The Logic of Spencer Brown and an Unlikely Phone Call

A few posts back I told the story of my introduction to Bertrand Russell’s symbolic logic in Russell’s Logic and an Invitation to Tea.

I mentioned that there was a sequel, and here it is.

About twenty-five years after that first brush with Russell and an unexpected discussion about his symbolic logic with the Head of Philosophy at Bristol University, during which time I did not follow up on logic or philosophy but was busy working in and around the music biz., paying the mortgage, bringing up the kids and so forth, I suddenly found myself with some time on my hands and no pressing responsibilities. So I decided to take up the study of metaphysics.

This was not quite out of the blue. Three years prior to this I had noticed an article in the newspapers reporting that scientists had decided that consciousness did exist after all, Watson, Skinner et al notwithstanding, and needed an explanation. This rekindled an old interest in physics, fuelled initially by a few thousand science fiction paperbacks consumed as a teenager, which had more or less died as soon as it dawned on me that physics cannot be a method for discovering anything important about life, the universe or anything for as long as it assumes that materialism is true. A survey of science fiction makes this clear. I sporadically followed the popular science literature from then on, but never saw a reason to change my opinion. Materialism is the unambiguous claim that we can never know the answer to such deep questions. This will always be an assumption since it is untestable in physics and unprovable by any means, but for as long as science continues to make it then it can tell us nothing about philosophy, soteriology, God, ethics, consciousness, the meaning of life, the origin of the universe and so forth. If materialism is true then it would be impossible even to know that materialism is true. If consciousness was now being taken seriously, however, then perhaps things were changing.

So, interest rekindled, I signed up for a subscription to the Journal of Consciousness Studies and started to plough through the scientific literature. This took three years, by the end of which time I had concluded that to read any more of this literature would be a waste of time. The articles in JCS were becoming repetitive, the entire field seemed moribund, and I appeared to know as much about the topic as anyone I was reading. Accordingly, I cancelled my subscription and stopped following the literature.

It had become clear to me, in a woolly sort of way, that the problem of consciousness is a metaphysical one, and that it is not amenable to the approaches being taken to it in the sciences. This is not a difficult conclusion to reach, so I was forced to conclude that the current scientific debate on consciousness is not an honest one. As David Chalmers has noted, there is too much sleight of hand going on. Accordingly, I decided to conduct my own investigation, unhampered by preconceptions and group-think, beginning at the beginning, in metaphysics, and taking care never to complicate the issues for the sake of protecting unworkable ideas. I knew almost nothing about metaphysics and would have struggled to define it, so for further progress I needed to do a lot of homework. Or so I thought.

I spent three days considering the problems discussed in Paul Davies’ excellent book The Mind of God, the only discussion of metaphysics on my bookshelf. By the end of this time I had identified a solution for consciousness. After three more weeks I had concluded that this must be the solution for all metaphysical problems. This was astonishing to me, and it has remained so. How could this happen? I can only think that many years in management had given me the habit of cutting to the chase and and not getting bogged down in details. A business does not have twenty centuries to make decisions. Admittedly, I could make very little sense of this solution. I had visions of spending ten years trying to develop it as a theory and make sense of it. But the logic was unquestionable. There could be no other solution, and if all those scientists and philosophers who believed otherwise found the problem of consciousness intractable then this must be the reason.

Just at this time I had the good fortune to decide to wander up to see how my new guitar was coming on. Its maker, who I’d met only recently, lived just up the lane and across a couple of fields. It was a beautiful summer day and the view up the valley to the slopes of the Pennines rearing up a couple of miles away was spectacular, but as I walked up through the fields dodging sheep my mind was still preoccupied with metaphysics. Was I going mad? If my solution was so obvious then why had I never seen it mentioned in JCS or any of the books and articles that I’d read? There had to be something wrong with it, but what? It was utterly implausible to me that such a simple and obvious solution could be the correct one and yet elude all the scientists and philosophers I’d ever read or read about.

After we’d chatted about guitars for a while, and knowing that he had an interest in philosophy from his bookshelf, I mentioned this naïve solution for metaphysics to the maker of my rather expensive retirement present to myself. I expected laughter. He carried on carefully planing a piece of wood. Yes, he said, this is Buddhist doctrine. I was genuinely shocked. It was even a surprise that he was a Buddhist, since I’d never met one before. I was so naïve that I was actually disappointed. I’d been having visions of Nobel prizes and best-selling books but it seemed that someone had beaten me to it. I had no knowledge of mysticism whatsoever. I had heard of Buddhism but it had never occurred to me find out what it was. It might as well have been a Martian religion. No scientist or researcher into consciousness I’d ever read had found it necessary to mention it, and I naturally assumed it was of no interest in the sciences. Nevertheless, on the basis of this one remark I converted on the spot, after the twenty seconds or so it took for its implications to sink in, having previously been a more or less anti-religious atheist for four decades. This is the danger of doing three weeks of metaphysics.

