Should Patterns Shape Our Conception of Reality?

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 7 min.

stonesWe have a tendency to categorize and, in doing so, create hierarchies. This tendency leads to systems that confer a status of seemingly tangible reality to our ideas about the world, thereby confirming the hierarchy. For example, if we are given a collection of 20 randomly chosen rocks and asked to put them in some order, we will be forced to choose a quality of some value by which to order the rocks. We may have a number of qualities to choose from, but whatever quality is chosen will be considered one of greater value than most of the other qualities. So, we may order the rocks by size, shape, material/mineral content, smoothness, color, or some other quality. Once put in order, the rocks will seem to have been ordered based on some naturally occurring scheme that the human discovered but did not create (provided the rocks were ordered based on something most other humans can recognize; if ordered based on an esoteric quality like “rock-languages spoken,” the assemblage will be deemed the work of an insane person).We all seem to have the tendency to pattern and categorize in this way, though some of us may notice patterns based on relationships (such as Einstein or Darwin) which don’t seem as fluid as something like the periodic table, color spectrum, or numerical system, but are based on perceived patterns or cycles all the same.

evolution_man_to_robotThis tendency to categorize has led to some good for humans (such as medical advancements and the ability to better categorize ideas about how we categorize… this sort of self-awareness is important, I think, because it seems to be a key when looking at rationalism in the human mind), and it has led to some bad for humans, especially socially (racism and classism). We often categorize with an ideal in mind, frequently referred to as “purity.” So, there is an ideal size, shape, smoothness, color, or mineral content in the rock, and the rock that possesses the greatest quantity of the valued quality is put at a pinnacle for the other rocks to aspire to. (Note that I’m aware of the Kantian bent to what I said earlier about categories and rationalism; I don’t necessarily mean it in that way, as I’m more concerned with self-awareness of the tendency to create categories than I am with the idea of pre-existing categories in the mind.)

Truly, and this is the point I’ve been working toward, I don’t know that this approach of ordering based on qualities is ever the best way to approach one’s analysis of the world. It’s certainly easier, but easier doesn’t mean better. It also becomes easier to confirm one’s idea of the world. For example, if a philosopher chooses a certain quality to which s/he has assigned value, the philosopher can look at the world and create a system (ultimately a hierarchy) that seems to confirm the value itself as an inherent quality in the world. Another way to look at this would be for a thinker to determine that the world is square, then to make a square frame and hold it up to the world and say, looking through the frame, “Indeed, the world is square.” This approach will cast light on some areas while many others will remain forever unilluminated.

delayedreaction1_Vesna_JovanovicIn considering the question of what the alternatives may be, it’s important to be aware of just how much, and in what ways, we rely on categorizing patterns and frequencies in order to perceive and function within the world. We have a whole system of categorizing frequency of vibrations, some of which stimulate our eardrums, others the cones and rods in our eyes, some are detectable by equipment but (presumably most) others go undetected etc…; also, we think of our planet as rotating around the sun in day-long cycles, and we empirically confirm cause and effect through repetition of behavior, and on and on. Repetition and patterns can be very useful for organizing procedures that help us cure diseases and have an economy and not kill our plants, but it doesn’t do as well when there is no consistent frequency to be monitored (real or contrived). In this way, we have to separate how we see the world and what the world is that we are observing.

When we consider the definition of words like “art,”  “justice,” and “race,” we are looking for a cyclical or recurring or predictable pattern that doesn’t exist. I think the most important question that cannot be answered conclusively by using categories is the question of whether we as humans have free will (by which I mean, for example, being responsible at a conscious level for the decision to move one’s arm, and not just being responsible for the act itself of moving the arm). This may be the most important question of all for neuroscientists (who seem to be saying we don’t have it), philosophers, theologians, and society itself, but if we have free will, we would have to prove it through some means that doesn’t involve categorizing human behavior, otherwise we can’t be certain we didn’t contrive a pattern in order to make it seem like we have free will (which is a fairly paradoxical notion). It would seem that it’s the behavior that occurs outside of any kind of repetition or pattern that would tell us the most about the presence of a free will in a person.

