Master of Abstraction
The True War Against Fragmentary Knowledge:
Breaking from our Evolutionary Past with a New Theory of Progress
Humans are plagued by an uncertainty that arises from incomplete information. We create systems of abstractions to fill in the gaps of our fragmentary knowledge but to no avail. Thus, the trick is to create a system that can absorb any challenge from these revolutionary fragments that threaten to undo the order that we impose on our environment through systems. This struggle is at the heart of a (relatively) new field of research called “non-equilibrium science”.
This paper is the result of an inquiry into the Metaphysical nature of Man. My experience with the research and my reflection on rationality, emotion, and human experience, lead me to less of a question and more of a curiosity. When I use the term, Abstraction, I mean the symbolic reality that results from Man’s hierarchical thinking. I will explain this definition in more detail but suffice it to say that this subject is evasive. The minute you think you have captured it, there emerges a whole new possibility, a whole new mode of thinking. What is certain, however, is that Abstraction is not merely a peculiar inquiry entertained by a few peripheral minds, but that it is quite possibly the most important subject for mankind.
As we face the complexity of the world, what has the last century shown us? The abstract ordering principles that have heretofore governed and served as a guide to human life are either deteriorating or undergoing some profound change. Belgian Viscount Étienne Davignon stated it thus, “People understand confusedly that there is a change in the air. But no government will satisfy the reactions of the people. They have the greatest reticence and cynicism against anybody who holds responsibility. Against the business community because of the financial excesses. Also, the church has disappeared. The popular reaction is a consequence of the fact that a number of traditional references have disappeared. People are looking for what is the reference.” We see this search for a reference across all fields of research, from linguistics to physics, from financial systems to political systems. As Man began to grasp the full scope and ramifications of disequilibrium in the early years of the 20th century, he began to reassess his ability to order his own environment.
Without the old abstractions to guide the mind, Man has looked to himself for answers. The 20th century witnessed the emergence of extensive self-reflection as classical liberalism and the Victorian concept of inevitable progress gave way to the trench warfare of World War I. A new pessimism settled into European minds (Max Nordau’s Degeneration, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, the degenerative theories of Italian Cesare Lombroso), and America embarked on a spending spree that resembled the euphoric revelry of a soldier on the eve of his last battle. No longer could hope and certainty about the future be found outside of the individual because the aesthetics of liberal progress completely deteriorated.
The new 20th century Man, feeling the weight of the atrocities in the World Wars and stifled by the onslaught of bureaucracy (which crept into existence in the last half of the 19th century), wondered about his own raison d'être. Moreover, authors like Freud and Marx were undermining the existing social fabric by convincing men that the world was not as it seemed. Einstein’s theory of relativity was calling into question Man’s certainty in measurements of value. The result was a Western psyche akin to Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. The West, a factory of innovation, found more and more of its psychic energy diverted into the malaise of Mann’s sanatorium high in the Swiss Mountains. The result was a Western mind mired in uncertainty and reflecting on itself.
Consider the contrast between the sweeping landscapes of the Hudson River School (19th century) and the profane Fountain by Marcel Duchamps (early 20th century) or the incomprehensible works of Jackson Pollock. In the first, Man is encouraged to look outside of himself and perceive the beauty that is in front of him. In the last two, there is no obvious metaphysical reference by which the observer can discover meaning. He is left to himself to order the abstract image before him. The same can be said about the atonal works of Soviet composers that so infuriated Stalin. No longer was art about creating something that transcended humanity, but it had become an expression of the consternation originating in the artist. Thus the observer is compelled to create his own abstract understanding or response to the piece by searching for meaning within himself. The artists are revealing something quite profound about the nature of modern Man by creating art that is not axiomatic. It is symptomatic of a humanity that chooses to inwardly critique rather than to create beyond itself. So Man is considering himself and what is he finding? As T.S. Eliot wrote, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…”
What are these images before us? Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the father of General System Theory, described Man as a creature of two worlds, a biological entity that has created for himself a universe of symbols. These symbols are abstractions that extrapolate samples of the world around us to overarching theoretical concepts. Bertalanffy identified the following three characteristics of symbols:
Symbols are representative of what is symbolized;
Symbols are transmitted through tradition - learned, not by innate instinct;
Symbols are freely created - no biologically enforced connection between the symbol and thing signified;
For Bertalanffy, it is the ability to create these “symbolic universes” that separates Man from beast.
