Monthly Archives: March 2018

Generally True Patterns #7

Big Horn Sheep on distant ridge, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Big Horn Sheep on distant ridge, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

 

 

Part 7 of 22

Chapter 3 Part II The Search for Boundaries

In this nonlinear universe, outcomes do not owe their trajectories to senselessness. When an action takes place, it does so based on mathematical probabilities of outcome. Outcomes may be uncertain: the direction of subatomic particles following collision in an accelerator. They can be clearly deterministic: a plant seed lands in fertile soil or on a large rock either germinating or not. They may be especially complex, particularly in the social realm with the generation of new more highly structured organizational forms: the International Monetary Fund is created at the end of World War II as a mechanism of economic stability. The importance of this process is that once a decision or action has been taken, the course that ensues is irreversible, but also subject to further change with the next input of energy.

Agents within a system will be altered by energy input (pollution kills off organisms) and the system may self-organize into a new form (a drained swamp becomes a barren plain with an entirely new component of organisms). Our interpretation may be of change as creative or destructive. The introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park fostered an expansion of the wolf gene pool. That change, however, caused a rapid decline of the coyote population and a slower decline in the mountain lion population as the more efficient wolves out competed other large predators. The predator-prey system in the park self-organized into a new form with unanticipated consequences such as elk more often retreating from riparian areas resulting in less trampling of fragile locations. Elk shy away from aspens where they are more easily ambushed by wolves, with the result that aspens experience more growth in summer and provide more forage for elk in winter when the groves less easily conceal wolves.

This relationship becomes more complex because of the energy input by humans in making the decision to reintroduce the wolves. This input of money (to trap, transport, and release wolves) and political will (wolves valued as an intrinsic part of wild-nature in the park) is as much a natural process as wolves killing off their coyote competitors or elk learning to move away from brushy streams. The interpretive and evaluative part of this process (Was reintroduction of wolves a wise decision?) is equally a natural process. The consequences of both conceptualization (creating a set of environmental values) and physical action (introducing wolves) are examples of forms of conversion. It is unavoidable that all actions by humans are natural regardless of how wise or unwise such decisions might become in retrospect. This is why dealing with the person/nature split is of vital importance: all of our decisions send out disturbances throughout the world.

An action by an agent will determine the next step in a process, even if in a non-predictive manner. All actions taken by us from conceptualizing new weapons of mass destruction to flooding farm fields with insecticides can be understood as experiments in forms of conversion. We add the energy and see what happens. We can take a step towards a person/nature connection by considering probabilities of consequences on all aspects of the three realms before actions are initiated. The significance of deciding which world fisheries to expand, contract, or close, or of whether to try atmosphere dimming to control global warming is of wide reaching importance. Not understanding (or even acknowledging) the person/nature connection could be fatal for ourselves and other species.

Forms of conversion take this generally true pattern:

Instability within a system leads to change.

 Without instability there is no chance for creativity. New order arises from past instability. Any system open to energy input will change over time. Even energy expended to ward off change and maintain stability (a corporate official covering up losses from shareholders) can lead to instability. Change compounds so that evolutionary rules themselves can alter dramatically. Eons ago oxygen-intolerant bacteria released oxygen as a waste product. This gas built up in the atmosphere until poisoning many early single cell organisms out of existence. The presence of oxygen at a certain concentration became deterministic of the mass extermination that followed. A series of small actions such as the release of carbon dioxide from a single motor vehicle causes quantifiable alteration of the atmospheric system when, in aggregate, many individuals repeat the same small action.

Instability within a system leads to non-predictive outcomes for individuals, but pattern recognition leads to an understanding of outcomes on a larger scale. Within living systems, the collective actions of individuals on other individuals have immediate consequences. Off the California coast, sea lions swim in roughly circular patterns around schools of fish forcing them to bunch. By concentrating the fish, occasional forays into their midst by the predators results in a higher probability that an individual sea lion will catch an individual fish. At the same time, pelicans attracted to the motion of fish and sea lions dive into the center of the action. The situation is one of numbers but also of individual luck in hunting. The outcome of such situations is one of immediate life or death consequences for individuals, but also of aggregate outcomes over time leading to species continuation or extinction. While fishing success for the fishers as a whole is probable, the success rate for any one fisher cannot be predicted. The chances of any one particular fish being eaten can be expressed as a probability but not as a certainty.

