Intelligent Systems And Their SocietiesWalter Fritz

Misuse of Concepts


We are biological beings, not computers that work with precision, so some typical misuses and misconstructions of concepts can be observed.

First a short summary of the relation between words, concepts and the environment:
The environment is that which we observe with our senses. Based on these sense observations we make primary concepts to express and store what we sensed. Based on primary concepts we elaborate all other concepts. Concepts are used to express the present situation and to make response rules. When we want to communicate our concepts to another person we use words. The other person tries to relate our words to the concepts he has build up.
Take for instance the words: "cat", "apple", "car", "order", "laws of nature", "force", "system", "frontier", "light waves", and "light particles" (photons). We all agree that these are words. They are words that denote concepts, words that we use to speak about concepts.

For instance "cat" indicates a concept for an animal, which has a large tail, is a mammal, a domesticated animal, etc.
This concept does not only indicate a group of sensations. Certainly we have sensations related to our concept of "cat". But the concept is much more than only auditory and visual sensations. We cannot see that a certain cat is a mammal or that it is domesticated. These properties do not exist in the environment; they are part of our concept for "cat" that only exists in our mind.

In the same way the word "apple" denotes a concept. Part of the concept is, that this a fruit, that it is eatable, that it has seeds. The seeds of an apple are often not visible. The fact, that it is a fruit, does not exist in our environment, this is part of our concept for "apple" that exists in our mind only.

When we think, we use concepts with all their properties, and this is something occurring in our mind. When thinking, we do not use words that are made up of letters (when written in the environment) or made up of sounds (when spoken in the environment). (For details see Senses and Concepts)


Imprecise concepts
Primary concepts normally are precise. They are normally useful (Exceptions are optical and other sensory illusions).
Concepts derived from other concepts are normally imprecise. And as more steps of generalization and abstraction are involved, they become more and more imprecise.
In an artificial intelligent systems that is not the case. Its computer builds up concepts according to precise rules. All concepts can be traced (or defined) as deduced from other concepts.

Words with different meanings for different persons
Many concepts that we have, we have not learned by ourselves, They are concepts created when we heard a new word and received an (approximate) explanation of the concept the word stands for. Such concepts necessarily are very imprecise. This same word will be used by different persons to label their own concepts, and these differ in from each other in different degrees. Any further abstractions and generalizations based on these will be very imprecise.
We should be aware that reasoning with imprecise concepts gives bad results, because we are reasoning with concepts that do not represent the situation.

Concepts charged with emotions
Words charged with emotions are another cause of bad thinking. Advertisements and government slogans are usually charged with emotions and are so constructed as to lead us to react to the emotion without using reason. This is bad thinking or no thinking.

Ascribing incorrect properties to concepts
While the present exists and is that which is around us (our environment) and from which all our sensations come, the past has no existence outside of our brain, The past is a concept, labeling a series of concepts that exist only in our minds. (Records do exist of the past, such as books, movies etc. But the record is not the past. It is a medium from which our minds can construct concepts about the past). While some beautiful science fiction stories have been written about traveling into the past or the future, it is quite unreasonable to talk about traveling into a concept (the past).

Similar to the past, also this is a concept in our minds, not something in our environment.

Time is not an elementary concept. We do not have a sense for time. Time is a concept based on elementary concepts. We observe distance, velocity and oscillatory movements but not time. In physics we say that time is distance divided by velocity.
Do not confuse "time" with a sequence of events. Several sensations are stored in the order they occurred. That is primary information, it is something existing in our brains or the computer memory of an artificial intelligent system. It is an ordering. To determine the time involved we would have to compare the instant of occurrence of the first and last sense information with the distance something moved in our environment.
"Time" is often a very useful concept, but we should be aware that it is not a primary concept. Much confusion is created because we think time is a concept that corresponds to something in our environment.

Often we hear "history teaches us. . ." This is wrong. History is not an intelligent system. History is a concept. History has no objective and cannot act. Such a confused concept leads to confused thinking.

To say "evolution has created life out of inorganic material" is wrong for the same reason. "Evolution" is a concept, used to explain a process, not an intelligent system and so has no objective, cannot act, cannot create.

In physics we talk about magnetism, when it is known that magnetism can be fully explained by moving electrical charges, such as an electron circling a nucleus. We talk about electromagnetism as if two forces are present, electricity and magnetism, while only one is present and the difference is the kind of movement of the electric charge. Possibly new insights could be gained if we talked and reasoned correctly.

The above are just a few examples. The amount of misused concepts is very large.

When a scientist or philosopher writes words, she/he should always have in mind the concepts that these words represent. They should use concepts, as precise as possible, when reasoning or explaining the environment. Any confusion in their statements will confuse themselves and their readers and hinder the transfer of ideas.

Thus a confusion as: light is a "wave" or light is a "particle" would not occur. A light in our environment can be explained by the concepts of "wave" and "particle". Both concepts, "waves" and "particles" are useful in different circumstances; but the explanation (in our brain) is not the thing itself (in our environment).
The same is true when saying the universe consists of quarks. Again the universe is confused with a concept. All we can say is that the concept of "quark" makes it easier to predict the sensations we receive from the universe (directly or through instruments).

It even looks to me that scientists and philosophers should only write about their concepts (their understanding) of the environment and not write as if they were talking about the environment itself. The environment is unknowable. We can only know the sensations received from the environment and from them build up concepts that describe the environment and the processes occurring in the environment. But all these are concepts, not the environment itself (see also what Kant said about the concepts and the thing itself ("Ding an sich").
Naturally in daily small talk this precision is not needed; and when poets write, there is no precision at all, they transmit feelings rather than thoughts.


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Last Edited 11 July 2012 / Walter Fritz
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