For example, in mathematics we create abstract symbols and then have those symbols interact. The result is computers, accounting, robotics, engineering – the ability to construct completely new innovations apart from what nature offers. In music, there is an unlimited range of pitches that with proper delimiters can produce a musical scale. The crucial point is that not any set of delimiters will do and it is by Man’s selection that the range of pitches becomes pleasing. Consider language as a final example. We formulize abstractions – words – in order to communicate between one another. As a result, language has made possible levels of communication that far surpass anything we witness in nature. Science has described this kind of thinking as “hierarchical” and located its physiological origin in the neocortex.
Peter Corning (known for his work on synergy in evolution) wrote, “Many different theories of human evolution have been proposed over the years. Humans have been characterized as the ‘killer ape’, the ‘naked ape,’ and the ‘talking ape.’ We have been called ‘man the hunter’, ‘woman the gatherer’, and even the ‘selfish ape’. However, I will propose a radically different scenario for human evolution. I will develop the theory that, in effect, we invented ourselves through a process that I have dubbed ‘Neo-Lamarckian Selection.’ We are uniquely the ‘inventive ape’”. Indeed, symbolism has completely revolutionized the evolutionary process.
Because Man creates symbolic systems, phylogenetic evolution based on hereditary changes is replaced by a history that traces the tradition of symbols. Because future goals are anticipated in their symbolic images, they may determine present action (this supports Aristotelian purposiveness). These symbols explain the acceleration in the evolution of Man compared to the geological time scale, largely because actual trial and error is replaced by reasoning. In other words, Man can create trial and error experiments using conceptual symbols. Moreover, these symbolic universes created by Man gain autonomy – a life of their own – and so they follow laws beyond the psychological laws of their creator. The system of laws of a symbolic universe gains algorithmic properties; i.e. they create a new rationality that can be shared which speeds the evolutionary process. Most importantly, Bertalanffy notes that due to their autonomy and laws, symbolic systems can govern human behavior more powerfully than biological reality or organismic drives. In essence, Man has evolved into a biological entity that creates self-perpetuating symbolic systems that can dictate action and shape the evolutionary process more powerfully than nature itself. Not surprisingly, Bertalanffy writes, "The evolution of symbolism is the basic problem of anthropogenesis."
Of prime importance to this concept of symbolic Man is the observation that nature produced an organism that creates the world around it instead of being just a passive receiver of stimuli from the environment. Man uses technology to recreate his environment – electricity to control for the darkness of night, heating and air-conditioning to control for temperature, airplanes to control for height and distance, medicine to control disease, even load-bearing machines to defy Man’s own frailty. It is of vital importance to recognize Man as a creating being for it will help to avoid common philosophical errors. For example, Bertalanffy rejected the utilitarian conception of pleasure as the ultimate good because he thought it would result in homeostasis, adaptation, and adjustment which would promote conformity and the status-quo as the ultimate goal. Rather, he posited “the full realization of one’s own potentialities” as central to the pursuit of happiness. We will return to this point later but for now recognize that Man is in a constant struggle to transcend the natural equilibrium and create beyond nature using abstraction. It is in this striving that Man finds fulfillment of his evolutionary destiny.