order_and_chaos2I realize that medicine and science can’t be expected to drop everything to embrace an approach that will make their efforts more difficult, but I think that philosophers can and perhaps should do so. Patterns are a convenient way to deceive ourselves. It seems to me that in the pursuit of a greater truth (that is still relevant to humanity) it would be beneficial to base our view of the world on something other. I haven’t figured out what this “something other” is (perhaps the answer is to be found somewhere between things like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and what an elementary particle like the neutrino has to teach us; I look forward to being told why or why not by someone far more scientifically knoweldgeable than I), but a big part of my interest in philosophy is the attempt to answer this question. I don’t consider answering it to be the point, though, at least not right now. It’s what is revealed by the attempt that is the point right now. Is the only alternative to order an aimless, entropic chaos? I see the value of order in society, even our contrived order enforced by laws and cultural taboos, but I’m not sure I see the value of a contrived order in all areas of philosophy or art (a field in which the inherent randomness of the world has been explored to great effect; see aleatoricism), or, ultimately, even in science.

If we can find a better “something other,” perhaps we can discover a better alternative to our contrived social order.

P.S.: It occurred to me after writing this that if you substitute rocks for the building blocks of music (which, in my case, is an accumulation of relationships of pitches, timbres, silences, velocities, durations etc…), the views I express here might shed some light on some of the musical choices I tend to make (i.e., my musical style). Also, we generally have to have some kind of repetition to qualify something as music (try to think of an example that’s otherwise). Even to have random chaos you must have some sort of overarching repetition, even if it consists of something other than pitches or timbre. In this way, there may be no separating what and how we percieve, as well as how we are able to recognize anything, and therefore, by extension, what and how we can create (which would render our description of the world to be a creation, no matter how objective we try to be; this is an old idea, of course, but I’m curious to explore it further in a musical sense, which I’m sure I’ll do more of later).

It also occurred to me that we often refer to the “cycle of life,” not in the usual biological sense, but as a social metaphor designed to bring us comfort in the knowledge that life is a cycle in which our deaths play a pivotal role. I think the proper biological sense, however, would be that we (as individuals and humanity as a whole) exist in a certain physical form for a while, see a process to its conclusion (life-to-death), and then cease to exist in that form for an eternity; this is true from instant to instant in a single life, as well as over the course of that life.

P.P.S.: The universe is chaos, despite what matters to us. (I don’t think we experience it in realtime as anything less than chaos, but our memory cleans it up, orders it, etc., giving the impression that we experience clean regularities.)

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2 Replies to “Should Patterns Shape Our Conception of Reality?”

  1. The difficulty here is that categorizing seems to be how we think, how we form language. Can we separate ourselves from this?

    though some of us may notice patterns based on relationships (such as Einstein or Darwin) which don’t seem as fluid
    It seems that this could be the key to your proposed alternative. It’s not a complete departure, but a step. I am curious to know how you would distinguish the relationship-based patterns from more simple ones. Would you describe it as a pattern twice removed?

    Also, I agree that art and philosophy are concerned with taking a step outside of the usual “easy” system of categories. Here is a quote from Wikipedia’s entry on Creativity:
    Creative ideas are often generated when one discards preconceived assumptions and attempts a new approach or method that might seem to others unthinkable.

    1. Hi Vesna –

      I don’t know that we can separate ourselves from how we think, but many people think that science takes care of this problem and provides us with an objective view of the world. It’s a view that may lead to right or wrong conclusions, but those conclusions were arrived at objectively. Do have an opinion on that?

      That blurb about creative ideas is worth thinking about, thanks for sharing it.

      I can’t say for sure what I mean by a relationship-based pattern, but I have some thoughts on it that I’ll work through here.

