Archive for November, 2006

On Abstraction

November 10, 2006

Let’s begin with a short practical experiment. Pick up a pen, or whatever similar sized object is handy, hold it a short distance above the ground, and drop it. The result — that the pen falls to the ground — is not a surprising one. The point of the experiment was not to note the result, however, but rather to note our lack of surprise at it. We expect the pen to fall to the ground; our expectation is based not on knowledge of the future however, but on abstraction from past experience. Chambers Dictionary defines “abstract”, the verb, to mean “to generalize about something from particular instances”, and it is precisely via this action that we come to expect the pen to fall to the ground. By synthesis of many previous instances of objects falling when we drop them, we have generalized the rule that things will always fall when we drop them*. We make this abstraction so instinctively, and take it so completely for granted, that it is worth dwelling on it for a moment so we can see how remarkable it actually is.