Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell

 
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  1. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Intellectuals work in abstractions rather than reality…

    Here is my opinion on that.  I think that…

    1.  It’s a delusional dichotomy, a leftover artifact of our childhood that God meant for us to discard as chick discards its shell once it no longer needs it, so that we can begin to think rationally as adults.
    2. The only way any human can work purposefully (rather than by animal reflexes) on physical temporal reality is by first working in abstractions—mental temporal reality—and then afterward turning the mental output of the process into the input to actions on the physical world, and then getting dynamic data feedback from that world to adjust his plan—his program— as he goes.
    3. The difference between two humans who each have resolved to mold future reality to their wishes, one who is an intellectual and one not, is that the former is conscious of how he is acting and how others humans act, and the latter is not.

      The non-intellectual has, like every human, been solving problems only by use of abstract thinking since infancy at the latest, but no one has ever taught him that; quite the opposite, an intelligent young person is in effect brainwashed in a false dogma, through peer pressure, rule by authority, and the desire to conform rather than to know the truth. He learns that he will gain status by joining in the mass behavior of ridiculing as stupid or falsely accusing of evil motives all those who, by openly using abstract thinking, openly admit to using reason.

    4. Abstractions are (mental) data structures, some which are models that a person has mapped to the world outside himself. Others are mathematical/logical.
    5. The data structures that model the outside world treat temporal reality as comprising two components:
      1. the physical system, plus…
      2. the set other minds similar to his own
    6. A human has direct knowledge of his physical sensations and his emotional feelings, and of his mental world (including multiple data structures that are models of the outside world), but only indirect knowledge of the outside world generated by processes that use abstractions (models) and perceptions from the outside.
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  2. Bill Berg Coolidge
    Bill Berg
    @Bill Berg

    @markcamp

    I believe that you are adding a lot of unintended meaning to a simple statement. 

    Yes, we as humans ONLY deal in abstractions.  These words are abstractions, vision is a mentally created abstraction of a combination of a “mental map” of what we “see” with a very limited input of data from optic nerve that is used by the brain to calculate “what changed”. We are always living a few milliseconds in the past. 

    This could engender a long discussion, but I’m not sure it needs to. I believe the disconnect is in failing appreciate levels of abstraction. 

    “The map is not the territory” is a common statement on the inadequacies of abstractions at significant temporal remove from reality. A lot of things may have changed since the map was produced. It may also be the case that the map was created at a 1:500,000 scale, when you expected a 1:24,000 scale which is typical for a US highway map. 

     This DOES NOT say that maps, abstractions, etc. are not useful, it just says that it is important to know which is being used, at what level of remove from the “territory”, and what are the likely outcomes of using a certain abstraction/model to guide our actions. Testing the map against the territory tells us if the map is an accurate abstraction from the territory.

    Your point number 3 seems a reaction to the norms of learning a language, rules of how to interact with your parents, kids on the playground, etc. which is a theme of the book. 

    Sowell covers is how abstract “cultural norms” affect child development. A Chinese child may be raised in a home with two parents, a high value on respecting parents, grandparents, teachers, culture, learning, achievement, etc.

    An inner-city Black child may be raised in a single parent home with little or no connection to extended family, education being seen as “acting white”, drug use being a social norm, Blacks being oppressed (thus, why try?)  etc.

    To decide which child is “brainwashed” depends on one’s worldview, especially since in America today, there are very few (any?) “Preferred cultural norms” beyond those of many “tribes”.  The old Christian set of norms are considered by many to be “brainwashing” today.

    Sowell generally does not make a value judgement on what acculturation / education / “brainwashing” is preferable, only that “the anointed” often DO have judgements on which abstract models are “better” — even though when those models are tested in reality, they often have the opposite effect that the intellectuals claim they will. 

    For example, pouring more money into schools with the same unions that disconnect results from teacher or administrator performance often LOWERS the objectively measured scores rather than raising them as the abstract view of “more money = better results” assumes. 

     

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  3. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    I am all for “abstract thinking.” I think I do it quite well. One of the skills that served me well in my career (corporate lawyer in intellectual property (inventions and technology)) was my ability to see patterns and parallels. My daughter has similar capabilities (she is a mathematician who works in data analytics for a financial services company). I get frustrated when people fail to see patterns or similarities that to me are quite apparent. 

    But without a connection to the “real world” abstract thinkers can sometimes forget that not all reality follows the abstract patterns we think we see.  I was privileged during my career always to have my office in a company facility that included engineering and manufacturing operations, and I was always working with engineers and scientists who were close to the product going out the door. I enjoyed walking around the plant dodging forklifts and watching trucks being loaded at the dock, and working with engineers who could take me onto (or at least near in the case of semiconductor manufacturing) the factory floor.

    At one of those companies I encountered the product (electrical) that, according to the theories applied to the circuit diagram, should not work. But work it did. Many companies have such a product. 