During that three weeks I had become completely certain that there is only one workable solution for consciousness and all related metaphysical problems, and that the ‘hard’ problem is just one of the many items of evidence. If this were not the correct solution then there could be no explanation for why nobody had ever found another one. If the Buddha endorsed this solution, which is metaphysical, cosmological, completely general, then his religion simply had to have an essential truth at the heart of it. I walked back through the fields in a state of excitement, feeling like Holmes on the trail of the truth having stumbled on a vital clue, carrying a borrowed copy of Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. I had not known that such books existed. The foreword and introduction by, respectively, Tenshin Anderson and Taigen Dan Leighton were enough to convince me that the case was solved.

So, yet again it was back to the drawing board, this time to investigate Buddhist doctrine. After three years of research I reached the point of being wholly unable to understand why all scientists aren’t Buddhists. Every shred of evidence points to the truth of its doctrine and the internet makes research very easy. Even so, it was a long time before I stumbled across anyone who shared my childishly simple view of metaphysics, one by which all its dilemmas can be solved in principle at a stroke with hardly any need to examine the details.

Then one day while browsing around the internet I came across George Spencer Brown. Something he said sparked my interest, and after following a few links I became convinced that here was someone else who saw metaphysics in a very simple way. He is an interesting character. Here is the potted biography from Wikipedia. I hope the quote is legal.

Born in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, England, Spencer-Brown passed the First M.B. in 1940 at London Hospital Medical College (now part of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry). After serving in the Royal Navy (1943–47), he studied at Trinity College Cambridge, earning Honours in Philosophy (1950) and Psychology (1951), and where he met Bertrand Russell. From 1952 to 1958, he taught philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford, taking M.A. degrees in 1954 from both Oxford and Cambridge, and writing his 1957 book Probability and Scientific Inference.

During the 1960s, he became a disciple of the innovative Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, frequently cited in Laws of Form. In 1964, on Bertrand Russell‘s recommendation, he became a lecturer in formal mathematics at the University of London. From 1969 onward, he was affiliated with the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics at the University of Cambridge. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was visiting professor at the University of Western Australia, Stanford University, and at the University of Maryland, College Park.

During his time at Cambridge Spencer-Brown was a chess half-blue. He held two world records as a glider pilot, and was a sports correspondent to the Daily Express.[2] He has also written some novels and poems, sometimes employing the pen name James Keys.

It took me quite a while to get hold of a copy of Brown’s Laws of Form as at the time it was out of print. But just from following my nose around the internet I thought I could see what he was saying about metaphysics, and that he proposed a profoundly simple mathematical model that captured my own idea. So, in a fit of excitement and enthusiasm I wrote him a three thousand word letter. I remember that in it, among other things, I attempted to describe a simple electrical circuit that would model metaphysics and which would give correct answers to any metaphysical question. It really was a daft letter. I thought that if he was still alive I might get a note back but mainly it was just to say ‘right on’, there is someone out here who appreciates your book, since it has been widely ignored and in some quarters ridiculed.

A month later I stumbled into the kitchen one bleary Sunday morning, still needing a cup of tea and a roll-up to get the world into focus, when the phone rang. “Hello”, said one of most confident and authoritative Oxbridge voices I’ve ever heard, “this is George Spencer Brown”.

We talked for an hour and I felt like a child throughout the conversation. This was only the second time that I’d talked with a serious scholar about philosophy, and I have read accounts of meetings with Brown in which seasoned academics have come away feeling like they’ve been to see the headmaster. The first few minutes was a nightmare as I tried to wake up. The situation was saved only when he suddenly yelped and asked me to hang on because he’d dropped his roll-up on the bed.

Roll-up smokers share a natural bond that easily unites them. His problem gave me time to put the kettle on and start to roll one for myself, and after that things went a bit better. Not much though. I am not able to talk in the rigorous and clear language of academics, and certainly not when they are a genius, and anything I said sounded pretty idiotic even to me. Mostly I shut up.

He told me that my solution for metaphysics was correct. He repeatedly stated that the division we make between subject and object is ultimately a false one. He mentioned his book of poetry Only Two Can Play This Game in this regard, and stressed that it is rigorous. He mentioned his friendship with Wei Wu Wei, the advaitan philosopher-sage, and referred to him in respect of the wider implications of his mathematics. Towards the end of the conversation he told me that he is a buddha.

I asked him about Russell, why he did not see the real message of Laws of Form. “Oh, Bertie was a fool” he replied in a friendly and wistful tone, and as if there was nothing more to add. There seemed no reason to pursue the question. I remember being pleased that my naïve judgment of twenty-five years earlier had stood the test of time.

Brown’s logic, as described in his ‘calculus of indications’ , would be a solution for all metaphysical dilemmas and paradoxes. This is possible because it solves Russell’s Paradox. This paradox stands at the very heart of metaphysics. Russell saw that his colleague’s calculus was a solution for his set-theoretic problem, that it did away with any need for his ‘theory of types’, and enthusiastically endorses Laws of Form on the front cover of my copy, but he somehow did not see that Brown’s logic and mathematics would have an ineluctable metaphysical implication.

