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Abstraction & Sherlock Holmes

What’s Abstraction and why should you care?

I am sitting in a coffee shop. I won’t say which one, but I will say that it rhythms with the words “car” and “trucks”. At the table where I sit, I find myself sliding a coffee cup between my hands. Back and forth it moves across the table. In my head I say, “this is like playing chess or driving.”

You might be thinking, “how is sliding a cup between his hands anything like driving a car?” To explain we first need to cover a term called abstraction. You have probably seen abstract art in a photo or a painting. Abstract art is unique because it shows you ideas of things or representations. Those representations, depending on the level of abstraction, can and usually do convey an idea, even though at first glance they don’t appear that way.

Let’s set a definition for this word. The term abstraction is a “cognitive process we use to isolate or “abstract” a common feature or relationship observed in a number of things, or a product of such a process...abstract as an adjective is contrasted with concrete in that, whereas the latter refers to a particular thing, the former refers to a kind, or general character, under which the particular thing falls...for example, the term war is abstract but World War One is specific.”

The objective of abstraction is to break apart a concept or a thing until it becomes something that somehow relates to something else. It becomes sort of abstract. So why should you care about this concept?

To reach any level of abstraction, you need to ask a lot of what and how questions. Let’s take a tree as an example. What is a tree? A tree is a giant plant. What does a tree do? A tree provides shade, shelter, food, water. A tree doesn’t really do anything in the sense of what people do. It’s eternally stationary unless unplanted... How does a tree grow? Vertically, sideways, up and out.

You get the gist. What we are doing is trying to figure out what a tree really is at a fundamental level. The objective is to find out how we can relate it to something else. For example, what other thing is there that is stationary and provides shelter? A house, a parked car, a bridge. So we can say that a tree is like a house.

That’s the value of abstraction. It allows us to connect ideas and concepts at a fundamental level. This permits us to use logic in a more direct way. Scenarios are taken out of the picture and we are only left with a unit or an idea. Then we can work our way back to the original concept or specific example.

From A Drop Of Water

In A Study In Scarlet, Holmes’ ideas about logic are brought to the forefront. "From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it.

Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems. Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs.

Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation, and teaches one where to look and what to look for. By a man's fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs -- by each of these things a man's calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable." - Study In Scarlet, Doyle.

While this level of logic and inference is beyond my scope, I don’t think it’s not worth exploring. Abstraction contributes to logic because it allows us to use the most fundamental of ideas to relate to other things. It brings us to some level of truth about concepts. But the greatest value it brings, is how it connects ideas like a link in a chain.

How did we relate a tree being like a house or a car? We used abstraction. The level of abstraction I presented was pretty simple, but more advanced concepts yield higher levels of abstraction. This realm of thinking exists within the hypothetical and the imagination. It requires exploration and time.

This is one of the ways that Holmes solves complex cases. He sees things as they must be at a fundamental level. But the only way to get to that level is by abstraction. Then, once the abstraction is discovered, logic can be applied to it.

So how is me sliding my cup across a table like driving a car or playing chess? You tell me.

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