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What is a floating abstraction?

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How do you feel about: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." ?

I knew about Emerson's inclusion of 'foolish', but that then leaves open what constitutes foolish. Emerson himself wrote about foolishness being biding one's tongue lest one say something at odds to what one had said previously and hence cause others to ask bothersome questions. Screw what others think, he says, who cares if they misunderstand you, just go off and do your own thing as was programmed into your nature by God: act like that and the overall tendency will become clear despite the visible inconsistencies from one moment to the next. He isn't advocating intelligent consistency, he is advocating ignoring the issue pretty much entirely, of just letting the dice fall how they will and holding consistency as being that which arises in the long term of its own accord.

Perhaps some floating concepts are valid concepts that have broken free of their mooring contexts through paraphrasing and/or sloppy editing?

Isn't that how most of them originate? Someone somewhere figures out something from reality, coins an abstraction from a series of such observations, then others carry on using that abstraction without tying it to their own observations. A large chunk of the practice of using floating abstractions originates in people aping others without understanding why the others do what they do and say what they say - epistemological childishness continued on into adult practice.

JJM

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Thomas: Is a pre-requisite of a floating abstraction that one must also have a good (or bad; just any kind really) definition and still not be able to ground it to reality?

It is possible for some low-level words to not have definitions because they are ostensive -- one can simply point to the referent. For those kinds of words, however, it would be difficult for them to float unless one never saw the item being pointed at. That is, "camel" could be a first-level ostensive concept if you lived in north Africa, but for someone not familiar with them one would either need a good definition or a picture and one would have to be able to reduce it all to the perceptually self-evident. So, it is not necessary for their to be a definition for a concept to be floating.

However, if one had no definitions of non-ostensive concepts, then it would be floating not only with relation to reality, but also with relation to one's hierarchy of knowledge. It is with definitions that one builds a hierarchy and keeps concepts related to one another in a non-contradictory manner.

In a sense, one could say that there are two possible levels of floating abstractions. The primary meaning, which means the concept has not been tied to reality; and in a secondary sense in which it has no relation to other concepts in one's mind. For the second type of floating abstraction, one is really lost, but a good example of that type of floating abstraction would be hearing a word in a foreign language whereby one has the word, but no definition and one doesn't know what it refers to in reality. In other words, if, say, you here about something on TV or over the radio, and you don't know what it means (in terms of a definition), then it is floating in both senses.

I wouldn't go so far as saying having floating abstractions is immoral, but it would be a moral act to ground one's concepts to reality as a regular modus operandi. If you get too floating, then it would be very difficult to remain rational, since one would have a bunch of words not tied to reality (or not related to one another), and what would they be then except for sounds one has heard?

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Wouldn't pseudoscience be a grand sort of floating abstraction? As I understand it, pseudoscience can be internally consistent to all appearances, but not empirically supported.

I also thought of non-Euclidean geometry--how they assume a contradiction and go from there, and they can still end up with a totally internally consistent system of math, that has little or nothing to do with physical reality.

[edit] Also, I'm reading How Children Fail by John Holt, an old but very insightful look into the minds of children as they function, in and out of the educational system. One of the main problems with schooling is that it teaches children to look for answers, and what they really end up learning are just floating abstractions. For example, they learn that 2 x 9 = 18, and that 2 x 10 = 20, but they see no connection between these two facts.

Actually, SNerd, I daresay this book is like a study in floating abstractions, and how they're being systematically taught to children. The children Holt observes have often, in fact, long since given up on the idea that the answers they are taught to memorize should make any kind of sense.

Edited by musenji

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Wouldn't pseudoscience be a grand sort of floating abstraction?

That's not strictly true. Alchemy was mistaken, and had a lot of charlatans practicing it, but it was derived from a number of genuine ideas drawn from observational evidence. The first was the concept of the catalyst, that of a substance that sped up other reactions without itself being consumed. The second was that alloying and playing with the chemistry of metals could change their properties for the better, where the grand aim was making gold, which itself was derived from observing how brass was a sturdier and better-looking material than the copper and zinc it is made from. A third was abstracting the fact of substances having medicinal properties into a search for an elixir of life, one consequence of which (so the tale goes) is the discovery of gunpowder because saltpeter (potassium nitrate) is a preservative.

I also thought of non-Euclidean geometry--how they assume a contradiction and go from there, and they can still end up with a totally internally consistent system of math, that has little or nothing to do with physical reality.

As it happens, the nonesensicalness of non-Euclidean geometry is a topic on HBL as part of the physics thread. I only know loosely what it is, so I wont comment on it.

JJM

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Okay, change "wouldn't" to "couldn't", then. :-) I just remembered reading an article once on spotting pseudoscience, and it talked about how it could be internally consistent without actually being supportable by empirical validation.

Also, that's fascinating about alchemy! I never knew it was based on real observations. I never thought to ask, "Why did they think these goals (creating gold and the elixir of life) were remotely attainable?" I also didn't know that a catalyst was not consumed in a chemical reaction. Maybe I learned it in school, but it didn't stick. (Heh.)

