Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some Of My Insights -- Concept-Formation.

I have just finished concept formation from OPAR, and like the last time, wanted to post on my ongoing training via the podcasts of The Objectivism Seminar. Although I have to take the effort to sit down and push play (which is the hardest part), the next time i look at the screen and 40 minutes have already whizzed by!

So here come my recent insights --

Human's have the distinctive power of abstraction, differentiation and integration -- which enables us to do many things beyond the sensory perceptual level

We segregate entities into units on the basis of differentiation and integration. When an animal look at an apple -- it only has a fleeting sensation of the apple before its eyes or the higher animals may even retain a few sensation and form a precept. But that is the end of its cognition growth. Man, on the other hand, has the power of abstraction that is -- of selective focus. A man may look at an apple and can choose to selectively focus on the color or the shape of the apple instead of focusing on the entity as a whole. He can look at two apples and isolate the same distinguishing features; differentiating, for instance, between an apple and a banana and integrating two or more apples.

Language transforms concepts into concretes and gives them the status of entities and comes in especially handy we talk of higher level concepts.

We differentiate entities that are strikingly different from each other and this is a relatively easy thing to do. The question always has been -- what is the same? What is the basis for integrating a set of entities under the same concepts? Ayn Rand's seminal discovery in this regard is that entities that have similar characteristics or similar attributes are commensurable i.e. that entities having the same distinguishing feature can be measured quantitatively.

The function of concept formation is to condense vast amounts of data into a folder which we can conveniently use when the need arises in our daily course of life. To condense such data, we retain the distinguishing characteristic between two or more entities but omit to measure the intensity or the degree of the distinguishing characteristic between the entities. We understand that the degree should exist in some quantity but may exist in any quantity. We abstract (selective focus) characteristics from their measurement.

Concepts of consciousness also follow the rule of measurement omission. Here, there are two attributes to measure -- content and action(intensity). For instance, love is love -- regardless of whether one is talking about Friend A or Friend B or thought is thought regardless of what is it that one is thinking about. In other words, the content of the concept remains omitted. Another aspect that is omitted is the attribute of intensity. For instance, the concept love does not take into account whome do you love more -- your parents or your friends. The attribute of intensity -- of more or less -- of how much is not taken into account In other words, the what and the how remain omitted.

Another aspect of concept formation is definitions. Definitions, taking Peikoff's example, can best be viewed as the label to the folder -- the folder representing the concept and the label representing the definition of the concept. If we acquire any new knowledge about a particular concept, the new data will be stored in the folder which subsumes the respective concept. This is what Ayn Rand called the open ended nature of concepts -- that they subsume all the data which was known, is known and will be known about the said concept. However, a disadvantage that could arise from the open ended nature of concepts is that one will have to carry loads of information with him at any given time -- thus making it impossible to retain and summon such information whenever necessary.

This is where definitions come into play. Definitions, as mentioned earlier, serve as labels to the folder thus helping us economize a large amount of data subsumed under the concept. However, for a valid definition, it should emphasize on the fundamental characteristic of the particular involved -- and fundamental does not necessarily mean the obvious characteristic. Fundamental here refers to the distinguishing characteristic which is responsible for most of the other resulting differences. For instance, Greg in the course of the recording gave an excellent example where people earlier thought that whales were fish since they lived in the water. It was only later that biologists found that whales infact were mammals and were more similar to dogs than fish. In the present case, although it is tempting to equate whales with fish -- they differ with each other fundamentally and this difference between fish and whales puts the great divide. Fundamental in this case means that mammals do not breathe with gills, give birth to younger ones and so on. This is the fundamental similarity between whales and dogs and the fundamental difference between whales and fishes. It would thus aid us better to arrange concepts in such a fashion that distinguish fundamental differences than obvious ones to give identity to our concepts.

This does not mean that Objectivism agrees with skepticism in any fashion. Even if one groups two entities under the same concept due to obvious similarties and not the fundamental ones -- he would still be correct to the best of his knowledge if he has conformed to reality. If any new facts were found and if one had to reclassify, for example, whales as mammals instead of fish, it would not lead to any chaos in concept formation. If the old definition based on the obvious similarity conforms to facts -- then the new definition cannot contradict it. To continue with our example, the fact that whales are mammals does not alter the fact that they still live in water! At any given stage, if one correctly forms a definitions conforming to facts -- any new knowledge will not be a threat to already estabilished valid knowledge.

All in all, concepts help us in unit reduction i.e. they condense enormity of the universe using the "human" method which is the conceptual faculty.

[Next in the series: Some Of My Insights -- Objectivity]

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