Could abstraction be a major cause of the ills of society?

Abstraction, the loss of wisdom through intellectualism, may be a major cause of many of societies problems.

The British Daily Mail is worth having a read on occasion, it whinges about everything, but offers daily a bunch of case studies of how dumb society has become.  An example as reported in this newspaper is the medication of children with drugs like Ritalin.

I am a skeptic about the claims ADHD exists, and the medication of children is a huge bugbear of mine.  There are many reasons why children express ADHD-like traits: the education system is boring; stressful home life; diet; exams; lack of sleep; pressures to conform to peer group and media expectations; fast pace of society; being children.  The answer to lump all these children into an abstracted group of people with an invented medical condition, then medicate the “problem child” to fit in is doing nobody any favours.

Abstraction is where you reduce a person or situation to a simple mental construct devoid of its unique and complex qualities.  Every ADHD-like child is like that because of a unique set of circumstances, that has to be handled differently, thus the abstraction of each child into a common “illness” (ADHD) with a common “solution” (Ritalin) won’t resolve the causes of the problems, but reduces the symptoms under the cloak of mind bending drugs, with serious side effects.

I read two WordPress blogs yesterday that provided further examples of abstraction: the hijacking of the Occupy Movement in a small town by “organisers” who reduced the movement to a “head trip”, specifically their treatment of fellow protesters, which was no different in approach than the system they protested against; and the experience of one blogger in a British psychiatric institution, a facility designed to do the reverse of making people mentally well.

When people live in their heads, they create separation between knowledge and practical wisdom; the intellectual invention, the abstraction, is divorced from all reality of the human being or situation it was supposed to target; it becomes cruel, destructive and merciless.  It is this separation, the abstractions, I suspect is a major cause of problems in modern society.


10 responses to “Could abstraction be a major cause of the ills of society?

  1. With all this distraction what do we notice? Certainly not the man behind the curtain……

  2. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and I compelling agree with your comments. I have since found in my adult life that I need a certain type stimulus to learn new things. I still find it hard to remember books I’ve read, yet if i watch a documentary I can almost always remember everything I saw. I think this is down to the fact that ADHA doesn’t exist, and that each person learns differently and also need to be interested in what they are learning. I still cant do maths but I could explain to you the inner workings of string theory… madness.

    • Studies have shown that everyone has different learning styles, but this knowledge has failed to filter through to the education system, which seems only able to deal with one type of learning style. People like yourself who find themselves on the wrong side of the preferred style the education system teaches get a rough deal.

  3. As an adult who has self-diagnosed himself with ADD, I am of the opinion that the condition certainly does exist. But I also agree that it is often over-diagnosed. Or rather that other problems and situations are diagnosed as ADD/ADHD when, in fact, they aren’t. However I think you’re not giving abstraction it’s proper due here. Abstraction is one of the most powerful tools in homo sapiens’ mental tool box. Without it we wouldn’t have math, physics, or computers. We all use abstraction everyday. If I said think of an oven, the mere fact that you are able to conjure some notion of an oven is because you hold an abstract construct of what an oven is. It is true that some can become so involved with ideas that they forget the human element. As that post about Occupy Ashland clearly demonstrates. But that is a failing of morals, not of abstraction. It is only through abstraction that we have empathy. I would never be able to understand another human being if it was not for my innate, almost unconscious ability to take an abstraction of my own self and project it onto you, molding that construct until it fit what I know about your behaviors and writing. Abstraction is not the cause of the ills of our society, it is the tool that we may use to lift us out of those ills. We simply have to find the right abstractions to foster.

    • With the word “oven” I conjure up sensory and experiential knowledge, thus it falls into a concrete category for me.

      Abstraction is a double-edged sword, yes it may be good for the progress of science and technology, but when it is used against human beings then it becomes cruel and false. Looking at an individual in concrete terms accepts them as how they really are, the sum of all their parts. With abstraction you start cutting away from that human being bits and pieces, probably adding bits that are false, and then you are left with what?; a thing, something totally twisted that you no longer see the human being, or the reality of what that person was; then you act upon that artificial abstraction in ways that do not reflect the reality and needs of that human being; they then rebel and react against the artificial design you create; then you are reduced to using force against them. It is an ugly cruel road that abstraction against human beings leads to.

      • I agree that abstractions can be misused. But I think you’re overlooking how fundamental the ability to abstract is to human thought. When I typed the letters ‘oven’ you immediately knew what I was referring to. How is this possible? We live in completely different places, separated by an ocean. And yet you recognized that those symbols stood for a concrete physical object. Or rather, a class of concrete physical objects. After all, as children when we each learned the word oven it’s highly unlikely that we were taught the word in reference to the same object. You were taught the word while referring to some oven probably in your childhood home. Likewise, I was taught the word to refer to a hunk of metal and gas pipes that resides in my childhood home. Concrete objects, but from being taught that the same word applies to multiple objects, some only passingly similar on the surface, we build an abstraction of in our minds of a whole group of objects called ‘ovens’. We learn what attributes are absolutely necessary for an object to be included in that class, and what are variables and optional attributes. Language itself is a high-level abstraction of reality. And writing, as we are doing now, is an abstraction of speech. A two-layer abstraction! I apologize for my tirade here, it’s just you hit a nerve. I have a deep and loving respect for abstractions and analogies. Without them, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation!

      • Hi Jesse, thanks for your comments. I also read your blog post with interest. I think I shall follow up with another blog post about abstraction. Are you aware that all the Western languages are abstract, all writing is abstract, and this impacts how we think, how you constrict your code for your applications. What if the language was concrete? Ancient Hebrew was a concrete language, as was all the ancient languages. I think abstraction started appearing with the invention of writing.

  4. Pingback: Abstraction | A Playful Life

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