On Prudence

I am no luddite; my profession is abstracted ideas and bureaucracy at the moment. However, something I have noticed, particularly after owning a house, is that “village life” or working with nature or physical properties makes man prudent in a unique way. This is because nature is a complex system of dichotomies; there is no arbitrage or oversimplifying or lying about realities without consequence. Abstract professions have the luxury of, for a time, hiding the consequences or offloading them to be dealt with by others, sometimes without either party knowing. The arc for resolution of error in abstract ideas is much longer, and therefore more caution must be paid.

The theologian, the scientist (certain kinds), and the abstract theorist often deal in aggregates; they needs bricks as opposed to stones. Bricks are uniformly shaped and easily assembled into larger structures; stones are oblong, irregular, and not predictable. This irregularity forces the individual to engage reality, and not retreat into personal experience or neatly constructed versions of reality, where definitions and absolutes can be smoothed over to suit one’s wishes. The stone is not a rectangular brick no matter how much you claim it is so; only by working on the stone itself can it become a brick.

Abstract thinking is critical. It is the only way new ideas are encountered and tested and civilization moves forward. It is how we adventure in philosophy and attempt to see concepts we do not now see, and it does not require that our concrete knowledge be 100% accurate, which is unrealistic. It is how we theorize regarding things that have not yet been done, and weigh the risks and anticipate hurdles to overcome. Even a farmer who improves a method or process for farming does so based on an abstract synthesis of his experiences and understanding of reality. We can stumble upon improvements entirely by chance, but such improvements are only the low-hanging fruit that experienced individuals have likely already found. Advancements beyond a certain point require abstract thought, deliberate testing, and synthesis and comparison of principles.

However, sometimes these abstractions take on a life of their own, becoming a cultural or civil dogma that cannot be countervailed. It is also uniquely in the abstractions that charlatans hide their lies; there is no space to hide it in the concrete. Such is the case in many social sciences, where the concrete realities can easily become blurred.

In advanced societies, “brick” professions that deal with highly abstract ideas proliferate, since the low-hanging fruit isn’t there anymore and additional thought is needed. Interaction with nature begins to decline, and commensurately interaction with abstract ideas increases. Highly abstract ideas need predictable building blocks, so they rely on individuals not fudging the stones and convincing others that they are bricks. There is a temptation to oversimplify and to detach from the concrete dichotomies based on a poor understanding of fundamentals. This is like a country that is extremely competent at hospitality and service, but has no one who can competently run a farm or construct buildings.

One danger of abstraction is the flattening of a dichotomy. Abstraction frequently oversimplifies ideas, such as one might ask a personal trainer: “What’s the best rep range for squats?” Note the abstraction in “best.” Best in what way? In producing a maximal amount of force? In most effectively stimulating muscle synthesis?

So, the abstraction must be tempered by the concrete understanding of reality. Abstraction needs neatly segmented concepts and ideas to build something larger, such as a builder needs crafted materials at specified lengths, widths, and heights to properly build. This oversimplification effect must be mitigated by exposure and immersion in the concrete contingencies, which requires action or dialogue with those who are immersed in such contingencies. A manager of a firm might meet with a subordinate to discuss an issue and ask poignant questions to get a better sense of realities at a more concrete level before he makes decisions or set priorities. If he does not, he may have mistaken stones for bricks, and his building will be unstable.

One creative dichotomy at the concrete level is torque. A classic mistake of a newbie to mechanical objects is to strip the threading into which a screw is inserted via over torqueing or to strip the insertion point at the head for the screw by applying too much force or not skillfully twisting the screwdriver. When assembling a bookshelf, a kitchen table or chair, mind your torque. Excessively torque screws or connections, contrary to unlearned assumption, will become loose much earlier than properly torqued ones. Many complex pieces of plastic or soft metal rely on the user being knowledgeable about the appropriate level of torque to apply since they are fragile and their substance was chosen for a specific functional reason. The assumption that more force would result in more connective strength is a flawed one. More force can provide a benefit in some situations, less in others.

A property dichotomy is hardness. Obviously, a house should be strong and withstand the beating of wind, rain, etc. One might assume that we want only hard things to build with, but I know of an ignorant older man who, thinking himself wiser than those who built his house, attempted to harden his foundation. He lived in Kentucky, where temperatures will go into the 90s during the dog days of summer, but can also dip into single digits during winter. The structures of the house need to be able to flex and bend with these changes, and excessive hardness in such a climate creates early wear and tear, and that is precisely what happened, with the visible cracks appearing as evidence of meddling where one should have inquired.

The irony of this entire piece is that it is abstract, although it does leverage concrete realities. But I think prudence – the respect for the complex realities that confront us with pitchforks and torches once we descend from our towers – is the thread that can bind the two methods and prevent them from setting themselves against one another in a sort of dialectic clash. The solution is not the subjugation or control of the concrete by the abstract or the dictatorship of the proletariat of the concrete, but proper order.

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