    At a different company, I was giving a talk to a bunch of higher-up lawyers at corporate headquarters (300 miles from any engineering or manufacturing facility), and realized from their questions that none of them had ever actually touched the product our customers bought, and had no idea of the practical aspects of how the company made money from those products. To them all those products were words on a brochure or data cells on a spreadsheet. No wonder the requests I got from corporate headquarters often made no sense. They were stuck in an entirely abstract world with no way to connect the abstract ideas represented by words on a brochure and numbers on a spreadsheet translated to a world of physical products with human customers who used those physical products. 

    I have for the last several years considered that disconnect between those who work in nothing but the abstract and those who apply the abstract to the real world to explain  some of the nonsense I saw in the town in which our daughter and son-in-law live. The town in which they live is dominated by a research lab whose only real customer is the U.S. federal government. The lab’s core expertise is nuclear weapons, though many of the techniques they develop for use in connection with nuclear weapons can be used with other things. So they are expanding their reach. The town has an incredibly high rate of “education.” Something like 25% of the town’s adult population has a PhD in some field of science or engineering (including our son-in-law). But the residents of the town adopt some really bizarre views on things. Those bizarre views became more apparent during the Covid pandemic. Mrs. Tabby and I attribute the holding bizarre views to the residents’ (lab employees) immersion in an almost entirely theoretical world of mathematical equations, chemical formulae, and theoretical physics, all many steps away from the actual material world. We sense a lot of “Well, this is what the theory says should work, so we’re going to act on that, despite any “real world” evidence to the contrary.” 

    Especially when looking at abstract ideas that affect human beings, human beings often act quite differently from what abstract theory might predict. So better to maintain some humility and some connection with real people in the real world to check your abstract idea than to assume always that the abstract idea must work in the real world because it makes so much sense. 

    So I greatly value abstract thinking. But it is critical that abstract thinking look at least on occasion on the “real world”  

     

    • #3
  4. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    [Accidentally submitted comment]

    • #4
  5. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Bill Berg (View Comment):

    @ markcamp

    I believe that you are adding a lot of unintended meaning to a simple statement.

     

    The statement that I’m responding to is this:

    Intellectuals work in abstractions rather than reality.

    I take statement to imply that a person can try to find the true answer to a question about events taking place at points in time (in other words, a question about reality, as opposed to a question about logic/mathematics) without working with mental categorical laws (in other words, without working with abstractions).

    Did you not mean to imply that?

    • #5
  6. Bill Berg Coolidge
    Bill Berg
    @Bill Berg

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Bill Berg (View Comment):

    @ markcamp

    I believe that you are adding a lot of unintended meaning to a simple statement.

     

    The statement that I’m responding to is this:

    Intellectuals work in abstractions rather than reality.

    I take statement to imply that a person can try to find the true answer to a question about events taking place at points in time (in other words, a question about reality, as opposed to a question about logic/mathematics) without working with mental categorical laws (in other words, without working with abstractions).

    Did you not mean to imply that?

    I hope the statement is so simple that it “implies” nothing.

    It DOES NOT restrict use of abstractions or claim them to be somehow “useless”.  The Sowell book is about intellectuals MISUSING abstractions. Saying things equivalent to “Statistics (an abstraction) show drownings are positively correlated with ice cream sales, therefore ice cream causes drownings”. 

    As the Sowell book well covers, the confusion of correlation with causation is ONE of the misuses of abstractions that intellectuals either consciously or unconsciously make. Nearly always much less obviously. 

    He is writing to a general audience, about intellectuals that are also attempting to affect general audiences, politicians, administrators, etc., not an audience of philosophers, logicians, statisticians, etc.  

    And my review is intended for the same audience. 

    • #6
  7. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Bill Berg (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Bill Berg (View Comment):

    @ markcamp

    I believe that you are adding a lot of unintended meaning to a simple statement.

     

    The statement that I’m responding to is this:

    Intellectuals work in abstractions rather than reality.

    I take statement to imply that a person can try to find the true answer to a question about events taking place at points in time (in other words, a question about reality, as opposed to a question about logic/mathematics) without working with mental categorical laws (in other words, without working with abstractions).

    Did you not mean to imply that?

    I hope the statement is so simple that it “implies” nothing.

    It DOES NOT restrict use of abstractions or claim them to be somehow “useless”. The Sowell book is about intellectuals MISUSING abstractions. Saying things equivalent to “Statistics (an abstraction) show drownings are positively correlated with ice cream sales, therefore ice cream causes drownings”.

    As the Sowell book well covers, the confusion of correlation with causation is ONE of the misuses of abstractions that intellectuals either consciously or unconsciously make. Nearly always much less obviously.

    He is writing to a general audience, about intellectuals that are also attempting to affect general audiences, politicians, administrators, etc., not an audience of philosophers, logicians, statisticians, etc.

    And my review is intended for the same audience.

    Thanks for your reply. It has been interesting.

    But we’ve not found a way to communicate any of our ideas in either direction. We’re on different frequencies.

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