Prioritise Abstraction Over Metaphor

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Usually, the Abstractions we are using are based on Conceptual Metaphors.See e.g. Lakoff & Johnson (1980, 1999).

They enable conceptual creativity, but also put Constraints on what thoughts we can think: they import assumptions and distinctions from the source domain to the target domain, regardless of their applicability, and thus “constrain available hypotheses”Eliasmith (2003), 2


Therefore changing metaphors is not enough when we want to understand Complex Systems for what they really are and Expand the space of thinkable thoughts: metaphors always introduce blind spots and distortions, and they force us to stay within the boundaries of Folk Ontology.

As a result, we are either stuck with fantastical ontologies (e.g. classical metaphysics), or we therapeutically identify metaphors and expose fantastical ontologies as suchSee Lakoff & Johnson (1999) for a very thorough application of this strategy.

– but we have no way of escaping them, as we will always end up with another metaphor.

The alternative to this Strategy is to create and use abstractions without metaphors.This has also been the main motivation and device of Niklas Luhmann (Luhmann 1984) and Gilles Deleuze (DeLanda 2002) in their respective ontological work.

The highest-level abstraction that is useful for us is the general concept of Systems as distinguishable entities, which just reflects the fact that there is difference in the world and refrains from positing any intrinsic qualities of these systems.Cf. Friston (2019), 4: “something can be distinguished from everything else”. Luhmann and Deleuze also take difference as their starting point. Their approach is limited in its potential, though, as they don’t reflect the latest science, e.g. Free Energy Minimisation or Causal Emergence, and they don’t contribute to the accumulation of Knowledge because they are rather esoteric not relatable to other disciplines.

In order to arrive at more specific abstractions that help detail our Ontological Commitment to systems we can look into the natural sciences and mathematics, being careful to not re-import metaphors from there.Vervaeke & Kennedy (2004) describe how the use of spatial notions in abstract thinking, e.g. that of a State Space, is not based on the embodied experience of space which grounds a conceptual metaphor, but on “linking largely procedural knowledge from one abstract domain … to another domain … to set properties in order of significance, structuring information for evaluative and expressive purposes.” (Vervaeke & Kennedy 2004, 226)

So the overall methodology should be:

  1. Identify the most useful abstractions in current science and mathematics.
  2. Describe reality with them to generate insights for Sensemaking, using Defamiliarisation techniques to avoid falling back into folk ontology.
  3. Refer back to science (i.e. make and test predictions) to validate these insights.
  4. Use metaphors only to make them accessible and tangible.

A set of particularly useful abstractions taken from current science and mathematics are Scale-free Abstractions.