Gods and Goddesses of abstraction: Why Western thought is scientific

In discrete mathematics, categorization is a form of abstraction. There are many different kinds of birds, but there is also bird”ness” that is common across all birds. There are many different types of rocks, but there is also rock”ness” that is common across all rocks. I can tell you about a rock without naming a specific rock.

Which takes me to the Greek gods. Zeus is the god of the sky, Poseidon is the god of the sea, Ares is the god of war, and of course, Aphrodite is the goddess of beauty. And the list goes on.

When I was younger, I found this stack fascinating; that is, not the mythology, but the concept of being the “god of X.” It seems like the Greeks wanted to place everything in the world into discrete buckets that could be personified. It’s like the autistic desire to sort, list, categorize, and otherwise formalize everything.

Our modern education system spends decades teaching us to understand abstractions. Ancient people did not have such a luxury. Instead, they worked with abstractions by believing in their imagined physical instantiations. Janus is the god of doorways, but he is also a physical instantiation of the concept of doorways. The “concept of doorways” can be read abstractly; a doorway could signify choices, beginnings, and so on. Janus embodied these concepts.

It seems like religion was a tool for ancient people to understand and communicate abstraction. A moral is hard to understand in the abstract, but much easier to understand (and spread) when phrased in the form of a parable. Likewise, the concept of “getting married” is easy to understand, while the abstraction of getting married, the sense of married”ness”, is harder to work with. It is more difficult to communicate mimetically and intergenerationally, but the Greeks did so through Athena, their Goddess of marriage.

Monotheism too plays with a type of abstraction: the idea of morality. God is not just moral, but the very concept of the “good.” This worldview holds that “the good” exists and is worth striving towards.

I’ll shift into a related topic. I confess, upon seeing this image, I first picked the wrong answer:

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Does the flower on the bottom belong to group A or group B?

Eastern people tend to pick group A. Westerners tend to pick group B.

Group A is better at first glance. Most of the qualities of the bottom flower (petal shape, presence of a leaf, absence of circle in the center) are shared by the flowers in A. There are, however, exceptions within group A for each of the traits I listed. Therefore, those traits are bad for distinguishing between the categories.

In order to distinguish between the categories, we have to isolate the trait (stem shape) that is consistent across all flowers in the category. Only stem shape perfectly corresponds to the given groupings.

The flower test highlights the difference between strict and loose categories. A strict taxonomy sets clear, objective boundaries. It will have a hierarchy of taxa. An analogy is an order of operations; traits are assessed in a specific order. The more important differentiators (backbone? four limbs?) have a “trump card” over later differentiators (breastfeeding? placenta?) If you don’t have a backbone, you’re not a chordata, regardless of any other traits you may superficially share with them.

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The western response to the flower test (strict taxonomy) is the scientific approach. This dove-tails with the fact that science is an invention of the West, to the same extent that meditation traditions come out of East.

Where do gods fit on the flower test? An argument could be made for group A; a god’s metaphysical domain is built largely of loose associations. On the other hand, gods are more category-based than Eastern mystic spiritualism.

A secular religion will emphasize the connections between the unique nature of all things. The god-worship mindset is surprisingly more amenable to knowledge standardization procedures.