific manner in which symbols have been corrupted. This form of corruption is what I call symbolatry (simm-BAWL-uh-chree) — the worship of symbols. Specifically, it is the worship of a symbol to such an extent that the symbol takes precedence over the concretes that the symbol was originally crafted to represent. At its worst, symbolatry involves the denigration and sacrifice of a value in the course of upholding or advancing some symbol of appreciation for that same value.

The Worthiness of a Symbol Depends Upon the Worthiness of the Real Entities and Phenomena That the Symbol Represents
In the philosophic branch of epistemology, there is a very nauseating school called anti-realism. Anti-realist philosophers posit the “theoretic possibility [sic]” that everything you experience — your great accomplishments, making love, giving birth to your children, raising your children — is just a dream or delusion. Maybe none of that is real, they say, and you are completely ignorant of the real world, assuming there is one. (As you can imagine, ever since the year 1999, most people who posit this arbitrary scenario cite The Matrix, itself a symbolic representation of other symbolic representations.) What I just described is the extreme version of anti-realism; the “moderated” versions are not much better.

One moderated version of anti-realism is called “representationalism.” Representationalism acknowledges that there is an objective reality external to your own consciousness. However, the representationalist is similar to the more extreme anti-realist in positing arbitrarily the “possibility” that your perceptions of reality are highly distorted. I paraphrase the argument as such.

There is a reality, but you experience it through the media of your sense organs. That is, inputs that inform you about reality pass through your sense organs, such as your skin and your eyes. Maybe something is lost in translation, such as in a game of “telephone” [note that this is yet another symbol]. In a game of telephone, you have one person at the far left and one person at the far right, and 98 people in between them. The person on the far left whispers a sentence in the ear of the person directly to his right. Then that person is to pass on the message verbatim. This second person is to whisper that exact same sentence into the ear of the person directly to her own right. This is to continue from person to person. By the time the sentence reaches the person on the far right, the message is garbled. Perhaps something similar happens when we interpret data. Maybe, for instance, the sky is not blue; perhaps the sky is really orange and we are all color-blind.  
Therefore, we must make room for the possibility that we do not experience reality directly, and the sensory inputs can never be more than crude symbolic representations of that reality. If reality is a beautiful artwork such as Leonardo’s Vetruvian Man, then our sensory experiences are not even a copy of that but a crude stick-figure version of it. (Note that because every realistic painting or drawing is a symbolic representation, a crude stick-figure version of Vetruvian Man would be a symbolic representation of a symbolic representation.) That it can be imagined is basis enough to conclude that it is theoretically possible that life and the universe, as you know them, are nothing more than simulations.

The representationalist position is ridiculous, and it is unfortunate that even philosophers who are often called empiricists, such as John Locke and Herbert Spencer, fall for that argument. Sensory data are the most basic basis for everything we know. To the extent that I gained a false interpretation through a superficial use of my senses — I thought I saw a puddle of water and it turned out to be a mirage — I learn of my error by the further use of the sensory organs (scientists used their senses to discover why there are any mirages).

No arbitrary postulate justly falls into the category of “theoretic possibility.” Any arbitrary postulate can be asserted, such as “Maybe it’s a theoretic possibility that an ice cube will fall to the bottom of a glass of water and remain there for eternity.” No, what makes a proposition a theoretic possibility is that there is evidence to support it.

It is nonsensical to say “There are only probabilities or possibilities and no certainties.” The validity of the concepts “probable” and “possible” presuppose the validity of the concept “certain.” The concept of “fraction” is derivative of “a single unit,” as a fraction is but a section of a single unit. Someone who does not know what a “single unit” is will not know what a “fraction” is, either. A percentage is a type of fraction; any percentage less than 100 is a fraction. The concept of a “50-percent likelihood” that an event will repeat itself presupposes the “100-percent likelihood” (that is, absolute fact) that it happened the first time. If no event can be 100 percent, then, correspondingly, you cannot deem the likelihood of any future event to be 50 percent either.

To say that a proposition is possible means that if the proposition is not necessarily certain, (1) there still exists evidence suggesting its certainty and (2) human beings have the means for ascertaining in the future whether the proposition is certain or not.

If on Sunday you say “It is possible that tomorrow I will bump into my colleague Steve and have a long chat with him,” that presupposes that by Tuesday you will know for certain whether you did or did not bump into Steve on Monday and have a long chat with him. It means that by Tuesday you would know 100 percent whether or not that happened. “Certainty” is the standard whereby any proposition can be judged to be a “possibility” or not. If it is not valid to pronounce any claim to be “100-percent known and certain,” then to pronounce anything a “99-percent possibility” is meaningless. Likewise, if no proposition can be deemed “certain,” then there are no criteria whereby one can justify deeming a proposition to be “possible” either. The validity of the concept “possibility” depends upon the validity of the concept “certain.”

