All generalizations are false

I definitely first came across that phrase as a sort of joke, one of those self-contained paradoxes that used to entertain me endlessly as a kid exploring the strangeness of language and logic. But it’s been one of the thoughts I’ve been spending the most time with over the past couple years, today’s prompt being the third episode of Sharron Kraus’ Preternatural Investigations podcast. It’s a paradox, but it’s also true (sort of), and I think important in ways that I haven’t fully grasped yet.

A better formation of it would be “all generalizations are fictions,” although that makes the paradox a little less direct. Essentially, though, the idea is that all categories are useful fictions that humans (and likely other sentient creatures) have created to more efficiently navigate the world.

“Fish” is a go-to example, in that there is no way to create a category that uses our current phylogenetic mapping to include everything we commonly think of as fish and exclude everything that we don’t think of as fish. That’s not to say “fish” isn’t a useful category in daily life; it just isn’t an objectively definable category based on the currently-agreed-upon system for understanding how to group species. But then, even “species” is a blurry category, with debate as to its precise definition, so particular groupings of species are also bound to be troublesome.

I’m not just talking about gaps between common-usage terms and scientific categories, though. The point is, the world itself does not generalize. Each entity in the universe is only itself. (It might be fairer to say there’s no such thing as entities, only the universe, given that even boundaries between objects get fairly fuzzy at subatomic levels, but that may be going to far for this post). The point being, something as straightforward as “rock” isn’t a category that exists in the universe, there are only distinct collections of atoms that have properties similar enough to one another that it’s useful for us to lump them together as the conceptual group “rock.” There is no physical law to distinguish between rivers and streams and lakes and oceans, nor between planets and comets and stars. There are individual objects, and we find it easier to talk about them based on the similarities we see between some of them, and the differences we see compared to others.

This is a fairly obvious semantic point. Maybe it’s obvious to the point of being uninteresting. But I think there are at least two reasons that it is important. One is that it can serve to remind us of the uniqueness of everything. Generalizations are a way for us to avoid having to process each individual thing we perceive in its own particular fullness. If we had to consider every leaf, every blade of grass, every bird call or human voice as a completely discrete phenomenon, we would be paralyzed. But that doesn’t change the fact that all of them are, in fact, unique. Each of them is as intricate, as special, as beautiful as the first one you saw, or heard, before your mental mapping of their sense memory was simplified into something your brain could process more easily.

J.F. Martel has written and spoken about how one of the roles of art is to force us to see the uniqueness of whatever is being depicted, and how moments of awe and beauty come from us seeing things as they actually are, as opposed to how we assume them to be. Recognizing that categories are only useful shorthands can act as a reminder to look for that uniqueness, at least from time to time, and to focus on your present experience as the precious thing that it is, instead of something to be tolerated until some imagined future event where you’ll finally get to experience something truly special. In a way, the only thing between the mundane and the marvelous is a perceptual filter that strips away the specificity of the moment.

The second reason I think this is important is that it makes it easier to challenge your own assumptions. If you can internalize that “fish” is a fictional category and “Tuesday” is just a word to make it easier to communicate about future points in time and not a thing that exists in the physical universe, then you can also recognize that much broader conceptual terms (including the whole of politics and economics) are also just useful shorthands. They are attempts to describe complex recurring patterns of cause and effect, and are worth paying attention to for as long as they are actually useful, meaning as long as the things they describe have some sort of predictive or descriptive power, or create positive outcomes. And, importantly, they can be dropped when that’s no longer the case.

It’s a testament to the power of the human mind and its ability to recognize patterns and describe relationships that we are so inclined to think of those patterns and relationships as inherent to the universe. But it also leads us to cling to ideas well past their expiry date, and to fail to question the reason certain beliefs and practices arose in the first place. If we can manage to internalize the idea that all generalizations are fictional to at least some extent, and that all descriptions are generalizations (in that they have to translate something unique into language that can be understood in terms of its similarity to certain concepts and experiences), it makes it easier to try out new models of understanding, because the old ones become a little less precious.

One more reason it’s important, maybe: it’s a way of reminding myself how powerful the force of collective imagination can be. This is basically the inverse of the second reason, which is more about weakening the reality claim of things that can seem all too real. Instead, it’s recognizing the ability of shared imagination to alter the world in absolutely incredible ways. If we can wake up every morning and enact things as elaborate as capitalism and nation states (and it’s well commented on how those are products of collective action and collective belief), then it’s hard to imagine the limits of what realities we could manifest, what dreams and hyperstitions we could bring about.

It’d be an interesting challenge to think about what worlds we could have tomorrow, using existing technology and infrastructure, just by changing how we use the things we have. I don’t know that it would be enough to reach the goals of the latest IPCC report, but… most utopias rely either on technological breakthroughs or a reversion to pre-industrial ways of living that completely abandon the comforts of civilization. I’d be very curious to try to imagine a third way, where the big changes that need to happen are more memetic than physical, where it’s our desires and aspirations that shift rather than using new technology to sustain the current dream. I have no idea what it would look like, but there’s at least a germ of an idea there.