Abstraction Will Make You Smarter

The Most Important Concept in Your Cognitive Toolkit

This isn’t some clickbaity trope or quick fix. Abstraction is the real root of intelligence, and here’s yet more evidence. The Edge.org “Annual Question” for 2011 was WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT? The resulting book, This Will Make You Smarter, contains 165 contributions from eminent thinkers, a few of which explicitly invoke abstraction, but all of which are abstractions themselves. The editor’s preface states that the inspiration behind the 2011 question (conceived by Pinker and Kahneman) was James Flynn’s concept of ‘shorthand abstractions.’:

“[Flynn] defined shorthand abstractions (SHAs) as concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates… [Flynn’s] idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk, which can be used as an element in thinking and in debate.” — ed. John Brockman, This Will Make You Smarter, 2011, Edge.0rg

So, all of the 165 concepts in the book are these ‘shorthand abstractions’ (read them all here). The meta- message then is abstractions make you smarter. Each entry is short, ranging from 1–4 pages, and explains a scientific insight or idea, which is compressed into a memorable word or phrase. Despite abstraction being the premise of the book, it leaves much to be desired for abstraction itself. I cite this sourcebook as just one more of many threads of the abstract narrative that converge on the meta-problem.

Some of favourite discreet abstractions include “Supervenience”, “Interbeing”, “Ecology”, “Bricoleur”, “Projective Thinking”, “Contingent Superorganisms”, and “Powers of Ten.” But the book is not perfect. Some entries have banal phrases posing as shorthand abstractions, such as “Science’s Methods Aren’t Just for Science” or “You Can Show That Something Is Definitely Dangerous but Not That It’s Definitely Safe.” Umm… okay. Honestly, those aren’t really ‘shorthand,’ or catchy, but despite the inconsistent format each entry certainly captures a worthy scientific lesson that will make you smarter. One of them that provides a diagrammatic abstraction is “The Culture Cycle.”

p. 368, This Will Make You Smarter

We should try to supplement our abstract conversations with more diagrams. They reveal complex relationships between conceptual objects that can be validated in the details. Diagrams are like the geometric proof of our statements on social reality. The raise our awareness to a higher level of analysis, hiding and compressing the details below. In the section “Hidden Layers,” Frank Wilczek notes the value of (properly) naming things even before the phenomena is fully understood, as “names create new nodes in hidden layers of thought.” Tor Norretranders drives this home in writing about “Depth”:

“That is also the point with abstractions. We want them to be shorthand for a lot of information that was digested in the process leading to the use of the abstraction but not present when we us it. Such abstractions have depth…Intellectual life is very much about the ability to distinguish between the shallow and the deep abstractions.” — Tor Norretranders

Another vital entry is ‘abduction,’ but under the heading of its shorthand phrase “Inference to the Best Explanation.” (p. 112). Abduction is interesting not only because it shares the root ab- with abstraction, but I would say that it is a specific subset of abstraction, and overlooked as such. Inference to the best explanation is like a common sense process of elimination. I would like to give abduction more space in another post, so for now here is a nice visual aid:

Interestingly, one of the entries is kayfabe, a term from professional wrestling meaning the dramatic staging and simulating of events as if they were real. The American people sure could have used that in their cognitive toolkit to break the spell of former WWE star Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. I don’t need to say anything about that, because here is two great articles on it: Election Tech: Politics is Kayfabe: Oh yeah! in TechRepublic and On Donald Trump, kayfabe fascist: `The wink is what tells you he probably isn’t Hitler’ in myStatesmen. The kayfabe entry provides many insights, but one prescient tip calls out to our ‘kayfabricated’ 24-hour bullshit newscycle:

“Were Kayfabe to become part of our toolkit for the twenty-first century, we would undoubtedly have an easier time understanding a world in which investigative journalism seems to have vanished and bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts.” — Eric R. Weinstein

