Monthly Archives: April 2018

Generally True Patterns #11

Hayden's Paintbrush, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Hayden’s Paintbrush, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

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

 

 

Part 11 of 22

 

Chapter 5 Part II The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order (plentitude)

It may be that ordering what we know about nature may be as close as we can come to understanding or assigning purpose to our existence. This is a very old pursuit of pure intellect, possibly the first. Ordering, in terms of separation and the person/nature split, has been the subject of discourse for millennia. The ancient rules of relationship, termed the Great Chain of Being by Arthur O. Lovejoy, represented an important basis of Western thought. It is important here because, for all that it has been discredited, its static-universe view of ordering the world still influences the way we actually behave. The ordering of everything as we know it (beginning with God and then descending through spiritual and profane sentient beings, then non-sentient beings, then the various non-living forms) is characterized by static constancy. I take the opposite view summarized by a generally true pattern:

Change compounds change.

 Since stasis is the prevailing worldview, however, it must be examined.If ultimate power rests with those who make not just the rules, but the definitions of all rules, then the influence of the Great Chain can be more easily understood. Its motto could have been: A place for everything and everything in its place. This continuum of nature was one where nothing moved up or down the scale. In such a system, only certain kinds of questions could be asked. Questions asked outside of the concept of truth it prescribed about the nature of Man and God were not worth asking and thus were of no consequence. This is important because the immorality that arises in human society when nature is seen as static rather than dynamic allows (or causes) catastrophic consequences both for wild-nature and human relations from micro to macro scale.

This is the nature of rigidly set hierarchy, ordained by God and enforced by jack-booted thugs; and the plantation system where a few men are Men, all other men are servants, women are objects, and wild-nature is an exploitable resource. This is a system whose logic suggests that thermonuclear war is thinkable, even desirable to the religious-righteous, not withstanding that both the attacker and the attacked will be equally destroyed by climate change and radiation poison. It is thinkable because even catastrophic outcome does not change the essential order of God to Man to Nature.

The consequences of the static view of nature are therefore of the highest order of importance. There were two divisions of this linear perspective—physical and metaphysical. Rocks, plants, animals, and Man comprised the lower realm, while the metaphysical elements, spirit (and spiritual beings) and God were the components of the higher. All agents were forever in their assigned place. By homologous principle, classes of persons, male-female relationships, social institutions, and person-nature relationships were similarly forever fixed.

The links in this chain weakened during the Age of Enlightenment as events and processes (and thus history) were acknowledged as part of observable existence. This mattered to individual persons when social classes were seen as artificial constructs and not the result of divine order. Among other influences, John Locke, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, and the traditional values of Native American tribes argued against the static universe view and inspired figures of the later Enlightenment such as Thomas Jefferson to new heights of moral and political thought (although they were not all on the same page when it came to which kind of change they supported). Fascism, neo-conservatism, religious fundamentalism and other authoritarian/racial supremacist orthodoxies are vestiges of Great Chain thinking that act in opposition to the recognition of generally true patterns in nature. History casts long shadows.

Arising from consideration of the Great Chain of Being are two opposing concepts. The first is of a remote God removed from the concerns of humankind, existing in a self-contained state with no need of us, a level of goodness outside of time and one to which we cannot aspire: otherworldliness. Think of the gloomy image of Odysseus walking among the Shades in an afterlife of horror. Better true oblivion than this. Part of the impulse for creating a concept of God (or of a secular belief that nature matters) comes from the need to find an end to the feeling of separateness and instead experience a connection to something larger than the self.

The second concept is of a supreme being who is engaged in an active relationship with us, who is within time relative to us, and who is concerned with the ongoing process of creation: this-worldliness. God and creation are interconnected. It is from this place that meaningful questions can arise: Why are we here? With this-worldliness, our being here can, on some level, be explained in rational terms. In both concepts the vastness of the cosmos is recognized, but whereas we are lost in the vastness of the former, we are one of many realized possibilities of life in the latter where aspects of the divine can appear in the world.

Further explanation of this-worldliness comes from Lovejoy’s principle of “Plentitude” where reality itself is characterized by inherent “reasonableness.” Everything that exists must exist for a sufficient reason; conversely, there is equal reason for others things not to exist. In the 20th century mathematical probability replaced reasonableness: unless something is specifically impossible under the laws of physics, it could possibly exist. The Great Chain link on which humankind exists is somewhere in the middle, differing from forms below us only by slight degree, but that place is fixed and certain. Today’s Plentitude philosophers can expect to get a headache from research showing a high percentage of genetic material shared by humans and chimpanzees, blurring the relationship rigidity.

