MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Immaculate Conceptions

Part B: Validating

Conceptual Validity

The validity of concepts can be inferred from the fact that they are how our brains work: and our brains work. Our brains make tons of metal fly us safely around the world, cure diseases that once were scourges of mankind, and send our machines to other planets; they allow us to extend our senses to the scale of atoms and across the universe. But this does not tell us why concepts are valid. Given that the things in reality which we combine into a mental concept are different, in what way does a concept which lumps them together describe reality?

The reason is that different things in reality in fact share essential qualities, and it is those essential qualities, out of all the qualities the objects possess, which we are identifying and using to group them. This is simple to see in the case of fundamental entities such as electrons. Being fundamental (enough for our purposes here), individual electrons are much more alike than more complex entities such as people. While at any time they vary in spin, velocity, position etc., they are completely interchangeable: all electrons in the same state will act the same way under the same conditions. They will all accelerate identically in an electric or magnetic field, they will all bind to an atom in the same ways, they will all excite the phosphors of your TV screen in the same ways.

The same is true of more complex derivatives. Atoms with the same number of protons and neutrons are as interchangeable as the protons, neutrons and electrons they are made of, and chemicals of the same formula are as interchangeable as the atoms they are made of. This reveals something very significant: the validity of concepts is a consequence of the law of identity. Atoms of the same composition must be interchangeable, because their properties derive from the properties of subatomic particles, which themselves obey the law of identity: and so on up the chain of causation and complexity.

This remains true up to the highest levels. A living thing is made of atoms and chemicals, as is a star, a galaxy or the entire universe. The properties of matter and energy cause the birth of stars, the formation of solar systems and the evolution of life. Everything a star does and everything a living organism does are consequences of the laws of physics and chemistry: laws which are consequences of the natures of the fundamental constituents of everything in the universe.

Conceiving Life

When considering the validity of concepts, it is worth paying special attention to the most complex entities: living things. Unlike electrons, which are all interchangeable, the entities subsumed by the concept "dog" are not. They vary in many qualities, such as size, colour, speed, behaviour and personality. Indeed, like humans no two dogs are absolutely identical. In what way, and why, are concepts that unite these disparate creatures valid?

Consider the highest abstraction here: life itself. All living things share essential qualities, determined by the nature of reality. The fundamental quality of living things is that they are self-organising, self-reproducing chemical systems (no non-chemical forms of life are known, so we can ignore that possibility here; similar constraints would apply even to them). To do that, they must counteract one of the fundamental laws of the universe: entropy, the tendency of systems to become more disordered with time. The only way for them to achieve that is by the directed use of energy.

To be directed, an organism needs to contain within itself a set of instructions. To use energy, it must acquire it from the environment. Because both the usable energy and the efficiency with which the organism fights entropy are limited (especially for primitive life), the creature is mortal, and for life to continue it must make copies of itself, both using and transmitting its set of instructions. Furthermore, in order to flourish – in order to cope with changes in the environment and to exploit new environments – the instructions must be mutable. Even if it was possible to have immutable instructions in chemically based life, the world would be overrun by the descendants of those who lacked that restriction on their adaptability.

You can see that the qualities of life which we see around us on earth are not an accident. The details of life on earth – DNA-based genes, the colour of chlorophyll, the organelles that make our cells work – might be unique. But all natural life must share with us the core things which make life what it is: a means to acquire energy, a set of instructions, machinery to translate those instructions into the appropriate actions, machinery to make copies of the organism, and the ability to evolve in order to adapt to and exploit its environment.

Thus for all their variability – a variability inherent in their nature as life – living things will share essential qualities, and therefore concepts based on those essential qualities will be valid. Dogs are dogs because they all possess a similar instruction set, a DNA code so similar that they can interbreed, a DNA code which makes a dog grow into a dog and not into a cat, a mouse or a man. The concept "dog" is valid, because the animals it refers to are all variants of the same kind of creature, with the same basic anatomy and means of survival – because all are descended in a variable, shuffled, yet unbroken living chain of copies from common ancestors in their past.

Hierarchies

Recall the hierarchy of concepts: the grouping of lower concepts into increasingly generalised ones. It should be clear by now why this is valid – which means, why it reflects the nature of things in reality.

We have seen why concepts with direct referents are valid. At the simple end of the scale, all electrons are essentially the same, and all oxygen-16 atoms are the same. But a more general concept than "oxygen atom" is "atom", which includes not only oxygen but hydrogen, iron, gold etc. These are all different: you can't breathe gold or make jewellery out of hydrogen. But they all share the same basic structure. All have a nucleus of protons (and usually neutrons) surrounded by electrons, in equal number to the protons. Their chemistries and physical qualities are different: but all determined by the arrangement and nature of their nuclei and electrons. That is, they are different, yet share essential similarities. It is these essential similarities which our higher-level concepts identify. "Atom" is not merely a semantic convenience. It identifies a fact of reality: that all types of atoms share the same kind of structure, a structure which makes them all act in comparable ways (entering into chemical reactions via interactions of their outer electrons) yet different ways (the types of chemical bonds they form). Their fundamental nature and that of their component parts determine both their similarities and their differences.

