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What the Reality of the Abstract is – ‘What is Truth’ pt2

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The point of turning our attention to metaphysics (see previous post), is not to wrestle with fancy concepts or to see which big brained person said what impressive (or baffling) thing about this or that obscure issue, but so that when we are talking about something as if it is something worthy of our attention, we will have more clarity on whether it actually is something or not, and if so, grasp whether that discussion is taking us towards, or away from, it becoming realized – and is either prospect a good thing?

In proposing to get the hang of this by looking at the three words of:

“What is Truth?”

, we’ll come at the phrase itself last, after first working through the words individually and from an angle, looking less at the word ‘What’ itself, than with whatever it is that we use it to refer our thinking to.

We of course use ‘What’ as a placeholder for anything, usually something that hasn’t yet been identified, but which the question expects, or at least hopes, will be identified – and while that ‘What’ can potentially refer to anything, we expect the reply we receive to refer to a particular thing within the context of the question being asked. In short, ‘What’ is referring to some part of, and by extension to all of, existence itself. That something exists and that we can know that, is the fundamental principle of metaphysics, and leaving a few big-brained fools aside for the moment, few doubt that because it is absurd to question the reality of existence, but it is absurdly common for us to confuse some idea in our heads, with it being real, and seeing how we do that, and how to keep from doing that, is what we’re using ‘What’ for.

If I point at something and ask “What is that?“, depending upon the context, the answer received could be anything from applesauce, to a ‘bottom operated clapper valve‘, and while I know enough about applesauce to safely assume many delicious details about it (though depending on who I’d asked that of – waitress or friend or foe – other questions might be asked before taking a bite of it), the other merely names something whose concept means little more to me than the “what” I’d asked of it to begin with, right?

The natural reaction towards the unexpected or unknown, is – demonstrating what Aristotle said that all men desire – to ask more questions in order to make the unknown meaningful enough for it to fit into our understanding. How much is enough, depends upon the context, and fitting some unknowns into your world might not require much at all – if they reply, ‘It’s something found often on railroad cars‘, unless I had a deeper interest or need to know about trains, that’d be enough to make this particular “what” real enough in my mind for me to move on to the next squirrel.

But what about when the concept is a familiar one? How often do we assume we know something about what’s being discussed, when we actually know little more about the familiar term, than we do of the unfamiliar one?

To get the gist of this, let’s imagine a simple example of using a mostly abstract concept, where my wife tells me there’s a problem with a room in our house. “What’s the problem?” I ask, “it’s too dark“, she says. “Too dark“, I nod. “What we need is a chandelier to brighten the room up” she says, and I nod my head, yep, we need a chandelier.

In this case, the unknown ‘What‘ was filled in by ‘chandelier’, but annoyingly enough, knowing that we need this general kind of thing called a ‘chandelier’, though its familiar to me, it hasn’t told me enough to even leave the room with, let alone run off to buy one, because although I’ve got a vague image in my mind of what a chandelier could be, it’s no more concretized in my mind than a ‘bottom operated clapper valve‘ is. Far too many of its potential properties are still too abstract in my mind, meaning that – in my mind – they can still hold ‘any’ value, though you can bet she has a very particular chandelier in her mind, and if I don’t want to be left in the dark I need to turn my attention to filling in some of the hazy blanks, such as its price range, or how low it should hang, or whether it should have a simple on/off or dimmer switch, and so on.

The human mind (especially that of conmen) delights in lazily leaving those sorts of abstract details populated with nothing more than our tendency to accept our assumptions as being enough. But for our thoughts to be worth thinking, we need to develop the habit of fleshing those defaults out with questions that direct our attention to filling them in with realistically specific values, or value ranges – concretizing them – in order to identify, to make known to ourselves, the particular ‘What’ that should be pointed to by the ‘what’ that we as yet only ‘think’ we have in mind. Only after doing so can we knowledgeably say “Yes‘ to this chandelier, and definitely No to those chandeliers, and without doing so, we truly do not know the ‘What’ that we’re talking about.

