Spool Five

The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness


The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is one of those philosophical ideas that has stayed with me ever since someone first told me about it. These are some notes about it. Please do not take them to be in any way authoritative.

The term comes from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead . Broadly, it is a criticism of how we understand scientific abstraction.

The abstract and the concrete

The two terms - abstract and concrete - are generally taken as a pair. The etymology of the words already tells you a lot about their deeper meaning. (source for below is wiktionary)

From Middle English abstract, borrowed from Latin abstractus, perfect passive participle of abstrahō (“draw away”), formed from abs- (“away”) + trahō (“to pull, draw”). The verbal sense is first attested in 1542.
From Latin concrētus, past participle of concrescō (com- + crescō).
condensed, hardened, stiff, curdled, congealed, clotted

To abstract from something it to tear it away from its context. It is a central tenant of the scientific method. Context muddies and interferes with data. Scientists build labs, isolation chambers, particle accelerators deep within the earths surface, all in order to abstract certain information from its surrounding environment.

One of the best ways to understand concreteness is to look at, well, concrete - the type that may be holding up the building around you. Concrete is a mixture of sand, cement, water, etc. Once it has been mixed and hardened, it is very difficult to go back and remove (abstract) the sand or cement or water from the concrete again. Concreteness then refers to the way different elements are mixed together into a unity.

When I climb a mountain and admire the view the experience is concrete, it involves all the processes running through my exhausted body, the air speed/temperature/pressure, the formation of rocks that have been arriving at their current point for millions of years, a point which is itself transitory, the angle of the sun in the sky, the people laughing and taking selfies next to me, and so on. I can try to abstract from this experience by taking a selfie myself, but when I look back at it later, it is impossible for it to represent all the elements that have contributed to the concrete experience of climbing the mountain.

Whitehead was a philosopher who tried to explain reality from the perspective of its concreteness. A dynamic, flowing mixture of processes, not a static arena of objects and properties.

The fallacy

The fallacy of misplaced concreteness, then, refers to occasions when we mistake an abstraction for reality (accepting that reality is concrete). For example, classical physics tells us that the world is made up of tiny atoms and particles that exist within geometric space. We learn about this in school and imagine that this is how things really are. This is reality. It is concrete. Particles are real, tangible things that can be identified and measured, just like I can go an measure the football in my back yard.

The discovery of particles arose through abstraction - experiments that were designed to look for these particles and to filter our (abstract from) any noise. A type of noise might be the fluctuating position of the thing I’m trying to measure. For example, I might find it difficult to measure the dimensions and properties of a leaf as it is blowing in the wind, but if I manage to pluck it out of the sky and take it to the workbench in my garage, I will have a much easier time.

From the perspective of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, we can see a problem here. New knowledge about the structure of reality was gained, and it is fascinating, epoch-making knowledge, one of the highest achievements of human society. However, the problem arises when we mistake the picture we have for the full picture of reality. It is not unlike mistaking the selfie on top of the mountain for the actual experience of climbing the mounting.

Of course, the scientific community, as one of its highest virtues, doesn’t rest on its laurels. Pretty soon, modern particle physics came along to say that, after all, reality is not that simple. It’s not enough to simply look at particles as fixed, objects within space, there are more layers than that. There are questions of temporarily, entanglement, and a host of other strange behaviours that only emerge when we take into account the concrete nature of reality, that is, the dynamic, emergent nature of things. From this perspective, saying what exactly a particle is becomes a lot more complicated.

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