When abstract thinking falls short

Abstract thinking is a trap that creates an illusion of knowledge. It is better to avoid generalization and use storytelling with takeaways instead of more abstract discussion.

I'm working on a philosophical piece criticizing abstract thinking and deductive reasoning. This is an early drain dump.

The main point is that when we try to think in symbolic categories, we find ourselves coming to a dead end very quickly because words and concepts are poor containers of the actual visceral experience.

You can't solve business problems using qualitative statements. You need data. You need to talk to the customers.

It's similar to the "Map vs. Territory" mental model. Words and other abstract qualitative statements represent a map of reality. They capture reality imprecisely.

For example, a man can think, "If she loved me, she wouldn't forget my birthday." The problem here is that "she loved me" is a qualitative statement that reduces a variety of human experiences to a one-dimensional discreet variable. It leaves too much information on the table:

  • What do they mean by "love"? Sexual attraction? Platonic sympathy? The tradition of choosing a life partner?
  • It's important to think about how strong the feeling is. Is it the same all the time, or comes and goes?

Reality is continuous. It has the volatile shape of a sound wave.

Words and qualitative statements are low-resolution ways to describe it. They are context-dependent and subjective. We don't know what it means.

Suppose someone wants to join the political and social argument on whether abortion is beneficial for society. It's really hard to discuss because people try to generalize a complex, culturally rooted, very subjective, context-dependent phenomenon with a few blanket statements.

The same goes for many other political issues. Should people own guns? Should we create a universal basic income?

Unfortunately, we have to use words to communicate complex concepts. We must explain things to others, create contracts, establish laws, and write non-fiction prose.

I think the answer is to avoid generalization. Don't think that you can describe anything with words without proper context.

That's why in my writing, I'm moving towards storytelling with takeaways instead of more abstract discussion. I don't think abstract thinking is even useful outside of mathematics and law. More often than not, it's a trap that creates an illusion of knowledge.