Saturday, 25 April 2009

"Accepting the desert..."

"[An] overpopulated universe is in many ways unlovely. It offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes..." - W. V. O. Quine.

Humans have a predisposition towards reification: the process of believing that abstractions are concrete entities. I’m not sure that humanity’s emphasis on abstract entities is healthy.

Abstractions form a large part of our lives. The idea of currency for example is an abstraction that constitutes the driving force behind many peoples’ ambitions. A ten pound note is a concept: it’s a sort of game that we all participate in. We pretend that a piece of specially-treated paper is worth a certain amount of value and then we proceed along with that pretending-game because it allows us to trade for goods and services. But objectively the paper as a material object has no value other than what we impose on it: the view of it as ‘money’ is an abstraction that guides the course of our lives. Another example is countries. In reality, countries are just masses of land with arbitrarily defined borders. Yet we treat countries as if they weren’t just ideas. People treat countries with reverence, pride, even love. People fall in love with their abstractions.

Let’s not forget that love too is an abstract entity. The emotions we label as love can be reduced to nothing more than a set of closely related biochemical reactions. Love is a human concept, one that has come to dominate much of the Western reproductive cycle in humans.

Obviously some level of reification is inevitable and necessary for manoeuvring through the world, particularly moving through society. The articulation of our thought processes into concepts and ideas is what has led our species to its present level of cultural evolution. Abstract entities are required for our view of the world to work. W. V. O. Quine, a philosopher who had a taste for sparse, ‘desert-like’ metaphysics, was forced to admit the existence of the abstract entities known as sets since their metaphysical existence was required for mathematics to work. Quine described himself as a reluctant Platonist: some reification was required for him to retain the use of mathematics. Reification therefore comes in degrees – the ability to perceive objects in the swirling mass of atoms before us is required but the creation of invisible borders for territoriality is merely a practical expedient.

It seems as though the distinction between the abstract and the concrete is not sufficiently reinforced during the human developmental process. This leads to situations where people feel real emotions for things that technically are not real at all; things such as money, countries, justice, truth, etc. When I see someone crying for the love of their country (mostly Americans although a lot of the English recently welled up for St. George’s Day), I do not feel humbled by that person’s overwhelming patriotism: I feel saddened that they feel such emotion for an abstraction, an object that humans have invented on the pragmatic grounds that it makes things easier for us. The economy is an abstraction that recently got us into a lot of trouble. Financial institutions realised that trading in imaginary money and allowing people to spend money that doesn’t exist was a bad idea. It leads to (surprise, surprise) a situation where, for the past decade, people have believed that there is more money than there is. It doesn’t seem healthy for so many to have such a poor grasp of what is real and what is technically not real – where ‘real’ is defined in terms of materialistic existence. It seems that reification often goes too far and that people are not reminded of the important distinction between the conceptual and the actual often enough. Reification comes in degrees: acceptance of abstract entities as necessary is fine; intense emotion about them is delusional. We can live in the desert and accept that mirages make our lives easier but we should never believe that the mirages are real.


theMuddledMarketPlace said...

couldn't work out why this word sounded familiar ( it's not in my vocab normally...)
then i remembered

Simon XIX said...


theMuddledMarketPlace said...



Simon XIX said...

That site is my brother's handiwork. Very impressive it is too.