Friday, September 03, 2004


In this post I explore the idea of 'multiplicity' - i.e. the multi-faceted nature of reality. In order to comprehend the world, we must draw crude generalisations, abstracting away from the infinite variability and complexity of what's really there. Sometimes important details may be lost in the process, however, as the psychological phenomenon of 'functional fixedness' demonstrates. This can be especially costly when analogous mistakes are made of people, rather than mere objects.

Via B&W, I noticed the following manifesto:
We are women and men of Muslim culture. Some of us are believers, others are agnostics or atheists. We all condemn firmly the declarations and acts of misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that we have heard and witnessed for a while now here in France and that are carried out in the name of Islam. These three characteristics typify the political Islamism that has been forceful for so long in several of our countries of origin. We fought against them there, and we are committed to fighting against them again - here.

This is great stuff, and deserves more publicity. Some of my fellow lefties are fond of diversity, but they only see it at the macro level - they espouse "cultural diversity", yet ignore the diversity within cultures. But unquestioning tolerance of the former can have grevious costs for the latter, as many Muslim women can, no doubt, attest. Excessive focus on a single feature of individuals can also have harmful effects within our own society:
There are parameters around our work not defined by us. Thus, I am expected to write basic derivates of 'Bollywood', or plays that deal with 'the family'. What I can't write about (as no venue will produce it) are plays that could be about anyone, but just happen to have British Asians in the leading roles, with no saris, somosas and silly songs. What I certainly CANNOT write about, are issues that may interest me but have no 'ethnic component'. [...] Putting it bluntly, artistically, I am a Paki, I should 'know my place' and write about the world of being 'a Paki'.

Ophelia Benson tackled this problem late last year:
What is this impulse to try to limit each other to being just one thing? What is this need to see everything in terms of one category - identity, or parenthood, or religion, or politics? It would be all right if we were ants, but since we're not, let's try not to think like ants.

As I commented back then, this tendency for blinkered thinking reminds me of the psychological phenomenon of functional fixedness, whereby we tend to see objects in terms of their usual function, which blinds us to alternative, novel uses of them. For example:
[W]hen shown a box with tools, and getting the assignment: "solve problem A with help of what you see here", the people did not see the box that contained the tools as [itself] a tool to be used for the solving of A. They saw the box only as a container of the tools.

I think it was Hegel who defied conventional wisdom by suggesting that it is actually the uneducated who live and think most abstractly, whereas philosophers try to grasp the concrete reality underlying our superficial concepts. There might be something to what he says, though I think abstraction is probably a fundamental part of human nature. We all abstract away the (sometimes crucial) details of things, attempting to pigeonhole the objects of our experiences into nice familiar boxes. And this isn't an entirely bad thing either - we need generalisations in order to make sense of the world. (I suspect that abstraction is part of nature's solution to the Frame Problem.) This was one of Pirsig's key ideas in the quoted passage of my previous post:
We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think.[...]Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. [...] You'd think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn't. It just goes on and on.

I think that last point is another fascinating one. The way we classify we the world is, in a sense, somewhat arbitrary. (Not entirely so, of course, there are pragmatic reasons behind our evolved tendencies no doubt. I mean arbitrary from a theoretical or metaphysical viewpoint. For example, I don't see any reason to think that what we call a "chair" is metaphysically priviledged over, say, the object defined by "that chair combined with the square of carpet it is sitting on". I plan to write more on this in a future post.) There are infinitely many ways the raw data could be interpreted, by identifying 'objects' and classifying them into groups.

As an example (adapted from Quine, I think), consider an alien who says "plog!", pointing to a white rabbit hopping around in the meadow. Now think of all the different possible meanings of "plog!": there are obvious ones (intuitive to humans) like "white", "rabbit", "hopping", or any combination of those ideas, etc. But it could just as well mean something intuitively bizarre like "moving object containing red blood", or "an event illuminated by sunlight", etc. There's no purely logical reason why such concepts couldn't be legitimate ways of discrimating and categorising events.

I hope that this synthesis of seemingly unrelated sources and ideas may help to highlight the common thread which runs through them all: namely, multiplicity. The world is full of it. Everyone and everything is so incredibly complex - so much more than "just one thing" - that we cannot even begin to understand them without employing some degree of abstraction. But we inevitably lose something in the process: the potential to consider something from a different perspective, and so attain an alternative understanding of it. The moral, I suppose, is that we need to recognise our cognitive shortcomings in this regard. We define objects in terms of the general categories we feel they 'fit' in to. It is both useful and necessary to do so. But we should never forget that such descriptions are incomplete; there are always further properties that have gone unnoticed. So we should beware of focussing on a single feature as if it exhaustively defined the object - a mistake we are all too prone to make.


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