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Stand out from the crowd and different concept , One light balloon flying away from other green balloons on light green pastel color wall background with window reflections and shadows . 3D rendering.

What Is Abstract Thought? A Reply to Dr. Ali

Abstract thoughts cannot arise from material things because a cause cannot give what it does not have

Psychiatrist Dr. Faizal Ali takes issue with my observation that the ability of human beings to think abstractly is an immaterial power of the mind. This observation—that the human soul has abilities that are not material in origin—is the classical understanding of the human mind, dating from Aristotle and continued through the scholastic philosophers to many modern philosophers. This view of the mind is logically coherent and, as I have pointed out elsewhere, it is well supported by neuroscience.

Before I address Dr. Ali’s specific objections, I’d like to take a moment to consider just what we mean by “abstract thought.” Abstract thought is thought about general concepts without thinking about particular examples. Human beings ordinarily derive abstract concepts from particular things—we make generalizations from particulars. The process of abstract thought is (metaphorically) the ‘pulling out’ and the isolation of general concepts from particular things. In this sense, abstract thought is contrasted to concrete thought.

For example, my thought about a real soccer ball in my hand is a concrete thought. My thought about perfect spheres, which the ball approximates, is an abstract thought. Whereas the soccer ball is a particular (non-perfect) shape, color, texture, weight, etc., a perfect sphere is defined in an entirely different way. It is the set of points equidistant from its center, with a volume equal to 4/3 pi r^3 in Euclidean coordinates, etc. A perfect sphere is entirely an abstract concept—no actual perfect sphere exists. By contrast, the soccer ball in my hand is a concrete thing, and my perception and my thinking about it is a concrete thought.

The distinction between concrete and abstract thought can be nicely illustrated by the philosophical distinction between tokens and types. A token is a concrete material example of something—a dollar bill in my wallet. A type is an abstract immaterial concept—currency, for example.

Concrete thoughts about tokens are material in origin—they arise from brain processes in an (as yet) imperfectly understood way.

Abstract thoughts about types are immaterial in origin—they do not, and cannot, arise from brain processes. Immaterial entities cannot arise from material things, because (to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas) the effect of a cause must, in some sense, be in the cause. A cause in nature cannot give what it does not, in some sense, have. I cannot impart momentum to an object unless I have some momentum (energy) to give. Matter cannot give rise to immateriality.

Abstract thought is qualitatively different from concrete thought. To understand this, consider a chiliagon. A chiliagon is a closed regular polygon with 1000 sides. It is very simple to understand abstractly. However, it cannot be imagined concretely—it’s not possible to form a clear picture of a chiliagon in your mind.

Furthermore, abstract thought is not merely an assembly of a large number of concrete thoughts—you don’t understand what a chiliagon is simply by imaging a series of many-sided polygons approaching a 1000-sided figure. Thus we see that abstract thought and concrete thought are different types of thought.

Dr. Ali seems not to understand this. For example, in the post in which he tries to argue that abstract thought emerges entirely from brain processes, he reproduces a figure from a scientific paper showing the complexity of brain tracts so as to illustrate how he believes that complexity can give rise to abstract thought.

Look carefully at the illustration there: The Y-axis is “List of all regions sorted by integrated connectivity to all sensory cortices.” The X-axis displays sensory modalities. It is noteworthy that the very research Ali cites is research on concrete sensory processing by the brain, which we all agree is material. The research is not on abstract thought.

Dr. Ali’s deeper fallacy—deeper than his misunderstanding of the research—is his belief that mere complexity of material processes is sufficient to explain immaterial processes. This fallacy is the pleonastic fallacy—the belief that the unintelligibility of material causation of abstract thought is ameliorated by invoking mass unintelligibility. Materialists assert that an unbridgeable explanatory gap—how immaterial abstract thought can arise from matter—can be crossed by multiplying the things that aren’t explainable.

I’ll have more to say about materialists and their pleonastic fallacy in future posts.


Also by Michael Egnor on the immaterial mind:

Materialism is an intellectual trap, out of which neuroscience needs to climb Neurologist Steven Novella refutes himself. He first asserts that everything he knows is an illusion. Then he insists that his illusions slap him in the face with reality.

Four researchers whose work sheds light on the reality of the mind The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple

Atheist psychiatrist misunderstands the evidence for an immaterial mind. Patients with massive brain damage were shown to have a mental life.

and

Materialism is an intellectual trap, out of which neuroscience needs to climb. Neurologist Steven Novella refutes himself. He first asserts that everything he knows is an illusion. Then he insists that his illusions slap him in the face with reality.

Featured image: Standing out/masterzphotofo, Adobe Stock


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

What Is Abstract Thought? A Reply to Dr. Ali