Friday, September 05, 2014

The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

 "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life".-- Oscar Wilde

"The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature." --A.N. Whitehead

Ever since Democritus, scientists have jumped to the conclusion that reality consists of atoms in motion. The theory has been promising, leading to century after century of elaboration and refinement. Today, a number of scientists are disputing the existence of nothingness, whether there can be a void in any meaningful sense. They take issue with Vladimir who, in Waiting for Godot, proclaims, "There is no lack of void."

The mistake, both in philosophy and science, that is so ubiquitous today was called by Whitehead "The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness." As the quote above makes clear, the error is to assume that the concept is more real than what it purports to explain. The primal fact is the perception. In the words of Bishop Berkeley, "To be is to be perceived." Awareness comes first. Afterwards, comes the attempt to make sense of perceptions. The pre-Socratic philosophers tried all sorts of explanations: water, air, earth, and fire, followed by all sorts of interesting theories. Ask a scientist today what is real and you get something like this:

My Own Personal Nothingness: From a childhood hallucination to the halls of theoretical physics.

An atom is less real than my perception of this table in front of me. The perception is first. The theory that the table consists of tiny atoms spinning and flying about comes at the end of a long line of abstraction and ideas based on the initial perception. 

That there is an "I" doing the perceiving also comes after a process of  gathering perceptions and unifying them into the idea of a person, an ego, a Vladimir, waiting for Godot to come.

Yes, ideas and theories are real as well as perceptions, for they are based on perceptions. As I see it, the idea of a mind that does the perceiving is existentially more real than the biological theory that all our thoughts and feelings are contained in an organ called the brain. The latter construct is far more complex than the former. You'd have to have lost your mind to believe otherwise.

Ogata Gekkō (尾形月耕, 1859-1920)

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and 
Disappear in the deep pool, 
The whole world would shine 
With dazzling pureness.


No comments:

Post a Comment