An important caveat is that our symbols are not necessarily a reflection of “real things,” but instead the result of a complex interaction between the knower and the known that is dependent on biological, psychological, cultural, and linguistic factors. This new perspective on Man requires a new epistemology that centers on the dynamic creativity of Man and the shifting perspectives that result from his use of abstraction. Bertalanffy described this new epistemology as a shift from absolutism to “perspective” philosophy. To illustrate this with respect to language, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used the following demonstration. First, he would draw a triangle and label two points as the base and the other as the apex. Next, he would erase those labels and change which points were the base and which was the apex. In this simple way, he demonstrated that abstractions rely on perspective; that is, the biological, cultural, psychological, and linguistic biases of the observer. Bertalanffy writes, “All our knowledge…only mirrors aspects of reality…Ultimately reality is a unit of opposites; any statement holds from a certain viewpoint only, has only relative validity, and must be supplemented by antithetic statements from opposite points of view.”
So even though abstractions can create new experiences or illuminate previously hidden ones, these “systems” of symbols are more problematic than one might realize. Even in Wittgenstein’s example, you can see where problems emerge in our ability to communicate through abstraction. The “system” of language is incomplete because it cannot fully encapsulate and differentiate between our perceptions of reality. Gödel showed the exact same problem with respect to mathematics. He demonstrated that mathematics only works as a closed system. In essence, he found that mathematics is not true apart from itself. The problem with the images that we create – to use Eliot’s term - is that they are broken. We create abstract systems that are incomplete and reflect fragmentary knowledge.
This problem with language is indicative of Man’s existential struggle. As we grow, we begin to order the world around us in increasingly complex ways using hierarchical thinking. The problem is that we are incapable of encapsulating all the complexity that we observe so we simplify our systems of understanding. From our earliest moments in history, humans have attempted to order the reality of the world through abstraction. The Greeks were obsessed with asking “why?” rather than “what?”. Euclidian geometry is fundamentally built on proofs, logical streams of abstraction. The early Miletian metaphysicians like Thales and Anaximander sought to find the quintessential substance of the earth. They proffered things like air, water, and vague indescribable substances as the apeiron, the principle of all things. They simplified the world around them and in doing so could not incorporate all the complexity they observed in nature.
The sociologist Erich Fromm described this human desire for certainty – for complete knowledge – when he wrote, "Another factor that contributes to the development of alienation and 'ideologization' seems to be an inherent tendency in human thought to strive for systematization and completeness. One root for this tendency probably lies in our quest for certainty--a quest that is understandable enough in view of the precarious nature of human existence. When we know some fragments of reality we want to complete them in such a way that they ‘make sense’ in a systematic way. Yet by the very nature of the limitations of people we always have only ‘fragmentary’ knowledge, and never complete knowledge…”
How will we find this certainty? How will we defeat fragmentary knowledge? It is by leveraging the power of the new technological tools at Man’s disposal to develop systems that absorb the complexity that we observe.
In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras began to develop a numerical abstract system. He considered numbers and the symmetries existing between them (so-called “harmonies”) as first principles. This is significant because Pythagoras was not only creating symbols but recognizing the system of interaction between them. Each number had a particular significance based on these relationships. Interestingly, he called the number one the “Monad”, originating from the word menein which means ‘to be stable.’ For the Pythagoreans, the Monad reflected the principle of God. It maintains every number (2x1=1, 3x1=3, 4x1=4), produces itself out of itself, produces the other numbers, and forbids whatever is present to change. It was also considered ‘intellect’ because it represented the part of God that was authoritative on the creation of the universe and, in general, the skill and reason of that creation.
The Monad was thought to contain within it the potentiality of all things. The writer Iamblichus in The Theology of Arithmetic wrote, “That is why it is called ‘artificer’ and ‘modeler,’ since in its processions and recessions it takes thought for the mathematical natures, from which arise instances of corporeality, of propagation of creatures and of the composition of the universe. Hence they call it ‘Prometheus,’ the artificer of life, because uniquely, it in no way outruns or departs from its own principle, nor allows anything else to do so, since it shares out its own properties. For however far it is extended, or however many extensions it causes, it still prohibits outrunning and changing the fundamental principle of itself and of those extensions. Euripides wrote, “Those among mortals who are wise consider you to be the Hearth”. The Monad was thought to be in the middle between heaven and hell. Homer wrote, “As far beneath as Hades, so far above the Earth are the heavens.” The old sages followed by the Pythagoreans thought that the Monad was situated in the middle on account of it being equilibrated.
