Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reflections on 'Quality,' part IV

The general notion of the experience of reality is also an important question that I think he did not deal with well, obviously, because he mostly seems to take his experience of reality to be reality, rather than subjecting it to scrutiny as a line of reason might be scrutinized by a philosopher who approached truth by means of reasoning, and because he insists on vague language when he does actually talk about it.  Is reality just what we experience it to be, or is it independent of experience? This, of course, is to dive into exactly the subject which I was challenged on, but before I dive into that, I think a few preliminary words are in order.

At least in Lila, where he really develops his metaphysical theory -- with examples -- he describes a state of insanity not as a state of taking for fact that which is non-fact, but as holding to a pattern of values which run counter to those generally accepted by a society at large. The society itself 'sees' things in a certain way -- which is itself not necessarily an accurate or reasonable reflection of 'the truth' -- and will usually tolerate a bit of deviation along 'allowed' lines, but any member who begins to go too far out of bounds will begin to come under scrutiny as possibly insane or even criminal. This is the mechanics of static social order asserting itself against a dynamic threat, the triggering of society's 'immune system.' Pirsig found himself under such scrutiny.

It doesn't matter if the individual is articulating views which are more accurate than those prevailing, they will still usually be dealt with in a hostile manner. But whatever one's feelings on the matter, it can hardly be expected to be any other way. The present structure of a society depends on things being seen a certain way, and a threat to that way of seeing things constitutes a threat to the present order -- and those in power, whatever their disposition.

Past thoughts and conceptions of truth can help to guide decisions and sort out new ideas as to their merit, but they can also become a sort of tyrrany or a source of bad guidance if they are not of sufficient merit themselves. Thus there is a tension -- who is to be the interrogator and who the suspect, the present or the past?

One must ask this sort of uncomfortable question when thinking about notions of thought and abstraction, because thoughts and abstractions ultimately are the stuff of minds and societies itself. This also foreshadows a separate argument which I will use here in a little bit -- that one's present understanding of things plays an instrumental role in the ability to extend understanding.


But to get to the real meat of the matter, I would like to return to the subject of abstraction, which began the whole discussion with the slicing of subjects from objects and Classical from Romantic and started this whole philosophical mess. I would like to expand on an idea which Michael Oakeshott used to defend a legal order based on custom rather than rational law, but I will probably take it in a direction he would not approve of.

Sorry Mikey. But it should hopefully give me the tools to draw some conclusions as to the merit of all this philosophizing.

(Cracks knuckles before continuing.)

Oakeshott thought that attempts to craft law by abstracting principles out of a set of customs would always create frictions and serve less well than the customs themselves because the process of abstraction is always a process of abridgement – of simplification. The complex morass of custom was necessary to deal with the complex situations one finds in the real world of social interaction. The 'coherence' of custom is bound up in its complexity, and this coherence is lost in the act of abstraction, creating the those nasty unintended consequences which conservatives wisely fear. Any 'abstraction' sufficiently complex to capture each and every sentiment that custom was designed to satisfy would be no abstraction at all. It would be simply a complete restatement of the thing it was supposed to be abstracted from, and would appear completely nonsensical and useless. The value of abstraction is tied up in this process of abridgement. It's not just a liability, it's a feature.

But these sorts of conditions are generally true for all of reality, not just the social sort. Reality is a highly complex phenomenon, with enough information in the tiniest corner of it to easily overwhelm a finite human mind. There can hardly be such a thing as a 'concrete thought.' A concrete thing may well be the object of thought, but any attempt to bring it to the mind comes with an enormous degree of simplification. The ancients knew this, as was discussed by Pirsig, and called our thoughts 'images' of reality, carefully and explicitly distinguishing them from concrete reality itself. These images are the 'shadows' seen by Plato's cave dwellers, dim simplifications of real objects so vastly complex in their reality as to overwhelm our limited consciousness. Today we use a similar word – concept. But most people don't really think too much on it. They like 'concepts' because they are 'easy,' but don't want to think about their philosophical origins and what this says about actual human understanding.

So far as I am able to tell, all thought is necessarily abstraction. This follows from some very basic axioms about the nature of thought, the human mind, and the universe. Philosophy is, in a way, an attempt at the impossible -- to encompass infinite reality with a finite mind.  Abstraction is therefore a necessity.  Our laws of physics are abstractions, as are our laws of society, and even our religions.

Yes, Christianity and its various denominations and sects are abstractions, or rather, sets of abstractions and abstract propositions about God and his relation to man and the universe. Any Christian who takes offense at this statement is challenged to completely and fully explain God without simplification and in a literal sense, without resort to analogy or metaphor as a means of expression. Analogies and metaphors are, after all, abstractions. Hopefully, this exercise will convince him that his understanding -- his Christianity -- is an abstraction of a really, really difficult thing. A useful and very important abstraction, but no less an abstraction.

