Sunday 10 September 2023

Distinguish but don't Divide: The problem of abstracting (the example of Time)

Owen Barfield, in What Coleridge Thought, provided a useful terminology that can be used to help define legitimate from illegitimate abstraction. 

It is always permissible and sometimes useful (or even necessary) to distinguish, that is to 'analyze' and discuss; but when we 'divide' along the lines distinguished, we have done something that may lead to immediate error, and will always lead to problems if pushed far enough. 

Negatively expressed: Just because a distinction is 'valid' (i.e. useful in 'real life') does Not mean that it is valid to divide (abstract) along the lines of that distinction. 

Positively expressed: Reality can be distinguished and analyzed in open-endedly many ways. But dividing along the lines of such distinctions is always ultimately wrong, when that division is made in a way that violates reality.  

This is the problem of abstraction; indeed distinguish versus divide could be used as a way of separating good-abstracting from bad-abstracting. 

An example I've already discussed on this blog is Time

The nature of Time depends, ultimately, on our ultimate metaphysical assumptions concerning the nature of reality. My assumption is that ultimate reality is Beings - that reality consists of living, conscious, purposive Beings (such as humans, animals, plants, and including entities that are nowadays regarded as non-living such as - probably - stars, perhaps planets. The assumption I make is that every-thing is either a Being in its own right, or part of a Being.  

If this is reality, then Time must be an aspect of a Being. Time must be something to do with the livingness and consciousness of a purposive Being.

This means that it is OK (in principle) to discuss and analyze Time in relation to a Being or some Beings; but that if we divide Time off from any reference to Beings - then we have committed an abstraction, and are no longer dealing with reality. 

In other words, when we treat Time abstractly, and divided from Beings; we have made a model. It is not necessarily wrong to make a model, and of course models of reality may be useful in many ways - after all, that's what science and engineering are all about. 

But they are only useful when we know that they are models; and in our modern Godless society, where most people believe (mostly on the basis of abstract physics models and biological models, that are assumed to be reality) that ultimate reality is a purposeless accident; it is clear that people believe models, and only models!

What I am saying here; is that the deep reason that so many abstractions (including models, and - importantly - including a great deal of Christian theology) are wrong and harmful (in so many ways!); is that they are not just distinguished as sub-aspects of reality - but in conceptualization and practice, these abstractions have-been divided from their ultimate and real basis in Beings.   


Mia said...

I've been wanting to ask you about these less-conscious Beings and what you think is happening when we use pieces of Beings e.g. to build a house or to eat. For me, it's hard to envision this in a way that is not profoundly disturbing a la chairdogs and sligs.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mia - The tragic nature of this mortal life - its 'entropic' nature, the way life feeds on life etc - has been noticed as far back as there are records.

It is the basic nature of existence, as we know it.

It is Christianity that offers a potential way out from this, but only on the other side of death.

Mia said...

True. I suppose if you're correct, it makes sense of the 3 afterlife choices. A return to primordial Being-ness is a return to an atomized existence without feeding on others but without cooperation either. Hell is feeding on others and being fed on eternally with no cooperation. Heaven is pure cooperation. Modern man struggles to believe the third is even possible.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mia - That's a very neat summary - quite memorable!

I wonder how the various kinds of reincarnation fit in. I believe that reincarnation is possible, and was perhaps very common before Jesus - but I would guess that after Jesus, many people would prefer Heaven-Now; rather than another mortal life, or many more such lives. I certainly would.