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Freedom Fundamentals

Collectivism in Language:
Its Effects on Valid Reasoning


Language constructions
can hamper sound thinking

The primary thesis of this essay is that the ability of humans to act and think individualistically is severely hampered by the words, phrases, conventions and styles of speaking and writing that have been automatically included and retained in the world's languages as they developed over the millennia. Natural language writings abound with examples of the use of plural nouns and pronouns that ascribe individual characteristics to collections of individuals. However in reality, groups of humans do not exist as entities with any characteristics of thinking, evaluation, decision making or acting that are similar to those of individual humans. The use of language constructions that imply that collections of humans think and act as units despite the clear reality that they cannot, is not trivial nor superficial because it is merely syntactical, conventional or stylistic. Ignoring the foundational character of this fact of reality, and ignoring the insidious effect that the ingrained nature of collectivist language usages, contrary to reality, can have on human thought, is a major fundamental flaw lurking within the writings and conclusions of most thinkers on the subject of human social relationships. Just as this use of plurals, either nouns or pronouns, to represent entities that are then depicted within sentences as thinking, deciding, acting, etc. - ie. doing all manner of mental activities that only individual humans can do - is fundamental to the very structure of most world languages, so also, and to that extent, have group, clan, tribal, herd, nation and other collectivist notions become fundamental to the core thinking of most humans. It is this that I (Paul Antonik Wakfer) seek to expose, so that it can be eradicated from human thought and so that the reality of true individualism can finally shine through the veil of collectivist language constructions.

This essay also discusses the negative aspects of the related problem of ascribing a characteristic of some, or most members of a defined collection, to all members of the collection. Although the improper usage of nouns and pronouns as described above nearly always has this negative aspect, it also occurs with many collective terms even in their logically correct usages, as will be seen from the discussion and examples given below.

Primitive origins of
language constructions -
need for abandonment to
allow advanced thought

Because of the manner in which language has evolved among primitive tribal groups, it should not be surprising that language is rife with collectivist constructions. Primitive humans desperately needed one another's help and cooperation in order to survive. They understood very little about either themselves or reality. All that each of them observed was other creatures very similar to themselves banded together against a common foe - the wild, dangerous and largely unintelligible world external to each and to all. Each had some understanding of himself. He could feel his own pleasure and pain. It was quite understandable that each thought that other humans felt pleasure and pain just as he did - together, equally and even as a part of him. This was especially reasonable because of the fact that each human actually begins as a true part of another. Empathizing and even identifying one's self with another human was as understandable (and yet as false, logically) as is the current prevalent fashion of anthropomorphic identification with other life-forms. It was also natural that primitive humans thought in terms of two opposing collectives - "us" (family or clan of humans) versus "them" (animals or other families/clans) and "that" (the rest of reality) - and thus, of the "us" making decisions and acting to better "our" situation. Therefore it is completely natural and totally understandable that primitive human culture would develop group thinking and speaking language forms. These forms and empathetic thinking likely even well served primitive humans in assisting their cooperative development as small isolated units. However such thinking became unfruitful when it was applied to differentiate larger nearby groups of humans from one another as with: "our" tribe versus "that" tribe, heathen versus believer, white versus black, and Christian versus Jew versus Muslim. If humans wish to mature to a higher level of understanding of themselves, and to truly increase their potential for Lifetime Happiness (daily happiness of all kinds summed over a person's lifetime), as many appear to want to do and to be capable of doing, it is time that such humans used their greater knowledge of reality, including of their individual selves, to modify these outmoded ways of thought. Hopefully this essay will help to greatly strengthen individualism and hasten the maturation of human thought to the higher plane of mutually consistent enlightened self-interest.