As we face the problem of fragmentary knowledge, we have two options. We can either create a complete system that accounts for every facet of complexity or we can create a system that evolves – it would absorb inputs from its environment and then close to maintain its form even while it reorganizes internally due to the new input. I mention the Monad because it provides an example of abstraction that incorporates the sum of all possibilities. We must build a system that can absorb any input and yet maintain its designated form. The Monad can receive form, it can absorb inputs and yet still not outrun its own fundamental principles. With New Progress, we wish to model the processes of nature in order to leverage and control the power of nature for our own benefit. Technology is swiftly providing us this opportunity by eroding the problem of fragmentary knowledge. By 2030, we will have reversed engineered the brain. We are already making strides in molecular nanotechnology which will eventually allow us to construct biological organisms with the same self-replicating properties as DNA. The networks of the future will mimic biological ecosystems. We will create nature but in a perfected form by not making the same assumptions and shortcuts of the former evolutionary process.
We are at a moment in the history of Man where the brain-mind relationship is undergoing a fundamental change which is profoundly affecting our interaction with nature. Neurological Positivism is the philosophical culmination of the evolution of consciousness and mind. Larry Vanderwerter writes, “Consciousness is described as a natural evolutionary space-time template of continuously generated self-referential energy patterns (algorithms). The energetic evolution of mind is described as a natural self-referential exteriorization of the algorithmic organization of consciousness in the form of culturally shared mental models. It is proposed that the brain-mind energy relationship has historically undergone and continues to undergo change, and that this change is a natural thermodynamic arrow that constitutes the evolution of culture. That is, the evolution of culture proceeds in the direction of progressively more complete and efficient exteriorizations of the algorithmic organization of the brain-thus, for example, the recent evolution of brain-like computing systems and virtual reality systems.” In essence, as we begin to understand the algorithmic properties of the brain/nature, we begin to replicate those processes in man-made systems.
The 20th century gave a new impetus for system theory. We began to observe systems as entities in and of themselves rather than merely a conglomeration of parts. Its emergence coincides with a spectacular acceleration in the rate of technological development which is not likely a coincidence. As we have pushed back the boundaries of mysticism about the biological world, we have at the same time desired and felt possible a systemic view of this new paradigm. Our early experience in the evolutionary process programmed us to think linearly. We now are learning to think systematically.
There is emerging a synergy among different scientific and psychological disciplines. This synthesis of scientific knowledge will accelerate Man’s ability to create self-replicating self-governing systems for his own benefit. Artificial intelligence, the merger of Man and machine, nanotechnology that can cure disease and cancer, self-governing automobiles – all these and more are within the realm of possibility. The artificialization of Man and nature is the New Progress. The Masters of Abstraction will conquer nature by freeing the rational systems of Man from their binds of fragmentary knowledge.
The True War
We talk of the 21st century as the Asian century and lament the fact that authoritarian capitalism is undermining democratic capitalism by causing a huge misallocation of capital. However, I would like to posit the question: if we really succeeded in creating a world system that was peaceful with economic prosperity across all regions of the world, then what? What mission would this new peaceful generation have for itself then? I argue that the importance of a stable world system based on the values of democratic capitalism is only to create a stage for the New Progress. The potential destabilization of the world system is actually peripheral to the true war which is the one that wages between the forces of New Progress, fragmentary knowledge, and nature.