It is similar at the other end of the scale. As we generalise from poodles, to dogs, to dog-like animals (e.g. foxes, coyotes), to related carnivores (e.g. seals, bears), to mammals, to vertebrates, to animals: we are reflecting the actual history of life on earth, the actual degree of similarity in their DNA codes and resulting structures and solutions to the problems of staying alive. As we generalise our concepts, they identify a broader and broader essence: but that essence is reflected in the nature of the things we are identifying. As we have seen, this remains true all the way to the broadest abstraction of life itself: while you and a bacterium might differ enormously, and have nothing in common in anatomy or lifestyle, you still share the core qualities that define life – the core qualities that your disparate anatomy and lifestyle serve.

Valid Concepts

From why concepts in general are valid, follows how we can tell if a particular concept is valid or not.

At the most fundamental level, a concept is an abstraction derived from observed reality. We see ten objects that share certain features, group them together as a concept; and group that concept with others into higher concepts. You cannot omit that first step and have a valid concept.

This is plainly true of the lowest level of concepts, those with direct referents in reality. If I tell you that blopples are sentient rocks roaming the Australian plains, "blopple" is an invalid or fictional concept: it refers to nothing that exists. Perhaps there are sentient rocks roaming the plains of some distant planet: but that remains an arbitrary claim – hence an invalid concept – until and unless there is evidence for it.

Critically, this is also true of the most abstract concepts. You cannot make up a concept because you feel like it and validly claim it is knowledge. The only valid concept is one which is abstracted from objects in reality, either directly or by an unbroken chain of abstractions that ultimately rest on real things. A low-level concept is valid only if the objects it refers to exist; the validity of all higher-level concepts rests on that of the concepts from which they are abstracted. If you allege a concept which can not be traced to its roots in observable reality, then by definition you made it up: it is a work of fiction which nobody has any cause to believe, which therefore nobody should believe.

The other point to note is that concepts are valid because they identify essential qualities held in common by their members, whether those members are things or other concepts. Since this is the key which validates the abstraction of a single mental construct from multiple different things, they are only valid if this is how they are constructed. A concept which ties things together by inessential similarities is invalid, simply because the tie does not reflect reality. For example, to group horses more closely to chairs than to people by choosing "things with four legs" as their fundamental nature, is wrong. That coincidence is less essential than the many qualities that group us and horses as both being mammals and quite distant from chairs in the actual hierarchy of being.

This of course raises the question of how do you know what features are essential? Since we have already established that the way we integrate sensory information into knowledge is reason – reason being the art of identifying what is – that is our answer. To identify the essential similarities (uniting concepts) and differences (separating them from other concepts) that exist, we apply reason, and the touchstone is explanatory power.

As we have seen in investigating what makes concepts valid, concepts are a consequence of the law of identity, in which is implicit cause and effect. That things are what they are and act according to that nature, implies that they affect each other according to their respective natures. This implies that things happen for a reason, a cause grounded in the nature of the entities involved. So the question, "What is essential here?" means, "What are the causes? What makes these items similar to each but different from these other things? Why should I think a cat is more similar to a dog than a teddy bear?" Thus, the essential is what explains, which means causes, the salient similarities and differences.

The reason this process works is that it is grounded in reality. As we have seen, things do share essential similarities. We are not trying to make them up when we are forming our concepts, but to identify them. And as with all things, it is the task of our reasoning mind to do this identification, by divining a non-contradictory hierarchy of concepts. It is the task of our integrity and honesty to ensure that our purpose is identification, not fabrication – those virtues serving our recognition that reality is what it is not what we might want, that our lives therefore depend on truth not self-deception.

Fallacies

Ignoring the above principles leads to various fallacies, identified by Ayn Rand. If you cannot trace a concept to roots in perceived reality, it is a floating abstraction: so called because it is not tied to actual existence. For example, mystical claims are floating abstractions by their own admission (being claims to knowledge by ineffable means). A related fallacy is the stolen concept: using a genuine concept while explicitly denying the roots from which it derives, thereby turning it into a floating abstraction within your own mind. For example, using the concept "error" (which depends for its meaning on prior identification of the concept "truth") while denying that anything can be true, or using words to dispute that words have any meaning.

Even more insidious is package-dealing: uniting things into one concept on the basis of inessential similarities while ignoring fundamental differences which should keep them apart: "treating together, as parts of a single conceptual whole or 'package', elements which differ essentially in nature, truth-status, importance or value" (editor's footnote in Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It). A classic example is equating economic and political power, ignoring their opposite fundamental nature: the former being based on voluntary choices and the exchange of values, the latter on physical force and threats of punishment. (While one might be used to gain the other, their essential nature and means of perpetuation are quite different.) Because the power and utility of concepts stems from their mental use as single units, package deals are the Trojan horses of thinking, giving bad ideas the halo of good ones, or poisoning good ideas by a false linkage to bad ones.