Tuesday, June 09, 2009

John C. Wright and null-A

In the 1940's A E. Van Vogt published a story called "The World of Null-A". There are characters in this story who practice a science/mental discipline called General Semantics which involves non-Aristotlean logic or null-A logic. There were some sequels to the story, and now another sequel by another author, John C. Wright called "The Null-A Continuum". I've just finished the "The Null-A Continuum".

I think I first looked up John C. Wright in a bookstore after reading a blog entry of his, and I think I probably reached the blog entry from Head Noises, but the details are now lost in the mists of time.

The first book of his that I read was "Orphans of Chaos". The book is a fantasy story that uses an ingenious device to meld various mythological traditions to each other and to the modern world. I enjoyed the book so much that I finished it, went back to the book store the next day for the next two, and would have finished the whole trilogy in a weekend if I could have found the second book. As it was, I bought the third book and then under great temptation managed to avoid reading it for several weeks until I found the second one. And I did read the last two books in one weekend.

The cosmology and magic system of those books is fascinating. It has some philosophical underpinnings and I suspect that Wright was consciously founding his magic on the idealist philosophy of Berkeley or Kant. I was actually planning to write a couple of posts analyzing the ideas in the Chaos trilogy, but then I moved and I'm afraid the books ended up in storage so I had no way to check my memory.

"The Null-A Continuum" is also very good if you like the A. E. Van Vogt style. I confess that although I liked A. E. Van Vogt, his null-A books are a bit disorienting. There is a Deus ex machina on every other page in the form of a previously unknown character with special powers, a previously unknown power that one of the characters has, someone who was dead and comes back, or something similar. The new null-A book by Wright follows this style with enthusiasm. Although I enjoyed it, I did find it a bit exhausting trying to keep up with all of the actors and their powers.

As an interesting aside, I suspect that "The World of Null-A" was part of the inspiration for Mr. Spock of Star Trek. The hero of "The World of Null-A" was not emotionless like Spock, but he did have special control over his emotions compared to normal people due to mastery of null-A, a form of logic. Null-A also gave him greater physical powers, greater powers of observation, and apparently miraculous insights. Null-A was also responsible for the ethics of its practitioners. The idea is that fully "sane" behavior is ethical behavior. Compare to Spock bringing up logic in defense of his own ethics, most famously in "it is logical that the one should sacrifice for the many".

Well, this is all just fiction, but is there any possibility that something like it could exist? Might there be some special way of reasoning that would give one almost magical powers of prediction and control over the natural world? The answer is an unqualified "yes" --it's called mathematics. But more to the point, is there such a system that could lead to the sorts of powers that null-A practitioners have in the book?

And more interestingly, is it actually possible that ethical behavior is more rational than non-ethical behavior? Could we come up with a reasoning system that would make us smarter, better people?

Here are three posts on three different aspects of null-A:
mult-valued logic
words and thought

UPDATE: after reading Wright's journal for a few days, it is clear that he is familiar with Kant. No mention of Berkely yet...

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