The actors in this war of abstraction are three-fold. First, there are those people that consider Man to be a part of nature with no higher value than the other species that exist. Second, there are those that believe Man evolved as a part of nature but that he has reached a point in evolution where he is becoming a master of his environment, something quite separate from the natural forces that have heretofore governed his existence. In this view, Man is like Prometheus stealing the fire of the gods. Finally, there are those in the abstract war that regard Man to be created by God and the pinnacle of his creation. In this view, Man transcends his natural origins not by a Promethean struggle but by the fiat of God. While there can be some variation in each of these viewpoints (for example, a believer in God may also believe in evolution or a ‘natural man’ proponent may believe Man to be a cancer in the evolutionary process), these are the basic arguments in the true war.
In order to explore the ‘natural man’ perspective, we can look at the unique thoughts on Time by physicist and Nobel Laureate, Ilya Prigogine. The central theme of Prigogine’s work was non-linearity; that is, a rejection of determinism. This is similar to Nassim Taleb’s concept of the Black Swan, an event like the 2008 financial crisis that we cannot foresee. There are laws that govern life and nature but there are also bifurcations – instabilities that fundamentally disrupt our deterministic systems. This introduces the concept of irreversibility as a fundamental property of nature.
Irreversibility – the recognition that non-equilibrium events can permanently change the preceding status quo – and the refutation of deterministic systems, including the ones that we create, are what place Prigogine in this ‘natural man’ category. He states, “Science should not lead to alienation. Science should emphasize our embedding in nature.” A deterministic system implies that if you know the initial conditions, then you will know the outcome. Prigogine says this does not exist in reality. Can the complexity we see around us be reduced if we go sufficiently deep into the description? He would say no. The implications are that Man is unable to decipher and simulate the systems that function in nature. This is clearly against the goal of New Progress to build artificial systems that mimic biological systems.
For Prigogine, science (particularly Newtonian physics) and religion are not opposites. In fact, classical western science has its origins in a type of theology. He cites Leibniz who wanted to create a “universal mathematics” and argued that the purpose of science was to bring Man closer to the knowledge of God. René Descartes in the 17th century spoke of these god-like powers, “give me matter and motion and I will construct the world.” Likewise, Sigmund Freud wrote, “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs (technology) he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.” For God there is no difference between past, future, present – there is only eternity. Similarly, classical science eliminated time through a faith in deterministic systems.
Prigogine points out that nostalgia for a timeless universe appears in many of the arguments of Hawking. He replaces real time with ‘imaginary time’; that is, real time is merely a fluctuation of an imaginary time that represents equilibrium. Prigogine also mentions the work on quantum mechanics by Schrodinger, Heisenberg, and others. The fundamental equation of that field presents a law according to which there are no events at the basic level. In the orthodox Copernican interpretation, we are creating the events when we measure something. We are disturbing a timeless universe. This is much in keeping with our earlier discussion – our application of an abstract system actually creates the experience. With the destruction of these timeless systems and the concept of irreversibility, Prigogine foresees a second Copernican revolution arising from the new study of non-equilibrium science. This revolution will lead Man into “community with the universe” marked by a “new dialogue with nature.”
Bertalanffy describes Man as separated from the animal by his ability to construct abstractions and have those abstractions interact. In contrast, Prigogine argues that non-equilibrium events - Black Swans - suggest a creativity within nature. Thus, we are more a part of nature then than any other being due to our shared ability to create. We can then be at harmony with nature and experience less alienation because we are closer to the universe that we attempt to describe.
In keeping with this theme of the ‘natural man’, Howard Bloom describes the emergence of a “Global Brain”. In his view, Man constitutes the fingertips of nature’s evolutionary process and the technological progress we see today is actually a part of nature’s evolutionary plan. He points out that conspicuous consumption is evident in nature (the classic example of the peacock’s tail feathers which attract predators but serve a consumerist agenda) and that the cosmos is a search machine, constantly looking to allocate surplus and engineer new potentialities. The purpose? We are the mechanism of the cosmos in order that it might transcend itself. There have been 142 mass extinction events due to climate change with 62 during human history. The cosmos is filling every niche on the earth with life in order to weather the next mass extinction event. The cosmos, then, is searching for new species, new manifestations of its creative forces, and the best search engine it has invented is capitalism.
