What makes ideas come alive?
Here’s a conjecture about life: either your ideas are alive, or your experiences are. You can’t have both at once, though of course both can be dead at the same time. Stated as an inequality (a conservation law at the Pareto boundary), we have:
aliveness(ideas) + aliveness(experiences) ≤ constant.
The quality of aliveness in an object or experience (mental or material) manifests as the subjective sensation (qualia if you like) of vividness. The adjective vivid1 is one we typically apply to experiences. Specifically, sensory and somatic experiences. David Chapman has a nice site explaining Vajrayana Buddhism in terms of vividness of experiences as a “vaster, brighter, freer way of seeing, feeling, and acting.” Notably, thinking is not on that list.
Vividness is not a quality we typically associate with ideas or thoughts, especially not abstract ideas or thoughts. Vivid abstraction sounds like an oxymoron. We normally pair abstraction with deadening negative-valence adjectives like dry, empty, or fragile. At best an abstraction might rise to elegant, beautiful, or clever. An abstraction might point to, frame, or highlight vivid sensations (real memories or speculative visions for example) but it seems somehow odd to refer to an abstraction itself as vivid.
Intuitively it would seem that the way to seek vividness is to dismantle and discard the abstractions that govern your thought in favor of more direct engagement with the sensate experiences of life; phenomenology unfactored and pre-categorical. I think this intuition is fundamentally wrong, or at least incomplete, but evangelists of the experiential build eagerly on this native intuition.
To vivify life (if you’ll excuse the tautology), we are told, we must vilify the abstract. We must eschew maps and seek the territory. Especially maps made of words. And especially especially maps made of abstract words. Maps made up of abstract words, everybody appears to have agreed in the last decade, is how we end up with the corrupting derangements of the culture wars.
As the meme goes, “literally all you have to do is to put down your phone and go outside” to transform from fretful incel to blissed-out chad. The cataract-like veil of verbal abstraction, streaming past our brains on our phones, we are told, is all that stands between us and based communion with the real. Abstractions, we are warned, only dull our perceptions and limit our ability to be present in the world.
In the last decade, with the exception of exactly one narrow category, we have come to view abstractions, especially verbal ones, as deadening rather than vivifying. Our most fashionable authorities have declared that to live in a world of ideas is to act dead. To live in a world of abstract ideas is to act like a decomposing corpse. To live in a world of abstract verbal ideas is to be a decomposing corpse who is also wrong and Communist about everything.
The one exception allowed is the subset of mathematical abstractions that present themselves to our minds as discoverable cognitive experiences, such as fractals. Studying things like fractals and prime numbers feels a bit like studying geology in the field, which perhaps explains why they are frequently spared the general vilification of abstractions. Because it feels like you’re discovering living structures that are “out there,” rather than produced (and limited) by your diseased mind rotted by critical theory, they can be tolerated. I like to think of these parts of math as “honorary realities” rather than part of math proper. Somewhat grudgingly, the experience-supremacists embrace them.
It is easy to trace the course of emergence of this cultural condition. Between The Black Swan (2010) and Antifragile (2014), Nassim Taleb launched and led the war on abstraction in the last decade, but he was only tapping into a current of strongly anti-abstraction sentiment that was already gaining strength worldwide by around 2008. Taleb also invented many wonderful insults and slurs like fragilista, intellectual-yet-idiot, and Soviet-Harvard illusion to weaponize the conflict between abstraction and sensory/somatic experience. But he hasn’t been alone. Others have led the charge in battlefields across the intellectual world.
In the same decade, we also witnessed the gradual ascendancy of trial-and-error empiricism over planning and auteur design in technology, experiential self-directed learning over institutionalized instruction in education, low naturalism over high modernism in politics, and n=1 science over deference to academic authority in medicine.