A Few Simple Assumptions*

A) Reality Exists -

Existents have attributes
that humans can experience

Reality is composed of physical elements called "existents" (those things that are said to exist). Existents have particular and definite attributes (characteristics) - they are what they are and not something else. I may not yet know of the existence of an existent or I may not yet be able to fully describe and understand all the attributes of an existent, but that is my failure (or due to a lack of sufficient technology) - it is not related to the essential unknowability of any of the attributes of the existent itself.

Although they are always imperfectly known, existents can be classified into the following mutually exclusive categories:

  1. Existents that affect some human and of which there is scientific evidence of its existence (this is the category that includes all the items of the normal, everyday world of humans).
  2. Existents that affect some human, are consistent with logic and known physical law and are even conjectured to exist, but about which there is no direct evidence (gravity waves might be an example here - supernatural beings are not).
  3. Existents that affect some human, but about which no human is aware (by definition no current example is possible, but bacteria would be an example applying to humans of 200 years ago - or prions applying to humans of only 30 years ago).
  4. Existents that only affect a human as a result of the use of technology (eg. possibly neutrinos).
  5. Existents that can not affect any human or even be detectable until some later time (eg. light in transit to the earth).
  6. Existents that affected some human in the past, but can no longer do so (eg. all antecedent existents of their current continuers. However, this also includes light speed emanations from the vicinity of the earth that are traveling away from it and that still "exist" as continuers of their original form but which can never affect any human - so far as is currently known).

An essential characteristic of any existent, as reality is described by the currently known laws of physics, is that any person could experience it directly or indirectly if he were in the right time and place, and had sufficient technology to be do so. This does not mean that any human actually will ever experience1 any of the attributes of an existent, and a subcategory of all existents, "actual human", can therefore be defined - those that in the past, or in the future, have affected or will affect some person by means of his experiencing one or more of its attributes (ie. by means of it affecting him in some manner).

Existents change over time
with permanence & stability

A second essential characteristic of existents is that they change over time. In fact, no existent ever has precisely the same attributes as it did in the past. Every new experience of an existent is actually an experience of a new existent. A quote attributed to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.540-480 BC) is appropriate here:

"You cannot step twice into the same river - for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you."

However, a third essential characteristic of existents is their permanence and stability with respect to change. The attributes of a continuer of an existent (an essentially new existent) are as close in number, type and value to that of the former existent (that has been effectively replaced by the new one) as the laws of physics allow, when the time between the determination of those attributes is as short as the laws of physics allow. This is true notwithstanding that the rate of change with time of any particular attribute can vary enormously from one kind of existent to another, and furthermore, that this rate of change may even have no upper bound. (I say "may" because there is a possibility that this is not true, but either science has not yet produced evidence that it is false or I do not know of that evidence.)

Humans experience reality
through a window
on extended reality

The actual human subcategory of existents means that every person is looking at reality through a window, through which he can only ever experience a certain portion of it, the rest being obscured by the wall outside the window of vision (the part of space-time - the here/present - within which the person exists). The size of the window changes with the advent of new technology, but it appears that there will always remain some span of wall that masks human experience of this extension of reality (those information carrying energy waves that are either emanating away from Earth at lightspeed - and thus no human can ever get in front of, or are traveling toward Earth at lightspeed, but have not yet reached any human). While a person can never directly experience this extension of reality, the assumption that such exists makes a useful and logical extension of the category of actual human existents, particularly since that extension has produced any existent that any human has ever experienced, and will produce any existent that any human will ever experience. Thus, although it is not possible for any human to currently experience this extension of reality, if elements of it will eventually become existents, it is reasonable to consider them as existing in something called extended reality right now.

B) The I and the Non-I

Modern neuroscience facts

For an individual human (and many other lifeforms), all of existence separates itself into two classes of existents: I and Non-I. The essential separation of the I and the Non-I becomes clear when one studies the characteristics of the body and mind of any human being (and similarly, of other lifeforms of sufficient complexity). Modern neuroscience has shown very clearly that each human has a level of intimacy of both input (sensation) and output (control) with respect to himself that is significantly greater in kind and degree than the level of intimacy that either he has with respect to any other part of reality or any other part of reality, including any other human, has with respect to him.

