Don't Be Fooled by Abstraction

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Many of our conflicts and difficulties are the result of our tendency to create abstractions (truth, justice, freedom, greed, hate, jealousy, ...) and then argue about them.  Is justice more important than freedom?  Is positive discrimination fair?  Given the choice, should you betray your friend or your country?  I want to argue that all such questions are unhelpful: they are based upon the mistaken assumption that the abstractions in question actually exist, and can therefore be compared.  While we constantly (and quite properly) use abstractions, we have to remember that, in the end, they are only useful ways of talking about the real world.  We may often find it helpful and enlightening to talk about 'freedom', but what it refers to is a person who desires or needs to do some specific thing in some concrete setting.

Scientists also get confused at times, and start to assume that the abstractions they deal with actually exist.  They create maps or models of reality, simplified versions which help us to understand and calculate specific things.  The map may be a very accurate representation of some things,and it may be very useful in some circumstances, but it is only a map, and the map is not the place.  

Social Examples

To take an obvious example, we are familiar in fiction with characters who have an unquestioning loyalty to their nation: "My country, right or wrong!"  We are rarely allowed to interrogate exactly what they understand by 'my country' - the leader, the government, their chain of command, some vague sense of what their country stands for?  The strange thing is that this stance is often presented as a moral position, when it is quite explicitly amoral.  Countries are abstractions which often have great power over us.

More concretely, the first line of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic says, "In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom."  Sitting in our comfortable homes, the idea that Ireland speaks through us, and through us "summons her children," may seem quaint and curious, but it was real and important enough to cause many people to fight and die.  Closer to home, people who want 'foreigners' to 'go home', even if they were born in this country, generally justify their opinion on the grounds of defending their country's character.

Conflict between different groups is often justified - by all the groups involved - on the grounds that "We have to defend our rights."  In recent years, there has been bitter conflict between many in the Women's Movement and supporters of Trans people.  In many parts of the world, there is ongoing conflict over abortion, between supporters of a "woman's right to choose" and supporters of "the right to life" of the unborn.

None of these conflicts can be solved as a matter of principle, in the abstract: the 'rights' being claimed by each party are in direct opposition.  But none of these conflicts need to be solved in the abstract - they only need to be solved, or resolved, when there is a question about what should happen in some concrete situation, involving specific individuals, with their own unique needs and concerns, like and dislikes, fears and priorities.  As soon as we insist on dealing with the concrete situation simply as an example of an abstract clash of principle, we have guaranteed that one party at least will lose and, as they see it, suffer injustice - which will be stored up to fuel some future rematch.

Scientific Examples

Newton's theory of gravity helps us calculate, for example, how a cannonball will travel.  Except that it's only an approximation: it doesn't enable us to allow for air resistance.  And, if you want to be precise, the moon and the sun also affect the trajectory of the cannonball.  And that is before you start to take Relativity into account.  Newton's gravity is a great map, but, like all maps, it only tells us about the things it deals with.

Einstein introduced the idea of space-time: time is somehow a part of space, not like a celestial clock with a regular tick heard everywhere, as Newton conceived it.  We treat time as a dimension when we do relativistic calculations, but this does not mean that time really is a dimension like the three physical dimensions we are familiar with.  Using this map, we do calculations which treat time as a dimension, and those calculations work, but that does not make time a dimension: the map is not the place, it is just a simplified model of the place.


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