V. 5. Dan’s Turbulent Landing on the Other Side of the Moon


This post is a direct continuation of chapter V.4.

3. The Reality of the Abstract. Resorting to the past feeds our strength for dealing with the present, and directs us in shaping the future. “History teaches everything, including the future”, wrote Alphonse de Lamartine in the 19th century. This truth applies to individual human beings as well. It becomes possible because the past, through our memory, contains a very valuable asset: our experience. Along with the personal qualities we possess, experience is the most vigorous prerequisite to our development as humans. Providing us with the practical knowledge about making the right choices, it is our priceless life consultant. It gives us the grounds for comparison between what is now and what was then, thus advising us on our current decisions. Experience is our integrated remembrance about the outcome of our interaction with similar situations. It rarely derives from a single event. It is rather a lodgment of repeated trials with variable success, which, unlike our memory, we hold within close intellectual reach.

The basic difference between memory and experience is that memory contains the mere facts from our past, amorphous and irrelevant to the present, while experience groups them by similarity and looks for their meaning and influence beyond their specific occurrence. This way it transforms them into factors to our present behavior, or circumstances in our perception of reality. If memory is the base firmly attached to the ground of the specific, experience is the rocket, which is designed to freely roam the infinite space of summarization.

Imagination too uses our memory to outline the way we perceive ourselves and the environment. But in its relation to the past imagination rather performs consolidation, while experience executes the function of section. Imagination uses facts from the past and combines them as circumstances in new situations (chapter V.4.) Yet in its part experience extracts the similarities from among past situations, setting the path to the creation of a new kind of circumstance. In order to be applicable to the present these circumstances are not particular anymore; they appropriate a fresh feature called abstraction. Once they are completely stripped from their specificity they reach the level of categories.

Experience is not necessarily a direct contributor to our ability for abstract-thinking. Many of the categories we operate with don’t have a straight connection to our past. However, experience develops our insight, our predilection for extracting meaning from objects and phenomena above and beyond their immediate worth. It combines and unifies their qualities into abstract categories which relate in one way or another to the overall environment we live in. This way experience becomes the primary generator of our ability to create and operate with abstract realities.

Dan has just dropped his new toy behind one of the tall (for his height) kitchen cabinets. The problem is that narrow as it is, the cabinet is not wheeled, and Dan’s precious lead soldier has been stuck behind it for eternity. Fortunately Dan has spent the five years of his life observing different kinds of objects, including food. He knows from experience how slippery his hands can get when he sprays salad dressing on them. So after several failed attempts to free the captive soldier by pulling the stubborn piece of furniture away from the wall, he decides to smooth its path, and pours half a bottle of olive oil onto the linoleum in front of it.

Even though the success of this liberation strategy is questionable Dan definitely succeeds in liberating something else: the oil from its immediate purpose. Ignoring its other properties he turns the abstract quality of its slipperiness into a circumstance, which makes possible the non-standard bond between the floor, the cabinet and the oil itself. His subsequent trials only confirm his skill to operate with objects on a more abstract level. Soon the olive oil is being supplemented with liquid soap, then dish-washer fluid and at the end his father’s shaving cream, which only his mother’s appearance and her horrified shrieks prevents from being enriched with the gallon of motor oil stored in the garage.

Weirdly enough, his parents pull different abstract circumstances out of the situation created by Dan. His father gets mad about the wasted value of the materials involved, while his mom acts obsessed with the messiness they have created. But no punishment can stop Dan from pushing the limits of his intellectual development. Once familiar with lubricants, and comfortable with the abstract nature of qualities, he finds a new use for his knowledge.

Referring to the different ways his uncle talks to people’s faces, on one hand, and behind their backs, on the other, Dan suddenly starts calling him “oilyman”. Even though this act strains his relationship with the uncle even further it obviously strikes a chord among the rest of the family. The nickname tops the family pop chart for several weeks in a row, and gets Dan public acknowledgement for his notable naming abilities. A couple of years later Dan’s growth as an abstract thinker would return to this topic again, when he learns that “oilyman” could be substituted with “hypocrite”. But for him this is just a word change, since he has already gotten to the very essence of the definition. In another year or so he also reveals that the opposite of hypocrisy is called “integrity”, as well as the meaning of it. On his tenth birthday Dan is already quite comfortable with categories, and doesn’t need a material reminder to get to their essence. Far behind are the days when he, for example, had to recall the positioning of his room’s window every time he was supposed to distinguish left from right.

The lead soldier stuck behind the kitchen cabinet was just an episode of Dan’s self-introduction to the reality of the abstract. Can you imagine how many other occurrences Dan has had in his early life before becoming so well-grounded in the other side of the Moon? 

Abstraction is a result of philosophical summarization. The degree of summarization we are capable of determines the level of our intellectual development. Many primitive cultures have a vocabulary indicative of this notion. In the Arctic for instance some tribes haven’t had the word “snow”. Their language included a word for snow falling from the sky, snow fallen on the ground, etc., but not for snow as such. The summarization of the substance never took place. It wasn’t “extracted” from its concrete physical exhibitions into a more abstract category.  It remained trapped in the terms of its immediate material shapes.

The same measurement could be applied towards any individual, with the highest recognition given to the one able to connect in a coherent relation facts that seem irrelevant to each other in the eyes of the rest. All scientific discoveries in the history of mankind have been made by those who, accidentally or not, have found the common, mutually binding quality of certain abstract facts. Their talent in summarizing their experience in order to get to these facts, along with the ability to combine them as active circumstances in new, previously unknown configurations is what distinguishes these people as ensigns of human progress.

A classic example is the famous physical law of Archimedes who after discovering it ran naked into the street screaming “Eureka!”. This law states that a body immersed in a fluid experiences an upward force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. Archimedes was struck by the revelation while watching how the water in the bath began rising as he was dipping his body into it. Even though, as the legend says, the discovery process was quite spontaneous, it still followed a certain common logic. It included two obvious abstract facts – the water’s fluidity, valid for all liquids, and the mathematician’s own body mass – a characteristic of all material objects. It was his experience, as in any other sane person, that brought him to this level of abstraction. His next step though was an assumption of a genius: combining these two abstract facts with a third one – buoyant force, which to explain their mutual relation.

The value of the discovery is that it is a combination of circumstances on a very high level of philosophical summarization, applicable to all fluids and material objects. It is actually a situation created by nature itself. As such it represents an open structure: by adding to it new circumstances – specific qualities of different objects, it could be enriched and blended into endless combinations, thus having an endless number of applications. This principle is valid for every law of nature. It also stands in the very heart of the reality of the abstract.

© 2010 Peter Budevski

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