Whole Brain Catalog

Do Abstract Systems Work?

Has our ability to think reached the point of diminishing – or even negative – returns?
Daniel Canogar - Enredos 3, 2008
Daniel Canogar - Enredos 3, 2008

Our species’ hypertrophied linguistic abilities have allowed us to create entire systems composed of elements that we either cannot directly observe or cannot observe at all: mathematics, physics, ideologies, theologies, economies, democracies, technocracies and the like, which manipulate abstractions – symbols and relationships between symbols – rather than the concrete, messy, non-atomistic entities that have specific spatial and temporal extents and that constitute reality for all species. There is a continuum between products of pure thought, like chess or mathematics, sciences which produce theories that can be tested by repeatable direct experiment, like physics and chemistry, and the rest – political science, economics, sociology and the like – which are a hodgepodge of iffy assumptions and similarly iffy statistical techniques. Perfectly formal systems of thought, like logic and mathematics, seem the most rigorous, and have served as the guiding light for all other forms of thinking. But there’s a problem.

The problem is that formal systems don’t work. They have internal consistency, to be sure, and they can do all sorts of amusing tricks, but they don’t map onto reality in a way that isn’t essentially an act of violence. When mapped onto real life, formal systems of thought self-destruct, destroy nature, or, most commonly, both. Wherever we look we see systems that we have contrived run against limits of their own making: Burning fossil fuels causes global warming; plastics decay and produce endocrine disruptors; industrial agriculture depletes aquifers and destroys topsoil; and so on. We are already sitting on a mountain of guaranteed negative outcomes – political, environmental, ecological, economic – and every day those of us who still have a job go to work to pile that mountain a little bit higher.

Although this phenomenon can be observed by anyone who cares to see it, those who have observed it have always laid blame for it on the limitations and the flaws of the systems, never on the limitations and the flaws of the human ability to think and to reason. For some un-reason, we feel that our ability to reason is limitless and infinitely perfectible. Nobody has voiced the idea that the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns. It is yet to be persuasively argued that the human propensity for abstract reasoning is a defect of breeding that leads to collective insanity. Perhaps the argument would have to be made recursively: The faculty in question is so flawed that it is incapable of seeing its own flaws.

Dmitry Orlov – cluborlov.blogspot.com

120 comments on the article “Do Abstract Systems Work?”

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Jim Collier

Huh!? I guess formal abstract systems like biology--which have saved millions if not billions of lives (remember Smallpox? Polio?)--have no tangible results that "map onto the real world"?

You should get rid of the computer you used to write and publish the article on then. Not only is it a product of wholly abstract thought, but a whole system and industry of abstract thought built upon abstract thought, like onion layers that merely "assume" the products of lower layers to be true, without bothering to re-prove everything. But, I suppose computers are destructive, if I'm reading your incoherent argument correctly. And if so, then why the hypocrisy? After all, change begins with the person in the mirror. Anything else is just an irrational justification for using the products of abstract thought, and hypocrisy...so why should we listen to you?

I should also point out that complex interlocking and progressively layered and complex webs of abstract thought will absolutely, positively be the ONLY thing that saves not just all of us humans, but as many species as we can take with us...in a mere 6 billion years or so when either A) The sun's circumference expands to larger than the orbit of Earth--vaporizing it; or B) The Andromeda Galaxy merges with ours, most likely frying everything with ionizing radiation....whichever occurs first. (Or statistically speaking much, much sooner than that via extinction-sized asteroid or comet impact.)

But sure by all means, lets just march into oblivion in ignorance.

Jim Collier

Huh!? I guess formal abstract systems like biology--which have saved millions if not billions of lives (remember Smallpox? Polio?)--have no tangible results that "map onto the real world"?

You should get rid of the computer you used to write and publish the article on then. Not only is it a product of wholly abstract thought, but a whole system and industry of abstract thought built upon abstract thought, like onion layers that merely "assume" the products of lower layers to be true, without bothering to re-prove everything. But, I suppose computers are destructive, if I'm reading your incoherent argument correctly. And if so, then why the hypocrisy? After all, change begins with the person in the mirror. Anything else is just an irrational justification for using the products of abstract thought, and hypocrisy...so why should we listen to you?

