This is Chad Whitacre's philosophy website. I am researching abstraction as a way to understand the self and human culture.

Thinking is abstraction. Abstraction is the trading off of information for power, for the sake of flourishing.

When I cognize a computer screen as a collection of liquid crystals, I have before me detailed information concerning these crystals: their size, arrangement, power consumption, molecular properties, etc. I am sensitive to slight variations between one crystal and its neighbors. However, I cannot, while inspecting the LCD screen as a collection of crystals, use the computer. I perform an abstraction when I trade in my detailed view of the liquid crystal display for a cognition of the user interface it conveys. Now I can use the computer, though in exchange I have given up my awareness of the nuances of each individual crystal.

This abstraction enables others in turn. From the cognition or awareness of a user interface as such, I turn my attention to the cognition of application windows on the screen. I abstract from windows on a screen and cognize a web page. Processing the visual design of the web page, I zero in on a passage of text. I focus my attention on the letters and punctuation. From these, I cognize words. Words yield to grammatical constructions. Grammar gives way to propositions. I take these propositions and fit them variously into my worldview. At each step, I have traded in the opportunity for detailed knowledge at a lower level for the benefit to be gained from the higher level.

The benefit of performing an abstraction is this: it enables further abstractions. Digital circuits and analog circuits share a common root in electromagnetism and the fundamentals of circuits. However, the digital abstraction yields computers, while the analog abstraction yields only cassette tapes. The former abstraction is more fruitful than the latter. An element of the lower level thus benefits from participating in a fruitful abstraction by continuing to exist. Who uses cassette tapes any more?

Applying Abstraction

If indeed abstraction is the basic principle of human cognition, then it would be expected that cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology would unveil the mechanisms of abstraction in our minds/brains. Furthermore, it would be expected that abstraction can unify the explanation of all phenomena of human culture, because these all have cognition at their root. So all cultural projects, from art to religion to science to philosophy to government, would be able to be more elegantly reformulated in terms of abstraction. Lastly, we would expect a general, popular understanding of abstraction to contribute to the further flourishing of our culture/species.

See Also

Here are a few relevant posts from my old blog.