Hiding Behind Abstractions

Imagine you’ve just moved to a new town. It’s a little shady, so you want to purchase a guard dog. Your friend knows some local dog breeders, so you ask him to buy a good dog for you.

He brings you back a Chihuahua.

You say, “That’s not a good guard dog! I need a strong and intimidating dog – like a Rottweiler!”

He responds, “What are you talking about? Chihuahuas and Rottweilers are equally good – they are both dogs.”

What would you conclude? That your friend has a nail in his head. Just because Chihuahuas and Rottweilers are both dogs doesn’t mean they are equally good guard dogs.

Yet, this exact same error is pervasive in other areas of thought. You see it in philosophy, political theory, economics, cultural criticism, and nearly everywhere else.

I call mistakes like this, “abstraction errors” – misunderstanding the relationship between concrete and abstract, and incorrectly manipulating abstractions in our mind.

All Ideas Are Ideas

In conversations throughout the years, I’ve heard the following sentence more times than I can count:

“Well, those are just your ideas. Other people have other ideas.”

It usually comes up in one of two situations: when somebody doesn’t know how to respond to counter-arguments, or if they are shocked at hearing a blunt statement like, “X is objectively true, and Y is objectively false.” They will quickly try to temper this by saying, “Well, X is only true in your theory; it’s not true in other people’s.”

Usually, statements like this mark the end of a debate. It’s like saying, “We’ll just agree to disagree.”

But let’s analyze this a bit closer. What is really meant by saying “that’s just your theory”? It’s something like this:

“We disagree, and we each have supporting theories – both of which are equally plausible. You believe X because of Y. I believe A because of B. And there’s no way to objectively discern between the two. Therefore, we cannot persuade each other.”

This is an abstraction error. It mistakenly views ideas as equally plausible by virtue of them both being “ideas”. It implies that the truth is indiscoverable simply because people disagree about it.

In other words, it mistakes the abstract for the concrete. It says, “All X are the same, because they are all X.”

Dogs, Children, and Chess

Return to the dog example. Your intention was to get a guard dog, and you’ve been presented with a tiny Chihuahua. Imagine your friend tries to justify his poor decision:

“But hear me out! There were all kinds of dogs that were for sale. Everybody was telling me their dog was the best. There is no way to discern an ‘objectively good’ guard dog from an ‘objectively bad’ one.”

Your friend cannot see past his own abstractions. In the most superficial sense he’s correct – yes, Chihuahuas and Rottweilers both share the label of “dog”. But if that’s the extent of his analysis, he’s entirely missed the concrete for the abstract.

This is the exact same reasoning process of the man who insists “there is no way to discern an ‘objectively good’ theory from an ‘objectively bad’ one.”

In one sense, this way of thinking is akin to how parents are supposed to evaluate their children. They think: “Joey is my child. Bobby is my child. I like them equally because of their abstract status as ‘my children’.”

Nevermind that Joey is an obnoxious pain in the arse and Bobby is an angel. By virtue of them both having the label of “child”, they are equals.

While this equal treatment of children is laudable, it’s a gross error in the world of ideas. Proposition X and Proposition Y are both “propositions” – they are labeled the same way – but they are not equally plausible or well-reasoned.

Consider one more example: chess moves.

The untrained mind sees all potential chess moves as equally good – by simple virtue of them all being chess moves. Without the proper tools of understanding, it would be impossible to see the truth on the chess board: some moves are objectively superior than others. You have to analyze each move by itself.

Only a fool would insist that “Well, the moves you call ‘objectively good’ are just your moves. Other people have other moves.”

And the same conclusion applies in the world of ideas. It’s outrageously foolish to think that “all ideas are equally plausible by virtue of them being ideas.”

The uncomfortable truth is this: all ideas must be evaluated on their own merit – in the concrete, not the abstract – and some ideas are objectively superior and better reasoned than others.

Shared labeling does not imply equality.

Philosophy, Culture, Ethics, Politics, Religion…

This abstraction error permeates every area of thought. The one that upsets me the most is in epistemology. Specifically, ideas surrounding logic.

People will say, with complete sincerity, that “Oh, well that’s just your logic. Other people have other logics.”

This could not more clearly demonstrate a lack of understanding. The very nature of logic is objective and external. It isn’t unique to me or my mind. If somebody thinks they are using different logical rules, they are wrong, and I can demonstrate why.

You also see this objection when talking about cultural values. “Oh, you just have Western ethical values. Other cultures have different values, and there’s no way to objectively evaluate them.”

Or in politics. “Oh, you just have an individualistic political theory. Mine is more collectivist, that’s all.”

As if these ideas cannot be objectively scrutinized and challenged!

Yes, while it’s superficially true that “different cultures have different political philosophies”, it doesn’t follow that, “Therefore, no political philosophy is more correct than any other.”

Such an idea is merely an excuse for intellectual laziness by people who refuse to evaluate ideas on their own merit.

Origin of Ideas

Another related abstraction error has to do with confusing the origin of an idea with the plausibility of it – thinking the label is more important than what the label is attached to.

The label could be historical, cultural, socio-economic, aesthetic, or any other word we use to categorize ideas.

For example, many people have told me, “Oh Steve, you’re just re-stating Aristotle!” Or, “Your epistemology is stuck in the 19th century!”

As if these facts are irrelevant to the accuracy of the idea. First of all, no, I am not re-stating Aristotle – I have simply arrived at some similar conclusions. But more importantly, who cares? If Aristotle was right, then he should be restated. It’s no criticism of an idea to say “but that’s been said before!”

Or, take a popular tactic of Marxists: categorizing and dismissing ideas based on socio-economic status. “Oh, that’s just bourgeoisie logic!” Or, “Oh, that’s just white-middle-class political theory! Other groups have other theories.”

Again, it doesn’t matter where ideas originate. Each idea must be evaluated on its own merit.

Take perhaps the most relevant abstraction error to my work: ideas that come outside of academia.

Countless people – especially those within academia – are absolutely convinced that, “If an idea originates outside of the academic system, it must be a bad idea.”

Or the contrary: “If an idea keeps getting discussed and treated seriously in academia, it must be a good idea.”

When of course, neither of these ideas are true. In fact, if my own suspicions are accurate, the exact opposite is true. The more professional academics take an idea seriously, the more outrageously inaccurate it probably is.

Appeals to authority are just another form of abstraction error – confusing “who said the idea” with “the plausibility of the idea”.

The Hard Truth

Often times, the truth is impolite. In this case, it’s offensive:

Some worldviews are objectively superior than others. Ideas are not equal; reasoning methodologies are not equal; people’s intellectual capacity is not equal. To think otherwise is just a pleasant delusion.

I do harbor another suspicion, however. I think certain people are naturally drawn to the world of ideas precisely because they can get away with poor reasoning.

Because ideas tend to be hard to prove or disprove – writers can endlessly string sentences together – it’s much more difficult for people to evaluate your ideas as good or bad.

In chess or the martial arts, by contrast, it’s immediately easy to discern good from bad. In chess, when somebody keeps getting checkmated, you can reasonably conclude they don’t know what they are talking about.

In the martial arts, the guy who keeps getting his face punched in and can’t beat anybody – it’s not an open question whether or not he’s actually a masterful fighter.

The world of ideas lacks this demonstration. So, shallow thinkers can get away with incompetence. Though indeed, I think most public thinkers are convinced of their own brilliance, because they don’t know how to evaluate ideas on their own merit. They are confused by their own abstractions.