The Clarity of Concepts
I once had a passionate argument in a coffee shop with a philosophy student who tried to convince me that the concept of ‘truth’ was entirely man-made. ‘Truth’ does not exist in the world, he said, in the same manner as a rock or a tree. ‘North’, he insisted, has not existence at all.
Of course not, I replied, but so what? ‘Truth’ is a category of ideas containing those ideas that have been validated by the senses. Categories – or concepts – do not exist, of course, no more than the concept of ‘tree’ exists. The concept of ‘tree’ is just a category of sense-experience, describing those entities that share the properties of trees.
As to ‘North’, well of course it doesn’t exist, but the truth value in the assertion ‘Toronto is north of New York’ can be objectively established. The physical locations of the two cities, relative to the magnetic field of the Earth, can be determined through measurements. Thus, although the concept ‘North’ does not exist as an objective physical entity, the statement ‘Toronto is north of New York’ can be validated relative to objective physical entities – and so gains objectivity without requiring physical existence. This is not rocket science – it has all been thoroughly established for the past four hundred or so years, through the ‘logic plus reproducible, empirical verification’ approach of the scientific method.
I have staunchly maintained for years that concepts are not at all complicated. They are intangible, but objective, in the manner described above. Time and time again, however, I’ve run into the most patently ridiculous arguments against the objective validity of concepts. I could understand this if I was Francis Bacon taking on medieval scholasticism, but this is an age where intelligent people should not have any real difficulties understanding the power and accuracy of logical concepts, validated by sense-experience.
The sad fact is that the relationship between concepts and entities has been so thoroughly mucked up by Platonism, mysticism, superstition and religion that it has become almost impossible to see it with clear eyes. But it’s really not that complicated.
The human mind, thankfully, is capable of great errors in relation to sense-experience. I say ‘thankfully’ because without our capacity for ‘error’, we would have never figured out that the world is round – because it looks so flat! Similarly, the fact that we are moving around the sun, and not vice versa, would have remained similarly misperceived. So all praise to our capacity for error – it is the avenue to greater truths!
Because we can err, and because we cannot perceive basic truths about reality through the senses – not because the senses err, but because we are limited in our perspective – we must use concepts to organize sense-data into categories. This is a simple matter of efficiency, and arose with the use of language. ‘Did you round up the sheep?’ is just easier to say than ‘Did you round up all the little four legged white fluffy things that keep moving around when you don’t round them up?’ Similarly, those apes which learned to say: “A leopard! Run!” did a whole lot better than those who played the grunting charade of saying ‘a cat-like thing that has spots and runs really fast and likes to eat us and is coming now!’.
The simple fact that nature and matter is organized into categories – liquids, rocks, trees, sheep – is the reason why concepts are both possible and accurate. If atoms weren’t stable, and if nature didn’t require pairings of genetically-similar animals for reproduction, then everything would be random, and concepts wouldn’t be possible. Concepts are valid for the simple reason that trees are like other trees, and rocks are like other rocks. Trees are similar because they are a very efficient organization of self-reproducing cells – and rocks because the matter that makes them up behaves in similar, predictable patterns, being subject to the same universal forces of physics – and, so, geology.
Concepts, then, are just descriptions of physical similarity – and there’s nothing very complex in that. Of course, concepts can describe other concepts, but at some point physical reality must come into play. Even something as abstract as the theory of relativity was able to predict the bending of light through a gravitational field.
To take a short example, the concept of ‘numbers’ is nothing more than the description of discrete attributes of matter. ‘Two rocks’ is a description of a physical reality: there is a clump of matter, with a space, and another clump of similar matter. There are two of them, and so we get the number ‘two’. Very simple, don’t you think? Everything that is more complex comes out of such simple observations.
Also, concepts work, which is another proof of their validity. Through concepts, astronomers can predict the motion of planets. Using concepts proves concepts, since those that accurately describe the current nature of matter can accurately predict the future motion of matter. The scientific method for validating the truth of individual concepts – logic plus reproducible predictability – also validates the idea of concepts as a whole.
So why is there such mud around the idea of concepts? Why are such simple facts subjected to such endless mental static?
Well, wherever lies are told, just look for the money, and all will become clear.
Churches obviously profit from muddying the basic truth about concepts, since concepts only have value relative to sense-experience, and so gods cannot exist. But there’s much more to it than that. Some Jewish friends of my wife’s are being asked to contribute hundreds of dollars a month to their synagogue – and they don’t even have to believe in God! They just have to want to be ‘Jews’ – which of course is a concept without any roots in physical reality, since it is not a race. If it were rooted in physical reality, of course, it would not require an entrance fee – I don’t have to pay anyone to be white, or male, or bald.
Political and military leaders regularly get people killed to defend non-existent concepts – and of course they don’t start wars to defend the concepts, but use the concepts to declare the war, so that they can tax and threaten the non-combat citizenry.
Parents also use non-existent concepts to bully their children into dull, conforming compliance – cultural pride, the innate superiority of parents, fear of disapproval, the one-way, exploitive virtue of being ‘good children’ and so on.
Government employees – from bureaucrats to teachers – also require the false concept of ‘benevolent violence’ to justify their paychecks and privileges. The same is true for all the myriad leeches which feed off State power.
Sports teams also benefit from irrational concepts like ‘my team better’, as do unions, with their ‘bad bosses’ mantras.
So many parasitical groups profit from false concepts that it is not hard to understand why so much mud is thrown into the simple waters of conceptual accuracy. The methodology for fighting this corruption is the same as it has been since the age of Socrates: follow the money to the falsehood, reveal the false prophets, and free the truth.
Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.