Abstractions as reality


A mostly useless tangent about an idea that was, for some reason I don’t yet understand, very surprising to me.

We are taught to believe that the material universe is the most true one. Atoms, planets, galaxies - those are the real version of the world, and our evolved brains are to best thrive within that environment. Within this frame, our five senses are our key channels for understanding that world, and we can supplement them with tools that expand that scope. Infrared cameras, telescopes, microscopes, and dozens of experiments that we can design to understand ‘reality.’

In high school, I took a class called TOK (theory of knowledge) which is part of the IB system. The point of the class, I believe, was to teach me that a minority of things are objective, that even my senses are flawed, and that beyond the physical world of matter, everything is subjective and not to be fully trusted.

On the flip side, our minds are the product of an evolutionary process (part natural selection, but most definitely also part sexual selection) that has given us a fluke phenomenon - self-awareness. This is especially reinforced by our current analogy of analyzing ourselves with the most advanced technology of our day: the computer. Our minds are thus mechanisms to process information, and our subjective thoughts or irrational ideas are imperfections in that process.

The truth, though, and a thought that I believe I can trace back to the controversial Jordan Peterson*, is that our minds and the abstractions we create are just as much a part of reality as the atoms and planets we study. But it’s not the romanticized or philosophical argument I expected at first glance. Here is a quote from his paper, a shorter version of ‘Maps of Meaning.’

“Maybe we can perceive with our imagination levels of reality that are hidden, not so much from our senses, as by our senses.”

My senses allow me to see the world as it is, but within massive constraints. Of course, I can’t see infrared light, nor hear the explosions of dying stars. But, more importantly, the greatest constraint is one of time. My senses along cannot see a world that does not yet exist, nor see beyond the snapshot that is now.

But my mind can.

And the firing of my neurons can not only imagine things that don’t exist - they can also direct my physical body to try and make those ideas a reality. My mind is thus an incredibly concrete tool in what is ‘reality’ because it has a clear causal relationship upstream from things that we consider ‘real.’

So, maybe my five senses tell me about the physical reality that I live in. But only my mind can tell me about the myriad of potential realities that could become my physical realities. If every action truly opens a new parallel universe (longer conversation, maybe some other time), then my mind is the only sense I have that allows me to ‘see’ that.

The abstractions of my mind are then just as real as the physical space that I occupy.

Our minds are much more than just information processing. There is a part of us that is massively bigger than what we dream of with ‘artificial intelligence.’ Our consciousness is the driving force behind a part of reality that is the Earth and the impact we’ve had in our physical world. Because we can dream of abstractions that are real and true, in their own way, and just as real as the world we are trying so hard to understand.

*A side note on Jordan Peterson -

Peterson has become quite a controversial figure in the last few years. As with many such authors, I am trying to go back to the source and read some of his actual writing before passing any judgement of my own. As far as I can tell so far, though, his main argument is analogous to Chesterton’s fence, but regarding spirituality and many of the older systems we have in place. It seems like it could be a necessary check for the otherwise lightning-fast revolutions that sometimes sweep through institutions or populations. For those unfamiliar with the wonderful tale that is Chesterton’s fence, I have copied it below:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”