Humans, unlike all other species before, evolved a well-developed mental ability to think in abstract concepts. This most powerful of our evolved traits is the basis of our intelligence. However, it can go awry if we deal in practice with symbols and forget what it is they represent. The logical fallacy resulting from this mistake is called reification: to treat an abstract symbol as the real thing it represents. The use of abstract symbols condenses ideas and removes them from the concrete reality from which they were derived. The allure of the simplified ideal and the lengthening distance from its object a repeatedly used symbol experiences draw humans into the trap. Here are three instances where this occurs and their negative consequences.

Money and Value

The most obvious instance is the symbol/object pair of money/value. Of course reification of money has existed for all of civilization, but it has become increasingly destructive with the advent of electronic banking and trading, as money moves from something in your wallet to pixels on the screen. With funds being recorded electronically and trades being made with computers in microseconds it is inevitable that we have phenomena like flash crashes in the stock market. Traders are not buying stock based on the real value of the company, but on the speculated monetary value the useless slip of paper will have in a few seconds during which no new information regarding the company was introduced and yet the price changed. This can only be explained by the reification of money which can be changed almost instantly despite the enduring and stable value it represents. Believing the price up and believing the price down has no cause in reality, but it certainly has an effect. The scariest part is that this arbitrary number that we have believed into existence, we have also believed into being important enough for millions of people to lose their homes when a few people believe it to go down. It is no wonder our economy operates on “fiat currency.”

Credential and Qualification

Speaking of economy, economic efficiency depends on matching qualified workers with jobs appropriate to their skill set. Employers need a symbol which represents the fact that an applicant possesses the desired skill set, that symbol being a credential. However, when employers place too much weight on credentials and fail to check that the credential faithfully indicates the presence of a body of knowledge they commit the fallacy of reification. When the employer can no longer distinguish between the symbol and the object, the consumer no longer cares to acquire the skill set, only the credential and the accrediting institution, following the demands of the employer and consumer, focuses on churning out credentials rather than knowledge. Eventually such an economic system will fall apart and the employers, recognizing their mistake, will demand a different kind of symbol and the process will repeat ad infinitum.

Age and Wisdom

Most cultures (thankfully not modern American culture) impose a hierarchy based on age with the eldest at the top. The logic behind this practice is that a person who is older is likely to have more life experience and therefore be wiser. But wisdom is difficult to detect and so, like the credential, society looks for an easily recognizable symbol to stand for the complex idea. Because of a correlation between the two, age was chosen as the symbol of wisdom. Once it is encoded into a culture, the origin is forgotten and all members are required to “respect their elders” even if those elders have done nothing to deserve respect. Their long lives may be primarily a symptom of luck or other factors out of their control.

The most common example of this fallacy in history has been religious people mistaking metaphorical statements for their literal meaning. When the Christian bible says that during the sermon on the mount Jesus took a few loaves and fishes and made a meal to feed thousands it is not referring to a petty magic trick. The passage is a reference to the doctrine that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word issuing from the mouth of God.” And so Jesus rebuked his disciples who had thought that by “beware the leaven of the Pharisees” he meant the Pharisees might try to poison their food. Those who fall into the same error as the twelve disciples have like them earned the biting criticism, “get behind me Satan, for you are not mindful of the things of God but of the things of man.”  Perhaps reification is not worthy of eternal punishment; still, a little caution is due so that the machine of our brains does not overpower the rational consciousness of our minds.