Does the Human Mind Prefer to Work With the Concrete?

December 26, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

Concrete ThoughtOne of our regulars has posited that “The human mind as you well know prefers to work with the concrete.” The implication seems to be that our limited intellects cannot conceive of bigger things than what we can see and feel. But anyone who has studied semantics, cybernetics, higher math, or any system in which symbols are explicitly manipulated independent of their referents, knows that this is silly.

Our minds only manipulate abstract symbols. We first learn to simply identify objects and to manipulate thoughts about them. Anyone with children remembers how they discovered their toes, and learned that the toes were a part of themselves that they could feel from within and without. And then later to control. These are abstract concepts that are so familiar by the time one learns the word “abstract” that people are generally unaware of the process they went through to learn them. Most people never learn that the image in their minds is not the object itself, that a map is not the territory. One might believe that an image witnessed is solid proof that an object existed. Ask a UFOlogist.

But with training, we can abstract things by many degrees with conscious awareness of the process. A word (as in this post) is not an idea in itself, but a cluster of marks representing a series of sounds representing a class of ideas. Each member of said class itself representing a different set of objects. Quite abstract.

“Stone” for example may automatically call to a mind many different things. A gem, a pebble, a boulder, a state of inebriation, a unit of weight, or an act of aggression. And one might say that “stone” is a pretty concrete idea. If we limit it to the “pebble” sub-class of “stone”, we have sizes, colors, densities, textures, classes of geological origin, age, and chemical and isotopic make-up to consider. No pebble is quite like another; more individual than snowflakes. Yet a single word is used to label the vast universe of different things that a pebble might be. We abstract what we think another might mean in the context of its presentation. Most of the time this is good enough for a solid, concrete idea like “stone”. But to “stone a crown” can still mean either to decorate headgear or bash in a head.

“God” (on another tentacle) is a very fuzzy class of ideas. In a single congregation, members might be able to hang on to the illusion that everyone thinks of the same thing when hearing or reading that word. But when questioned individually and independently, each member of even a close congregation will describe subtly different ideas. The differences are bigger between congregations of the same church. And bigger yet in different sects or denominations, and on into cultures, and then related religions. Yet they all say, “God” as if this is an absolute identifier. Wars happen when one group realizes that their word God has a different meaning from the other guys. Both sides then pray to God for victory.

“Spirit” is an even fuzzier idea, embraced in different forms by cultures and peoples both with and without God, or gods. To me, human spirit or soul is an integral function of wetware (brain structure and chemistry) and software (learning, experience). It is not an independent entity, fully requiring a complete matrix to function. We are close to being able to model consciousness: Maybe decades, maybe not. We also know that the soul or spirit cannot remain unchanged if one changes the brain or the programming. Memories can be implanted, and brains can be mechanically, electrically, or chemically altered to radically change who a person is. So where is this independent spirit?

Fuzzy ideas and abstract concepts are part of the daily lives of everyone.

Granted, the real world is more complex than most people can wrap their minds around. The apparent simplicity of Newton’s Laws of Motion (requiring only simple calculus) have been revealed to be a statistical clustering of probabilities. When one billiard ball hits another, two concrete objects and a direct action, the results are very predictable. However, the solid matter of the balls never actually touches! Once you can abstract to the quantum level, you know that the apparent hard impact is really a statistical spike in the squishy bounce of repelling electrical fields from the atoms and molecules throughout each ball.

Some of us prefer to marvel at the dichotomy between how things appear to the natural (untrained) mind and how things really behave once you embrace the huge complexity of the natural universe itself. A century ago, astronomers wondered at the fuzzy stars, nebulae in the sky. Now we knowingly observe galaxies colliding and forming and dying in many different ways. Half a millennium ago, everyone knew that sin was what kept man bound to the Earth, and those without sin could physically rise to heaven. Now we know that virtue has nothing to do with the effect of gravity: No one will bodily ascend to heaven until matter itself decomposes (protons decay with a half life of about 1036 years, and the farthest observed astronomical source is only on the order of 1010 light years away, our current upper measurement for the age of the universe).

ArgueBack to the point: The idea that one prefers to contemplate simple and obvious objects and events — the concrete — is itself an abstraction; demonstrably a fallacy. Sure, some do take the easy path and simply accept as gospel what authorities claim. But what appears to be “obvious”, “what everyone knows”, or “common sense” is regularly demonstrated to be wrong by those with trained minds.

Unfortunately, many of the things that we now know about the universe and ourselves are very hard to explain to those who haven’t had any explicit training in abstraction. And that, I suggest, is the core of most disagreements on this site.

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Category: Education, ignorance, 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.

Comments (5)

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  1. hUH? says:

    "Most people never learn that the image in their minds is not the object itself, that a map is not the territory."

    oh, really?

    thank you for enlightening us.

    I hadn't realized how stupid I and 'most people' are.

  2. @ hUH:

    Considering your reaction, it would appear you disagree with the statement you quote in your comment. You do not provide arguments that show it to be incorrect though.

    It could however also be that you do agree with the quote, and that you are just pissed off by what you accept to be correct. That's fair enough, we don't get all things our way. But what's the point of your comment then?

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    hUH: Most people realize that some of what they experience is just in their minds. Like dreams, although some few think even these are reflections of an external reality. The point is that few realize that every experience is just in their minds. Not the events, but the experience of them. Perception and the memory are abstract and malleable. Every perception is distorted and biased compared to the thing we believe we perceive.

    When a map sends us into a dead end, don't we automatically curse the road for not being like the map? It is instinctive to confuse the internal abstraction with an external reality.

    Faith, however strong, is not proof of anything outside of the mind of the possessor. But why else would the majority of adult Americans talk to an imaginary friend? That an image does not always imply an object is not part of their understanding of the world.

  4. hUH? says:

    Last night I went to a restaurant and ate the menu.

    Thanks to your condescending post, I now realize how dumb I am.

  5. I would have waited for the actual food to be served 😉

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