How appropriately abstract it is for a concept to remain, changes with the context. By that I mean, having no real interest in trains, knowing the ‘bottom operated clapper valve‘ had to do with trains, was all I needed to know about it in that context, whereas in the context of my wife first identifying the solution of a “chandelier”, even though the word told us nothing about the many possible details that were as yet entirely abstract in our minds, it was appropriate enough in that context to simply name the concept of a hanging lighting fixture, to distinguish it from all other possible options such as a lamp, skylight, candle, etc.,. But in the context of budgeting and going out to shop for a chandelier requires concretizing it further, even if only generally for issues like price, size, etc., in order to get a clearer understanding of what to look for and where. And yet even that somewhat more concretized status which would be appropriate enough for narrowing the field, would still be inappropriately abstract for the context of my going out to select this or that particular chandelier: what about its material – wood? metal? crystal? – or its shape – round? square? multiple arms? – how about color? size? number of lights?.

Those conceptual details whose concrete values had not yet been shared between our minds (if they were even in my mind at all), not to mention those several other properties that she’d be sure to have in her mind that’d never, ever, cross into my mind, would guarantee that if I were to trot out myself and buy what only seemed to be in my mind, her reaction to what I brought home would be anything but abstract.

To avoid such mishaps, requires our noticing that the same flexibility that enables concepts to be so mentally productive in identifying enough of what we have in mind in a given context (especially in the more specialized fields of science, technology, and literature), is the same feature that makes them so dangerous when we’re not sufficiently wary of the abstract nature of the concepts we’re using – it’s too easy to think (or to give others the impression) that what we have in mind (if anything), is what they do as well. Those abstracts which default differently from one person to another, are what enable those peddling supposedly wise advice, such as the scientistic “You should only believe a truth that is scientifically verifiable!” assertion, to sound sensible enough to those who habitually think no further upon them than whether or not their sound is pleasing enough to the ear to win their approval. We too easily fail to give those too familiarly used & abused metaphysical concepts the respectful attention they require. Of course the mischief that can result from leaving too many abstract components unpopulated in the concept of a chandelier, are but a pup-tent in comparison to the veritable skyscrapers that metaphysical concepts enable us to carelessly presume we know enough about, and the real world consequences of doing so (such as scientism and Eugenics) can be infinitely worse than confidently buying what you mistakenly thought was the right ‘chandelier’ at Home Depot.

Developing an attention to metaphysics helps to heighten our conscious awareness of the difference between what is metaphysically real (this physical chandelier), and what is still metaphysically abstract (any chandelier), the abstract is a valuable means for moving towards what’s real, but we need to guard against it being mistaken for the real thing. Doing so begins with a conscious awareness of whether our grasp of ‘What’ + ‘Enough’ + ‘Context’ = a calm, or a doubtful state of mind.

One example of a lack of context is the cartoon I’ve got in the graphic with this post, of two characters standing on either end of a numerical shape and pointing, as one insists ’6!’ and the other ’9!’, and the caption invites you to take the relativistic view of ‘it’s all a matter of perspective‘, but however useful it is to realize that perspective can influence perceptions, what’s more useful is to look for the wider context involved – if the shape is laying on a parking lot, then one end will designate which end is up, and if there is no such context available, then it is only a shape that can be used as either a ’6′ or a ’9′, in which case both are wrong for insisting it is one way or the other. That seemingly ‘reasonable’ path towards relativism is a favorite of modernists (that on the molecular level, a solid is ‘akshually!‘ mostly space is another, more on that in later posts) – reject the ploy and look for the context.

And for those who wish to put feelings and preferences first, there’s the other cartoon from the graphic, which shows ‘your house’ as it’s preferred to be seen by you (a nice comfy house), by a buyer (a cheap shack), a lender (an only slightly better shack), and by your tax collector (who prefers to see it as a palace). When you leave too much to the abstract, you lose, bring your ideas into contact with reality, especially question what you assume to be ‘true’, don’t leave your understanding to be defined by feelings and preferences – of theirs or yours – concretize them, or in the end they’ll come crashing down on you like a ton of bricks.