Moreover, the higher amount and significance of this level of sensation and control extends to all aspects of a human's body and brain except in cases where there is some physically abnormal state. Therefore, although culminating in the brain, this essential separation of the I and the Non-I applies equally to both body and brain.

Information transfer
within the body/brain
is vastly greater than
between the individual and
his external reality.

This fact fundamentally
separates people from
each other and reality.

This fact of the essential separation of the I and the non-I does not disparage the degree of empathy that one human can have for another, nor the importance of this quality in intimate human relationships. Nor does it even belittle the degree of empathy that a human and a non-human lifeform may have for one another or the degree of control that humans can have over other lifeforms or inanimate objects. Nevertheless, while such intimacy with respect to others is very real and important, it is fundamentally and significantly different from the intimacy of an individual with himself. The cause of this significant difference is the over 3 orders of magnitude by which the rate of information transfer within the human brain and between the human body and its brain exceeds the rate of information transfer that is possible between humans and other parts of reality2. Moreover it is highly likely that this enormous disparity will always be so, unless and until the functions of a human brain that are needed for a human mind can be transferred into a physically different type of substrate. At best, one human can use the very limited information available, to empathically visualize and imagine what another is feeling and thinking in terms of his own feelings and thoughts under what he thinks is a similar situation. However, in terms of the actual intimate use of the knowledge of a brain for evaluation and decision making, the gap between the possessor of the brain and any other human is enormous and separates them in a fundamentally irresolvable manner.

Classification of Existents - The Meaningful Use of Plural Forms

The meaningful use of
plural forms - existents
with common attributes

Given these apparently true assumptions about reality and human separateness: what is a meaningful use of plurals? Although existents can never be identical, they can be grouped into collections, each existent of which is similar in some well-defined manner. This is done by forming collections of those existents that have such a common attribute or attributes. One can then correctly use a plural to describe the totality of the existents with a given common attribute. This common attribute of existents may also be one relating to action or even to sets of attributes and actions such as would be used to classify something as complex as the collection of human beings and to differentiate it from all other collections. The logic of making and using such collections of existents is governed by the following criteria:

  1. A valid classifying attribute must be such that it is decidable for all existents, each in turn, whether or not the existent has that attribute.
  2. A collection is not an existent, but is an abstraction, which is an entity of some unique level of a meta-reality. An abstraction can never have any of the attributes of its members except those attributes that are also abstractions - ie. logical or numerical attributes.
  3. Collections of collections may also be usefully defined. However, these are on a second level of meta-reality and are therefore fundamentally different than are collections of existents. Many apparent paradoxes have been created by ignoring this logical incomparability. For the same reason, any collections of collections is also distinct from the collection of all existents that are within all of its subcollections.

By consistently applying this method, plural nouns can be well-defined and useful additions to any language. However, by contravening this method, truly fictional and inconsistent entities can be defined, which can enormously subvert the language and destroy clear thought.

Plural pronouns are
correct only when
clearly defined

Can plural pronouns be defined consistent with the above? The answer is a guarded yes. They can be consistently used, but only if they are clearly used to denote instances of the members of a collection that has been previously defined ahead of their usage by the methods described above. Furthermore, since a plural represents an instance of any member of a collection of existents it can never have any attribute that was not a) a defining characteristic of the members of the collection that it is instantiating, b) logically deducible from such defining characteristics, or c) an attribute that is clearly being newly ascribed to all members and thus, extends the number of attributes that are valid for all members of the collection. Thus, "we", "they" or the plural "you" (and their other grammatical forms) should only be used in the sense of "each and every individual within the collection just defined".
Inappropriate generalizations are a very commonly used egregious example of the violation of a) by which an attempt is made to infer b), but without making any logical deduction, or to foist c) upon the reader again without clear validation. Generalizations may be done either intentionally or through unthinking bias, but the result is equally unacceptable.

