Principia Cybernetica Web

Neuronal vs. logical concepts

[Node to be completed]

Two cybernetic systems are involved in human language and thought.

The first system is the human brain. It creates models of reality whose material body is the nerve nets, and which we therefore call neuronal models. Neuronal models use neuronal, or intuitive, concepts (functional elements).

The second system is language. Its functioning is linguistic activity in society. Linguistic activity creates models of reality whose material body consists of linguistic objects. The functional elements of this system are logical (linguistic concepts.

The two systems are tightly interrelated. Language is an offspring, and, in a certain sense, a continuation of the brain: using language we create new modesl of reality, which were not imbedded in our brain by nature. Some substructures in our brain are representations of the states of the world. Some of the linguistic objects are representations of those representations: we refer to them as most concrete, or low-level, concepts. Such words as "cat", "apple", "to run" , and the concepts they fixate, are of that kind.

But human language (like human brain) is a multilevel hierarchical system. We create theories, where we use abstractions of higher levels, logical concepts the machinery of which (do not forget that concepts are functional units) requires something in addition to the brain: some material linguistic objects. Thus while we can regard small numbers, like two or three, as neuronal concepts because we immediately recognize them, bigger numbers, like 137, can function only using some external to the brain representations.

The concepts of the higher levels do not replace those of the lower levels, as they should if the elements of the language reflected things "as they really are", but constitute a new linguistic reality, a superstructure over the lower levels. We cannot throw away the concepts of the lower levels even if we wished to, because then we would have no means to link theories to observable facts. Predictions produced by the higher levels are formulated in terms of the lower levels. It is a hierarchical system, where the top cannot exist without the bottom.

We loosely call the lower-level concepts of the linguistic pyramid concrete, and the higher-level abstract. This is correct as long as one keeps in mind that abstraction is not always abstraction in scope from things observable, but also, and most importantly, an abstractions from abstractions of the lower levels of the same linguistic system. Pure abstraction from specific qualities and properties of things leads ultimately, as its scope increases, to the loss of contents, to such concepts as some and something. Abstractness of a concept is actually its `constructness', the height of its position in the hierarchy, the degree to which it needs intermediate linguistic objects to have meaning and be used. Thus in algebra, when we say that x is a variable, we abstract from its value, but the possible values themselves are numbers, i.e. linguistic objects formed by abstraction in the process of counting. This intermediate linguistic level of numbers must become reality before we use abstraction on the next level. Without it, i.e. by a direct abstraction from countable things, the concept of a variable could not come into being.

Copyright© 1991 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Sep 1991


Metasystem Transition Theory



Human language

Prev. Next


Add comment...