Abstraction & Substraction

Abstraction & Substraction

The world is more complex, interconnected and interdependent than ever before. Information is flowing in all directions at an unprecedented scale and as individuals we are increasingly on the receiving end of more information, from more mediums and in more formats than ever before. This is a growing problem and it can distract us from the core things that matter in our work, in our lives and in our relationships. There are innumerable ways that people have suggested and tried to deal with this complexity. What’s more important among all this distraction is for us to be able to understand what matters, why it matters and how it matters. Abstraction is a powerful technique for doing this. But what is abstraction?
Abstraction is common in the fields of philosophy and computer science. The traditional philosophical definition of abstraction is that it is the process of identifying universals from particulars. To be specific, it’s the process of identifying what characteristics are shared (universal) between a given set of particulars (examples of something). For example, abstraction is figuring out what it is about all shoes that make them shoes, and make us recognize them as shoes. Shoes come in all shapes, sizes, colours, materials and more. Yet, when you see a sandal, a boot, a highheel or a croc you call them all shoes. The characteristics (universals) that these shoes all share and that define them as shoes are known as abstraction notions or principles.
In many ways abstraction really is “rising above” a particular expression of something (such as shoes) to see the pattern/principles that govern all the expressions. For this reason, I view abstraction more as a process of thought / reasoning. It’s the process by which you take a step back (or a step up the ladder) of understanding and reason and get a sense of the bigger picture and closer to the “universals.” Abstraction is an essential part of your intellectual toolkit, especially in the modern day. It enables you to put things in context, prioritize and identify crucial / key factors.

Abstraction Chains

You can form a chain of reasoning through abstraction (an abstraction chain) that can continue on past one level of abstraction. For example, see the process of abstraction in the example below:

News Feed Social Media > Social Media > Technology Industry > Productive Economy > Economy > Society > People > Natural world > Solar System > Galaxy > Universe

To start off with we pick social media services that have news feeds as part of the service, like Facebook or Twitter. At this point the only reason I’d be interested in abstracting is if I’m looking to learn something I don’t already know. Maybe I’m looking to understand the industry context, how different services are related to each other and what makes news feed social media unique and so on. So, we abstract by realizing that news feed social media services fall under the category and industry of social media. We can abstract further from there and realize that all social media services fall under the technology industry. We can keep the process going, recognizing how the tech industry falls under the productive economy which falls under the economy and so on.
At each step of this process when abstracting you identify what general characteristics are shared by a particular example, such as social media with news feeds. All social media involves social connection and interaction between people, this is not unique to any particular service but universal to all social media. It is a defining principle of social media.

Substraction Chains

But you can also flip the process of abstraction around to understand what makes a particular unique. This is called substraction. For example, social media with news feeds are unique because well, they have news feeds. News feeds are not universal to social media, but only found in a particular subset of social media. Thus, we’ve identified a defining principle for this subset.

Oneness: The First Law of Abstraction

You might be wondering why the abstraction chain above ends with the universe. The answer simply is that an abstraction chain if continued through enough rounds eventually and always leads to oneness. Let’s call this the first law of abstraction. Before proceeding just run through a few abstractions yourself and see what I mean. The first law of abstraction can be understood in a religious/spiritual sense or in a purely metaphysical sense. Through the chain of abstraction you eventually end up by recognizing that everything is partaking in something shared – existence. All things exist and this is universal to all things that exist. While this it a tautology it’s also a very fundamental axiom. By things all partaking in one things (existence) we come to understand that there is a oneness to all things. I leave it to you to determine whether this is a purely metaphysical or spiritual claim, and whether there is any difference in reality between the two.


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