Another entry that provides explicit insight into abstraction is “The Game of Life — and Looking For Generators” by Nick Bostrom. The Game of Life is a simulator of cellular automata, to test the unfolding of interactions by simple algorithms, but Bostrom takes it to the next level;

“Conway’s Game of Life is perhaps best viewed not as a single shorthand abstraction but rather as a generator of such abstractions. We get a whole bunch of useful abstractions — or at least a recipe for how to generate them — all for the price of one. And this points us to one especially useful shorthand abstraction: the strategy of Looking for Generators. We confront many problems. We can try to solve them one by one. But alternatively, we can try to create a generator that produces solutions to multiple problems.” — p. 277

The last entry “A Cognitive Toolkit Full of Garbage” urges us to empty our minds of expired abstractions. The author, Ernst Poppel, warns that the evolutionary selection pressures for abstraction make it fast and efficient but also prone to error (a la Thinking Fast and Slow), and we become victims of the words representing the shorthand abstractions. He suggests one way to purge the mental garbage and improve a shorthand abstraction is to stop using it. (ie. don’t use the shorthand abstraction “consciousness” while working on it).

What this really means is that you have to abstract the abstraction, question the word, and redefine it. I regret that this entry is not as strong as it could be. It labels dozens of words “SHAs”, thereby diluting the substance of abstraction, whereas it would be more efficient to say this entropy of abstraction is related to the problem of reification; ideas or beliefs becoming considered as concrete fact.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned entries, the Edge.org book leaves much to be desired about explicit abstraction itself, but also (sociological) critical thinking in general. Surely “Critical Theory” deserves an honorable mention at least, but it is absent altogether. As any introductory definition will tell you, ‘critical theory’ actually refers to many ‘critical theories’ borne out of the Marxian Frankfurt School thinkes and the reductio ad absurdum of World War II.

James Flynn, the coiner of ‘shorthand abstractions’ takes us full circle in Beyond the Flynn Effect (not in the Edge.org book), to argue that “critical acumen and wisdom” are left out of the equation on IQ tests. Perhaps unconsciously nodding to metamodern ‘Nordic Ideology’ (a la Hanzi Freinacht), Flynn writes “Although IQ gains are still robust in America, they have stopped in Scandinavia (Flynn & Weiss, under review; Schneider, 2006). Perhaps their societies are more advanced than ours and their trends will become our trends.” More specifically to this point, he continues “if we want a test to measure the enhancement of critical acumen over time, we will have to invent a new one.”

So where are we now? How has our cognitive toolkit and edge-y thinking evolved since 2011? Well… lo and behold, “Abstraction” has its own entry in the 2017 Edge.org question WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN? That’s why The Abs-Tract Organization has been on this path for years. Finally we are making some progress. Professor Martin’s entry focuses exclusively on the abstraction of Ada Lovelace, the mother of computer science writing in the 1840s. Obviously much more can be said about abstraction and why it should be widely known, but it is a lovely anecdotal introduction nonetheless. The author praises Lovelace’s accessibility as a benchmark for abstraction itself, while also being the first mechanical computer mock-up;

“The paper is so readable because Lovelace describes the machine, not in terms of elaborate ironmongery, but using abstractions — store, mill, variables, operations and so on. These abstractions, and the relations between them, capture the essence of the machine, in identifying the major components and the data that passes between them.”

In conclusion, abstraction will make you smarter. Abstractions will make you smarter. There is countless ways this can be spun. Abstraction as both a process and a concept is endlessly scientific, and the scientific community agrees. But in taking abstraction for granted, we have developed an enormous blindspot. Some of us are getting smarter, but in a dumber world. The more we neglect abstraction, the more ‘vicious’ it will become. Each of my blog posts on abstraction is an entreaty to go deeper, to look wider, to think bigger, and to stand taller. We live life on the edge — the knowl-edge — and while too much abstraction might be considered ‘going off the deep end,’ it’s the only thing keeping us afloat.


The Abs-Tract Organization (TATO) is a metamodern research and media project dedicated to blowing the lid off the secrets of ‘abstraction.’

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