Even mathematics (outside of the aforementioned “honorary reality” parts) hasn’t been immune from the war on abstraction. Computational empiricism and simulation have steadily eroded the authority (historically, epistemic authority bordering on moral) of the closed-form formula and the theorem. Calculus, with its suspicious infinitesimals, and empirically dubious notion of a continuum,2 has steadily ceded the moral high ground to statistics. Physics appears to have suffered collateral damage too, to the extent it is adjacent to math. Sabine Hossenfelder has a whole polemic titled Lost in Math, critiquing the sort of pure-math aesthetic orientation that tempts physicists away from empirical science to unfalsifiable superstring theories.3 While I suspect she’s still in the minority in the field, her view is far from unpopular. This is a surprising 180 degree reversal of sentiment in a field that has historically relied on the beauty of abstractions to dowse for truth.4
A good deal of the decade-long demonization of theorizing with abstractions is well-deserved (and I have gleefully joined in the dog-piling on more than one occasion). Widespread abuse abstractions, which probably hit a peak during the Great Recession but continues strongly today, has demonstrably been a problem in late modern intellectual culture. An excellent (though limited in scope) read on the problem is Tal Yarkoni’s paper The Generalizability Crisis, which gets into the deep-rooted problems of theorizing in primarily verbal ways, especially when coupled with statistical analysis, in fields like psychology. My friend @literalbanana has been applying that basic critical lens to a variety of specific cases, such as the Big 5 personality test (which we both agree is a case of fragile verbal abstractions being bootstrapped into a theatrical performance of psychological insight with apparent statistical validity5).
While a good deal of the war on abstractions is relatively shallow culture-war skirmishing, there are deep conflicts with right/wrong sides too, and this is one of them.
Yet, abstractions, including entirely constructed bullshit ones, seem like an essential aspect of the human experience of life. They are certainly a huge part of my life. It seems a little odd to vilify and dismiss them as merely the stuff of a deadening retreat from vivid experiences.
So what’s actually going on here? I think the fundamental mistake experience-supremacists make is in regarding the realm of abstraction in purely instrumental ways, as a source of either salvation or intellectual WMDs. While abstractions can certainly drive both creation and destruction in the real world, to view them solely in terms of their reality effects is to misapprehend their essential nature. Abstractions do not exist to serve or harm reality. That they do both is incidental to the actual role they play in our lives.
The conservation law I opened with is an atomic and ahistorical micro-version of Pitrim Sorokin’s notion of grand cycles in history between sensate and ideational cultural phases. Crudely put, his theory is that sensate cultures anchor life in rich and vivid sensory and somatic experiences, while ideational cultures anchor it in a rich and vivid life of the mind. His theory also posits a synthesis of the two he calls “idealistic” culture, but this is probably the weakest aspect of his model. I will reduce his theory to a crude sensate/ideational dichotomy for my needs here.
I’m not sure I buy the whole grand model of history, but the Sorokin theory is at least superficially plausible enough to be interesting. In particular, it sheds light on another class of apparent abstractions that experience-supremacists seem willing to accept: traditional spirituality.
The basic traditional religious posture seems to be the one loftily described by Teilhard de Chardin as “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” The governing impulse seems to be to get the hell out of this dirty world and back to the noosphere where we belong, as Star Trek beings of pure energy. The approved attitude is one of impatience towards temporal life, wariness of sensory pleasures, and an approved and sanctioned yearning for the afterlife. Surprisingly, experience supremacists seem sympathetic to this posture.
That is definitely not a posture I want to defend, let alone adopt, and not just because I’m not religious. I think the underlying identification of ideational with spiritual is not just reductive, but reductive in a way that throws out the most vivid possibilities of abstraction.
“Spiritual” experiences, arguably, are not ideational at all, but sensate experiences marked by a particularly sort of interiorized vividness. To flip the term I coined earlier, if parts of mathematics are honorary realities, apparently abstract spiritual experiences are honorary abstractions. Any abstract verbiage we attach to them, such as “oneness with the divine,” is cosmetic. The abstractions do little actual work in the pursuit of the experiences they gesture at. At best they provide some social scaffolding.
So ironically, the apparently dualistic opposition set up by de Chardin is a shallow one confined to the sensate side of life. It’s just a loftier version of “apples taste better than oranges.” Altered mind-states and such are categorically closer to the taste of rare varieties of apples than to the feel of chasing after abstractions with 2x2s.
So I’m specifically looking for vividness in ordinary abstractions, not abstractions that serve as scaffolding on the way to various varieties of spiritual experiences. I’m not interested in purely sensate experiences, honorary realities or honorary abstractions.