Get into the habit of asking a few conscious questions: Does this belong with that?; Is the meaning clear or opaque?; What am I assuming about this from what I’ve been told, and how much of that was I actually told?; When being advised to do or accept something: Did they provide substance to support their urgency, or did they focus on fanning feelings of peril? Am I being expected to make assumptions about what they didn’t say? What reasons do I have to believe that the reality which will follow from this advice, will match up with what they led me to assume about it?

Acting in accordance with reality
Not being so careless as to neglect the metaphysical basics, is a simple, and valuable, habit to learn and acquire, and the good news is that by giving just a little more conscious attention to what those too familiar words of ‘is’, ‘trust’, ‘should’, etc., can provide an otherwise inappropriate cover for, we can eliminate the insubstantial weeds that a careless inattention enables to take root in our minds – especially regarding advice given by ‘those who know best’.

How we’ve come to be so careless and ignorant of metaphysics, is largely due to our schools having pragmatically ensured that we would, and sadly with very little push-back from We The People. If you want to test whether I’m being too harsh or inaccurate, just ask yourself and your friends about what the ‘Three Acts of the Mind‘ are, I’ll wait.

Oh… hi again. That was quick.

Were you familiar with it? How many of your friends were? If some recognized the term, how well did they know what it referred to? That’s but one of many commonplace fundamentals that ‘every school boy’ once knew, and the reason why they did, was because familiarity with such concepts was a known means to aiding us in knowing better, what it is that we mean, when we say that something is true.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, here are the three acts that our minds routinely perform:

First Act: Apprehend (Understand) – We open our eyes, and whether seeing something for the first time, or understand that we know it by name, a Rock for instance, we apprehend it, conceptualize, identify it
Second Act: Judgment – The act of mind which combines or separates two terms by affirmation or denial. ‘Rock is hard’ is a judgment
Third Act: Reasoning – From our observations and judgments, we move towards further conclusions and applications of them. ‘As rocks are hard, I should avoid striking my toe against them.’
(To the Logic folk: Correct, that isn’t a syllogism, and Reasoning is not synonymous with Logic – logic is a power tool of reasoning, but that comes much later in the process we’re looking at here)

We aren’t ignorant of these terms because they’re difficult – the Three Acts of the Mind isn’t all that difficult to grasp, some might even rank it on a scale from the simple to complex, as a mere ‘duh’, but most of us aren’t ignorant of the concept because it’s difficult to learn, but because our schools deliberately stopped teaching it – I sure as heck didn’t learn of it in any of my schools, did you?

It’s rather telling that running multiple searches under different engines for videos on the subject, only two videos specifically about ‘The Three Acts of the Mind’ pop up on YouTube, one coming from the Catholic Thomistic Institute: The Three Acts of the Mind (Aquinas 101)
, and from a professor at a Catholic college, Christopher Anadale, who addresses it from a logical point of view: Intro to 3 Acts of the Mind
Lots of other pages can be found on it, such as a study group for C.S. Lewis on the Three Acts of the MInd, and even an Artificial Intelligence enthusiast grasps how vital the Three Acts of the Mind are to actual intelligence, but for videos, only those two.

And what of the person who’s ignorant of it and/or denies it’s importance? Just thank them for affirming its relevance to their life. And if they look at you blankly, you can point out to them that in responding to you, they clearly affirmed that they:

1st) apprehended what you said,
2nd) made a judgment about it, and
3rd) reasoned out a response to it.

And if they continue to stammer or stare slack-jawed at you, you can ask them why it is that their education has left them ignorant of, or even ridiculing, something which they’re now unconsciously employing in everyday life? And do they think that their thinking is more likely to be improved by being ignorant of such matters, or by consciously employing and improving the use of them?

So what more can we now know about scientism’s advice that: “We should only believe to be true that which can be scientifically proven“?

