posted on Aug, 31 2008 @ 08:58 AM
I think it's okay to call a tree a tree. A tree is a very basic object at the level of perception and interaction on which humans relate to the
world. This level may not be fundamental - you could say that 'treeness' is an emergent property of atoms and molecules in a certain arrangement, or
of quantum fluctuations in spacetime. But that doesn't tell anyone, not even Steven Hawking or Lee Smolin, any more about our shared idea of treeness
than the more general concept to which we have attached that label.
Chemistry and biology can tell us a lot about a tree as a process and help us elaborate the description of it. This new knowledge may extend
but doesn't change the basic concept of treeness.
Even looking at a tree in a mystical or magical way (as part of the planetary web of life or an element of the interactive cosmos or a dwelling-place
of dryads, or imagining it has a 'tree-soul'), it's still what we know as a 'tree'.
So I think 'tree' is a fairly uncontroversial label for a tree.
For Plato and other philosphers in his tradition, the label is so fundamental it comes before the actual tree - the label is attached to the mystical
ideal of treeness, which he called the 'form' of a tree, and which he believed exists in every human mind, even before that human has ever seen a
real tree. According to Plato, it is to this form, rather than to any individual, specific tree, that our minds attach the labels tree, baum,
ruk, or whatever name you call a tree in your native language.
Other philosophers, whose motto is 'there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses' would say that the concept 'tree' was built up
in our minds from our first-hand experience of trees and other people's descriptions of them, which we fit together with our experience in order to
come up with the concept we label 'tree'.
It makes no difference either way, because the label 'tree' covers all and every aspect of treeness that the human mind can possibly imagine. If we
call it a tree - without adding any abstracting or analogizing qualifications (adjectives) like systems tree or tree of life - then
it's a tree.
There are other names you can call a tree: shade provider, animal habitat, scaffolding for epiphytes, oxygen factory, carbon sink. These are all
accurate descriptions of a tree but they are not complete. They abstract some aspect of treeness and highlight it. In doing so, these labels
may temporarily restrict or distort treeness in our minds.
This, I think, is where the trouble starts. Because when you concentrate on one aspect of an object, give it a label and ignore the rest, you get into
the habit of thinking about the object more in terms of that one aspect than the whole of it.
This abstraction process can go on forever. And as the abstractions get more and more rarified, they tend to lead us away from truth altogether.
Thus euphemism, marketing-speak and politically-correct speech.
When we say someone is 'no better than they should be', what we really mean is that we think they're rather worse than they should be.
We've abstracted 'no better than one should be' from the larger concept that contains it, the concept 'worse than one could be'.
When marketers say 'we are here to serve you', they've abstracted one aspect of what they do - aiming to please - and flipped it over to make it
look as if they're in business to make you happy, not to make themselves money.
And here's a woeful but ultimately undeniable truth: calling a mentally, physically or socially handicapped person 'special' merely abstracts the
idea that such folk are rarer than 'normal' ones from the larger concept of their condition. It doesn't alter the reality of their condition one
whit, though we may hope it leads to them being more easily accepted and better treated.
It's when restrictive labels get mistaken for reality that we find ourselves lying, at least by omission, and building up a false picture of the
world that may encourage us to blind ourselves to reality - to the the tree that is, wholly and simply, a tree.
Now consider the label 'human'. It is much more complex than the label 'tree'. It encompasses many more attributes. And if we focus too much on
any single attribute for which we have coined a label - soldier, comedian, snob, cripple, Christian, glutton, sexpot, freeloader, superstar - we may
end up dehumanizing the human being we're referring to.
As long as we stick close to basic, consensual human reality, a tree is a tree is a tree.
When we start using our powers of abstraction, things get messier.
But then, that's how we think - through the formation of abstract concepts.
So I don't see any possibility of changing any of this, ever. It is what it is. It is what we are.
[edit on 31-8-2008 by Astyanax]