I should also point out that complex interlocking and progressively layered and complex webs of abstract thought will absolutely, positively be the ONLY thing that saves not just all of us humans, but as many species as we can take with us...in a mere 6 billion years or so when either A) The sun's circumference expands to larger than the orbit of Earth--vaporizing it; or B) The Andromeda Galaxy merges with ours, most likely frying everything with ionizing radiation....whichever occurs first. (Or statistically speaking much, much sooner than that via extinction-sized asteroid or comet impact.)

But sure by all means, lets just march into oblivion in ignorance.

Rene

Abstract systems didn't save millions - the actions motivated by abstract systems did.

An abstraction can't do anything, which is the whole point that everyone here seems to be missing.

Rene

Abstract systems didn't save millions - the actions motivated by abstract systems did.

An abstraction can't do anything, which is the whole point that everyone here seems to be missing.

nastybrutishshort

so abstract thinking can be create effective, positive action? hooray for abstraction!

nastybrutishshort

so abstract thinking can be create effective, positive action? hooray for abstraction!

W.D. Baxter

"Nobody has voiced the idea that the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns."

This is called anti-intellectualism, and far from you being the first person to think of it, it has a lengthy pedigree.

I think your argument stated generally presumes a linear model of intellectual development, which I doubt most people would accept. I think that, certainly, some lines of inquiry--your own, for example--do produce what I think you mean by "diminishing or negative returns." But simply because certain ways of thinking--e.g., creationism, racism, fascism--do more harm than good doesn't mean that thinking in general should be avoided.

AdBusters, it's disappointing that you've included this article. I think it's a prime example of the sounds-like-someone-wrote-this-smoking-weed pseudo-intellectualism--you know, the kind of academese that tries to sound professional by using a register and set of ideas that sound vaguely post-structuralist. This style of writing and thinking is fundamentally conservative and antithetical to radical goals. It is, moreover, not interesting, not entertaining, and certainly not thought-provoking. Please serve people better in the future and provide better articles.

W.D. Baxter

"Nobody has voiced the idea that the exercise of our ability to think can reach the point of diminishing, then negative, returns."

This is called anti-intellectualism, and far from you being the first person to think of it, it has a lengthy pedigree.

I think your argument stated generally presumes a linear model of intellectual development, which I doubt most people would accept. I think that, certainly, some lines of inquiry--your own, for example--do produce what I think you mean by "diminishing or negative returns." But simply because certain ways of thinking--e.g., creationism, racism, fascism--do more harm than good doesn't mean that thinking in general should be avoided.

AdBusters, it's disappointing that you've included this article. I think it's a prime example of the sounds-like-someone-wrote-this-smoking-weed pseudo-intellectualism--you know, the kind of academese that tries to sound professional by using a register and set of ideas that sound vaguely post-structuralist. This style of writing and thinking is fundamentally conservative and antithetical to radical goals. It is, moreover, not interesting, not entertaining, and certainly not thought-provoking. Please serve people better in the future and provide better articles.

I like "you" a ...

you said that argument presented to you was not thought provoking.

Then, why do you have so much to say? Im curious, if the argument didn't strike to you as "intellectually" enough (whatever that means), then why did you have so much to say?? keep it simple:) you like it or you dislike itttttttt!

Just say you didn't like it....

and, btw, i didn't like what you had to say!

The dude, who ever wrote this article, is maybe trying to say that people like us think too much, making things too abstract, just as im typing this crap im thinking. you and I are going to be doing "thinking" for a long time and maybe one day if we are lucky, we get to stop thinking! imagine that!?

as long as we think we are "thinking", we are going to continue with abstract diarrhea.

So enjoy your thinking!

Also, in my opinion, whatever we say, right or wrong does not exist. There is "righter" or "wronger". Its about the groove you gotta feel!

take in what you can and leave the rest for later.

I like "you" a ...

you said that argument presented to you was not thought provoking.

Then, why do you have so much to say? Im curious, if the argument didn't strike to you as "intellectually" enough (whatever that means), then why did you have so much to say?? keep it simple:) you like it or you dislike itttttttt!

Just say you didn't like it....

and, btw, i didn't like what you had to say!

The dude, who ever wrote this article, is maybe trying to say that people like us think too much, making things too abstract, just as im typing this crap im thinking. you and I are going to be doing "thinking" for a long time and maybe one day if we are lucky, we get to stop thinking! imagine that!?

as long as we think we are "thinking", we are going to continue with abstract diarrhea.

So enjoy your thinking!

Also, in my opinion, whatever we say, right or wrong does not exist. There is "righter" or "wronger". Its about the groove you gotta feel!

take in what you can and leave the rest for later.

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