This is odd, or perhaps stubborn, because metaphysics depends entirely on logic and mathematics. This is the premise of Russell’s symbolic logic. But Russell thought he knew that religion is nonsense and openly states that metaphysics is useless as a source of knowledge. To see the full implication of Brown’s calculus would have meant abandoning many crucial features of his long-held world-view, and he seems to have been disinclined to read anything more threatening into it than a solution for a problem in set-theory.

The reason why Brown’s ideas immediately struck a chord for me, before having read his book or knowing anything about Boolean logic, was his proposal that ultimate reality may be likened to a blank piece of paper. I think I first spotted this claim in the text of a lecture delivered at the Essaline Institute in the 1960’s, (attended by Alan Watts). I hadn’t thought of it like this, but this had been my conclusion after a brief study of metaphysical problems, since no other idea works. By this time I could see that this idea lies at the heart of Buddhist doctrine, but for a newcomer it is difficult to discern it clearly as a purely metaphysical theory. It was the simplicity of Brown’s approach that attracted me. No details, no complications, just a simple mathematical idea that resolves all metaphysical problems for a fundamental theory.

My understanding of practical mathematics is very poor. When I eventually read Laws of Form there was much that a mathematician would find childishly simple that I did not understand. As a piece of metaphysical writing, however, there is not much to understand. Form would emerge from formlessness, but a formlessness that might be seen as perfect form. All distinctions would be emergent and can be represented by marks on a piece of blank paper. Thus Russell’s Paradox, the impossibility of including all sets within the set of all sets, or in metaphysics the impossibility of describing the universe as no more than a collection of sets, is solved. The Tao that is eternal cannot be spoken, and Brown’s ‘calculus of indications’ takes this as an axiom. Number would arise from a pre-numerical, formless, category-less and nameless state and the world as a whole would not be the set of all sets. It would only be the assumption that it is that causes the problems Davies meets in The Mind of God. A mathematical calculus or metaphysical scheme built on Brown’s axiom cannot give rise to paradoxes and contradictions. His blank piece of paper would be the idea expressed by Schrodinger, I later learnt, when he writes that as well as the plurality of psycho-physical phenomena there is ‘the canvas on which they are painted’.

Since that first conversation with Brown I’ve had the chance to tidy up my ideas a bit and make more sense of them, and perhaps now I could hold up my side of the discussion a bit better. My mathematics still isn’t much improved, my brain still can’t handle this kind of precision computation, but the implications for philosophy of Brown’s calculus are explored to the point of exhaustion in the literature of mysticism in natural language. His friendship with the advaita philosopher Wei Wu Wei, formerly the Irish philosophers and connoisseur of fine wines and racehorses Terence Grey, indicates the underlying meaning of the mathematics. Its full philosophical consequences are well explored by his friend, and later also by Ramesh Balsekar, a follower of Wei Wu Wei, in his book The Ultimate Understanding.

At the end of our conversation, by which time I was almost exhausted from the effort of trying not to appear an idiot over such a long period, Brown said that he had to go because if he wasn’t actually watching the football on the TV he couldn’t influence the result. It was an interesting change of pace. I don’t know whether he had decided that I was an idiot and was making fun of my naivety, whether it was some kind of shared joke, (people like him are supposed to make silly claims like this in the minds of skeptics), whether he was suffering from delusions, or whether he really could influence the result.

Either way I would recommend his book and the rest of his work to anyone interested in the logic, mathematics, psychology or physics of mysticism. It may not bring us any closer to Heaven, but it might give us some confidence that it would not be irrational to suppose that it would be possible to get there.

Here are some links. Some will be of interest only to mathematicians. Fortunately, it would not be necessary to understand the detailed working of Brown’s mathematics in order to understand his metaphysics, only the basic principles. Its founding principle would state that the universe is a unity such that all extreme metaphysical positions are false. This solves the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness and all other such problems.

General intro –

Good place to start –

Ideas in LOF –

Discussion of LOF –

General –

General –

A playful introduction to the method –

About distinctions –

Thomas McFarlane essay,’The Play of Distinctions’, placing Brown’s ideas in their wider context.

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2 Responses to The Logic of Spencer Brown and an Unlikely Phone Call

  1. jabowery says:

    You write: “I remember that in it, among other things, I attempted to describe a simple electrical circuit that would model metaphysics and which would give correct answers to any metaphysical question.”

    Is there a description of the circuit available?

    • PeterJ says:

      Hello jabowery. I’d have to recreate it from memory which would take a while. Or maybe I’ve still got it somewhere. I’ll have a look. It took the polarities on which metaphysical dilemmas depend as positive and negative terminals for an electrical circuit that connects them all up, but I’ve forgotten the point of it all now. .

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