Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Thursday, October 15, 2009day link 

picture It is such a fundamental thing that we do, and still most of us are hardly aware of it. We abstract the real world into each our separate set of abstractions, and then we get pissed off with each other when our abstractions turn out different.

I'm using the word abstract as a verb here. Defined as "to summarize or epitomize". I.e. you simplify something into a much smaller and maybe more portable version. We'll often further abstract the abstraction, any number of levels deep.

If I walk around with some kind of image in my mind of what a table is, it is because I have created an abstraction of the real thing. That's called learning. Even for such a simple thing it is a relatively complex abstraction, allowing me to recognize tables, even when they have many different sizes and colors and shapes and number of legs. Being able to recognize most all tables is very handy, much easier than to just perceive some kind of fog of trillions of sub-atomic particles.

I also abstract my mental model of tables further by accepting that such a thing is called "table". Which is just as handy, because now I can talk about it, and send some statement about tables over even great distances, and somebody else can receive my communication and expand it into the understanding that I'd like a place to sit at their restaurant. As long as we're talking about physical objects, this usually works out with minimal problems.

But when we do the same thing, repeatedly, with more fuzzy and complex problems, we become more and more likely to get into trouble. I might form complex ideas about "relationships", "work", "right and wrong" or "freedom", and they might be very far removed from any actual experience. Opinions about abstractions of ideas one heard described by somebody else who had abstracted them from interpreted abstractions of abstractions of experiences that somebody once had.

The horrifying thing is that many of us go around being very sure about the absolute truth in our abstractions. You know, being very, very sure that our point of view or our religious belief or our scientific theory is fact. That's of course raving lunacy, but since the majority of us are doing it, it isn't worth the trouble to try to lock such people away in insane asylums. So, we just fight about it, have wars and elections about it, and try any which way we can to coerce others into accepting our abstractions, because they're the right ones.

The way out, towards more sanity, is to become conscious of abstraction. I.e. become aware of how and when you're abstracting, and how much, and based on what. And becoming able to go in the other direction, if necessary.

It goes kind of like this, through various levels:

- There's something fundamentally there. The quantum soup. Reality with a capital R. All-that-is. The Multiverse. God. Something way, way beyond anything we can talk about or theorize about.

- Nevertheless, something happens within that indescribable something.

- It leaves traces - light, sound, smell, radiation etc

- It is perceived through a nervous system - seeing, hearing

- It is interpreted into a picture, a sound, etc

- We make interpolations, extrapolations, guesses, to fill in the blanks

- We invent or select words that describe our experience

- We have a semantic or emotional reaction to what we think happened

- We make mental models of how things work and what to expect

- We communicate with language, exchanging ideas about ideas

- We construct bodies of knowledge, beliefs, systems, e.g. science

There are many more layers of levels to this, but you get the idea. All of this is useful, of course, allowing us to operate at a "higher level". But when we mistakenly start assuming that an abstraction is better than that which it was abstracted from, we start going insane. The anti-dote is to always remain conscious of abstractions.

Further reading: Wikipedia: Abstraction, Consciousness of Abstraction, Wikipedia: General Semantics.
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