It is ultimately through sensory experience that we ascertain what is possible or not. To say that maybe sensory experience is invalid is to say that the most basic means by which we determine any proposition to be valid or invalid might itself be invalid. The very people who say “Sensory experience might be an invalid method for determining what propositions are valid or invalid” are advancing a proposition that, by their own implicit admission, they cannot justify as valid. Hence, that very proposition is arbitrary and not deserving of further contemplation — and yet, for over a century, too many people in academia have staked entire careers on it.

Now we come to the weakness of representationalism in particular. The representationalist claims that we do not have knowledge of what is literally real; we only possess knowledge of our mind’s symbolic representation of what is real. That is, we do not know what reality is like literally; we only understand our own symbolic representation of what reality is like. The internal contradiction there is that it overlooks that you only know that Y is a symbolic representation of X to the extent that you know what are X’s attributes in the literal, concrete context. If you possess no knowledge of what X is literally — if you do not know what are X’s attributes in the literal context — then you have no basis in so much as suspecting that Y might be a symbolic representation of X.

For example, suppose I am two years old. I have never heard of elephants. I have never heard the word “elephant.” I have never seen an elephant up close in some zoo; I have never seen a photo of one; I have not seen any TV programs depicting elephants. I do not even know the distinction between “animal” and “plant,” or “animal” versus “nonliving object”; no adult caregiver helped explain that distinction to me. Nor has anyone told me what a statue or figurine is.

You have a figurine of an elephant. You show it to me and say “This is an elephant.” I will think “elephant” means this particular figurine. I will not know that the figurine is merely a representation of an elephant. In order for me to have comprehended that the figurine is a symbolic representation of an elephant, I first would have needed knowledge of what an elephant literally is.

Just as the validity of the concept “possibility” depends upon the validity of the concept “certain knowledge,” so too does the validity of the concept “symbolic representation” depend upon the validity of the concept “knowledge of what is literally real.” To know that Y is a simulation of reality or a symbolic representation of reality, you have to know what is actual reality. That is the internal contradiction of anyone who asserts that we do not know actual reality but only know a simulation or symbolic representation of it. Our knowledge of what constitutes reality’s attributes in the literal context is the standard whereby we judge anything to be a simulation or symbolic representation of that reality. If we do not know what reality’s attributes are in the literal context, then we lack any criterion for ascertaining anything to be a simulation or symbolic representation of that reality. Hence, the assertion “Maybe our sensory experiences are not actual reality but only a simulation or symbolic representation of that reality” also amounts to an arbitrary assertion unworthy of further speculation.

The point of this section is that in metaphysics and epistemology, literal reality has primacy over simulation and symbolic representation. Knowledge about literal reality comes first, and from that we derive our simulations and symbolic representations of that reality. Our symbolic representations of that reality — the concepts and words we use to comprehend reality, and the works of art we compose to make even more sense of it psychologically — remain important. But in the philosophic branches of metaphysics and epistemology, those symbolic representations should not be treated as more important than having a highly literal understanding of what goes on in reality.

And what is the ultimate purpose in understanding reality on a highly literal level? Contrary to Plato, the final purpose of learning about reality is not learning and contemplation as ends in themselves. The final point of learning about reality is to thrive in that reality. Thus we arrive at ethics — the science of ascertaining the proper course of action in reality.

It is very fine that many of our actions amount to gestures and rituals that symbolize our loyalty to a particular value. The problem comes when a gesture or ritual symbolizing a person’s loyalty to a particular value ends up being prioritized above the actual value — when people sacrifice and destroy what they purport to be their value for the sake of their performance of a gesture or ritual that is intended to convey their loyalty to that very same value.

Let’s go back to the ritual of lovers exchanging gifts of Valentine’s Day. Imagine that one man wants to provide a very expensive and lavish gift to his girlfriend on February 14 — and that the fanciness and expensiveness of the gift is to be a surprise. He begin working extra hours — to the point that he neglects his girlfriend. He resents the added work and, in turn, comes to resent his girlfriend as well, frequently snapping at her and trying to make her feel guilty for his own misery, all the while not telling her his plans for February 14. Her very presence reminds him of how he’s making himself miserable for her ostensive benefit. By the time that February 14 comes around, he does give her the gift — but, at this point, he hates her guts. Was that man’s effort worth it? No, it was not. The ritual of exchanging gifts of Valentine’s Day symbolizes a particular value — your appreciation for your lover on the other 364 days of the year — and that value is exactly what that man undermined in his prioritization of the symbolic gesture.

There are plenty of other examples of this phenomenon — some of which have extremely dangerous and violent ramifications in Western society.

Consider Aristotle, one of the earliest philosophers in history to point out that facts, not human or divine authorities, are the final arbiter of truth. He came to many conclusions throughout his life, but stressed that more vital than most of his conclusions is the methodology whereby one is to reach conclusions properly. The methodology is of inductive reason — relying on observational data themselves as the most basic basis of all knowledge. Throughout much of early Christendom, theologians recognized that Aristotle’s approach conflicted with Christian emphasis on faith. For that reason, the Bishop of Paris issued the Condemnation of 1210 A.D., banning Aristotle’s works. That did not last, however, as the most curious theologians, such as Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas, admitted to themselves that Aristotle was too valuable to stow away. Ultimately, it was Aquinas’s approach that won out over the course of the high Middle Ages, and church authorities relented to allowing some amount of study on Aristotle. Unfortunately, recognizing how much of Aristotle’s original works still conflicted with church doctrine, the scholastics bowdlerized him to the point where, later, even such learned scholars of the Renaissance as Francis Bacon and Pierre Gassendi ended up confusing the word of the church with the word of Aristotle. Bacon and Gassendi apparently believed that arguing in favor of inductive reason was some sort of rebellion against Aristotle. Among the empiricists it was only a minority — which includes figures such as Grotius — that recognized that the exercise of inductive reason was the approach that Aristotle recommended all along.

