The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness

Whitehead understood that all things are in flux and nothing is permanent. How does this apply today as the world experiences the trauma…

Image of storm clouds gathering for article by Larry G. Maguire

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Whitehead understood that all things are in flux and nothing is permanent. How does this apply today as the world experiences the trauma and challenge of COVID-19?

Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality, published in 1929, said, “In the inescapable flux, there is something that abides; in the overwhelming permanence, there is an element that escapes into flux. Permanence can be snatched only out of flux; and the passing moment can find its adequate intensity only by its submission to permanence”.

Consider that inside implies outside, black implies white, I imply you, and space implies matter. Of course, the converse is also true — with the existence of either one, there is the implication of the other. And so in assigning labels we commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, according to Whitehead, by mistaking abstractions, beliefs or mental constructs for physical or “concrete” reality.

For example;

The word jam refers to the fruity sticky stuff inside the jar that you spread on toast or scones. Jam is just a word I write or a noise I make that is commonly understood to be the stuff in the jar. The word jam is not the fruity sticky stuff, it’s just a concept, or rather, it invokes a concept on your part. Unless, that is, you are one of my American cousins in which case jam is not jam, it’s jelly.

But jelly is certainly not jam where I’m from.

Either way, I’d rather spread the fruity sticky stuff on my toast than the concept.

Whitehead was critical of reductionist ideas of reality and proposed the fallacy of misplaced concreteness in relation to the temporal location of objects in space. He rejected the idea that physical objects could be assigned temporal existence without reference to their relationship to other objects.

In other words, everything exists as an extension of everything else.

I am what I am because of what I am not, and what I am not, because of what I am. The two seem diametrically opposed, and yet each is required for the other to be. In science, no matter how objective we consider ourselves to be, the observer can never be truly be removed from the scene. We have an impact on the outcome, no matter how slight and therefore we must always report our findings as tentative.

“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, seek simplicity and distrust it”.

— Alfred North Whitehead | Mathematician and Philosopher

Near and far are concepts. Past and future are concepts. Planet Earth is a concept. I am a concept. But these concepts are so utterly engrained in our popular consciousness that we fail to see the truth — i.e. nothing really exists.

Permanence is an illusion of the brain. Just like the concept Larry Maguire is always changing, dependent on environmental conditions and its relationship to that, everything changes.

And so, that thing we seek in society and in fellow human beings cannot be found — but we pursue it, anyway. And when conditions change so dramatically as they have done in recent weeks, we have no concept by which to express it.

We freak out.

Trauma exists until such time as we become conditioned to the new reality, or change brings our experience back to a prior condition. It’s not that a “past” condition returns, but rather than the curve has flattened.

In truth, we love the drama of it all, even though today COVID-19 has shaken most people to their boots. If you find yourself in the company of others, which may be rare in recent weeks I’ll admit, then you’ll find COVID-19 is all people are talking about. The drama is disruptive but exciting. Everyone is a fucking expert or knows an expert that knows an expert.

To be honest, I find it all a little irritating. However, back to the philosophising…

It can be said that all experienced phenomena can be accounted for without labelling and conceptualisation as “a happening”. It is an on-off, in-out, up-down dualistic relationship of it with itself. It is something that ultimately cannot be explained, and it goes on absent of time and space.

In Taoist philosophy it is the Tao, the unknowable, unnameable, natural self-organising and fundamental reality underlying everything. It both is and is not. In Hinduism, it is Brahman, and it said that the Brahman is unknown to those who know it, and known to those who do not.

Somewhat cryptic, but if you’ve felt it then this idea makes sense. You’ll know, without uttering as much as a word, that you are as much a part of the happening as the thing you perceive — there is no separation. In fact, the you that you perceive yourself to be disappears and all that remains is the thing.

Realisation of this to-and-fro reality becomes relevant in times such these when change is so abrupt. It’s like a big storm has hit land and is tearing up towns and villages, and just like the storm, COVID-19 is not permanent — it will pass. But when we are so embroiled in it that we cannot step outside it, then we suffer.

“Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The recent health scare and subsequent upheaval in the markets and broader society is not a thing in of itself. Rather, it is a response. Some believe it is malicious, and that may prove to be the case. Regardless, it is still a response to the stimulus of human activity.

But as with all corrections, there is opportunity.

The planet is getting a break from human activity and that can’t be bad.

People are getting a break from perhaps the invisible pressures of what we have come to know as normal life. Priorities are being reset, attitudes are changing, and people are wishing each other well and actually meaning it.

Additionally, we have a chance to establish new meaningful relationships with work instead of the dominant transactional relationship many of us have. Many have lost their jobs, but even this presents an opportunity. In my humble opinion, there is no better time to build something for yourself.

COVID-19 is temporary, not permanent, and although matters are serious, we need to be careful to what we assign truth.

We have a period of adjustment ahead, no doubt about it, but I want to believe that things will be better when the dust settles.

It’s up to us.