Ming the Mechanic:
Experience and Abstraction

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Experience and Abstraction2002-10-12 15:20
pictureby Flemming Funch

It would be valuable for people in any profession or activity to have an awareness of how we simplify our experience in order to make sense of it. That might allow you to stay more sane within a confusing world. General Semantics is a discipline that goes deeply into that. Here are a few tips ..

To any experience we're having, there are several levels to it, which could be described like this:

  • Event (process) level
  • Object level
  • Descriptive level
  • Inference level(s)

    If you're not aware of which levels you're currently focusing on, you might easily get in trouble.

    The event level or process level is where things actually happen. We could say it is 'reality'. It is not clear exactly what that is or how it works, but that is not the point. For us humans it starts when we perceive something happening. The way we humans perceive is through many different kinds of sensors. For example, when you see with your eyes, thousands of tiny photoreceptors are being hit by light. Similar things are going on with touch and hearing, etc. Some perceptual organ is being triggered in some fashion. It doesn't automatically mean anything.

    But our brains have become trained in piecing the perceptual input together into what we can perceive as a coherent composite. That is the Object Level. So, instead of thousands of little electrical beeps from photoreceptors, I see a composite picture. Aha, there's a big gray something in front of me, standing on four rounded things, and one end of it is moving sort of up and down, and there's this flexible extension of it that is moving around.

    Then we get to the Descriptive Level. I have a lot of experience and learning stored away, and there are human language labels attached to a lot of classes of things. So, as I subconsciously quickly look through my mental files, and I do some rather fancy pattern recognition, I realize that this must be an animal of the class "elephant". And I say "That's an elephant". That's really rather practical, because I can then describe it, and I could write that down, or I could call somebody far away and convey to them that I have an 'elephant' in my living room. That doesn't convey the whole experience, but it is enough to make a picture pop up in somebody's mind, so they think they understand my experience.

    Then there's the Inference Level. That's when we take our boiled down concept of what is going on and we get more abstract with it, and guess at what other abstract things it might mean. "So, there's an elephant in my living room. That must be Joe who's playing a practical joke on me." And that might be repeated to any number of inference levels. "He's trying to do me in", "Nobody likes me", etc.

    The thing is that all of these things are abstractions. They're abstractions in the sense that you *abstract* a more simplified summary out of something that is more complex and more real. You over-simplify things. That is both a useful thing, and it is a trap, if we forget that we over-simplified things, and it never is a complete representation of what happened.

    Even our perceptions is an abstraction. Light hits photoreceptors in our eyes. That is not really what is going on. It is an indirect way of sensing something that is going on.

    Our brains have gotten used to interpreting the sensory input in a certain way. Like, I'm used to seeing things in 3 dimensions, and I assume there is gravity, and the up and down directions are in a certain way. I'm sort of attuned to certain channels, and I make certain assumptions about them. If I was presented with a very different combination of inputs, I might not be able to even reduce them to recognizable objects.

    When we put labels on things is when we really activate the power of human abstract thinking and communication. But it is also when we might start being fooled about it. It is gray and big and has a trunk, so it is an elephant. Maybe it really isn't. Maybe it is a projection, or it is a mechanical device. Magicians heavily utilize our habits of abstraction. When we think we know what we're looking at, we often don't look any further.

    Our inferences is then where we really go crazy. We might start thinking that our simplified view of things, or the words we attach to them, really is reality, and we might draw inferences about what that means. Or, worse yet, we take some previous inferences we've made, and we make inferences based on those. And pretty soon it has nothing much to do with reality.

    We make up terms for things that aren't really there, but which makes it easier for us to do more complex things. Like *relationship*. There's no such thing. You can't really isolate a *relationship* in nature. It is not a grey thing with thick skin that you can go and tie to a tree. It is a completely abstract idea.

    When we then build on that, we get into fights about "You're not committed enough to our relationship!" or we start assuming and infering various other things that might or might not be there. "My commitments are bringing me down."

    Abstraction is useful when it helps us to correctly predict things. Like, I carry around some very abstract models of human behavior, which often are useful for knowing how to relate to people.

    But abstraction becomes insanity when you draw some false conclusions from some misunderstood ideas about some things that really didn't happen.

    The most simple and practical way of using these things is to always maintain an awareness of how you are abstracting. Always be conscious of how you are over-simplifying things, and be aware of where the more real experience is found. So, when things aren't working out with the abstractions, you'll go back to the more real stuff to figure out what is going on.

    One way of looking at it would be that it is applying the scientific method to your life. You observe things that happen and you draw certain conclusions about what they are and how they might work. And then you go back and test out how your ideas work with some other experiences in some other situations. If your abstractions aren't working well enough, you go and revise them, or you stop using them.

    (A good book to read: "Drive Yourself Sane" by Susan and Bruce Kodish.)

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