There is no static nature, only a state of constant, disconcerting, and unrelenting creativity, final outcome unknown. As energy moves through a system of planets, sea lions, or economies, decisions are made, actions taken, forms of conversion build up into novel events then break down again to take yet another new shape. Every system is ultimately configured movement.

Next essay: Chapter 4 Part I Connection and Separation

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Generally True Patterns #6

Arctic Sandwort, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Arctic Sandwort, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

 

 

Part 6 of 22

Chapter 3 Part I The Search for Boundaries

Energy can accumulate into useful function or dissipate into purposeless void. Either way it both creates us and is created by us. Overcoming the person/nature split begins with identifying examples of generally true patterns with which we are presented on a daily basis. I recognized them while traveling Highway 93, a dismal route flattening out north of Kingman, Arizona. The road begins with a series of graphic official signs depicting auto collisions. If one does not drive off the road in the reading, these signs carry messages warning of carnage on this stretch of pavement, or perhaps on our life journey. They warn against drunk driving (that action, the temporary anesthetizing of desire), encourage seatbelt use (an approach to the alleviation of suffering), and demand that drivers keep their lights on at all times (right in action, mindfulness, etc.).

This highway is not only the way to Las Vegas. It is also the way back. I spot a man sitting on an abandoned dirt road which is cut short by a barbed wire fence. He is too far from Highway 93 to actively pursue hitchhiking. He is seated on a large mustard green suitcase. He looks off into the barren distance with the same non-revealing expression you can see on any of the slots players from Beatty to Reno to Cripple Creek. Busloads of white, older middle-aged and elderly people travel these roads. Some end up sitting on suitcases outside of Kingman. What weight keeps him sitting on a road to nowhere, robbing him of any desire to go on?

Farther north is the awful grandeur of Hoover Dam. Its dark toilet-drain shaped emergency spillway is frightening, the last plunge of the most magnificent corpse of a lake, the free spirit of a river killed in a head-on collision with concrete. Like the man on the suitcase, this river is stuck, converted instead into hydro-electric energy to power gambling casinos for men with green suitcases to deposit into slot machines, coin by coin, their life savings, their houses, their families, their lives. This deathly chain mimics the natural birth-death-decay-regeneration cycles. Do the dam builders, in their dreams, feel the weight of all that cold dead water?

As I accelerate the car to escape the endless webs of power lines, I see that we are running out of things to conquer. The energy of violence we put into the world (greed, pollution, habitat destruction, overpopulation) distributes itself as instabilities creating the violence we get back (war, famine, pandemic disease). I want to get away from the bleak pattern examples and later, at sunset on another highway in the eastern foothills of the Sierras, I find a sign enticing me to a better place. “Idyllic log cabin resort-on-a-stream, bedroom, kitchen, bath, surrounded by ponderosas.” A half hour and twenty miles out of my way I find its reality: a clapboard hut of one small, smelly dark room with a neglected sink and sagging bed, and attached, barely, a claustrophobic shower stall and stained commode. It is set back ten feet from a highway and is nowhere near water except during rain storms. Outraged by the lie, I speed back on a road winding steeply down through sagebrush and oak.

