The conceptual world lies hidden below the surface of the relational world. In it, we forge knowledge, tools, and systems from the chaos of everything we don't yet know. These abstract patterns reflect, root, and empower our lived experience above in the relational world.
The conceptual world makes sense of the relational world.
It's formed from concepts — mental pictures that help us understand and navigate our lived experience of the world.
An atom is a concept. The idea of a King is a concept. The Chaos Map is a concept as is every word written about it. Everything we describe, picture, or formulate lives in the conceptual world.
Concepts root our relationships.
We wield conceptual patterns within to organize, predict, and manipulate life without, but without having to act within it.
Here, we temporarily escape the brutal trial and error of lived experience by employing our knowledge, beliefs, and technology to simulate potential futures. We hone our approach, mitigate risks, and prepare for the fallout before we make irreversible real-life moves. Access to the conceptual world is a uniquely human superpower: to act beyond instinct, space, and time, exercising a God-like knowledge and influence over at least a part of our environment.
Internally, we decode our actions and relationships into an invisible idea of who we are on the inside: our personality, potential, and soul. Developing our self-concept isn't an elaborate coping mechanism: when we tend to it properly, we reap stronger, richer relationships. A strong sense of self is like deep roots.
But, our concepts aren't literally true.
All concepts — even atomically precise, predictive ones — are abstractions derived from observing our collective lived experience.
Few conceptions are "true" in any literal, material sense, and none are complete. Rather, they're murky, evolving reflections of something infinitely complex, beyond what we can see in our mind's eye.
For example, let's say a three-year-old waves goodbye to their cat and stomps off into the woods for a walk with their adult. Not long after, they encounter a tree-climbing, four-legged creature with a bushy tail. Quite impressively, the three-year-old calls it out as a "cat!" But no, they're quickly corrected by their adult, this is a "squirrel." And just like that, a three-year-old conception of the kinds of Furry Animals Scurrying Around evolves into a slightly more complex pattern.
Adults are no different; we've just had thousands of these pattern transformations, giving us a more complex – but no more real - typology. This, in a nutshell, is an Education.
But for all our sophisticated education, if we look back a mere hundred years (or just ten years), we'll see that we've not yet arrived at an ultimate, precise conceptualization of anything. We haven't even fully mapped the domain of Furry Animals Scurrying Around. And how many of us would agree with the views we firmly held ten years ago?
Bringing chaos to order is an endless journey, not a destination.
The notion that our conceptions aren't precisely, materially accurate may be unsettling; It sounds relativistic and dangerous, especially to those who value the certainty found in conceptual order.
Fair enough, but where do our concepts come from? Well, most of them don't seem to develop from isolated, objective explorations of the world. Neither do they tend to descend from heaven etched into golden tablets. Rather, concepts emerge from a genuine need to figure out how to act in new, chaotic situations.
Concepts are what we need them to be.
Whatever we know and believe only exists for a reason. If our ancestors or we hadn't needed to figure something out, we wouldn't know about it. We wouldn't have words for it or thoughts about it. (That said, we may have art for it, since art is an expression of the inexpressible).
Hundreds and thousands of years of blundering through misconceptions result in a few that work: red berries make us very sick, but these blue ones are quite tasty; sowing these seeds in this soil at this time means we might survive the winter; power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
"Power corrupts. Absolute power is kind of neat."
- Donald Regan
It's also quite useful to know that one fuzzy critter is a cat and another is a squirrel. If it weren't, we'd call both cats. (If you don't find this this distinction significant, try inviting a squirrel into your living room.)
When we consider inanimate, mundane objects like a rock, why do we refer to the same material substance as a boulder, stone, or pebble? Because, like rocks, our concepts are what we need them to be. Even empirical, peer-reviewed knowledge develops only when we have enough collective desire to fund it. Culture precedes invention. If we trace the path of any discovery we find its source in desire.
How battles with chaos become boring textbooks.
Conceptual patterns evolves in a cycle that begins above the surface:
- Dramatize: we begin by trying things out in the relational world – a high-stakes, bloody, and long game. But as soon as we can trace a hint of a predictive pattern, we've glimpsed the light at the end of the tunnel in our escape from this particular kind of chaotic conflict.
- Ponder: we tease out the conceptual rules that underlie the relational patterns we've played out: what pattern yields a good outcome not only in a few specific and smiler situations, but in a thousand other diverse ones?
- Decode: finally, inspiration strikes, and we decode our solution into a pattern of story, principle, invention or some other formulation. If we're onto something and fortunate enough, our new concept gets adopted and adapted far and wide.
- Compress: when conceptual patterns are ready to scale, we compress them into readily transferrable and useful instructions, designs, axioms, syntax, textbooks, creeds, and law.
This cyclical humanity-wide struggle forms a more stable, robust, and transferable conceptual order that props up the next generation of people to build and explore beyond what their ancestors could imagine.
Concepts are stable.
The nice thing about most concepts is that they stay where we left them. They only change when enough of us need them too. It's no wonder that introverted folks shelter within the conceptual world, safely harbored from the volatile world of people and emotions running amuck above the surface.
"Simple rule often forgotten.
Objects are consistently predictable.
People are consistently unpredictable."
– Juvoni Beckford
Not surprisingly, those of us with a high affinity for the conceptual world can come across as distant, uninvolved, and sometimes cold. In reality, we care about relationships as much as anyone but observe them from a distance. We work quietly to create tools, art, and environments that stabilize and empower the relationships above and gain satisfaction from seeing them work more than participating in them directly.
The timeless, placeless nature of concepts is stabilizing and nourishing to individuals and communities. But, conceptual patternmakers should remember that it isn't wise to fall in love with a reflection. Our concepts aren't as beautiful, complex, or meaningful as the relational patterns we decipher.
Yet, the deepest concepts seem to have a life of their own.
While most of our concepts are comfortably predictable — or at least figure-out-able — the closer we get to conceptual chaos, the more the concepts seem to take on a life of their own. We'll speculate more about what dwells deep in conceptual chaos in our next essay.