Abstractions and Scaling Up

TLDR: Abstract words and concepts are inseparable from specific instances, confusing it’s usage.

It seems that often in discussions about whether or not a certain phenomena ‘scales up’, or if we engage in abstractions of things, the concepts we talk about take on a life of their own. For example, I see a curious indent in the wall, turns out they are called power outlets and I can charge my laptop if I have a compatible prong. Here, some try and convince us that we have created a new concept, and for every instance we see of this new thing, we add it to the concept or we extract central features and then we go about talking ‘abstractly’ about some kind of general ‘power outlet’ -it has gained its own level of existence. I urge everyone to think differently about this: To deny the assumption that we are creating something new. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me denying that we just created some kind of outer worldly, non-physical, concept. But I think mainstream cognitive science would disagree with denying that we are creating an abstraction. In one sense, it is a mundane counter-argument: we see the first power outlet, representation in the brain created, we see another one, another representation, and/or we start creating a representation that is slightly less specific and only picks out the shared features of the first two. Any way you slice it, this is the work representations do for mainstream psychologists. But what do you do if you don’t believe in representations?

Taking a page out of Gibson’s 79’ bible, I would argue that ‘scaling up’ or ‘abstraction’ is simply a pole of attention. We can take any pole of attention that we are aware of, we can say the word ‘ball’ and just kind of mean a ball in general, we can say or take any pole of attention we want. However. Describing something from different perspectives (poles of attention) is just that. It doesn’t entail an ontological difference in the world. Same with abstraction, I can choose any pole of attention to make things seem general or specific in any which way, I can call a less featureful ball an abstraction that can be applied to the next ball I haven’t seen. But all that is going on is that you are seeing a couple of aspects in a new thing that also are true for another thing -you are not ontologically creating an overarching concept.
If you think we are, I need to be convinced it is not non-physical (enter contemporary cognition and representations and similarity hierarchies). I currently think it may be indefensible. It seems to me that we (EcoPsych/DynSys) wouldn’t need to accept an ontological shift, it is enough to describe it as a shift in the pole of attention, and we can be taught by others or by our own experience of the world to take on a pole of attention we haven’t before, or didn’t know existed, or didn’t want to, or anything else. It does not necessarily mean we have to accept a new ontological status of an utterance. I think most mundane arguments about abstraction and higher level (cognitive) faculties disappear, but not all.

Emergence. Then how in the world do we deal with things that ultimately do seem to create a new ‘level’ of functioning. A termite mound is not concerned with it’s shape, hell, not even termites are, but because of extraneous factors guiding the drop-off of pheromone induced dirt, all of those small lawful actions create a temperature regulated multi-story apartment building. Here, it is difficult to argue that the mound is just a pole of attention, since it clearly comes with new properties that aren’t written into its creation. I think this is a very different thing to talk about. Compare a termite mound to the word ‘honor’. Honor seems more non-physical, seems more like an abstraction, but as soon as you have to apply the word, you are forced to apply it to a specific situation. It is almost an asymmetry, the more abstract a word seems to be, the more specific an example needs to be to understand it -and multiple specific examples can be even more illuminating.

Ultimately, I may just have a problem with the way in which the term abstract is used. Colloquially it means ‘more general’ or ‘less specific’, applied it is necessarily always a specific instance. It seems to me to imply a separate thing with an ontological status (like a general concept), inviting representations. Perhaps it only invites, which saves its usage somewhat, but to me it just seems confusing.

An ecological approach to psychology. (7/19)

Article 7 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Harry Heft; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 162-167.

My own conviction that EP can be used in a unified psychological discipline had to take a back seat here. Perhaps one thing that this article cleared up for me, is its place in such a unification. I have begun to build a taxonomy for how such a combined psychological discipline would look. It is for now only a perception to me, but I am going to, after devouring all the articles, paint it out and share. I am beginning to understand the value of combination through Eric Charles’ special issue, it is what will characterise my own solution.

“…Psychological inquiry begins with the adoption, often tacitly, of a frame by which its core concerns are bracketed. The standard frame used in psychological inquiry brackets the individual. As a result, at different points in its history, experimental psychology has been defined as the study of the conscious contents of mind, of behavior, of mental processes, of the brain, of the genetic and biological basis of behavior and thought, and so on…” (p. 163). I find this an important statement because it showcases that even though we can agree on “the individual” as our subject matter, it is where we find “the individual”, due to our underlying theoretical conviction, that determines what and how we research psychology.

One of the core strengths of EP comes from it being a ‘relational’ perspective, as opposed to putting the isolated individual in our central focus. However we may like the idea of being separate, autonomous entities, we cannot escape being a part of a world and perceiving an umwelt that affects what we do. This is, by the way, how, amongst others physics and biology, have evolved in the past and EP does a fantastic job to keep to the rigour demanded of a science but allowing for both individuating and generalising approaches to research. “A relational frame gains considerable momentum many centuries later from two 19th century advances in science: the development of field theories in the physics (e.g. , electromagnetism) and, especially, the theory of evolution by natural selection in the life sciences. From the latter standpoint, it is recognized that the characteristics of living things are best understood historically in relation to changing environing circumstances. The starting point for the life sciences now becomes the individual organism in a field of relations.” (p. 163).

The article itself makes a good case for why EP is one of the strongest candidates to keep central in a unified psychology, it lacks however in its discussion of this theme. Unfortunately also, it joins a few of the other articles in that it demotes other areas of inquiry, however, the actual criticism is justified (I use the same arguments when comparing to other theories -this is by the way not the reason for why it is justified, this is) and I am beginning to wonder if not there will have to be collateral damage regardless of how we decide to unite our discipline.