Now we come to the symbolatry. Aristotle concluded that the sun revolved around the Earth. Galileo came to the opposite conclusion — that the Earth revolves around the sun — and he knowingly did so through use of Aristotle’s own method, the method that Aristotle stressed was more important than most of Aristotle’s conclusions. In “Letter on Sunspots,” Galileo pointed out that Aristotle “would not have departed so far” from Galileo’s conclusion “if his knowledge had included our present sensory evidence, since he not only admitted manifest experience among the ways of forming conclusions about physical problems, but even gave it first place.”

Yet the church persecuted Galileo on the premise that Galileo had contradicted Aristotle’s position — which, at this point, had become the church’s official position. In effect, the church’s persecution of Galileo was a symbolic display of loyalty to Aristotle when it, in fact, involved punishing the true Aristotelian for adhering to Aristotle’s method. Here, loyalty to Aristotle in a symbolic context was venerated over someone being loyal to Aristotle in concrete practice.

I can cite a more recent case study. The American flag symbolizes freedom, which includes the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech. Some politicians argue that this symbol of freedom is so sacred, it should be illegal to burn a U.S. flag in your own possession. In other words, if you purchase an American flag with your own money and then, to make some political statement, you burn it in front of a gathering of people on your own land, these politicians will consider that so evil that the government should fine or imprison you. But however offensive it may be, what you do peaceably on your own private property with your own personal effects is free expression. Politicians who would outlaw the burning of the American flag are purporting to defend a symbol of the freedom of speech and, in so doing, they sacrifice the actual freedom of speech.

At first I was tempted to call this idolatry (ī-DAWL-uh-chree) — the suffix -latry meaning worship. Idolatry is the worship of idols, an idol being a material object or image that depicts something important, usually something godly. An American flag qualifies as an idol and icon, and acknowledging it as such does not demean its value. However, a more accurate term for the phenomenon I describe is symbolatry — worship of symbols in which the symbol of some value is worshiped as higher and godlier than the very same value the symbol purportedly depicts. I say symbol rather than idol because symbol is a broader category. Whereas an idol is a solid or visual symbolic representation, a symbol can be any sort of abstract representation; an action can be a symbol, such as a dance, a pantomime, an obscene gesture performed with the body, or an actor’s performance in a motion picture. Those who would worship the flag — the idol symbolizing free speech — to the point where they would sacrifice free speech in the name of defending the idol that symbolizes free speech, are worse than idolaters (ī-DAWL-uh- tûrs); they are symbolaters (simm-BAWL-uh-tûrs; the –tûr at the end of symbolater is pronounced the same as the tur in turn, turf, turkey, terminate, and turpentine).

Instances such as in the quest to outlaw flag-burning are the Stolen Concept Fallacy taken to another level. As explained by Objectivism, knowledge is hierarchical — sometimes for you to understand concept B, you must first understand concept A, such as how you must first understand “certainty” to understand “possibility.”

Someone falls prey to the Stolen Concept Fallacy when that person actually tries to invoke concept B in order to attempt to invalidate concept A, all the while overlooking that concept B depends upon the validity of concept A to be valid itself and that concept B is therefore valid no more than the extent to which concept A is valid. To phrase it differently, someone who uses the Stolen Concept Fallacy has forfeited any rightful ownership over concept A but, in order to make his point, he wrongfully and sneakily claims concept A for himself anyway — hence he has “stolen” the concept A. An example would be if I told you, “I am unable to communicate myself to you.” If you believed what I said, you would be falling prey to the Stolen Concept Fallacy — my being able to tell you I cannot communicate with you would hinge upon the fact that I am capable of communicating with you after all. The claim “There are no certainties, only possibilities and probabilities” is also a Stolen Concept Fallacy. As previously explained, the validity of the concepts “possibility” and “probability” hinge upon the validity of the concept “certainty.”

The politician who tries to outlaw flag burning is stealing a concept — specifically, a value — in practice. By proposing a form of censorship, the politician has forfeited the value of freedom of speech; he has abdicated any rightful ownership over the value that is freedom of speech. Yet by upholding himself as a defender of the symbol of freedom of speech, the politician is trying to claim ownership over the value of freedom of speech anyway — wrongfully.

Many of the most hazardous forms of symbolatry in politics have to do with legislation that is intended to be taken as a gesture symbolically conveying the politicians’ and activist supporters’ compassion and humanitarianism, even as the legislation harms peaceful people.


Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Entire Essay on One Page