Typical Publication Usage of First Person Plural Pronouns

Characterized by presumption
of knowledge and
deceitful empathy

Instead of the above clear usage, an examination of past and present publications shows that the usage of first person plural pronouns is often characterized by either:

  1. a presumption of knowledge about others, or
  2. an identification of oneself with others in a consciously or unconsciously deceitful attempt to more easily persuade them.

Note however, that the essential separateness of individuals means that any one person can at best have a very imperfect and marginal understanding of the thinking process of a relatively few other individuals. Certainly no one can get inside the head of any other individual and think along with him or control his thinking in certain directions. But that is indeed what many of these usages appear to imply. Most of these usages are probably not perpetrated consciously or intentionally. However that vast innocence merely shows how hidden and insidious the problem really is. Examples of these implied usages are rampant in articles produced daily by even the most pro-freedom writers. Here are a few from recent publications (collectivist words underlined):

"Our" (??) thinking on

From Wartime Habits of Mind by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

"As the bombs fall, buildings collapse to the ground, entire divisions of troops are slaughtered, and violent power reigns supreme, our thinking begins to change. War on this scale produces intellectual fallout, and we are all inclined to go along, unless we know the lies and their refutation."

Author identification with readers and implication that all are the same

Note the implication that Lew himself is just like his readers - unable to resist the thinking changes brought on by the media reports about war. However, I am virtually certain that this is not true. Lew was against the war in Iraq from the start and has remained fully impervious to the media propaganda and fully able to analyze it objectively. So for what possible reason is he implying this falsehood that actually demeans himself? I submit that the reason is 2) above: "an identification of oneself with others in a consciously or unconsciously deceitful attempt to more easily persuade them".

Note also the collectivist implication that all people are just unthinking minions of state propaganda unless they have evidence that it is lies and even until they are told by others what is the right information. Nowhere is there any implication that some individuals can be impervious to such lies and deceit even without knowing any certain facts. Just the source of this information alone is enough to make any reasonable person totally suspicious and skeptical. When I read something like the above, I cannot refrain from thinking: "speak for yourself!" However, in this case it is even worse because I know that Lew Rockwell is not one of those to whom he is assigning this way of thinking. This makes his writing above even worse because it is now clearly a fraudulent attempt to lower himself to be within the collection of those who do think that way in order to empathetically attempt to persuade them. The rest of the article is rife with examples of similarly fraudulent and distortional uses of the first person plural. In stating that this is fraudulent, I am not implying that Lew is conscious of the fraudulent effect of his word usages. However as I already stated, this lack of consciousness by a highly intelligent defender and promoter of freedom shows how really insidious is this problem in current language use.

Author and reader together as "We"

From Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies by George H. Smith

"As we have seen, this positive definition of atheism is not the most common one, nor the traditional one -- not, that is, if we consult what most atheists have really said rather than listen to uniformed critics who tell us what atheists 'should' have said."

From Why Atheism? Chapter 1 3rd para, by George H. Smith

"Assertions, arguments, doctrines, and the like (which, for the sake of convenience, I shall call 'propositions') must strike us as both relevant and credible before we will take time to investigate them further. A proposition is relevant if it is related to our intellectual interests, whether theoretical or practical. A relevant proposition is one whose truth or falsehood would have a significant impact on what we believe or how we act."

Tactic for stating opinions as facts?

In the first example, note the implication that all those who have read to this point are convinced ("have seen") by what George has written. This presumption could have been avoided by simply phrasing it: "As I have shown,". As for the second usage: "if we consult what most atheists have really said", who is this "we" that is doing such consulting? There is only the reader (who may only have read this one book on the subject) and the author. Clearly, it is the author who thinks he has actually done sufficient consulting and is attempting to foist this assumption on the reader without actually needing to state and to justify it. Perhaps this is because he is making an exaggerated statement that he knows full well that he can never justify, since it is likely that most atheists have never "said" anything on the subject that he can possibly have heard or read. So here is an example of where the use of "we", and later in the sentence of "us", leads to sloppy and non-factual writing. Perhaps this is why so many writers resort to this tactic; it lets them easily state mere opinions without having them appear so.

