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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Anonymous

Why do people keep stating over and over that humans are unique because of abstract thought? Who says spiders can't get a kind of science? How can we know that dogs can't understand meaning, or that fish can't understand a symbol? We can certainly lock into a primal part of ourselves, filled with instinct and feeling, so why can't other animals think about "abstracts"?

Actually, what is an abstract? I'm confused by this whole discussion (and probably confusing it more), because I've always had the impression that people hold abstracts to be symbols of some kind of objective reality, and there seems to be almost nothing objective about anything we're talking about (yes, I know that was just an instance of equivocation, but perhaps there's a reason that we lock those meanings together). Well, other than the fact that we're talking about something to begin with, so there must be something out there, right?

Whatever.

Anonymous

Why do people keep stating over and over that humans are unique because of abstract thought? Who says spiders can't get a kind of science? How can we know that dogs can't understand meaning, or that fish can't understand a symbol? We can certainly lock into a primal part of ourselves, filled with instinct and feeling, so why can't other animals think about "abstracts"?

Actually, what is an abstract? I'm confused by this whole discussion (and probably confusing it more), because I've always had the impression that people hold abstracts to be symbols of some kind of objective reality, and there seems to be almost nothing objective about anything we're talking about (yes, I know that was just an instance of equivocation, but perhaps there's a reason that we lock those meanings together). Well, other than the fact that we're talking about something to begin with, so there must be something out there, right?

Whatever.

Phillip A.

First off, the author needs to be more careful in his usage of "formal systems of thought"- which are very specific systems of thought based on axioms and extremely rigorous deduction - and other aggregated thought structures, such as psychology, which are basically bare speculation supported by weak or overly simplistic inductive inferences.

It seems that at first the author is pointing out what should be obvious to many academics, but unfortunately doesn't seem to be - that the systems of thought that they use on a daily basis are seriously approximate versions of an ideal, an ideal which may not even exist. I'm sure several people will take offense to the fact that I point this out, but I've taken so many classes where questions about say, general relativity, are unable to be interpreted by the professor in a framework that doesn't automatically assume "general relativity = reality." I'm often amazed that physicists take seriously their own extrapolation (using general relativity) from present day back to the implication of a big bang. Implications like this shouldn't be assumed true automatically, but surely are something that should be explored and well understood; but the way I see academics argue it as the "truth" borders on religious.

(p.s. I don't mean all academics and all physicists of course!)

Either way, the author seems to be making a point more like I'm making in the paragraph up above - that formal systems tend to be wrong, but many put blind faith in them. Many students of mine are AMAZED when I point out to them that mathematics, especially higher mathematics, is just made up - that they could make up their own if they decided on axioms and explored them rigorously. People don't really know how human these constructs are, though if you pointed this out to these same people, they would reply "of course I know its not the truth per se . . .", though they don't in general seem to act like they hold that thought in mind as they proceed on their daily way.

However, even though formal systems tend to be incorrect, the more more rigorous ones at least improve their alignment with reality over time. Right now quantum electrodynamics is so accurate that we cannot really tell the difference between its predictions and reality. That could certainly be considered a success. Even though one might argue that a theory created by objects within the universe (us) could never hope to encapsulate the universe, I say that once the theory is indistinguishable (to us) from the actual motions of the universe, we have succeeded.

Also, I've got to say that an above comment mentions that the author deviates completely from his original point in the last paragraph. He starts by proclaiming human formal systems in general to be faulty, but then reveals his questioning of human logic itself. I think this is perfectly acceptable to argue (who knows how limited we are as creatures of thought, maybe only bestowed with the bare minimum for survival needs, never meant to contemplate the universe). However, this seems to be a totally distinct argument, independent of whether or not formal systems work. (one can imagine that even if human logic (or logic itself) were incorrect, that there was a formal system formed of it that was indistinguishable from reality for us even though not mirroring reality in a way we would call "true" ). So what I mean to say is that the failure of formal systems to be perfect images of reality is merely evidence for a separate argument that human logic might not be fit for true understanding about the universe

Basically, the problem with the article is that it poses "Do abstract systems work?", but assumes the answer is no as part of its evidence to make a completely different point: "Does human logic work?". It simply shows a lack of clarity of thought. I appreciate the spirit of the article, but it seems the author needs to think about this a little more before he writes something about it!

And to add to the confusion, when a reader accuses him of using the logic he had just disparaged to discuss the logic itself, he retorts by explaining that there in fact isn't anything wrong with logic (even though a third of his article (the last paragraph) proposes that this may be the case), and then adds that he meant humanity shouldn't dedicate all its energies to forming abstract logical constructs since they are ineffective. But this again is an entirely different point altogether! Why did he not argue this instead of what he refuted in his response to the commenter (about whether human logic is/is not valid). Again, it seems that the author should have organized his thoughts a little more before attempting to argue the lack of validity in what is arguably the greatest (though not perfect) achievement of the human mind - the ability to make complex series of deductions and inferences using logic. Even though abstract systems aren't perfect, the author sets a standard much higher than what they've achieved in a piece of writing that wouldn't even live up to the standards of clarity in thought as they lay presently! I hope I don't need to mention that this is very ironic!