A deer fawn leaps from the shrubs directly into the path of the car. I see nothing more than a brownish flash of movement but hear a dull thump which sounds like the striking of a large pillow. Heart racing, I keep control of the car even as I shove in the clutch, slam on the breaks and skid through a curve onto the road’s rough gravel shoulder. Without consciousness of the action, I find myself kneeling by the deer, shaking, running my hands over its side. Guts ruptured, neck broken, blood everywhere, an instantaneous death, a horrifying trophy. I wrap my arms around its shoulders and lift, dragging the animal into olive colored sagebrush, hidden from the road as if in an attempt to hide the murder. It has weight, but it is the deer’s warmth that seems heaviest. I apologize to this small once living evidence of energy, movement, position. It grew not much higher than my car bumper before its demise. In its death it will provide sustenance for the energy of other lives although that is little consolation. A shocked doe and its remaining fawn cross the highway. They stare at me and the dead fawn for a long time.

Destitute men slump on green suitcases in the desert. Nihilist engineers defile rivers with dams. Speeding naturalists smash hapless deer on roads to nowhere. Each of the events serves as a question about the person/nature split. How is it that we kill what we love on the shoulders of these highways of life? The weight of each question rises to become truth. There is a weight to mindlessness. We drive like we alone own the place, but deer blood on my clothes suggests otherwise. I am stained with memory of the deer; we are no longer separate.

We imagine the presence of boundaries. This comes from the necessary imposition of physical and mental structures we impose on the continuum of the entirety to make sense of it, but from an individual point of view boundary constructs can also serve as barriers or stops in our understanding, a willful denial of the larger systems of which we are a part. For convenience, we pretend that systems exist outside of time and change, that is, we act as if systems are closed: Marriage must be between a man and woman. God is defined by certain attributes but not others. Preservation of the environment must be balanced against the needs of large businesses. Deer and other objects will stay out of our way. The world we fabricate is different from the actual unfolding of patterns over time. Open systems of the social realm (religious institutions, political parties, businesses, the commitments of two persons to one another) are specific examples of a larger pattern common to all closely aligned collections of interacting agents:

Energy moves through all systems.

An idealized social organization acting in accordance with this pattern finds that energy (information) input is actively sought and allowed to flow freely among its stakeholders resulting in a degree of instability (the necessary font of creativity). As this energy dissipates through the system, new ideas emerge in a non-linear way that is natural but non-predictive. This dissipation can be understood as forms of conversion where new ideas (such as a new method of teaching) or new objects (a larger truck added to the fleet) restructure the system so that it takes a shape, either slightly or radically different than its shape prior to the input of the new energy. Chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Ilya Prigogine recognized the changing forms of systems over time as “dissipative structures.” Open systems, that is, just about everything we know of or come into contact with, exist in a far-from-equilibrium state where the input of energy causes instabilities.

All systems, including astrophysical, chemical, ecological, economic, and political, maintain an inflow and outflow of energy with the environment during the time they survive. Energy movement creates temporary states of dynamic equilibrium the shifting form of internal processes and external relations can leave the system teetering on the brink of not working at all. This is of vital importance, for in any system where an input of energy (nuclear fuels, raw meat, political activism) can push that system to instability and change it to an altered form, amplification of agents within the system can take place. The most spectacular example of this kind of amplicate unfolding is the evolution of sensory abilities of life forms culminating in consciousness. The process of energy moving into and through an open system to change its functioning is what I mean by forms of conversion. The distribution or dissipation of energy always carries consequences.

A change in circumstances, a decision taken, or shift in direction within a system caused by an input of energy (nuclear explosion, arrival of a new species, retirement of a chief executive officer) leads to non-predictable outcomes. This is the process of creative evolution. Decision points are known as bifurcations, events that seem a matter of chance, but are chaotically determined based on probabilities arising from earlier decisions. It is just as true for the universe as a whole as it is for you forgetting to engage the parking brake of a car left on a steep hill. Within a general parameter of chaotic patterns, the released vehicle will take any of several downward courses, the exact one of which cannot be known in advance, although the result can be reconstructed historically with great precision. Limited predictive ability, however, is not equivalent to simply not knowing. A broadly stated generally true pattern such as energy moves through all systems (and more focused ones to follow later) establishes a connection from enfolded potential to unfolded realization. It is often our inability (or unwillingness) to make fundamental connections at a deep level that leads to our confusion over the significant outcome of an event that blindsides us (such as running over a deer while driving too fast). The unfolding is a fractal-like, pattern of endless possibilities. Nature is both vast and connected in its unrevealed potentialities, in its realized specifics, and in our perceptions.