We can imagine that the image which the phrase expects us to have in mind regarding science being able to provide efficient and reliable answers to us, but we can also see that many important questions and answers which those ‘should’ (would) apply to, are being left for us (and especially for them) to simply assume, and for everyone to assume that all would go well, without looking any closer at their advice.

If you do give some attention to moving past the abstract defaults by asking some questions, you’ll find yourself engaging the Three Acts of the Mind to identify what something is, to understand enough of its nature and purpose, and to reason your way through how such details would and should (and can’t and shouldn’t) be applied to what, and how, you’re understanding of the reality which such unscientifically vague possibilities would entail, and that will likely lead you to so some stark metaphysical clarity about where following such advice might lead you to.

For as you begin reasoning your way through a number of scenarios, you’ll surely begin to notice that men in lab-coats are not particularly suited to scientifically examining and testing whether or not you love and believe in your spouse or your children, or whether the issues you care to speak out on are quantifiable or verifiably of value under laboratory conditions (and can you ‘scientifically verify‘ something outside those conditions?). You’ll surely also soon discover that other issues such as your own preferences for food and drink and entertainment, are somewhat less than scientifically justifiable, let alone ‘scientifically verifiable’ (are they even the kinds of values that are ‘scientifically identifiable‘?), such as what you might choose to read, or what you might think your child’s ‘education’ should entail. You may rest assured though, that the lab-coated ones, who after all, ‘do know best‘ (as they’ll authoritatively tell you), will surely have many calculations available, as well as a number of equally ‘scientifically verifiable‘ advisories attached to them, by one committee (soviet?) or another, regarding what they’ve determined would be best for you, and your family, to do, and what not to do, for the greater good (quantities over qualities!).

Likewise, you’d soon find that they have no ability whatsoever to scientifically test the need or value of your having an individual right to freedom of speech, or whether and what church to attend or if government should establish one (or perhaps a more appropriate alternative) for you, or of the value and need for individuals to petition their government for a redress of grievances, or anything else related to what our Bill of Rights secures for us in the 1st, or any of its other amendments to our Constitution (BTW, is that a ‘scientifically verifiable‘ document? Ummm… no, it’s not. Neither, BTW, is ‘Justice’, hence the addition of ‘Social’, to transform it into a quantity, rather than a quality).

What you’ll see instead, should you dare to apply the metaphysical eye for the Western guy, is that there are plenty of people who’re exceedingly happy to don the lab-coat and clipboard garb of scientists, to formulate tests no matter how untestable they might be (which, BTW, is how the ‘Teaching Laboratories’ in our Teachers Colleges have come up with how to teach what is taught to those who teach you and your kids what not to think about), and they’re quite happy to substitute many quantities for any qualities at issue, and then to cite numerous studies so as to tally up very impressive numbers which will be claimed to show that the greater good would be best served by some fraction of, or total and complete infringement upon, one or more or all of those issues of individual rights and property that Western Culture in general, and our Constitution in particular, secure for us.

You’ll also find yourself being tut-tutted that ‘individual rights’ are passe, and that ‘Human Rights’ are what we… er… ‘should’… concern ourselves with today – for the greater good – and that you ‘should’ be happy with the pleasant efficiencies which they secure for and impose upon you.


Shhh… don’t be a science denier! And stop messing around with such old fashioned ideas as ‘Metaphysics’! That’s an unscientific subject which you shouldn’t believe in!

Get the picture?

The undeniable fact is, that with regard to what we mean by the concepts we use ‘What’ to refer our attention to, not only does it matter that we have enough clarity in our minds about what we’re expected to make judgements upon within our minds, but that what that ‘What’ designates – the metaphysically real vs the metaphysically abstract – allows or leads us to contextually define, or leave undefined, matters which matter a great deal to our lives.

It’s essential to know how we engage with, or else flee from, the reality that is inherent in our consideration of What Is Truth?, and we’ll look at the ‘Truth‘ of that, next.

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