The idea of objects

The interpretation of the world involves two things: first, the perception of physical elements and second, a mental reconstruction of these elements into a spatio-temporal world. So let us consider these mental processes separately.

i. Forming the idea of objects: treating things as if they were in-themselves.
Perception involves a combination of several things: sensing information from the physical world, transmitting this information to our mind, and retrieving its ideas to form a mental impression of the physical elements we are sensing. From all this process what is most relevant to us are the ideas.
The ideas we retrieve are mental representations of physical elements. We are daily engaged on a naïve interpretations of the world where we consider our ideas as true representation of elements. But if we take a closer look at things, it is easy to see that there is a difference between the nature of physical elements and the idea we form of them. In what way do they differ?
Let us begin by borrowing an example from Noam Chomsky: if two persons go to the library and each one takes a copy of, let’s say, War and Peace; would they be taking the same book or different books? Well, it all depends on how we think of the books. If we think on the abstract concept representing the books, then they are both taking the same book. But if we think of them as physical objects, then each one of them is taking a different book. So in general, we find that in the physical world there are not two elements that are the same. Nevertheless, the ideas of elements treats these physical differences as sameness unifying them through their common qualities.
Physical things not only differ one from another but they are also in permanent change. So for example, if we take a book from the library, is the book we are taking one and the same book, or is it always a different book?
Again, it all depends on how we think of the book. Normally, we would think with a practical sense on the abstract concept of the book, treating it as one and the same. But if we think on the physical nature of the book, then we know that it is in constant variation and that its never the same. And once again, we can notice that the abstract idea of things treats their physical differences as a sameness; this time ignoring the physical variation of things and making the idea of an invariable element.

So on our daily practical thought we normally consider our ideas as true representations of the physical world. But the little we think about it we find that there is a difference between ideas and physical elements. And this raises two questions: what is the nature of our ideas? and what is the true nature of the physical world? When we raise the problem in this way we seem to suggest that there are two separate worlds: the physical world and our mental world. For the moment, and as an introduction to the subject, we are going to consider them separately. But eventually we shall see, once we have presented the theory in a complete form, that they might be different but not distinct, and that the nature of both worlds is actually one and the same.

With the idea of things we attribute objects four qualities which don’t belong to real physical objects.


For example, the reality of a physical glass is of a unique glass, different from all other glasses, it is never the same, and it is continuous with the surrounding space. The reality of a glass then is, first of all, in rigour, unintelligible. And second, it is useless. For all practical purposes, it is the idea of a glass and not its reality that is useful. We evolved to approximate physical objects with useful ideas and not to see the world in its reality.

Let us see these concepts on more detail. We said that the ideas are mental representations of physical elements. Mental representations are formed by neurological association, which means that they are characterised by being formed with a limited amount of information, for there is a physical limitation in our neurological capacity. So ideas are not faithful representations of objects but approximations. If truth is an exact agreement between the idea and the object, to have a true idea of an element would mean to know it in its infinite complexity and change, which would require an infinite amount of information, which is physically impossible. So ideas cannot be truthful in an absolute, but in a relative sense. They are approximation and they can be more or less real depending on the amount of associated information forming the concept.

Then, as we mentioned, our mind didn’t evolve to form truthful, but useful representations. Our thought is framed by a human physiology. And this one in turn, is was shaped by the evolution of the human mind. And as we said before, awareness of Nature is not a necessary condition for existing. And for us in particular, if we don’t need to be aware of the world’s reality in order to exist, then let alone to understand it. So first of all, our mind didn’t evolve to form truthful ideas about the world. Thought is a fraction of our mental activity. And if the whole of our mental activity evolved to procure our preservation, then thought in particular evolved to create practical and useful interpretations for the same end.
For example, if two persons take a copy of War and Peace, the elements they are taking are physically different. But for all practical purposes we would say that they are taking a copy of the same book. The physical differences between the books is irrelevant to us. What is relevant to us are the practical qualities, like having a printed copy of the same novel. And it is these common relevant qualities that forms our abstract concept things.
It is clear that our preservation doesn’t depend on how we think about a book. But the way we see the world today is the result of an evolutionary process which was always dominated by the need of preservation and not by the need to see the world in real terms. And what the previous example reflects is that, as a result of this evolutionary process, our thought is not neutral but intentional. We think in a practical and useful way rather than in real terms. A real concept of the book for example, would require a large amount of information that for all practical purposes would be useless. So it is not a real, but a useful concept of the book that we normally think about. Our ideas then, are mental representations of physical elements, that as we have said, approximates reality with a limited amount of information. And this information in turn, is related to the most relevant qualities of objects.
Note: for the sake of simplicity we are using a naïve interpretation of evolution, for evolution is not planed nor intentional. See evolution for a more realistic description.

And at last, because of the intentionality of thought, ideas are characterised by the simplicity of their constructions. Our mind is daily engaged on practical thought. Practical thought, unlike reflective thought which is slow, effortful, time and energy consuming with no immediate usefulness, is characterised by its efficiency; that is, by achieving the best result with the minimum possible effort and in the shortest time. In order to have a fast, effortless and efficient thought ideas have to be economical. That is, they have to minimise the world into simplified and useful construction, to allow minimal time retrieval, minimal processing of information and the best possible result.
For example, stereotypes are the ideas we form of a group of people, and they are characterised  by being formed with a the limited amount of information and by generalising and treating individuals in the same way. All ideas have the same characteristics as stereotypes: they are formed with a limited amount of information, simplifying the world and treating difference as sameness. Stereotypes in particular are a good example of the economy of ideas. This economy allows, as in the case of stereotypes, a fast retrieval of ready made information. In general, and for most practical purposes, we usually don’t need a detailed knowledge about the world. So our ideas, not only are constructed with a limited amount of information but in order to be efficient, they simplify objects with the minimum amount of relevant information.

So in summary, what is the nature of our ideas like? Ideas are mental representations of physical elements which approximates their reality with the minimum association of relevant qualities, thus forming useful interpretations and contributing to practical thought.


One Response to “The idea of objects”

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