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.