Phillip A.

First off, the author needs to be more careful in his usage of "formal systems of thought"- which are very specific systems of thought based on axioms and extremely rigorous deduction - and other aggregated thought structures, such as psychology, which are basically bare speculation supported by weak or overly simplistic inductive inferences.

It seems that at first the author is pointing out what should be obvious to many academics, but unfortunately doesn't seem to be - that the systems of thought that they use on a daily basis are seriously approximate versions of an ideal, an ideal which may not even exist. I'm sure several people will take offense to the fact that I point this out, but I've taken so many classes where questions about say, general relativity, are unable to be interpreted by the professor in a framework that doesn't automatically assume "general relativity = reality." I'm often amazed that physicists take seriously their own extrapolation (using general relativity) from present day back to the implication of a big bang. Implications like this shouldn't be assumed true automatically, but surely are something that should be explored and well understood; but the way I see academics argue it as the "truth" borders on religious.

(p.s. I don't mean all academics and all physicists of course!)

Either way, the author seems to be making a point more like I'm making in the paragraph up above - that formal systems tend to be wrong, but many put blind faith in them. Many students of mine are AMAZED when I point out to them that mathematics, especially higher mathematics, is just made up - that they could make up their own if they decided on axioms and explored them rigorously. People don't really know how human these constructs are, though if you pointed this out to these same people, they would reply "of course I know its not the truth per se . . .", though they don't in general seem to act like they hold that thought in mind as they proceed on their daily way.

However, even though formal systems tend to be incorrect, the more more rigorous ones at least improve their alignment with reality over time. Right now quantum electrodynamics is so accurate that we cannot really tell the difference between its predictions and reality. That could certainly be considered a success. Even though one might argue that a theory created by objects within the universe (us) could never hope to encapsulate the universe, I say that once the theory is indistinguishable (to us) from the actual motions of the universe, we have succeeded.

Also, I've got to say that an above comment mentions that the author deviates completely from his original point in the last paragraph. He starts by proclaiming human formal systems in general to be faulty, but then reveals his questioning of human logic itself. I think this is perfectly acceptable to argue (who knows how limited we are as creatures of thought, maybe only bestowed with the bare minimum for survival needs, never meant to contemplate the universe). However, this seems to be a totally distinct argument, independent of whether or not formal systems work. (one can imagine that even if human logic (or logic itself) were incorrect, that there was a formal system formed of it that was indistinguishable from reality for us even though not mirroring reality in a way we would call "true" ). So what I mean to say is that the failure of formal systems to be perfect images of reality is merely evidence for a separate argument that human logic might not be fit for true understanding about the universe

Basically, the problem with the article is that it poses "Do abstract systems work?", but assumes the answer is no as part of its evidence to make a completely different point: "Does human logic work?". It simply shows a lack of clarity of thought. I appreciate the spirit of the article, but it seems the author needs to think about this a little more before he writes something about it!

And to add to the confusion, when a reader accuses him of using the logic he had just disparaged to discuss the logic itself, he retorts by explaining that there in fact isn't anything wrong with logic (even though a third of his article (the last paragraph) proposes that this may be the case), and then adds that he meant humanity shouldn't dedicate all its energies to forming abstract logical constructs since they are ineffective. But this again is an entirely different point altogether! Why did he not argue this instead of what he refuted in his response to the commenter (about whether human logic is/is not valid). Again, it seems that the author should have organized his thoughts a little more before attempting to argue the lack of validity in what is arguably the greatest (though not perfect) achievement of the human mind - the ability to make complex series of deductions and inferences using logic. Even though abstract systems aren't perfect, the author sets a standard much higher than what they've achieved in a piece of writing that wouldn't even live up to the standards of clarity in thought as they lay presently! I hope I don't need to mention that this is very ironic!

Oddree

I don't think the author is calling for people to completely reject systematic thought; rather I see the article to be a call for us to evaluate the systems we use. If their outcomes are things that we wish to avoid, we either need to change the systems or discard them.

Mindfulness is key; our minds are wonderful tools, but they also have flaws and weaknesses. We can try to avoid falling prey to those weaknesses by realizing they exist and thinking/acting accordingly.

Oddree

I don't think the author is calling for people to completely reject systematic thought; rather I see the article to be a call for us to evaluate the systems we use. If their outcomes are things that we wish to avoid, we either need to change the systems or discard them.

Mindfulness is key; our minds are wonderful tools, but they also have flaws and weaknesses. We can try to avoid falling prey to those weaknesses by realizing they exist and thinking/acting accordingly.

Phillip A.

I think this quote shows that he is saying something at least a little more forceful than that:

"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."

I think that maybe the result of a reasonable person reading the article might be a reminder to be mindful of honest evaluation of these systems, but the author's wording itself surely is a much stronger message than that.

Phillip A.

I think this quote shows that he is saying something at least a little more forceful than that:

"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."

I think that maybe the result of a reasonable person reading the article might be a reminder to be mindful of honest evaluation of these systems, but the author's wording itself surely is a much stronger message than that.

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