Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Mistaking Abstractions For Reality

When you have names and forms,
know that they are provisional.
When you have institutions,
know where their functions should end.
Knowing when to stop,
you can avoid any danger.

—The Tao Te Ching, ch. 32

Lately I keep noticing a pattern present in much of the evil and destruction in the world. It's an error I call "mistaking abstractions for reality", or more succinctly, the "abstract reality fallacy".

Peering through this lens has already given me quite a bit of insight, and hopefully it will be useful to others as well. It's a "root of all evil" concept, usable alongside existing "root of all evil" concepts such as The Love of Money, Idolatry, Pride, or Trying to Take God's Place. [1]

Ok, let's start out with some basic assumptions:

  1. The universe (i.e. Creation) is mind-bogglingly complex.
  2. The Earth is mind-bogglingly complex.
  3. People are mind-bogglingly complex.
  4. God is mind-bogglingly complex. (For many this is probably the hardest assumption to accept, as they see God as infinitely large, powerful, and wise, but still not very complex. Such was my unconsciously-held view as a teenager.)

In order to operate at all in this mind-boggling setting, we need some kind of deboggling strategy. That strategy is abstraction.

I use the word "abstraction" in deference to my computer science roots. Computer scientists construct programs from abstract building blocks, which are in turn made of smaller building blocks. For instance, "156" models the reality 10011100 such that the reality can usually be ignored. Numbers and letters can be arranged into larger objects, eventually allowing the use of "files", "folders", or "windows", for example. Files and folders and windows do not exist in hardware at all - they are only mental modeling constructs for making sense of ones and zeroes.

Humans use the same skill in everyday life. For instance, we created the Chair pattern to refer to clusters of molecules meeting certain criteria: "has a surface intended for sitting", "has legs", etc. The Chair pattern helps us reason about chairs: what is and isn't a chair, what chairs are used for, what properties chairs have. But our concept of Chairs does not form some integral part of Creation. It's only a useful tool for mind-deboggling.

Nearly all our words correspond to reductive patterns: "dog", "funny", "seven", "Alice", "love" - they are graspable simplifications of the ungraspable truth. These patterns are combined and composed, allowing us to discuss concepts that cannot be represented by a single word.

Science and mathematics seek to find more accurate and concise ways to simplify the world around us. The "correctness" of an idea in this realm is nothing more than its usefulness: Its consistency with existing patterns and experience, and its ability to anticipate further patterns and experience. Scientists and mathematicians do not discover some simple fundamental core of the universe, rather, they create useful, interesting, and necessarily incomplete simplifications of their observations. Successful simplifications point to, but do not encapsulate, the true nature of Creation.

Likewise, theologians help themselves and others understand God by coming up with useful simplifications and metaphors. Their ideas are not God. Their ideas point toward God (insomuch as the theology is fruitful and accurate).

The abstract modeling abilities of our brain are incredible and incredibly useful. We'd be paralyzed without them, drowning in an incomprehensible universe. So what's the problem?

The danger comes when we fail to recognize our models as models, and instead confuse them with reality. We believe we have discovered, when in fact we have actually invented an abstraction. It's not wrong to invent or use abstractions, but it is wrong to treat inventions as discoveries.

Now we have the general form of the error: Mistaking belief for truth itself. Now let's look at some of its manifestations.

  1. Stereotyping. At some point having seen enough mathematically-gifted Asians, you might learn the pattern "Asians are good at math". It may be true that many Asians are good at math, but when you mistake your approximation of the truth for the truth itself (and expect any given Asian you meet to be awesome at math) the result is what we call "stereotyping".

  2. Gnostic lust. (I coined this term to refer to an approximate sub-category of lust.) Gnostic lust is when you objectify someone, severing body from soul, and desire the body alone. Your self is likewise divided. Your body wants her body, and soul or emotion is irrelevant. Gnostic lust often begins with entitlement and bitterness or feelings of self-worthlessness (see below) and forms the basis for porn, prostitution, and promiscuity. Holistic lust, in which your whole person wants her whole person, and you desire love as well as sex, is dramatically less reductive and thus dramatically less destructive.

  3. Logical paradoxes. One of my favorite examples is the George Washington's Ax paradox. The basic idea is this: Someone sells you an ax once owned by George Washington. Later, you discover that in the last two centuries, the handle has been replaced twice, and the blade three times. Is it still the same ax? If you assume our mental model for identity is actually the true nature of the universe, then this kind of question is troubling - especially when you consider that the molecules in a human body are almost entirely replaced about every six months. (Who are you really? And if you believe in bodily resurrection... what will be resurrected?) If you realize logic is just a metaphor for interpreting the world around us, then a paradox is not an issue - it tells you when you've stretched the metaphor too far.

    (Another great example is the paradox of free will, involved in the predestination vs. free will debate, and in arguments against the existence of God in general. Which leads to the next point...)

