Monday, February 7, 2011

Perils of Abstraction

I'm a big fan of abstraction, mainly because it enables us to perceive and understand parts of reality we are not naturally predisposed to, which can lead to a greater degree of predictability and control over our present and future. I'm also very comfortable with it, perhaps more so than physical, visceral experience. This is perhaps why I enjoy writing, using abstraction to simulate alternative realities and then describing those realities in terms that others can use to imagine experiencing them. In the process, I've fallen into an old trap of expecting others to be inclined to see things the same way, if they are just properly introduced to it, and come to realize that there are real perils in focusing on this approach.

One peril comes from many people not being comfortable with very much abstraction, and therefore being likely to ignore, dismiss, or regard with skepticism any conclusions drawn from it. This may be the reason why mathematics and science have always seemed to be more popular in their application to technology (influencing reality) than as studies for their own sake, and much less popular than religion in describing the broader context of human existence. Emerging stories about biologists teaching creationism, climate change deniers seizing political power, and people dismissing the fate of endangered species in the pursuit of more jobs, suggest that the lessons from science most critical to the survival of civilization are not gaining the traction they need in the public consciousness (at least here in the United States).

Another peril comes from the success of entertainment and advertising – products of abstraction – in creating experiences that rival reality in people's minds. To the extent that they illuminate aspects of reality and prepare us for possible realities, they are good (I would like to think I'm contributing to that); but often they create totally false expectations and understanding, which in high enough doses lead their consumers to take inappropriate – and even harmful – actions in the real world, as most advertising is doing by increasing consumption of non-renewable resources. Amplifying the negative effect is the increase in demand for entertainment in the most economically powerful countries to the extent that it replaces direct experience with other people and natural systems that their behavior affects.

A final peril, which I've described elsewhere, is the use of abstraction to objectify people, which can cause the infliction of harm without considering it as such.

The healthiest way to deal with these perils is to spend at least as much time dealing directly with people and the rest of Nature as with the abstractions that describe them (especially the parts we can't detect with our senses) or the artificial creations that should augment rather than replace them. Because our senses and instincts are tuned to a very narrow range of experience, we must use the tool of abstraction to responsibly exercise the power we have in excess of that of our prehistoric ancestors; and to the extent that this keeps us from maintaining a healthy balance, we may have to reduce our personal power to compensate.

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