      If two people perceive something in the world, say personA and personB, they both perceive essentially the same thing (depending of course on the limits of their physical perceptual faculties; so, a blind person won’t see something a sighted person does etc…). At any rate, if pA and pB have essentially the same perceptual faculties and cultural nurturing, they will both perceive a math problem, two billiard balls colliding, music, stars in the sky, an apple as it falls to the ground, or whatever they are confronted with. Both people will perceive and recognize these things. There is a second thing, however, that they might not both perceive, and might not perceive in the same way (“observation” may be a better word here than “perceive”), and that is not dependent on the sort of perceptual faculties we usually think of. That second thing is the pattern, sequence, or collection of causal relationships (or just “relationship”) that make the thing being perceived exist or function or make sense or hold influence in the world. This relationship is not a tangible thing, but it is a thing of some kind. I don’t think it’s exactly the sort of relationship I’m referring to, though, but it’s a step in that direction (so maybe your notion of a “secondary relationship” would be a good way to categorize it), or is perhaps bound to this relationship.

      The “secondary” relationship I’m thinking of is the relationship between the perceiver and the thing (the “primary relationship,” perhaps) being perceived. Something happens between the thing and the perceiver that creates a notable effect of some kind. I’ll use music as an example. pA and pB hear the same song for the first time, by an artist that is unknown to them. The song is a relationship of pitches, durations, silences, timbres, patterns or sequences (a “sequence” is just a more elaborate sort of pattern) that for some reason moves pA, but does not move pB in the slightest. It’s possible that pB doesn’t perceive the patterned relationships in the song for whatever reason (this can include the lack of an experience, i.e. nostalgia, that pA associates with this sort of arrangement of sounds… more on this idea later, when I write about taste). Or it can go the other way, the patterns are too obvious (too patterned/repetitious).

      At any rate, there is something happening to pA that isn’t happening to pB. This is another kind of relationship that, in this particular instance, would be considered a question of taste, but I think is very similar to the “Eureka!” moment – or inductive observations/insights in general – in science. What’s not clear is whether what’s being responded to or observed in the music or movement of stars etc… are the aspects of those things that happen to be in a sequential mode or trend and are therefore observable to our category-oriented minds, or if we are finding patterns where there really are none, but in a way that is convenient for our category-oriented minds (that is, instead of just drawing boundaries within a material holistic whole that separates, for example, a star from the matter around it, the more sensitive observer is drawing boundaries within a temporal holistic whole).

      One could argue that in the case of music, patterns are there because we put them there: a composer arranged the notes and timbres. But is the composer not also an observer? Why do composers tend to arrange notes in certain kinds of patterns and sequences? Also, musicians are often not exactly conscious of the sorts of patterns they are creating, but are simply making observations as they go along, choosing whatever combination of elements creates the best effect in themselves as an observer. On the other hand, consciously creating sequencing can just be a hackneyed shortcut to filling in space, and generally doesn’t do much for those observers who recognize the device. Another thing worth noting here is that it’s generally agreed that we respond to properties in music that we cannot actually perceive. For example, we cannot hear above 20khz (most adults can’t hear that high, even), but a recording that has information at 22khz does “feel” different than music than a recording that cuts off at 15khz. That extra, un-hearable information really does matter. It does not necessarily follow from this fact that there must be many more elusive properties to the form and function of music (and other kinds of things), but it does prove that such a possibility is worth investigating.

      I’m currently reading a lot about these sorts of ideas, including Heidegger’s Being and Time, the most interesting element of which so far is the idea that, for example, heaviness – as distinct from weight – is an aspect (to use Hubert Dreyfus’ appropriation of the word; I’m listening to his Berkeley lectures on Division I of the book) of a hammer that is strictly dependent on its context within the human experience. There’s also a book called Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (by MR Bennett and PMS Hacker) that I’m eager to read (should arrive today). So, I’ll keep thinking about it.

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