Posts Tagged ‘abstraction’

Having been in engineering for most of my life, I have also found the attractions of science to be almost irresistible.  There is something neat about it.  The scientist begins by making an observation and proceeds to ascertain the causes of it.  After many such investigations, and when sufficient data has been accumulated, he then feels confident enough to propose a law which will account for his observations.  And, using that law, he then feels able to make some predictions of a more general nature.

Let me say at once that I see nothing wrong with this method.  It is, after all, the foundation a good deal of our technology ; and that technology can be seen to work.  The weakness of science does not lie in its method but in attitudes towards it.  The method has proved so successful that it has seduced many into believing that it is the only valid method of describing the natural world.  So successful has it been that many, perhaps the majority, of people pour scorn on any attempt to devise another.  This is especially true, I think, of the people of the West.  But there are objections to it, and there are many of them, so they will need to be severely summarised.

In the first place, science investigates the causes of natural events ; but there is no mention of purposes.  A scientist will perhaps tell us what happens, but is silent on why a thing happens.  A scientist will tell us of a natural physical law, but offers no opinion on why the law exists.  Also there is the question of what is observed.  Out of all the events occurring in an experimental condition, only certain of them are selected for observation.  Thus science deals with abstractions, with simplicities ; and by its nature is partial in the data it considers worthy of investigation.

So, all in all, science as it is done now is successful in what it attempts to do ; but its methods are limiting and, therefore, it cannot offer more than an abstract view of the world.  Therefore it cannot provide complete knowledge of nature, however hard it tries.

The physicist, AN Whitehead offered this insight : science is the application of commonsense to an idealised world.  But the world is not ideal ; it is not a laboratory ; and there is much going on in nature that science knows nothing of.


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Almost all science (knowledge) is concerned with abstractions.  The world is too complex for a human mind to grasp in its functioning, dynamic entirety.  So we break it down into manageable chunks ; and most of those chunks are are very small indeed – chunklets – and it is these abstracted bits of the world that we study.  It is perhaps a shame that we feel impelled to do this breaking down.

As far as we can make out, Man is the creature that has the best understanding of the world.  And to gain this understanding, we basically make  models of selected parts of the world in our memories.  It follows that our models are exactly as complex as the world we know.  Therefore Man is, collectively,  at least as complex as the entire known world or universe.

But how can we break Man himself down so as to gain a deeper understanding?  There have been any number of models of Man.  But one of the most interesting is that conceived by Sigmund Freud.

Freud is well known for his system of psychoanalysis.  But underlying that, and prior to it, is his theory of psychodynamics, or the workings of the human mind – or perhaps we should say the workings of people, for Freud did not see any essential separation of mind and body.  He was, as we might say, holistic and therefore very traditional ; one might say anciently traditional.

Man is a trinity : Id : Ego : Superego.  Strange names.  But strange for a reason.  One senses that Freud was determined to break away from the fatal Cartesian dualism concerning mind and body.  He was also determined not to become trapped in the fatal materialistic tendency in biology ( he was primarily a neurologist, so saw the traps here).  But nor did he wish to revert to traditional terminology, for spirit of his age was against it.  So he constructed his own lexicon – his own metaphors.  Many say that his ideas read much better in German, and that the English translations have not served him well.

The Id ; roughly Life, or the life principle or the vegetative principle.  The Ego ; roughly the self, especially the conscious, rational self.  The Superego ; roughly the conscience or the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.

So Freud’s theory is concerned with the interactive dynamics of these three principles ; the principles that make us what we are – human.

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The modern tendency to regard people as machines has had many benefits.  For example, we have much better medical procedures now than in former times.  Also we have a much better-regulated workforce ; by considering the worker as being an extension of the machine he/she operates, more efficient machines and operating procedures have been made.  This makes it possible to predict accurately how much a factory or office can produce ; it makes it possible to work to production targets.

Another gain can be seen.  Because men and women are physically (mechanically) similar, it is now possible to design factories, offices, classrooms, etc., in such a way that men and women are interchangeable ; as machines, men and women are equal.  This greatly increases productivity because it is no longer necessary to make special provisions for men and women respectively.  So both men and women are now simply units of production, just like the machines, computers, educational aids, vehicles, etc., they operate.

But is there a downside to all these benefits?  Perhaps there is.   Just looking at it from the humanistic point of view, what is happening is that employers do not have to consider their workforce as complex human beings with complex needs and desires.  They are all simply units of production.

However, it is thoroughly scientific and efficient.  So, from all the rich and complex qualities of a human being, only the mechanistic things are abstracted for calculating the worth of each person.  Human beings have been reduced to abstractions.  All those complex qualities which make this person different from that person have been ignored ; only the ability to work as a machine is abstracted for its value.  And all those complex qualities which make a woman different from a man have been ignored ; only the ability to work as a machine is abstracted for its value.

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