II. Graduated Boundaries Of Abstraction And Their Implications
In my earlier post I alluded to the process of sensory abstraction as a continuum. In very general terms, a perceived structure may be interpreted as a pattern of color and form, a building, a house, 2127 W Main Street, Grandma’s house, a rundown money pit that the old lady ought to unload so we can finally move her into the home, and so on. What’s more, the same sense impression can give rise to all of these symbols at the same time.
Thus cognition occurs simultaneously on sensory, conceptual, linguistic, emotional, and rational levels, using the same set of multi-dimensional symbols. The potential confusion this causes to our reasoning processes needs no explanation to anyone who has felt conflicted when needing to make a decision. The choice to discard an item, for example, may be complicated by the item having a low value on one level of thought, but a much higher one on another. (“I never use this spaghetti strainer.” “But my uncle Roy gave it to me!”)
It is less often remarked upon how this same process occurs at the end of a train of thought, when the cognitive is translated into the mediate actorium. Contract the following muscle groups in the left arm, make this object rotate to the right, make a right turn in the car, turn onto MacKenzie Street, go through the drive-thru at YummyFreeze, bring my wife some ice cream because she’s feeling poorly, are all the same actorium event, expressed on different scales of abstraction. It is not that these are different thoughts, happening at the same time–it is one action, mediated through language in different ways.
Conflict between levels of abstraction occur in actorium events as well. One can choose to seek the sensual pleasure of eating another piece of Key Lime Pie while also choosing to avoid the calories that will result from eating it. This conflict occurs on a level about the purely physical–whichever one chooses, the act of either pulling the plate closer or pushing it away is unimpaired. The biological machinery may function perfectly on one level while failing on another–for example, being so upset by a phone call received while watching television that you put the TV remote in your pocket and try to change the channel with your phone. The hands know what they are doing, it is the higher functions that are confused.
I am belaboring what may seem an obvious point because it has been the primary aim of Western Civilization for the past several thousand years to develop techniques to create artificial boundaries between levels of cognitive events. Mathematics, scientific disciplines, philosophy, and even language itself are tools which allow us to manipulate symbols one level of abstraction without referent to the other levels of abstraction.
It will seem obvious to anyone who has the background necessary to read this essay that “five rocks plus five rocks” will produce the same number of rocks as “five trees plus five trees” will produce trees.
It’s not obvious at all. It is something that you have learned, something that it is innately counterintuitive, because rocks are not trees. The quality of “fiveness” is an abstraction, severed from the quality of “rockness” or “treeness”.
There are obvious advantages to these techniques of cognitive separation. It would not be a great exaggeration to claim that all science depends upon this ability to manipulate a symbol on a single level of meaning. It allows us to construct mathematical models of things which cannot be visualized, and from that to construct objects in our actium that have no prior sensory existence.
It is, however, a limitation. One need only consider how many schemes that “looked good on paper” utterly failed in practice. “Two cats plus four mice” does not yield six mammals, it results in two well-fed cats.
The determination of which levels of meaning are significant to a particular application is a science in itself–philosophy. The experimental phase of any scientific endeavour is largely intended to verify that the proper level of abstraction has been used to construct a particular theory.
Fortunately there is also a discipline devoted to combining previously severed levels of meaning. In philosophy we call this discipline aesthetics, in general conversation it is referred to as “Art”.
That will be the subject of my next essay.