I’m interested in the banal abstractions all of us can access with modest levels of literacy. Abstractions we play with in spreadsheets and on whiteboards. Abstractions we try to ensnare with mind-maps, 2x2s, metaphors, and allusions to Harry Potter. Ideas that demand the services of the villains of 2022 — abstract nouns and reified concepts. All the -isms and -ologies we’ve been taught to hate in the last decade as the currency of untrustworthy and maliciously deceptive elite discourses.
Let’s see if we can seek out, resurrect, and revivify these little dark lords, lurking by the million on the margins of the Great Weirding.
I am, of course, an idea guy, content to peddle sloppy abstractions all day. Worse, I’m an unrepentant and unapologetic trafficker in verbal abstractions. Second-hand, recoded verbal abstractions at that. I’m best known for criminal acts of verbal mis-abstraction such as deliberately misusing the word sociopath and trying to flip the valence of the word mediocrity from negative to positive. Even other verbal abstractionistas don’t approve of my abusive verbal shenanigans.
Over the past decade, even as abstract thought gradually turned into Public Enemy #1, well-intentioned friends have increasingly tried to give me an “out” by emphasizing my STEM credentials and rare displays of empiricism, implicitly apologizing for my verbal-leaning character flaws. It amuses me mightily. Over the last fifteen years, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I am a far better as a writer than I ever was or will be as an engineer. I wasn’t a bad engineer,6 and I still enjoy my hobby-grade dabbling, but I was and am strictly mediocre within the band indicated by my credentials. For better or worse, nobody is ever going to judge me by my largely forgettable direct contributions to the engineering world.
I wasn’t always this unapologetic about it. In 2007, when I was still getting my hands dirty with some actual engineering (okay, models and simulations, but still), I wrote a somewhat contrite and part-apologetic, part-defiant blog post about being an idea guy. What’s changed in the last 15 years, besides the vicious turn in general sentiment around abstraction peddlers, is that I’ve come to genuinely appreciate the “life of the mind.”
It isn’t just a cope phrase pointing to nothing. There’s a there there. It is what I am attempting to point to with the apparently oxymoronic phrase, vivid abstractions.
The experience supremacists have been gaslighting us with reality, trying to persuade us there is nothing worthwhile in the realm of abstractions. Certainly nothing alive enough to be called vivid. They’re wrong.
So what’s a vivid abstraction?
Remember, we have set aside the two categories — mathematical and spiritual experiences (honorary realities and honorary abstractions) — for which experience-supremacists seem willing and able to make good excuses. The fact that they are tolerated and grudgingly appreciated by experience-supremacists actually makes them suspect for me.
I am interested in the categories that remain. The ones that constitute the dank and indefensible realm into which intellectual-yet-idiot fragilista types venture, and from where they return with intellectual WMDs (in PowerPoint form). With these, they proceed to oppress good, god-fearing, dead-lifting people, and destroy all that's good and holy in the world.
These are the dungeon dimensions7 of the mind, full of the monsters of Taleb’s worst nightmares:
Plans and block diagrams
Popular ideologies that speak to the mediocre mind
-isms and -ologies of a primarily verbal sort
Contemporary writing by non-statue-heads, poisoned by postmodernism and critical theory
Popular categories used in news reporting
Let’s clear away one obvious source of confusion (largely attributable to TED talks). If we are to seek vividness in these dungeon dimensions, it is not going to be of a sensate variety. A map is not rendered vivid by being beautifully drafted by an expert graphic designer. A postmodernist tract is not rendered vivid by being beautifully and reverentially bound in the manner of a collectible edition of a Greek classic for your antilibrary. A plan is not rendered vivid by being cast in the form of a high-quality, laminated Gantt chart.
What makes an abstract idea vivid is a function what it does in your mind: it lives there long enough to be considered alive. The sensory heat signature of vivid abstraction is roughness and sketchiness, not finish and polish (though this is not an entirely reliable sign either way, or a particular salient dimension for thinking about abstractions).
A vivid abstraction is thought-stuff that comes alive in your mind and possesses it as you think about something.