In the second example, George makes the unnecessary and unwarranted presumption that the reader thinks, has the same "intellectual interests" and uses the same criteria for deciding what is "relevant" and "significant" as he (George) does. Note also the "must" imperative that essentially orders the reader to act as George himself does. Unfortunately, the entire book (otherwise very well written and logically presented) continues in this fashion and worse.

"We" is the writing of politics not logic

From Capital Punishment? by George H. Smith

"Doing political philosophy largely consists of deciding where we don't want to go and then figuring out a way not to end up there. There is nothing wrong with this method (which is also employed in the natural sciences)3 so long as we do not confuse motives with arguments. How and why we pursue a particular inquiry -- what questions we ask, what we try to justify, and so forth -- depend a good deal on subjective considerations. But having embarked on the subjective quest for understanding, we must thereafter be guided by objective considerations."

Now it must be asked, who is this "we" used six times in three sentences? Perhaps the "we" is the collection of political philosophers. However, the "we" is never defined and even seems to vary from usage to usage as is convenient for the writer. And in the last sentence who is the "we" that is ordered to do something with a "must" imperative. I submit that this sort of writing is better suited to political promotion than to rational logical argumentation. Later in the same essay George's use of the first person plural gets even worse.

"We" can not evaluate anything

Another quote from Capital Punishment? by George H. Smith

"Suppose we can have no doubt whatever about the guilt of a serial killer. Given our theory of justice, what position should we take when reasonable doubt is impossible and where the crimes have been especially heinous?"

Now I ask any reasonable person, how is it possible for each of the individuals of any group to have the same degree of "doubt" about anything? There is no existent "we" to have anything like doubt! There are only individual humans, each one to have his own degree of doubt about "the guilt of a serial killer". But it gets worse still. Even if the "we" were well defined here, no collection can ever take a "position"! Only each individual doing his own separate and unique evaluation in his own essentially isolated mind can ever have a "position" on anything.

Use of "we" destroys individualist thought

Note that I am not accusing everyone who uses plural pronouns (particularly first person plurals) of consciously either being or thinking as described above. I am stating that such is the implication of many examples of their usage and therefore all such usages should be eschewed by anyone who does not wish to appear that way. However, I am also stating something even more fundamental - that the use of ill defined plurals in conventional language is distorting human thought to such an extent that the full individualist evaluation and action appropriate to human beings is virtually impossible to attain.

Use of "we" destroys biological individualism

From point 1) of Related Material on Programmed Cell Death in ScienceWeek Part A December 24, 2004, an adaptation from: Scott F. Gilbert: Developmental Biology. 6th Edition. Sinauer 2000, p.165.

"Within the uterus, during our fetal development, we were constantly making and destroying cells, and we generated about three times as many neurons as we eventually ended up with when we were born."

Of course, this use of "we" and "our" is pure nonsense unless the "we" happens to be twins, triplets, etc. Each fetus is in its own unique environmentally affected uterine developmental situation and, in fact, the "about" is used particularly because the number of cells made and destroyed depends somewhat on both the environment and genetic makeup of the fetus. Neither were all of the readers of the above (the "us") within a given uterus either at the same time or even ever (again excepting multiple gestations), nor were "we" born similarly.

Collectivist thought in action

Here is one of the worst example of the collectivist use of such pronouns as "our", "we" and "ourselves" (a definitionally self-contradictory word) that I have ever read. Frankly, when I read it I am nauseated and disgusted. However, note that the collectivist attribution of "loyalties", "obligation" and "owed", are all perfectly good words when applied to individuals with their correct meanings. Note that besides the standard (mis)use of collective pronouns, there is (mis)use of the abstract and collective terms "species", "planet", "Earth" and "Cosmos", which are all given the attributes of an individual human to which other humans can and should be loyal, obligated or owing a debt.

