The Science of Comprehension

How We Understand Abstract Concepts

Part I

The New 21st-Century Paradigm Shift

Some very exciting recent results emerging from the field of Cognitive Science. This is big, really big! Our understanding of the universe has started a major paradigm shift. The new 21st-Century Enlightenment has begun.

First, to set the stage for this new paradigm shift, a very brief historical review of previous major paradigm shifts:

Isaac Newton's Principia, published in 1687, introduced a new branch of mathematics called Calculus. Calculus showed that it was natural for the earth and planets to revolve around the sun. And the Catholic Church lost its credibility and political influence. Here was pure math, undeniable pure mathematics, as undeniable as 1+1=2, showing the Catholic Church was wrong.1

Then in 1905 Einstein introduced a major change to our Newtonian view of the universe. Newtonian physics included the assumption that time is the same everywhere, and that time moves forward at a constant rate. I have a watch telling me what time it is here, so what time is it over there at the other side of the room? Newton's physics assumed it was the same time everywhere. Einstein said no, there's no way to synchronize two clocks separated by a distance and have everyone agree they are properly synchronized. Plus, time doesn't move forward at a constant rate everywhere.2

And now for the new major paradigm shift happening right now. The new 21st-Century Enlightenment:

Do Theoretical Concepts Exist Apart From The Material World

Pure mathematics, up until now, was thought to exist as an abstraction separate from the physical world. I can write the number 5 down on a piece of paper, or enter the number 5 into a calculator, or set the number 5 on an abacus. What is the number 5? The paper itself is not the number 5. The ink itself on the paper is not the number 5. The calculator itself is not the number 5. The abacus itself is not the number 5. The number 5 is an abstract concept, separate from the physical world. The number 5 here is the same as the number 5 over there. The number 5 tomorrow will be the same as the number 5 yesterday. All the numbers from 1 to infinity have always existed and will always exist.

The New 21st-Century Enlightenment says that's wrong. Abstract concepts don't exist apart from the material world.

Cognitive Scientist Prof. George Lakoff writes,

"It is hard to underestimate how far the idea that concepts are physically embodied, using the sensory motor system of the brain, is from disembodied Enlightenment reason—from the usual view of concepts as disembodied abstractions, entirely separate from the sensory motor system."3

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1. See Galileo.

2. What I really like is conventionally Einstein's Theory of Relativity is only important when you are moving very, very, fast, close to the speed of light, which is around 3×108 meters/second. Now, although an electric voltage moves through a wire at about the speed of light, the electrons themselves in the wire drift at the extremely slow speed of around 0.728 millimeters/second—less than one millimeter per second. However, if you apply Einstein's Theory of Relativity to these very slow moving electrons, you end up discovering the relativistic origin of the magnetic force! [Return to text.]

3. George Lakoff (professor of Cognitive Science at UC Berkley) The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, (2008) pg 252. The last chapter, which contains no politics, is an overview of the New 21st-Century Enlightenment we are entering. This chapter really is superb, destined to be a classic that changes our philosophical understanding of the world. And since philosophy determines government, politics is a natural field to use for examples. This book, which introduces the new 21st-Century Enlightenment, is like Isaac Newton's Principia. It's full of new knowledge, not about what we think, but how we think—how we go about understanding and reasoning about abstract concepts. It's truly an excellent book. If I tried to summarize the book I'd end up quoting the entire book.
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