While there are many insightful points in the observations of Prigogine and Bloom, they do not seem to accurately characterize Man’s relationship with nature. It is not apparent that Nature and Man can become such happy bedfellows. An unhappy marriage indeed! One in which the wife kills the husband. Nature kills Man. The reintroduction of time means recognizing the death of Man. There is nothing noble about death or Man’s acceptance of the constraints of time. Perhaps this objection is merely semantics, but it is important to note that under New Progress, Man seeks to transcend nature and not to be absorbed by it. Howard Bloom feels Man to be the fingertips of nature and the product of a successful evolutionary process. New Progress states exactly the opposite, believing that nature made wrong assumptions in the evolutionary process and that Man can create new biological systems that are not similarly mistaken. Man does not like the destiny that nature has given him so he is creating his own!
In one sense, I agree with Prigogine. The linear causal paradigm of classical science is insufficient to explain the complexity of today’s market and of the biological systems that we are attempting to replicate. The market is comprised of human choices that are made both rationally and emotionally which means that the market is prone to non-linear events. However, Prigogine underestimates our ability to leverage technology to map biological systems. I would accept the Taleb/Prigogine assertion of systemic disruptions, but that just means we need to create artificial systems capable of absorbing these shocks. Also, Prigogine considers these shocks as an expression of the “creativity” of nature, as if they are an inexplicable event. I would disagree and say that there is always an explanation. Despite that his observations led him to embrace nature, they are still helpful in their contribution to non-equilibrium science and useful in designing systems for New Progress.
Originally, Man thought that God was in the trees because the limbs would shake. Eventually, Man discovered that this was in fact the result of wind. As Man has pushed back superstitions with scientific discovery, the amount of fragmentary knowledge has gotten smaller. Still, there remains inconvenient or currently unexplainable realms of knowledge. I call these the “revolutionary fragments”. Under the ‘Son of God’ conception of Man, ‘faith’ means believing that this God can use these fragments of knowledge that we are not aware of or can’t comprehend to completely redefine or disrupt man-made systems. Does this mean that there is an infinite amount of knowledge and so that fragments of knowledge will always exist. I do not know. However, the biblical account of the Tower of Babel is intriguing because at one point God admits that Man can attain the knowledge of God. God said as he viewed the tower rising before him, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
Man is organizing again with one language and creating a new tower based on technological progress. At what point will Man know New Progress is successful? When the abstract systems of his creation transcend fragmentary knowledge and can absorb all the potentialities of nature. This is the complete redesign of nature according to the will of Man. New Progress seeks to refute Friedrich Hayek when he wrote, “Ever since the beginning of modern science, the best minds have recognized that ‘the range of acknowledged ignorance will grow with the advance of science.’ Unfortunately, the popular effect of this scientific advance has been a belief, seemingly shared by many scientists, that the range of our ignorance is steadily diminishing and that we can therefore aim at more comprehensive and deliberate control of all human activities. It is for this reason that those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom.” Hayek might have been correct with respect to social engineering. However, what Hayek did not recognize is the inherent incentive for the proponents of technological progress to advocate freedom. The advance of knowledge came not from tyrannical control of minds, but from the liberalization of the political and economic space, such that knowledge enjoyed freedom of movement. Democratic capitalism is indeed, as Howard Bloom describes, a search engine designed by the Masters of Abstraction to generate technological progress. But this is for another paper…
Again, Eliot writes,
'What is that noise?'
The wind under the door.
'What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?'
Nothing again nothing.
'You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes
'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?'
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It's so elegant
'What shall I do now? What shall I do?'
'I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
'With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow?
'What shall we ever do?'
We humans, here between heaven and hell, shall create the Hearth, the Monad – a system that can the absorb the potentiality of all things in nature.
T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, Lines 19-22, 117-134