Monday, October 14, 2013

concrete and abstract thinking

In my last post I argued that we often know something in a general, abstract sense, but we often let let the influence of specific events override these more abstract beliefs. The general truth that we’re unlikely to die in a terrorist attack is not refuted by the occasional attack killing some people, but people act as if is. This is bad.  

This is not to say that it’s always better to think abstractly. Stalin knew that “one death is a tragedy, a million death is a statistic”. Thinking abstractly about “ a million deaths” means we don’t appreciate the horror implied. We’d actually do better to imagine specific people being affected.

One way to think of what science (and philosophy?) is trying to do is to discover abstract models which are generally applicable. People might become extremely skilled at something and this skill involves implicit understanding of deep principles, but a scientist wants to make these principles explicit so they can be applied in different situations, or even create different situations.

There are some domains where we have been able to do this very well, like maths and quantum physics (I was tempted to write “hard” sciences, but that would be circular since I take it that what make a science hard is the lack of ambiguity in how the model relates to lower order building blocks of the domain). Developing an unambiguous conceptual framework for observations is difficult because the world is very complicated. Economists have tried really hard to make economics more scientific but basically it really isn't a science in anything like the sense of physics or chemistry. Most economists know this well enough, but some don’t. The mathematical nature of academic economics can be pretty misleading, especially with macroeconomics.

Another reason why constructing abstract models that coherently integrate available data is that it is just so easy to think up general principles and then to screen info that you consider to confirm your big idea. Conspiracy theorists are the ultimate masters of this. Conspiracy theorists are usually armed with a ton of “facts” while normal people do not actually know much about the supposed events and are not usually in a position to refute the crazy person point by point. Conspiracy theorists imply that if you can’t refute their points you should believe their conclusions if you want to call yourself a rational person. But usually we are perfectly justified in supposing that a man really has walked on the moon and that 9/11 was not actually plotted by George Bush.

A while back I wrote this blog post comparing evolution and religion as conceptual frameworks explaining how life got to be the way it is. People who believe in evolution are usually not phased when a new evolutionary puzzle pops up because they’re confident that the explanation will fit within the framework of natural selection. We’re right to think this, but it’s not that paranoid for sceptics to think that the detailed story is being constructed specifically to fit with evolution when a different theory might fit more naturally (God, of course).

Finally, our minds are just not designed for our concrete actions to be consistent with our abstract beliefs. Some animals have some sense of of the future and past and slightly distant places and humans have developed this capacity much more than any other animal. The very fact that we are able to think abstractly comes from our need to think about the future and far away things. Initially this would have had adaptive value because it helped us to plan for the future and coordinate our actions, which is good for hunting and avoiding being killed by other tribes. But the ability is mostly used for presenting good images of ourselves to improve our status and get desirable mates. It’s easy to think of examples of people who profess idealistic values but whose day to day behaviour is not consistent with these values. So long as we don’t get caught, it is usually to our benefit that our concrete behaviour is not consistent with our abstract beliefs.

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