I would like to propose the theory that there are four different types of ideas, which I shall refer to as the concrete real, the abstract real, the concrete unreal, and the abstract unreal.  The concrete real consists of material objects and specific events, whether these events be historical occasions or what I had for lunch last Friday. (It was pizza, by the way. Just in case you were wondering.) The abstract real is things such as mathematical principles, the laws of physics, and philosophical and theological truths. For the sake of this description of my classification, I will not discuss at length the question of whether truth is objective, but since that question is already implied by the use of the word “truth” in this context, I will acknowledge that I am assuming the existence of objective reality and objective truth. I don’t think that point is actually all that necessary to this system of classification, though, because it isn’t necessary to take into consideration whether something is objectively true or observed to be true. For example, ethical rules fall under this second category whether those rules are innate or socially constructed. Basically, this category that I call the abstract real is made up of things that exist, but not in a tangible or directly observable way. We can only use these ideas by representing them with words and numbers, which technically are arbitrarily designated signs and sounds with no inherent meaning of their own.

I felt like I needed a picture here, and I figured this was a good place for a Matrix reference.

I felt like I needed a picture here, and I figured this was a good place for a Matrix reference.

The third category, which I am calling the concrete unreal, refers to fiction or to any game or form of entertainment that involves pretending. It is the things that don’t actually exist, but can be imagined to exist because they follow the same rules of being as things that do exist. We can imagine that it would be possible for these things to be true in the objective reality in which real things exist. Even magic and science fiction fall into this category, despite the fact that they disagree with reality in some ways, because we’ve all experienced many situations that seemed to defy those rules of reality to a small extent. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to use the ideas of invisibility or magical mental powers or technology beyond the scope of our own. However, it’s much more difficult to imagine a world in which two plus two equals five (not because “two” or “five” have been redefined, but because numbers actually work in a different way) or where there are fifty dimensions in coordinate space instead of three, or where there is no such thing as time. These types of concepts are not only outside of the realm of reality as we know it; they can’t even be explained with the words and numbers that work just fine to explain things within reality. These types of ideas are what I am calling the abstract unreal.

It may be fairly obvious that I started writing this blog post in my head while doing the reading assignment for my class in postmodernism. In general, I disagree with postmodern ideas and even find them kind of disturbing, mainly because of the underlying principle that everything is subjective and there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T. The books that we’re using for this class stress that you can’t boil postmodernism down to a simple description, but they only say that because it is so anti-postmodern to think that you can classify ideas under a label. I disagree; I think that you can classify ideas under a label as long as everyone using the label agrees about what the label means. That’s the whole point of labels. If they don’t always work, it’s because people misuse those labels, either out of ignorance or out of a postmodern-inspired inclination to mess up the validity and reliability of description. I agree that shapes on a piece of paper or a computer screen have no inherent meaning, and that language only is capable of communicating because we have assigned certain meanings to certain sounds and shapes. But once those meanings have been assigned, I think that we’re supposed to stick to the rules in order to ensure that the rules continue to work.  Despite the oft-repeated statement made by a couple dolls my sister and I used to have, you can’t redefine words to suit your present needs.

So, on those counts, I disagree with postmodernism, but I think that there’s still much to be said for the distinction between that which is being signified and that which signifies. Just as a portrait of a person is not that person and a photograph of a mountain is not a real mountain, a word is not an idea, just something that represents an idea. To read or even to listen to someone speak is to decode a system of metaphors that represents ideas (whether they correspond to reality or not, and whether they are concrete or abstract) with arbitrary sounds. As weird as postmodernism is, it’s right about the fact that every medium of communication, whether by word or by image, only has meaning because we assign meaning to it.

BoFor example, my sisters who live at home sometimes email me pictures of the cat or post pictures of him on tumblr. When they do so, they’re sending me a two-dimensional visual digital image of him that technically has no more in common with him than does a picture of asparagus, for example, despite the fact that Bo himself has very little in common with asparagus. But when I see those pictures, they make me think of him and they remind me of what an awesome cat he is. That is not the way I would react to a picture of asparagus. Most likely, if any of my sisters were to email me a picture of asparagus, I would be completely baffled, because I have fewer connotations with asparagus than I do with the cat. (It is now extremely likely that I will get at least a couple asparagus emails from my sisters in the relatively near future, and if that does happen, I won’t be very baffled after all. I have just added a connotation to visual representations of asparagus by mentioning it in this context.)

Gone with the WindTo relate this back to my four categories of ideas, the cat and the asparagus belong to the concrete real. This computer in front of my face is concretely real, and so are the books stacked behind it. Directly in front of my face, I see my linear algebra textbook. If I was to pick that up and open it right now, I would see a bunch of numbers, equations, and algorithms for solving those equations. The things in that book are abstractly real. The mathematical theorems described in the book are true, but they can only be described and explained by words and mathematical notation printed on a page or written on the classroom blackboard or spoken by my professor or written in my notes. Behind me, there’s another bookshelf where I keep most of my non-school books. A lot of them are fiction. For example, I could pick up Gone with the Wind, open it up, and start reading about the Civil War. The book is concretely real, the Civil War was concretely real, but the life of Scarlett O’Hara isn’t real. It never happened, but it conceivably could have. Most of the historical events in the book really happened, and there really were people very much like the characters in the story. Just as the words on the page represent the story, the experiences of Scarlett O’Hara represent the experiences of people who really lived in Georgia in the 1860s. Thus, the story of Gone with the Wind is concretely unreal. That book is the obvious example because it has so many historically verifiable facts, but the same goes for fictional stories that are less solidly based in reality. Most of the books on that shelf are set in places that really exist, or have characters with believable and realistic personalities, or make some metaphorical statement about the real world. For most of those books, all of those things are true. And in none of them do the rules of space and time work significantly differently than they do in real life. (With the possible exception of my Douglas Adams books. And also the possible exception of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, because I still have absolutely no clue what that book is saying, even after having read it three times.) The line between what I call the concrete unreal and the abstract unreal is quite a bit fuzzier, but I still think there’s a distinction. To use the terminology from my postmodernism class, the concrete unreal can be described and expressed using the same signifiers as the concrete real. A drawing of a fictional character doesn’t necessarily look different from a drawing of a real person. But the abstract unreal doesn’t make sense when expressed with the signifiers that we use to talk about reality.

The question that it would make sense to ask here is why I think there’s any significance to making these distinctions. The short answer is that I love making distinctions; making distinctions is fun. Inventing a system of classifying things or ideas is a very entertaining hobby. The longer answer is that I think that these four categories I have just labeled correspond to different types of intelligence. The concrete real is scientific, the abstract real is mathematical and/or philosophical, the concrete unreal is literary, and the abstract unreal is artistic. An intelligent person is someone who has some grasp of all four types of ideas and who excels in at least one. A genius is someone who has a good grasp of all four types of ideas and who is able to express the ideas from one category in the terminology of another. That’s what’s so impressive about great theoretical physicists like Einstein; they build real concepts out of thought experiments that start as abstract unreal ideas.

Since this blog post has been slapdashly written and probably has not followed a logical and organized structure, I am not going to bother coming up with a good way to conclude it.