Next essay: Chapter 3 Part II The Search for Boundaries

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Generally True Patterns #5

Alpine Sunflower, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

Alpine Sunflower, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

 

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a part of Nature

 

Part 5 of 22

Chapter 2 Part II Historical Connections of the Anthropocene 

Revealed (or actual) order is never complete in a non-static universe. Instead, nature is in a state of continual transition, and because of the relatedness of all its components, all that is, is part of a continuum of dynamic processes. Relational thinking suggests this pattern:

All things, events, and processes arise in our perception from somewhere.

 Anything that can be actualized references other entities either because of shared history or by means of some contemporaneous action:

A thing becomes a thing following its move from an abstraction to a concrete reality or actual occasion of something.

 There are many things (and events and processes) that exist as abstraction which may be realized as a unified thing—an object or thought, for instance. Every realized event—the collision of astral bodies, the flowering of a lily, the discovery of a mathematical theorem, drought, the life cycle of a civilization—is the result of a large process including other realized events, and ultimately of the enfolded order of potentiality.

Examples of revealed, unfolded things, events, and processes may be called actual or specific fact. The generally true pattern (from which specifics arise) of all actions have consequences is an enfolded potential until unfolding as an actual realized occurrence. The initial cause of the generally true pattern itself is unknowable. The manifestation of the pattern as something specific, and thus measurable or knowable on some level, is where we begin to take an interest. For instance, the action of damming a river lowers water temperatures downstream upon release of deep, cold water creating deteriorating conditions for lower river aquatic life. The reason the actions have consequences concept is important is because it demonstrates our connectedness to the larger scope of nature.

All things are interconnected by process, the unfolding of potential into realization. Process can also be understood as change, chance, evolution and history. All realized occurrences (mental or physical events) can be studied as the outcomes of processes and can give insight into those processes through inferences, either inductively (individual instances supporting a general conclusion) or deductively (general observations leading to specific instances). The nature of process is a generally true pattern of paradox:

Realized outcomes of things, events, and processes are both deterministic and unpredictable.

 A primary example of deterministic unfolding is the existence of the four fundamental physical forces: gravitation, the electro-magnetic force, the strong force (binding agent of the atomic nucleus), and the weak force (particle decay or radiation). The slightest change in any of these laws would have made life (as we recognize it) impossible, but since these forces came into being as they did, the creation of life and consciousness became inevitable—proven by the fact of our being here. Another way to state this pattern is that a particular process has a particular outcome, but we can’t always know that outcome in advance. All we know is that something we say, write, or act upon will set in motion a process resulting in a particular outcome: A war waged by the United States on Iraq will have a certain outcome, one that cannot be known in advance.

Generally true patterns can also be considered in terms of a third variety of inference, abduction, (coined by Charles S. Peirce) which provisionally assumes that the offered explanation, if shown to be correct, gives clarity to the question under study. He held as well that an idea should be examined in light of its consequences, an idea that informs this study.

Patterns can be understood as relatively simple rules. These, however, can be combined to create complex outcomes of visual form (such as fractals) or behavior (such as the construction abilities of bees and beavers). Installing a set of rules into an ant’s brain to control each fragment of behavior necessary to construct a tunnel and nest system is impossible (not enough capacity in the neural system). The development of philosophy also cannot be precisely genetically coded. But the inborn rules of sensory and symbolic inquiry can be combined in ever changing ways to achieve extraordinary results. The ability to recognize the patterns that connect us to the rest of nature could be an example.

The ability to recognize change itself is inherent to all life, starting with reactions to changes in surrounding chemistry and temperature recognized by even the simplest life forms. Those reactions can be as simple as moving closer to or farther away from stimuli, or evolving into a new form altogether.

All things, events and processes of the entirety change and evolve.