But it does not take a concept like God to confound our capacity for full and complete understanding. Something as simple as the mark of a pencil on a sheet of paper is well more than sufficient. There is enough complexity in the subtleties of shade, in the microscopic irregularities of the paper and the shape of the mark, in the exact position of every atom of its constitution, and the history of each particle that went into its composition to overwhelm all capacity of thought for all time. The greatest human thinker of quantum mechanics is easily confounded by the dynamics of a single atom that makes up the graphite residue of the mark.

But by and large, almost all of this information is irrelevant to the types of things one would like to learn from a pencil mark. It is enough to note its general shape and context, as a part of a drawing or a handwritten letter, to extract the information that is 'important' to understand its 'meaning.' These tasks are well within the reach of the human mind – but they are, of course, abstractions of the original object, mental simplifications, and not the original object itself. The whole point of abstraction is to selectively ignore irrelevant aspects so that the 'essence' of a thing may be known to the thinker.

But here again, one runs into an important dilemma of human understanding. In interpreting the pencil mark, or any other observation for that matter, it is further necessary to rely on past thought and conventions -- prejudice and bias. If a person approached every mark on a piece of paper with a mind totally open to any possible interpretation, refusing to 'jump to any conclusions,' he would find himself unable to make any sense of it, even if he had correctly abstracted its intended shape. Language itself is a prejudice for interpreting certain symbols and sounds in certain specific ways, and not in absolutely any way such information might be interpreted. Language would be unable to function without preconceived notions of what its elements meant, and likewise a mind could not function if it approached every situation with a totally blank slate.

It is true that the biases and prejudices that come with adhering to previous thought and experience which have proven useful will sometimes lead to confusion and incorrect conclusions if they are used in an inappropriate situation.  This can also occur if the abstractions which we naturally form in taking in a situation do not quite capture the important elements, or fix on elements that are irrelevant.  But without them reality would be unintelligible at all.

The point here is that the Classical philosophers were perfectly justified in their treatment of reality. They really had no choice in the matter, as their only alternative was not to think at all – exactly as the Eastern mystics discovered, and as Pirsig himself argues. Pirsig knows and acknowledges that by defining quality, and especially by trying to construct a metaphysics with it, he will destroy it. But I think he may fail to understand that in merely thinking about it he does the same thing. The process of abstraction -- necessary to all thought -- does that to everything it touches. It converts the concrete elements of reality into mere images and concepts. There is no helping it.

It is perfectly reasonable, then, that as it progresses, science ceases to give a simple, unified view of reality the further along it goes. In order to advance, it must complexify as it takes in and seeks to describe ever finer details of reality. The earlier discoveries and theories are 'higher-order' abstractions, broad, sweeping generalizations about the nature of the universe, but as the level of detail increases, the level of abstraction must be less and less, until it appears to have little or no meaning to us as a thought or a way of interpreting reality.

It is perfectly reasonable that old abstractions in the form of theories and philosophical dialogues hang around long after they have been 'disproven' -- as if they were ever 'true' in the first place, or the thing which replaces them now is 'true' -- as they are still perfectly useful for minds which are not interested or ready to deal with reality on the level of the newer abstractions. There is nothing invalid about this approach, so long as it is recognized for what it is. It is a way to grow. What is not reasonable is to abuse an abstraction by applying it to an inappropriate situation, or to use it to come to conclusions which aren't justified and are clearly wrong by other trains of reasoning, or to let established abstractions permanently tyrannize thought when better ones come along.

Thus for some people, the theory of evolution is a useful way to think about the past and to come up with creative ways of solving problems in the present. It does not threaten their religious beliefs, their perceptions of themselves or their relations to others. They are capable of being fully functional, decent human beings right alongside of it.

For others, this abstraction intrudes into every area of meaning in their lives, whether or not it is appropriate or welcome. It begins to shape the way they think that they should relate to others and how they should treat them, usually very negatively, or it threatens their religious beliefs, or in other ways inappropriately tyrannizes their thoughts in ways that are irrational and uncalled for. They are not able to deal with this particular abstraction in a way that is beneficial to them -- and really should probably let it go.

For yet a third group, members of which are usually a subset of the second group, there is delight to be found in tormenting others in the second group with notions such as that 'evolution is a fact.' These losers find enjoyment in the idea that they are able to threaten the beliefs of others by wielding an abstraction as a weapon and preying on their victims' weakness of reason, which tends to lead them to agree with their assailants that the erronious conclusions which are to be drawn by inappropriately applying evolution to every aspect of life are actually valid. Thus their 'need' to disprove evolution, and spare themselves of these attacks.

But to return to the point, the objection to be made, as it seems to me, is not that acts of abstraction in thinking about a problem of philosophy are to be forbidden, but that they have been done inappropriately, so that the distilled elements do not adequately reflect the essence of a situation. To expect that abstraction should not be done at all is to demand that one cease to think.

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