Abstraction Distraction

May 16, 2007 | By | Reply More

A significant difference between humans and most other animals is that we have the innate ability to abstract ideas. That is, we can manipulate symbols as though they were things. We do this so well that most people are unaware that the symbols aren’t actually the things they represent.

If a map is wrong, we get angry at the roads for daring to deviate! I’m using the word “map” as both a representation of a literal road map, and as the semantic entity of a symbol used to abstract information about an object into a more manageable form.

What, you might well wonder, is “abstract”? There are many definitions, but I am using it as the verb meaning to construct a semantic entity (idea) that represents certain aspects of a concrete object. This latter phrase simply means “something”. The drawing of an apple in a book of A-B-C’s is an abstraction of an apple. It represents the idea of apple, and is used as a bridge to try to teach children to further abstract the sound sequence they learned (“apple”) to the written symbol loosely representing the first sound in that sequence (“a”).

Enough of a primer. Fundamentalist Christianity is trying hard to teach people that only one higher-level abstraction is needed: All things come from God. To these thinkers, Man invents arbitrary abstractions such as “atom” and “electron” and “gravity” and “evolution” and other theories based on evidence to explain things that are all obviously given by God.

The Bible” is a collection of abstractions (stories) collected at various times in history (different for each book), edited and translated through a series of languages, and viewed through the prejudices instilled into the reader or listener by a particular community. In other words, the unadulterated, pure Word of God. Poe-tay-toe, Poh-tah-toh.

But, I wander from my point. Man loses sight of the idea that an idea is a mental gymnastic that directly or indirectly represents something concrete. What is something concrete? Anything that can be repeatably measured, or reliably modeled and tested by measurement.

Example: There are 92 “natural” elements out of which everything on Earth is made. You can even buy or make sample boxes of them all, arranged as Mendeleev did. Of these elements, most have one (or a few) “natural” isotopes, and other more fleeting ones. Why do I quote natural? Because the word was commonly used before it was widely understood how old the world was. There are at least a dozen more elements that occur in nature, but their half-lives are shorter than the time they have been in the crust of our planet. Even some of the “unnatural” elements have been recently discovered in naturally occurring nuclear reactors.

The thoroughly proven concept of isotopes is a great stumbling block for Young Earth Creationists and Global Warming Carbon Skeptics. These groups have to claim that the Laws of Nature (a simple set of abstractions the consistently explain everything) must have been arbitrarily, discontinuously, and undetectably different at some time in the past to contradict all the directly measured evidence of isotope concentrations. Fortunately, the simple abstraction that God Can Do Anything allows them to believe this in spite of any evidence.

In conclusion: Choose your levels of abstraction carefully, and be aware that you are doing it.

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Category: Culture, Education, Evolution, global warming, Language, Religion, Science, Statistics

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

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