 All things are in the process of becoming something else. For us, the altering of conceptualization and consciousness is an example; all states of mind and perception are temporary before the next moment of greater or lesser change. Even the closed system of a rock crystal on the hillside above my house is a temporary state, old rather than eternal. The comprising minerals were once below ground and molten; some day our expanding star will engulf the earth and render its crystals into yet another thing. This means that the motion inherent to all processes is of ever-change:

The processes of reality are always in motion, regardless of time scale.

Another way to put this is that the systems of all things, processes and events have position and velocity. This includes the smallest theorized subatomic particles, rock crystals, Labrador Retrievers, and ideas.

Systems exist in a state of continual non-equilibrium (according to Ervin Laszlo and other theorists) where stability is (sooner or later) overcome by change. The premier example from living systems is when, after eons of time, organisms evolved from simple cell division to genetic recombination through sexual reproduction. The loss of stability led to multitudinous variety.

When living systems such as businesses or sciences or even civilizations accept change as a natural dynamic by working with its forces, they remain open to energy input and thus in line with the evolutionary/creative processes of generally true patterns. Interconnections within or among systems (called process structures by mathematician Erich Jantsch), leads to “self-organization,” or the coming together of that system. The change process (instability) comes about through the movement of energy. If we accept the generally true pattern of All things, events and processes of the entirety change and evolve, then we have we have given acceptance to evolution in our environment and as our environment. Instability within a system can be the cause of unsettledness, but this place of tension is also the font of creativity.

Next essay: Chapter 3 Part I The Search for Boundaries

 

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Generally True Patterns #4

Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

 

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

Part 4 of 22

 

Chapter 2 Part I Historical Connections of the Anthropocene

In the mountains north of where I live, at tree line, the place above which the environment is too harsh to support the growth of trees, there are signs on a ridge trail where three paths intersect. The last spruces live there, shortened in height, branches on the southwest face of the trunks blasted away by winter winds. Higher up are alpine meadows where the snow blows off; below, the thick, dark forest traps that snow, holding it until spring. The trail’s junction is marked by two small wooden signs, one mounted above the other, giving rise to the quality of uncertainty.

They are connected by a narrow board attached with a single nail to the wrinkled grayish-white skeleton of a long dead tree. Their message, the information they were meant to convey, is missing, abraded by the wind as thoroughly as the missing spruce branches. No writing or symbol remains, nor the faintest trace of paint or metal. The signs must once have been sharply rectangular sawed lumber but now have edges weathered to rough smoothness. Their light gray color nearly matches that of the dead tree to which they are attached, the aged patina of an old growth forest that has lived here since the last ice age. Perhaps the tree still lived when the signs were posted and they grew old together. One might miss them or see past their meaning, but what appears unreadable is not necessarily without meaning.

In whatever direction you look trails divide distance into parts of time, taking longer or less long to reach a destination. These paths are vaguely recalled or are reminiscent of paths seen in other times and places, once traveled but subsequently forgotten. The very presence of the signs suggests that the trails, even if we are without knowledge of their destinations, represent a way forward.

Our recognition of generally true patterns path must be as ancient as our own existence. In written form, patterns were noted in both historic Chinese and Greek civilizations, to note just two examples. Ancient peoples were as concerned as ourselves with understanding the structure and order of nature—the unfolded whole—that directly impact individuals and entire societies. The keen observations of Lao-tzu (“The Old Master”) from around 500 B.C.E. and Chuang Chou (a.k.a. Chuang-tzu) about two centuries later acknowledge the practice of Wayfaring, akin to finding our way along actual or metaphorical mountain paths. The limitations of words describing patterns may not capture the exact underlying meaning, but are what we have to serve as our guides.

Knowing our exact speed and place along the path of a generally true pattern comes with a degree of uncertainty (something like the term used by Werner Heisenberg). The operation of right and wrong, good and bad, retains a measure of the mysterious even where the pattern seems clearly definable since, with movement, what we think we know constantly alters. The important insight from the ancients was understanding change as the central feature in nature—and thus of everything, including the relation of opposites, which is to say that a unity is found in the interaction of opposites.

