Truth has been debated by humans every single day for thousands of years. It is talked about in religion, philosophy, and science. It is argued about in subjects concerning ethics, politics, and personal relationships. To understand the world you have to learn fundamental things. One of those fundamental things is logic. But how do you decide if something is fundamental? And how do you use knowledge of it to undertand less fundamental things? How do you connect every day life occurances to fundamentals?
One fundamental concept is "relations" or "connections". It's even more fundamental than math or logic. These subjects require a concept known as a relation or relationship. For example: a math function is "a relationship where each input has a single output". Consider the square root function, the statement sqrt(4) = 2, states the there is a relationship between the input 4 and the output 2, is square root. A function is a type of relation.
Observers such as us, are in the business of observing relationships. If you put your hand on a hot stove and it burns you, you discovered a relation between your hand and a hot stove. You also know that your hand has a relation to your arms, lefts, and feet. That is, they both have skin. So you would infer that if you put your foot on the hot stove, it's likely that it would get burned as well. You would also infer that other hot objects can potentially do the same.
The brain is a complex network of neural connections. When you learn something new, you create a new connection. If a child learns that a bird can fly, that relationship between "bird" and "fly" is represented by an actual physical connection/relation in the brain that is created right there on the spot. Learning is simply making new observations and relating existing observations together.
The brain is considered a highly-intergrated system. That is, there are many connections/relations. If you bought a computer and put files it in describing your life, and put photos in it of things that happened in your life, as well as videos, you wouldn't say your computer understands you. The files, photos, and videos are not connected. Your computer doesn't create relations between them, there is low-intergration. To undersand the world, you want high-intergration (i.e. many relations) and you want to be able to root those relations into fundamental concepts to create a model of the world inside of your brain.
To better understand the world, you need your knowledge to be highly-integrated. This process is in great need of a relation called "abstraction". It helps you take everday occurances and relate them to fundmental concepts.
Abstraction is a major kind of relation. It is at the very heart of language, communication, and comprehension. The definition that I use for abstraction, will be how I came to understand it in programming.To make the purpose and meaning of abstraction more clear, lets start off by listing the definitions of abstraction and a couple other things that relate to it.
Abstraction - The process or result of generalization by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose. For example, abstracting a leather soccer ball to the more general idea of a ball retains only the information on general ball attributes and behavior, eliminating the characteristics of that particular ball.Wikipedia.org link
Abstraction (computer science) - The mechanism and practice of abstraction reduces and factors out details so that one can focus on a few concepts at a time.Wikipedia.org link
Can't see the forest for the tree - Obsessive attention to detail to the extent that one misses larger points and fails to understand the bigger picture.IdiomQuest.com link
The Big Picture - The most important facts about a situation and the effects of that situation on other things. Ex: In my political work I try to concentrate on the big picture and not be distracted by details.TheFreeDictionary.com link
Abstraction connects things together. Being able to abstract is part of being able to see the big picture, a bird eye's view. It allows you to create overviews, and split up lessons into sections. A simple example of abstraction is this: apples, oranges, grapes, pears, bananas, and watermelons are all fruit. Fruit is more abstract than apple. Apple is more abstract than red apple. Red apple is more abstract than small red apple. Here are some examples of abstraction in the form of category lists:
The ability of human beings to abstract so well allows them connect specific concepts to more fundamental concepts. In the image to the right, we start out with Adam and Eve. From there you can further abstract, and classify them as humans. From here, you can continue to abstract, climbing up a ladder of concepts that become more and more abstract as you go. You can go from humans to primates to mammals to animals to life.
The concept of "life" or lifeform is more broad than the concept of "human". Whatever statements you can make about lifeforms, will apply to all lifeforms, be it a bird or fungus.
You can also abstract subjects. The subjects of human evolution and human anatomy are both part of biology. It seems simple. But if you were required to put the most fundamental subjects you could think of in a tiny book, what would they be? And considering that the book is tiny, what would the subject material be? Would you have propositional logic in there and set theory? Would you have morality as a subject, and if so, what would you say about it? What do you think are the most fundamental things to say about it? Would you need to describe determinism vs indeterminism?
One question you may be asking yourself is, where does it all end? If I keep abstracting, what is at the very top? Since the most abstract category must include everything, you might think the most abstract concept is everything. But a fish, while it's a lifeform, it is not everything, it is something. Then there is the idea of nothing, which is not everything. We really don't have an official word for it. We could just call it thing, everything is a "thing". A fish is a thing. You could also call it "object". In object oriented programming (OOP), everything derives from "object". It doesn't really matter what you call it, as long as you define it as including anything.
If we were to break down the components of a cell, one way of doing it would be cell --> molecules --> atoms --> subatomic particles. Each of these components are already quite abstract, but we could become more specific, such as cell --> human cell --> human white cell. Or atom --> noble gas --> helium. Sometimes it can be easy to confuse the two. For instance, there are many types of atoms, such as: alkali metal, alkaline earth metal, metalloid, lanthanide, actinide, transition metal, and noble gas. This would be an abstraction, not a component breakdown.
When Isaac Newton created the 3 laws of motion, they could be related to all objects, from the rocks we through to the planets moving across the sky. In everyday life, we can use abstraction and composition to tie things together in a similar way. That is, we can take specific things and relate them to much less specific concepts. Philosophy does this. One common way of breaking down philosophy is into 5 branches.
- Metaphysics (existence)
- Epistemology (method of acquiring knowledge)
- Politics (ethics applied to a group of people)
- Ethics (how a person should behave)
- Aesthetics (art, beauty)
In the next two articles I will be relating things to two concepts "observer" and "language". The idea is to identify the roots of how we acquire and process knowledge. We start with the observer, because that is where it all begins. We have to consider the nature of an observer, what they can and cannot do, what their reach and limitations are.