We don’t need a complicated theory to understand the basic empirical fact that abstractions — all words and numbers, and all scientific theories, and everything we think we know — are not real in the same sense as the phenomena they are pointing to are real.
The word “car” will not take you across town, nor will the concept “aspirin” cure a headache. Nor does there exists, in the actual world, an abstraction like the number one.
In our actual, direct experience, so quite self-evidently, there is simply the unique singularity of every form of life, real or abstract, and nothing is ever experienced “in general”.
To make sense of the always changing sensations and perceptions, thought constructs — based on direct experience of hearing, touching, tasting, seeing, smelling — abstract objects (“tree”, “cat”, “salty”, “loud”). These abstract objects interact with pre-existent abstract objects (memory, language), giving us the ability to compare what we think is going on presently to what we remember.
The activity of knowing is thus limited to the way in which our continuously fabricated by thought abstract objects (“tree”, “cat”, “salty”, “loud”) interact with the abstract objects that constitute memory (images, sensations, concepts and so on). Knowing never gets as far as things-as-they-exist-objectively because all that knowing can know is always already filtered through a pre-existent matrix of its own conditioning.
For example: we don’t experience a “cat” as an object. What we experience is a set of perceptions and sensations, which we then name using pre-existent set of categories that constitute understanding — “furry”, “purrs”, “soft” — and decide, based on what we already decided a “cat” looks like, that what we are experiencing is indeed a “cat” . Thus, what we tend to think of as our experience of the world — a cat, a tree, a person — is merely experience of an abstract idea!
Meanwhile, what is actually, or “empirically”, being experienced before abstraction, before all ideas, is simply the activity of hearing, touching, tasting, seeing and smelling.
So while for practical purposes we pretend that our experiences “come from” objects that are real apart from our knowing them, perhaps on some level we do have a hunch that what is in fact “empirical” in knowing are (always one-of-a-kind and without precedent) perceptions and sensations, and that all else is simply ideas and concepts imposed on this direct sensory experiencing.
Let’s go further: let’s say we pick up two grains of sand and say of them “two”, or refer to a four-legged furry form as “cat”. In doing so, in thus constructing an abstract object, we have no choice but to leave out of the abstracting process those attributes of each grain of sand and each actual cat which differentiate it from all other forms.
That is, we leave out of the process of abstraction-making the aspects of experience that make a particular thing recognizable as singular and unique. If we don’t, our “abstract objects” simply don’t work — we will have made an abstract object of very limited practical value if we suppose that the concept “cat” means “a cranky Siamese named Steve”.
This is both the cost and the benefit of abstraction: we trade what is directly given in experience for the ability to work with experience and communicate what we think we find to others.
Abstractions are real
Still, the point is not that abstractions are not real, but rather that their reality is different than the reality of the forms they are pointing to.
In our actual experience, abstractions are as real and singular as what they are pointing to — each occupying a specific space-time “location” — but they are real as abstractions, and are not generalities or universals.
In our example above, the concept or the sound “two” or “cat” can be used in the real world to do whatever the concept or the sound “two” or “cat” can do in any given context. But whatever these abstractions do, they are always acting in a specific here and now, or as particulars. (Again, since in our actual experience no two situations or experiences are ever the same, nothing can be said to exist in the same way across all situations, or in general.)
It is therefore safe to say that on examining experience we cannot find anything at all that is truly general about sounds, names or forms — all of these are one-off creations of the process of sense-making, or translating direct sensation and perception into functional abstract objects. To say that abstractions have “general qualities” — and by and large we tend to believe that they do — is to privilege a made up idea over our actual experience, a gesture closer to ideology than science.
Knowing this may help us understand that abstractions have little to do with what is true about the world — despite what Dawkins and Sagan would have us believe, for example — and are instead a useful tool that our species uses to work with experience so as to enable us to survive and adapt to the environment.
We could further realize, for instance, that the form “cat” does not really exist apart from the sound and the concept “cat”, or that Canada is an abstract (rather than real) place, or that the “Theory of Evolution” or “gravitation” is a sound attached to an abstract object, which can function in whatever way it can function at any given time and place, but is not universally true.
Indeed, understanding how abstractions work may reveal to us that science — right from the start and in principle — is a tool-making rather than a truth-yielding activity. It also sets up for us a framework from which to launch further inquiry into the nature of science, and thus science communication as well.
Michael Urbanski is a science communication consultant and the main culprit behind Plain Language Science.
what is abstraction