Describing flow in a physical manifestation like turbulence (such as the flow of liquid through a pipe) is difficult mathematically and was not describable at all before the development of non-linear equations. For our forbearers, intuition and identification with the forces of nature were favored over rational, logical means as a way of finding nature’s flow. In an ideal state of oneness with the larger flow, no actions are taken contrary to the laws of nature. For those of us who have not yet reached this mystical state, generally true patterns could be the signs that hold significant meaning to act as guideposts.

The Greek philosopher Herakleitos was contemporary with the early Taoists. He used the term logos to suggest the natural rule of order. Logos is not the same as the Tao, but there are striking similarities. Sayings of Herakleitos such as “Knowledge is not intelligence,” and “I have heard many men talk, but none who realized that understanding is distinct from all other knowledge,” would find a sympathetic ear with Taoists. (Davenport 1976) Compare this to Chuang Chou’s “Great knowledge is broad, small knowledge is petty. Great talk is powerful, small talk is loquacious.” (Cleary 1998)

The dynamic system of paradox recognized by the Taoists also finds expression in Herakleitos: “When Homer said that he wished war might disappear from the lives of gods and men, he forgot that without opposition all things would cease to exist,” and “Opposites cooperate. The beautiful harmonies come from opposition. All things repel each other.” Contemporary systems theories of ever expanding connections have much in common with Herakleitos: “No matter how many ways you try, you cannot find a boundary to consciousness, so deep in every direction does it extend.”

Expressions of the entirety found in Taoism, logos, and contemporary physics explain nature as inherently relational. This is expressed in the generally true pattern:

No thing is one thing alone.

There must be among things reference to other things in order to derive meaning. The infinite number of things, events, and processes that make up the entirety are comprised of interconnecting relationships that go across scales of position, velocity, and time. The quality of interconnectedness is the central tenet of natural history.

Beyond the temporal existence of things, events, and processes,

Relationships evolve over time.

The agents which individually comprise galaxies, lichens, and marriages all change. Each of these comprises an open system, open to input and dissipation of energy. The opposite is a closed system. As a theoretical construct of social systems, Gregory Bateson described its components: Rules are stable and internally consistent, the equipment used is non-evolving, the motivation of the players is unchanging, and the players interact with a steady-state environment. Such a system in reality is impossible.

Open, nonlinear physical, biological, and social systems are in every way the opposite of a closed system. Here are four examples: (1) Rules may give the appearance of momentary stability, but over time are in flux. Even in physical systems, the known (or suspected) behavior of matter and energy may not now, or in every place, be the same as it was at the beginning of time at the origin of the universe. Even if laws of physics do not change over time, our understandings of these laws do change. The rules are not fixed in our own minds, but develop in a process of continual evolution. (2) Individual agents within patterns may evolve in ways either expected or unexpected. The chemical composition of the agents may change. Agents may be perceived as waves or particles. Agents may learn and act upon what they learn, including making changes to the rules.

Systems are in interaction with other systems, unpredictable things may happen. Correct or incorrect guesses or chance occurrences may have beneficial or catastrophic outcomes. The ability to recognize the existence of a pattern, or the tendency of an agent, by chance or design, to take advantage of “lessons” learned from patterns can give that agent (a leader, for example) an advantage over others which (or who) have not recognized or have been unable to take advantage of pattern recognition. (3) Tendencies, rules, preferences, and motivations can and will change over time. (4) Experimentation, statistical testing and mathematical quantification by themselves will not describe everything about a rule-changing, unpredictable environment. However, the environment is not senseless and the unpredictable appearance of random events is often a result of the limitations of both our empirical knowledge and perhaps more importantly, of our wisdom, or at least of our willingness to make use of those patterns which are recognized.

Next essay: Chapter 2 Part II: Historical Connections of the Anthropocene

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