"Our loyalties are to the species and the planet.
We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is
owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos,
ancient and vast, from which we spring."
-- Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

And here is another from the home page (at the time of the previous revision of this page in December 2004) of the Methuselah Mouse Prize a project of which I would very much like to be supportive, but cannot because of major philosophical disagreements with its organizational and promotional methods.

"Aging is a Thief

Aging steals from society, making cripples and beggars of the old through age-related degeneration and paupers of the young though burdens on our healthcare systems. Aging robs the world of its most precious resource; the wisdom and experience so desperately needed to face the challenges of an uncertain future. We accept these insults to our health, finances, capabilities and happiness only because we perceive them as inevitable... but are they?"

Only conscious lifeforms can be "a thief", "steal", "rob" or even intentionally "make" or "insult" for that matter. In addition, one can only "steal" and "rob" what is legitimately "owned", which is also only possible for conscious lifeforms, certainly not for "society" or "the world". These are major philosophically unacceptable usages of language in addition to the standard collectivist (mis)usages of "our healthcare systems", "its most precious resource", "We accept", "our health" and "we perceive", all of which appear in the above paragraph.

The Methuselah Mouse Prize website front page was revised in April 2005 and the above ideas were tucked away in the last paragraph on a subpage - where it still exists - revised to a single sentence:

"Aging is a thief that robs the world of its most precious resource; wisdom and experience, while at the same time placing increasing burdens on already strained health care systems."

Once again, only conscious lifeforms can be "a thief" and "rob" or even intentionally "place" for that matter. And again, one can only "rob" what is legitimately owned, which is also only possible for lifeforms, certainly not for "the world".


Use of "we" can distort reality

Individual humans exist, think and act with uniquely different, completely separate minds. There is no existent, "we", that either thinks or acts! In fact, no human collective "we" ever exists except with reference to clearly identifiable and delineated simple characteristics (eg. we men, we women, we blue eyed persons, we US residents, we persons over 65, etc). However, even where such human collectives do exist, it is not possible for the individual members to think, emote or act as one entity; they can only do so as individuals. It is therefore fallacious, and distorting of reality to use "we" or "our" in any statement that refers to human thought or action, unless in those extremely rare and simple circumstances where it is known with certitude to be a completely unanimous thought or action. This last faulty and distortional mode also applies to all other usages of collective nouns or pronouns such as "you", "they", "everyone", etc. that attempt to attribute to all within a group, the characteristics of only some of them. Another "pluralistic" mode of thought that is distortional and promotes an overly pessimistic attitude is the use of such all encompassing terms as "always", "every time", "wherever", etc, but that needs to be the topic of another essay.

* A more detailed basis and description of these assumptions is contained in the first definition set of the Natural Social Contract, the annotational remarks for that set of definitions and in the Theory of Social Meta-Needs.

1. It should be pointed out that "experiencing" an attribute of an existent is equivalent to measuring it in some fashion.

2. Scientific references for this are given in footnote #5 of Social Meta-Needs: Radical Basis for Optimal Human Interaction.

3. This parenthetical remark shows that Smith does not understand the "natural sciences". While it may be true that the applied sciences (eg. engineering) sometimes operate by "deciding where [they] don't want to go and then figuring out a way not to end up there", this is completely contrary to the scientific method (ie. that method that is used to gain and solidify knowledge of reality). Instead, the scientific methods looks at patterns in reality, attempts to see mechanisms that will explain those patterns, makes hypotheses from those mechanisms, and finally devises experiments to test those hypotheses. A scientist goes wherever the scientific method leads him. To the extent there is an a priori attempt to decide on the results one wants to get, to that extent one is not doing science.