Floating Abstractions and Stolen Concepts

Stolen Concepts vs. Castles in the Air

Copyright 1996, J. William Pierce.


This short essay compares and contrasts "floating abstractions" and the fallacy of the "stolen concept." These two epistemological errors are different in many ways, but both are rooted in a single, more fundamental error.

Castles in the Air

A floating abstraction is an idea that is disconnected from reality. This statement itself is a very wide abstraction; it refers to both ideas and reality, and describes their relationship in a very broad manner (i.e. connected or disconnected.) By "connected to reality," I mean that an idea is based on observed facts, fundamentally. If an idea is the result of a long chain of reasoning, and this chain of reasoning is supported by facts at each step- then the idea is connected to reality- it is not "floating." In contrast, if the idea is not based on any facts, percepts or any process of logical inference from facts, then it is a "floating abstraction

So far, I've refered to floating abstractions as a kind of idea; but more fundamentally, a floating abstraction is a floating concept. The method by which you arrive at an idea distinguishes floating concepts from valid concepts

For example, a person can hold "Man has a right to his own life" as a floating abstraction, if he has no understanding of the nature of man (survives by means of his mind, is mortal, must act long-range in the pursuit of his values, etc...) This person does not understand that man has a right to his own life because his concept of man is not formed by facts (ultimately.) Consider the method of forming valid concepts: differentiation and integration of concretes (or abstractions even) based on a unit common to all the things being conceptualized, as they differ from everything else (in the context of your knowledge.) First-level concepts arise from differentiating actual concrete entities (apple, orange, cat, dog, etc.) These concepts are based on the perceptual observation of the concretes. In essence, they all look different (though as your conceptual understanding of the world expands, your context expands.) These first-level concepts are necessarily valid because they are based on observable differences - metaphysical differences - between a group of similar things and everything else. These first-level concepts are connected to reality because they are formed directly from percepts

Once you form a concept from other concepts- you step away from reality toward higher abstraction. Because we are fallible, you must employ a valid method to ensure your concepts are valid as you move towards greater abstraction; this method is logic. For example: one concept formed from other concepts is "animal." The actual referents of this concept are real-life animals, but the concept subsumes every animal, i.e. cats, dogs, ducks, snakes, etc... You actually form the concept "animal" by grouping all your particular animal concepts and identifying their distinguishing characteristic(s). In this way, the concept of "animal" is just a bit further removed from the perceptual level than the concept "cat." As you build your conceptual vocabulary, each concept must be formed from percepts, concepts, or possibly both. This is how concepts form a hierarchy. Your concept of "animal" is based on lower-level concepts, which are based on perceptual material. Then, you could form the still higher level concept, "living thing," from animal, plant, fungus, etc... Thus, each concept has a connection to other concepts, which are connected to still other concepts, which ultimately are based on the evidence of your senses

Now, consider the biggie "floating abstraction" we all know and love: "god." For most people, their concept of "god" is a floating abstraction because they do not form it from a valid integration of other concepts, nor is it based on direct perception. In other words, their concept of ``god'' is not arrived at through logical induction or deduction from other valid concepts; nor is it based on direct observation of "god." Their concept of "god" is totally disconnected from their conceptual hierarchy. This is the exact meaning of "floating." Their concept of "god" metaphorically "floats" off on its own, as opposed to being part of a valid conceptual hierarchy

Note: this only applies to those people who accept the concept of god on faith. If you use a process of reason to try to arrive at a concept of god, but make a mistake in your reasoning, then your concept of "god" is not a floating abstraction. A mistake in your reasoning can lead you to form invalid concepts- but not every invalid concept is a floating abstraction. If you tried to reduce your concept of god back down to the perceptual level- you would fail, because the concept of god has no referent in reality. God does not exist

The Stolen ConceptThe fallacy of the stolen concept refers to one's method of argument or alleged reasoning. If one argues that you cannot prove that you exist, he commits the fallacy of the stolen concept because he relies on the fact that you exist to accept your proof. Essentially, he denies that you exist, and will accept a proof from you (who does not exist.) The concept of proof is very abstract, and in the context of human argument, is based on the fact that a person (who exists) is providing a series of logical statements. The concept ``proof'' depends on a host of concepts: language, man, truth, consciousness, and existence (to name just a few down the conceptual chain.) To hold the concept of "proof" as an irreducible primary "steals" the concept from your conceptual hierarchy: it no longer logically depends on its constituent concepts or percepts

The Essence of the ProblemTo summarize the differences between floating abstractions and the stolen concept fallacy: ¥While a floating abstraction has no possible reduction to the perceptual level; the fallacy of the stolen concept ignores the logical reduction of a concept

¥A floating abstraction has no relation to reality; stealing concepts denies a particular concept's relation to reality

But, these two errors are very similar: ¥Both are a fundamental rejection of the hierarchical nature of knowledge. Floating abstractions are detached from the conceptual hierarchy, and the fallacy of the stolen concept destroys the existing hierarchy.

J. William Pierce

Copyright 7#169; April, 1996.



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