Do Abstract Systems Work?

Has our ability to think reached the point of diminishing – or even negative – returns?

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 –