Take what is perhaps the most abstract idea ever codified into a symbol, the yin-yang. If you contemplate some profane false-dichotomous thought-beast, perhaps getting yourself trapped in a mind-stilling paradox like Left-vs-Right, the yin-yang symbol can get your thoughts moving again. The typical accompanying verbalized version (such as “a pair of opposed abstract things, each containing a seed of the opposed thing, and transforming into it”), is the sort of statement that raises immediate fears of an Intellectual-Yet-Idiot fragilista at work, furiously obfuscating a vivid experiential reality with abstract and vacuous verbal wrongness.
But consider what happens when you are tempted enough by abstractions to surrender to them, instead of letting your sensate suspicions firmly drag your attention back to sensory and somatic experience.
What happens next is what is usually called a reverie, a form of relaxed mind-wandering where you surrender to the tug of an abstract idea, and let your thoughts retreat from the senses, to go wherever an animating idea takes them. When you return to sensate reality, having traversed a landscape of abstract thought, the primary real sign that something has happened is that time has passed, and you haven’t registered much of what’s been going on around you while lost in thought.
So abstract ideas are at least real enough to occupy real time. This connection to time is actually stronger. Abstractions are in fact how we are able to inhabit periods of time longer than instantaneous experience (the term of art is “mental time travel”).
Plans, memories, and stories are how we apprehend future and past more than 0.1s away. Maps are how we contemplate where we’ve been (with both feet and mind), and where we might go. Idea stacks are how we gain cognitive altitude to be present with (and in) periods of time longer than about a tenth of a second. To retreat from your present experience in the here-and-now to (say) the experience of humanity over millennia, you must clamber up a stack of abstractions denoted by words like “culture” and “civilization.”
Vivid abstractions then, are alive in a certain literal sense of occupying a certain amount of real reverie time during which they (and we!) grow and change, and additionally, traversing a certain amount of non-real time — and space — while gaining a certain amount of conceptual altitude. By contrast, non-vivid abstractions (puns and other forms of pure wordplay are examples) just sort of sit there in your mind, doing nothing, typically driving you to exit the reverie immediately out of boredom. Vivid abstractions are precisely those that can tempt you away from immediate sensory experience, and keep you away for a while. They are not just alive, they are alive enough that you can live them. In the grips of an abstraction, you can have your eyes closed and look asleep, but be more alive and conscious than if you were running around with eyes wide open.
To be lost in thought is to be caught up in a vivid abstraction that has a certain lifespan, during which your mind is not available to fully attend to sensate experiences (hence my conjectured conservation law). Of course, not all vivid abstractions are created equal. Like flesh-and-blood literal living things, there are good and bad vivid abstractions (which is not the same as pleasant vs. unpleasant — a nightmare might do you more good than a dream).
A secondary real sign that something has happened is that for the duration of the reverie, during which you were somewhat absent from sensate reality, your emotional history can diverge nearly arbitrarily from what it would have been, had you been fully attending to environmental stimuli. In other words, they can possess you, taking over at least your emotional experience (and at the psychotic extreme, your sensate ones as well).
This explains many things, such as why humans in certain unpleasant but not insistently demanding circumstances, such as imprisonment or illness,8 are particularly attracted to abstraction, and manage to be happy when circumstances suggest they ought to be miserable. Mind over matter is at least partly abstractions over circumstances. Push a mind hard enough, and it will manufacture a psychotic break: the ultimate victory of abstractions over circumstances. Our capacity for psychosis is perhaps the best evidence for the potential for vividness in abstractions.
Milder affective responses allow us to categorize vivid abstractions, and bring them into correspondence with comparable sensate experiences.
There’s the steadily energizing thought that leads you steadily down a chain of reasoning to a conclusion, powered by an internal logic (flawed or sound is irrelevant here). There’s the “brainstorm” of accelerating hypomania (short of psychosis), carving out a garden of forking paths in your mind. There is the doom-and-gloom of spiraling depression. There is the exhilaration of discovering and exploring a formal structure, featuring interesting conceptual symmetries. There is the sense of walking around a thought-form, examining it from different sides. There is the self-righteousness of contemplating a satisfying moral schema. There is the drunken feeling of swimming in the memeplex of a crackpot cult theory.
The point of these affective categorizations is that the distinction between the real and the abstract, real though it might feel to your neocortex, isn’t particularly real to your limbic system. The exhilaration of being swept up by a powerfully hypomanic brainstorm is not that different from that of being on a roller-coaster (which is indeed why we reach for that particular metaphor).
