How Important Concepts Can Disappear With Knowledge

There are many important concepts that we need to hold in order to make sense of the world around us; we give specific names to these concepts and we engage in important, deep discussions about them. These names refer in many cases to abstract concepts, and they serve as much needed ‘gap-fillers’ in our prevalent wording, reasoning, interpretation, and understanding of the world around us. These names therefore fill a pragmatic function in the context of us talking about, understanding, and consequently acting on the world around us.

But given the abstract nature of the concepts that hide behind the names, a bit of examination of the meaning these names hold with different people show a great diversity of opinions and views. It is as if everybody agrees to use the same conceptual names while most in reality disagree on the exact meaning of these names. The origins of these conceptual words are many times uncertain, and often, the current meanings of these words are a far cry from the original historical intentions for them–in other words, the meanings behind conceptual words do evolve, and this evolution largely explains the differences in the actual thoughts behind the words (or we could say the differences in noema). Some conceptual names can continue to be culturally transmitted over long periods of time. Such names become a cultural reality, a lingual and cultural tool, more so than the actual concepts behind them as first intended. Let us be specific: Causality, God, Free Will, Mind, Essence, are all examples of such important conceptual words that are very widely used and ‘believed in’ but with great on-going disagreement on their details.

With the advance of our knowledge in what concerns many of the details that hide behind such conceptual words, we continuously discover how shallow our definitions and uses of these words have been, and how unimportant and irrelevant some of these words become with our new state of knowledge. These names become cultural and historical artefacts, which we may continue to employ for convenience, but without substantial belief in them and no real epistemological value. The word Essence is an example of such; this word has had great philosophical and religious value for many centuries. Essence was an important concept in Greek philosophy and was perpetuated under different forms through the scholastic period and up until the early modern times. Saint Thomas Aquinas was for example particularly pre-occupied with the problem of essence in what concerns cannibalism. Today, the word Essence has ceased to occupy any serious position in modern philosophy. What is the reason behind? Our advances in the knowledge of the details of the world around us make of this word an unnecessary gap-filler to maintain. Almost all the key constituents of the word Essence, across its different possible meanings, were stripped from it with time and attached to other words that became more culturally predominant; in the process, the word Essence became void of any special meaning from an epistemological point of view. This dynamic is also happening with Causality, God, Free Will, and Mind. Many of what was encompassed by these words is being stripped out and given a more solid footing in other new concepts, both scientifically and culturally. The importance and the meaning of particular concepts change with the evolution of our complicated web of knowledge.

The unfortunate part is that many still refuse to admit the historical fact of this evolution of important abstract words and concepts. As they hold to old and obsolete views of the world, refusing knowledge and refined understanding, they continue to cling to these historical artefacts as if they were immutable and deified concepts–they try in any way possible to keep these words alive and relevant. There is no harm in continuing to use old conceptual words, as long as one is clearly aware of the actual epistemological value behind and not succumb to the illusion of some actual mystical reality that has no convincing basis. If I use the word Zeus in a fictional manner, it does not mean that I believe in Zeus or that the name and concept of Zeus are essential to my understanding of the world around me or for the validity of my knowledge system. It is the same for many old conceptual words.

JHTF

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