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As it happens, the nonesensicalness of non-Euclidean geometry is a topic on HBL as part of the physics thread. I only know loosely what it is, so I wont comment on it.

Whoa.

My understanding is that non-Euclidean geometry is simply the geometry of curved (rather than planar) surfaces.

There are ten axioms of Euclidean geometry, nine of them very simple to phrase and the tenth rather complex. (Given a line and a point not on the line, there is exactly one line through the given point that does not intersect the given line.) This is such an elaborate axiom that people tried to prove it using the other nine, so it could be removed from the list of axioms. A couple of mathematicians (one of them named Lobachevskii, I don't remember the other one) tried to prove the axiom through reductio ad absurdum. They assumed that there were either zero or more than one lines that didn't intersect the other line, and followed the logic, hoping for a contradiction. (If there were a contradiction, the assumption would be invalid.) They did not find such a contradiction, so the modified geometry was logically consistent. It eventually occured to them that the case where there were NO lines through the point that didn't intersect the given line described the geometry of the surface of a sphere, and the case where there were many lines described a surface like the horn of a trumpet.

In other words non-Euclidean geometries are *valid* given the appropriate context.

Which of the three possible geometries describes "empty space" as we know it is a completely different question--the answer to which will not invalidate the geometries that don't describe it.

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I agree that non-Euclidean geometry is simply geometry applied to non-flat surfaces, and in that respect it is a legitimate science. For example, the sum of the angles on a non-flat surface for a triangle do not add up to the same 180 degrees. I suppose in a sense, it would not really be a triangle, but if one draws a triangle onto a spherical surface, the sum of the angles is more than 180 degrees. More complicated surfaces are possible, and one needs a different mathematical way of handling those surfaces (especially if they are undulating). The talk of space itself being curved or flat is a different matter, as has been pointed out, especially if one considers space to be an abstraction (as I do) rather than an actual physical something in between things separated by a spatial distance.

Regarding pseudo-sciences, I do think these are based upon floating abstractions, even though some aspects of them might be based on observation. Alchemy, for example, was based on the floating abstraction that physical material things have a metaphysical essence that made them be what they are -- thus the search for the essence of gold that could be taken out of gold and placed into base metals. Unfortunately, the philosopher who came up with this floating abstraction was Aristotle, who thought that material things had an "intelligent principle" or a Form inside of them making them be what they are; though this is a controversial interpretation of what Aristotle actually said. His ontology is one aspect of his metaphysics that is very controversial, but I think a lot of this came from his earlier learning from Plato.

Basically, if someone has this far out idea that doesn't make sense when related to everyday things, then it is probably a floating abstraction -- at least in his mind, if he can't related it to the perceptually self-evident. Quite a few of the modern physics theories are like this. Just watch the science shows. I often think that things they come up with like "dark matter" or "dark energy" are floating abstractions, as is "multi-dimensional space" that has more than three physical dimensions. But these things are difficult to determine from watching TV, because it might be how the theory is being presented rather than the actual theory.

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I believe, if I'm not mistaken, an example of a floating abstraction often given by Ayn Rand was the concept of "society." Society is simply a collection of individuals--"society" is not a real, concrete entity in and of itself.

Edited by cbudden

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I believe, if I'm not mistaken, an example of a floating abstraction often given by Ayn Rand was the concept of "society." Society is simply a collection of individuals--"society" is not a real, concrete entity in and of itself.

If I'm not mistaken, it's not a floating abstraction on the basis of the fact that you can point the individuals in the society (say on the terms of being in a given area ruled by a government). Her point is that it is a valid concept, so long as one remembers that it is an epistemological or mental unit, not a physical unit, i.e. that men aren't actually all tied together in reality, they're individual entities. It is, therefore, not a floating abstraction in the sense that it isn't tied to any referents in reality.

Edited by Sir Andrew

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Don't confuse a floating abstraction with an invalid concept. Floating just means that you have not tied it to reality, it doesn't mean that it is not a proper concept. Any concept you have in your own head that is not brought down to reality that you can point to is a floating abstraction. Invalid means it has no referent in reality. There is a big difference. Floating abstractions have to do with your minds connectedness to reality -- the one you perceive -- so if you have concepts in your own mind that you cannot find a referent for but is a legitimate concept, then it is floating. It's about your state of mind and reality and are they connected or not.

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Don't confuse a floating abstraction with an invalid concept. Floating just means that you have not tied it to reality, it doesn't mean that it is not a proper concept. Any concept you have in your own head that is not brought down to reality that you can point to is a floating abstraction. Invalid means it has no referent in reality. There is a big difference. Floating abstractions have to do with your minds connectedness to reality -- the one you perceive -- so if you have concepts in your own mind that you cannot find a referent for but is a legitimate concept, then it is floating. It's about your state of mind and reality and are they connected or not.

I see what you mean, I was confusing the two. For example, I'm not a physicist but I grasp that everything is made up of atoms. "Atom" for me is a floating abstraction.

Edited by Sir Andrew

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The talk of space itself being curved or flat is a different matter, as has been pointed out, especially if one considers space to be an abstraction (as I do) rather than an actual physical something in between things separated by a spatial distance. ...