These vivid excursions into the ideational realm might well serve some instrumental purpose on the sensate side of life. You might return from a reverie with a theory to prove or disprove, an idea for an invention that might or might not work, or even just an idea for an essay trafficking in verbal abstractions like this one.
But to view these excursions purely in terms of their validity and utility in the sensate realm is to miss the point of them. We indulge in abstractions not because they have validity or utility, but because they are as much a part of what life has to offer as strolls in gardens. There’s a reason we call some varieties of excursions into abstraction daydreaming. They belong in the same category as far as utility and validity are concerned. We have daydreams because they are there to be had, same as sleeping dreams.
Learning to vivify these excursions away from the immediacy of circumstances is the same sort of challenge as learning to vivify a sensate experience through mindful attendance. And the payoff is similar: it leads to a “vaster, brighter, freer” way of thinking, rather than of “seeing, feeling, and acting.” And why not? There is no reason to limit your experience of abstract ideas to dryness, emptiness, and dullness simply because that is all those suspicious of them dare experience.
This is why I think both critiques and defenses of abstractions framed in terms of their validity or utility in the sensate realm miss the point. Whether a particular abstraction acts as a toxic Soviet-Harvard intellectual WMD or a save-the-world elevating idea in the material world, it does not primarily exist to do either. It exists to be experienced. Because the experience of vivid abstractions is as much a part of life as the experience of being present in material reality. We seek these experiences out because abstractions constitute a space where life can happen, occupying real time, laying down affective memories indistinguishable from those created by “real” experiences.
The effects of abstract thought in the real world are not the “purpose” of abstraction, anymore than awakening is the “purpose” of dreams. Any effects are externalities. Good or bad, they are not why we seek out the experience of abstraction in the first place. Reality’s problems are not the concern of our intuitive tendency to abstraction. Sometimes abstractions help solve those problems, sometimes they make them worse. But you cannot get at our relationship with abstractions, and the choices we make in how to experience them, by analyzing their reality effects (and distortions).
That said, there is of course, a yin-yang relationship between the real and the abstract, which reshapes both constantly. So how should we think about — and experience — that relationship?
We are in the depths of an abstraction recession right now. The war on abstraction that began with the 2008 crash and Taleb’s polemics has now led to a condition where only performative empiricism and theatrical “doing” are considered legitimate ways of being (it is notable that these theatrical performances don’t actually eschew abstractions; they merely resist critical scrutiny of incumbent sacred and invisible abstractions). If you sit around idly exploring abstractions, especially fragile and legible modern ones, and talking about them alluringly enough that others listen, you’re certain to be labeled a sort of intellectual terrorist.
All sorts of abstraction tendencies — grand ideologies, macroeconomic theories, religious doctrines — are currently in cultural jail, charged with destroying the world with the arrogant wrongness of privilege and power.
This is a problem, but not a serious one, for those who enjoy the realm of vivid abstractions. Reveries are something you can access in all but the most urgent and actively dangerous of circumstances. If you’re in the doghouse (or actual jail) for daring to entertain a fragile and abstract thought, the fun part is, you can continue to entertain it in the doghouse (or jail cell) so long as somebody is not actively torturing you. Some of the most fragile cathedrals of abstraction have been composed in jails and concentration camps.
But this is also a problem, and a much more serious one, for experience-supremacists who view abstractions as no more than a highly suspect and dangerous instrument for shaping reality. To be avoided where possible, and only used in the most limited and heavily regulated ways where unavoidable. Certainly not to be wallowed in.
The problem is, abstractions are much more important than experience-supremacists are willing to concede. In particular, they are pretty much the only mechanism we have available for creating an experience of time that can last longer than a tenth of a second, loosen the dispositive grip of circumstances on emotions, and create harmonized collective states of mind that are more than uncorrelated streams of consciousness. When that mechanism fails, or is prevented from operating, we slide rapidly into a reality-traumatized funk.
And “limited” use of abstractions doesn’t get us out. Limiting the human capacity for abstraction is as much of a constraint on free thought as a blindfold is on motion and manipulation.
Without powerful and serviceable governing abstractions, you do not get an evolved, meditative world full of meaningfully present blissed-out enlightened people capable of putting away their phones. You get what I call a reality siege, experienced as a collective weirding.