  4. Fundamentalism. Right-wing Christian fundamentalists mistake their ideas about God for God himself. They mistake their simplification of the Bible for its true nature, treating it as one monolithic, cohesive book instead of what it is - a myriad of separate texts written and rewritten, altered and collected and canonized-by-committee over centuries. They mistake their favorite interpretation of scripture for the true intent. And they mistake certain Biblical metaphors of salvation (e.g. rebirth and sacrificial atonement) for salvation itself.

    Atheist fundamentalists do the same with science instead of scripture or theology. They uphold Science as absolute truth, failing to distinguish between it and concrete reality. Just as fundamentalist Christians avoid or ignore the complex history behind scripture, fundamentalist atheists avoid or ignore the complex process behind science - like how it advances only when shown to be wrong or incomplete - and instead uphold it as pure, monolithic truth.

  5. Industrial agriculture. Farming takes place entirely in the context of nature. Nature is not a machine, and no part of it behaves very much like a machine. But machines are easier to organize, reason about, and industrialize. Factory farms treat their animals, plants, and employees as simple components which accept input and produce output. They arrange these components into assembly line-like structures. Fertilizers and pesticides go into the cornfield, producing corn. The corn goes into the cows, producing nicely-marbled beef. Scraps from that beef goes back into the cows, because in an abstract reality, protein is protein, and beef cattle need protein. (Feeding cows to cows was the cause of Mad Cow disease.) The polluting and destructive side-effects of industrial agriculture are not part of the model on which it is based. Thus farmers and businessmen, often with benevolent intent, damage Creation by cramming it into ill-fitting molds.

  6. Feelings of self-worthlessness. Self-worthlessness betrays a failure to distinguish between self-appraisal and actual value. Somehow we become convinced that we are unlikable, unlovable, and irredeemable. Just as a mathematician or physicist might feel she is "discovering" God's thoughts, we feel we have discovered his true feelings for us.

    (This is closely related to legalism and self-justification, in which we take over God's role as judge, create some kind of rule system to simplify the task, and use said rule system to deem ourselves worthy and others unworthy. More on that in a future post...)

  7. Entitlement and bitterness. These happen when we mistake our limited understanding of justice for true justice, and get pissed at God (or the Man, or whoever) because he acts outside our model. Now for a personal anecdote...

    In January of this year, I became extremely depressed. I stopped returning phone calls, answering e-mail, reading, writing, and even holding conversations. I lost my appetite and alternated extreme under- and oversleeping. Whenever I felt anything, I felt sad, so I severed myself from my body by spending every waking moment writing code or thinking about code.

    When the worst was over and I began to surface, I spent much time in introspection and prayer, inspecting many of the spiritual and physiological reasons for my depression. I had been living too loftily, too much in the future or the past or in dreams and not enough in the present. Gravity had finally asserted itself. And because I got very little sunlight or exercise, recovery was nearly impossible. God allowed me to be depressed, I believed, so that I might ground myself in my body, living day-to-day in the agrarian lifestyle for which I was created.

    As my understanding grew, it helped me abolish my sense of helplessness, and my depression shrank away. In May I took a much-needed backpacking trip and started my job at Eighth Day Farm, both of which proved rejuvenating. The whole depression experience fit neatly into my concept of holistic health and a just and loving God.

    But then, to my surprise, the depression resurfaced. My lessons learned and the purported causes fixed, I now deserved happiness, or at least wisdom. But the darkness engulfed me. Laying there, devoid of answers and justice, wishing I were dead, I became bitter as hell - toward God and anyone else I could blame. My bitterness drove me to further and further social isolation, until eventually I broke down.

    Confusing my partial and flawed model of justice for justice itself, I felt wronged and wanted retribution. Multiplied by seven billion, that same error becomes the seed of so much of this world's evil - war, thievery, revenge, enmity, damnation-wishes. We see it in children fighting over toys, and in adults arguing at the cash register. We see it on TV in the eyes of terrorists, and in the eyes of those who insist on the killing of terrorists. We see it when we lie in the darkness and curse God for the poverty of our hearts.

    Does this mean we ought to give up on seeking justice? No! As with all things, our sense of justice comes from God, and can return to him. Nothing is beyond redemption.

Two years ago, when I rejected computer science in favor of sustainable farming, I also rejected reductionism in favor of holism. Now I believe reductionism is a gift that can work toward good (when used with care, humility, faith, and moderation) or evil (when we place our faith in our own wisdom).

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding.

—Proverbs 3:5 (NIV)

There are many solutions for the abstract reality fallacy, and countless other interesting cases of it. But this topic is too enormous and far-reaching to tackle in one post. In the future I hope to delve deeper into some of the following connected ideas:

That's a lot of stuff to think about. In the meantime I'd love to hear any reader insights. These ideas are incomplete, flawed, and fluid - in need of much help from friends!