Quite a few of the modern physics theories are like this. Just watch the science shows. I often think that things they come up with like "dark matter" or "dark energy" are floating abstractions, as is "multi-dimensional space" that has more than three physical dimensions. But these things are difficult to determine from watching TV, because it might be how the theory is being presented rather than the actual theory.

Well, dark matter and dark energy are names we assigned to things that our theory predicts should exist when we analyze our observations (of galaxy rotations in the first case, of the expansion of the universe in the second case). So we know what they do, but have no idea what they are composed of (of course, they could just as easily not exist, and our theory be wrong, but we just don't know quite yet which is going to come out in the end).

As for space being curved, it depends on your definition. From my understanding, physicists use a very particular meaning, essentially it is the vector space which describes all points in relation to all other points, and a straight line in space is the shortest distance between two points. Turns out that if light is effected by gravity, and from special relativity the speed of light is as fast as anything can go, than of course the shortest distance between two points is the path that light would follow, and so a straight line is actually a curve, if you look at it from a Euclidean geometry. And so, space is "curved", in the sense that the shortest distance between two points is a curve. At least that's from what I understand, I haven't taken a formal course on general relativity yet (hope to next year), but that's the idea anyway. From that technical definition, it is perfectly all right that space is curved.

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Rationalism tries to arrive at truth through some variant of dialectic reasoning.  To a Rationalist, truth is a "dialog" between what is necessarily true (a priori) and what is contingently true (a posteriori).  Objectivism rejects this split.

 

A "floating abstraction", as used by Objectivism means:

 

  1. That someone is using a term without fully understanding how it can be traced back to a concrete. Or...
  2. It can also mean concepts which are not capable of being traced back to concretes -- such a Determinism or God.
Edited by New Buddha

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What is the relationship between floating abstractions and rationalism? Is the former the product and the latter the habit or theory that leads to it?

The Journals of Ayn Rand, July 3, 1945

 

Nail down—thoroughly, completely, once and for all—the fool idea that good is merely a matter of good will or good intentions. Here's another abstraction without relation to the concrete—a "floating abstraction." [AR's first written use of this expression.] Before you can have "good will," i.e., before you can want to do good, you must know what is the good. In effect, fools say that all the problems, personal and political, can be solved by finding "men of good will." But the "good" is never defined. And actually, most of the evil in this world is done by and through "good" intentions. The cause of evil is stupidity, not malice. "Good" is an intellectual concept.

 

The Ayn Rand Letter, February 11, 1974

 

Since an emotion is experienced as an immediate primary, but is, in fact, a complex, derivative sum, it permits men to practice one of the ugliest of psychological phenomena: rationalization. Rationalization is a cover-up, a process of providing one's emotions with a false identity, of giving them spurious explanations and justifications—in order to hide one's motives, not just from others, but primarily from oneself. The price of rationalizing is the hampering, the distortion and, ultimately, the destruction of one's cognitive faculty. Rationalization is a process not of perceiving reality, but of attempting to make reality fit one's emotions.

 

Floating abstractions come about from the method by which words are acquired [i.e., memorization, or strict dictionary definitions], while rationalization is a policy of attempting to "force-fit" reality to one's emotions via explanations and justifications, which may, or may not be comprised of some floating abstractions.

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To answer the OP, most often rationalization is used as the process of trying to evade some fact or facts of reality that interferes with ones desire to hold some belief or desire that doesn't correspond to reality, or a realistic value. This is required in the practice of "rewriting reality". Floating abstractions are deployed to blank out the concepts that would be present if the rationalizer were corresponding to reality. (it is not always intentional or conscious)

 

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

For the record, in case anyone is mislead:

 

 

2.It can also mean concepts which are not capable of being traced back to concretes -- such a Determinism or God.

 This is not what a floating abstraction is for Oism. That is rather what Oism calls an invalid concept:

 

ITOE

 

 

 There are such things as invalid concepts, i.e., words that represent attempts to integrate errors, contradictions or false propositions, such as concepts originating in mysticism—or words without specific definitions, without referents, which can mean anything to anyone, such as modern "anti-concepts." Invalid concepts appear occasionally in men's languages, but are usually—though not necessarily—short-lived, since they lead to cognitive dead-ends. An invalid concept invalidates every proposition or process of thought in which it is used as a cognitive assertion.)

 

 

Also, rationalism was around long before Kant and one can rationalize without any dialogical opponent....

Edited by Plasmatic

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Without starting another thread, if a floating abstraction is the product of rationalism, what kind of statement or mental product proceeds from empiricism?

They're not exclusive to rationalism. (Plasmatic is right that invalid concept is not the same as a floating abstraction, but it's probably fair to say all invalid concepts are floating abstractions while not all floating abstractions are invalid concepts.)

 

As I recall, empiricism as a systematic form of error is introduced by Peikoff in Understanding Objectivism. An empiricist is skeptical of concepts and the process of integration. To the extent that an empiricist still needs concepts, those concepts cannot be reduced to reality - they weren't formed by integration! It''s more like an ad hoc concept filled with probability and not-quite-certainty. I think at one point in the lecture Peikoff addresses your question, I'll have to look.

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