You see, while the great strength of reality is that it is real, its great weakness is that it is all mixed-up and overwhelmingly packed into the claustrophobia of the inchoate present. And with software increasingly bringing raw, global sensory reality, unmediated by verbal abstractions, into your here-and-now, via ever-bigger screens and immersions, it is not just your local mixed-up claustrophobia. It is “everything everywhere all at once” cosmic claustrophobia.
The cataract-like veil of verbal abstraction we deploy against unfactored reality does more than dull perceptions and ruin our communion with immediate sensate realities. It also manufactures a larger, more expansive sense of ideational time and space out of the claustrophobia of here and now. It allows us to fluidly seek vividness in life across both reality-affirming sensate experiences and reality-negating ideational retreats. It allows us to actually function coherently despite the evolving, snowballing incoherence of the here-and-now.
It allows us to hedge our aliveness across a portfolio of real and abstract streams of consciousness.
What I have labeled the Great Weirding is a result not of the actual weirdness of events — reality has always been weird and always will be — but our recently acquired reflexive suspicion of abstractions that might create the virtual time and space within which we might make sense of it. Our old abstractions may have failed us, but to reject the tendency to abstraction is to succumb tamely to the reality siege, allowing the claustrophobia of the present to destroy our minds.
This is not a particularly deep thought, but ironically, in the hands (not minds) of those unused to, and suspicious of, abstraction, it turns into the deepity that “reality is constructed!” and inspires waldenponding larp-retreats to log-cabins where such profane construction might, they hope, be minimized. Chopping wood water far from WiFi doesn’t assuage the reality anxieties that bad PowerPoints and 2x2s fail to; it simply censors them altogether.
I mean of course reality is constructed. Even the crashed realities of the Great Weirding, with their low-rise abstraction stacks comprising internet memes, are constructed. Without a certain minimal coherence lent to it by abstractions (and I use the language of debt to a disjoint peer realm deliberately here) reality is not meaningfully experienceable at all.
That such abstractions are malleable and fluid, and the product of our own minds, does not change a great deal. You still need them to be alive at all. To seek to minimize the abstract side of life is to act dead. To wage war on abstractions is to be a decomposing corpse. To retreat from the challenge of breaking the siege of reality with strong abstractions is to be a decomposing corpse living in a vivid wrongness.
To deal with the world past the Great Weirding — what I have dubbed the Permaweird — it will not be enough to reluctantly and suspiciously adopt minimum viable abstractions while clinging anxiously to fetishized “real” experiences. You will need the drunken courage to cultivate a robust ideational life in an expansive space of vivid abstractions. One that is not subservient to your sensate life, whatever the experience-supremacist scolds say.
How do you do that? I am not yet sure. We are deep in the abstraction recession, still digging our way out of the rubble of the failed 2008-vintage abstractions, still wary of big histories and tall stacks of ideas, regardless of their contents.
But we either build vivid new worlds of abstraction to inhabit, or resign ourselves to lives terminally besieged by the million little uncomprehended tyrannies of mere reality.
With apologies to Leopold Kronecker, one might summarize the modern skeptical-computational attitude towards the continuum as “God created the 8-byte double float, all else is the work of man.” I share this skepticism, but not for blue-collar Fat Tony statistician reasons.
Notably, the Big Man in superstring theory, Edward Witten is a political scientist turned mathematician who has won the Fields Medal but not the Nobel. Before he built out dizzying 11-dimensional physics theories, he was writing articles on foreign policy! I don’t know about you, but I for one am impressed by his sheer range.
See for example, Dirac’s use of symmetries to predict the existence of anti-particles, and older works like S. Chandrashekhar’s Truth and Beauty from 1990.
Personally, I prefer the unabashedly abstract Myers-Briggs theory or even astrology to the Big 5. At least there is no illusion of false rigor.
I once even won a “Young Engineer of the Year” award, though admittedly for pointy-haired project manager accomplishments.
The corner of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe from which the worst monsters emerge.
Descartes for instance, supposedly invented Cartesian geometry while lying ill in bed, supposedly staring at a fly make its way across the ceiling. I don’t know if this story is true, but we abstractionistas never let the truth get in the way of a fun story.