Questions of religious belief devolve into doctrinal struggle. The micro-management god makes its adherents into dangerous fanatics. The remote god, unconcerned or unaware of our existence, inspires neither fear nor belief. The principle of plentitude, by contrast, suggests that rationality exists (also a central tenet of contemporary systems philosophers) and that it is backed by some mysterious force (Bohm says it is an underlying reality), an Idea, a form of Good that is an essential element of existence. This is not about miracle stories but the deeper, fundamental imposition of structure upon which we may find a means or meaning of connection.

Is there a telosof intent? Does the existence of evolution (cosmological as well as biological, bringing about the death of the Great Chain of Being) leading to life suggest supernatural intent to realize the potentiality of life? Scientists have postulated the mathematical odds against the creation of life as exceptionally high. Particularly interesting is the existence of the quality of evolution itself. Was evolution from the Big Bang onward mere chance? Planned? Inevitable? Or could it have as easily not occurred at all and could nature instead have taken on a static, unchanging form, an other-worldliness with or without God? I am not convinced that a universe based on intent is really needed; the power of mind should equally be able to impose a self-actualizing structure on existence, although, if so, we are still left alone in the vastness.

Having raised so many important questions, ultimately, the Great Chain of Being failed to answer them. On one hand, in the other-worldliness model, there is the direness of individuals being all dressed up – spiritually speaking – with nowhere to go, a failure to derive meaning from faith. On the other, this-worldliness fares little better since, although God may have filled the universe with creations to make the Good apparent, we still cannot move up the chain. We are still caught between non-sentient animals on one side and angels on the other; there is no apparent progression in store for us. But the idea of nature as static is disproved in several ways. Extinctions of solar systems, species, and civilizations occur, and others rise in their place. We can reasonably imagine things, processes, and events which do not exist. Consciousness does not inhabit just one place on the scale of the Great Chain but is seemingly active over a range of phenomena and possibilities. There is in addition the presence of generally true patterns which cannot be logically contained in any one position on the Great Chain or any other reality chart; their endless realized examples themselves lead to subsequent and different specific occurrences in the universe.

The principle of Plentitude and the Great Chain did not meet the standards of straight-forwardness and intelligibility required by the Age of Reason. The concept of a universe of rigidity began to break down with the Copernican revolution and was destroyed utterly by Darwin’s theory of evolution. The universe which is perfectly ordered, where randomness cannot be a factor, where a fixed eternity has been established, is also one which is entirely hopeless and irrational. Yet, it is exactly that which drives world politics and shapes the attitudes of many. The antithesis to philosophies of non-meaning is that something in the human spirit—the questing, planning, conniving, forward-looking part—ultimately cannot accept being doomed to an imaginary world of un-change. Where change compounds change, actions matter, sometimes severely. It is possible that we might increase the harmony in our lives and in our relationship with the rest of nature through awareness of the generally true patterns. Those actions for which there seems precedence across the three realms are more in keeping with what might be called the flow of nature than those actions which do not find such support. All actions are natural, but some have a deeper resonance for us than others.

Next essay: Chapter 5 Part III The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order

 

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Generally True Patterns #10

Green Mertensia, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Green Mertensia, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

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

 

 

Part 10 of 22

Chapter 5 Part I The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order (person/nature separation)

There is an undeniable interrelatedness of subatomic forces, ecology, politics, spirituality, and romantic intimacy as realized specific examples of the larger potential of patterns. Pattern recognition calls for a denial of the tendency to assign each quality of nature a status of absolute separateness. This is not to be confused with identifications of specific separateness, for instance the morphology (form and structure) and taxonomy (genetic relationships) of plants and animals. Identification of something as one thing is a major preoccupation of scientists and those like me who make brief forays into their world.

Coming down a ridge in the high country spruce forest just below tree line, I see a moving shadow, but it is such a small thing that perhaps it is not precisely the sight of something, but more a sense of the presence of motion. As any wild thing would when confronted with the mysterious, I freeze in mid-step awaiting additional signals. I scan a rock field ahead, an inlay of small boulders on a steep slope mostly shaded by the trees. At the nearest edge of rocks, just ahead, I again get the impression of a flicker of movement, but this time not of shadow but of diminutive substance.

The tiny head and shoulders gradually resolve themselves connecting to a sleek body and narrow tail. The reductionist part of my mentality engages memories of classification schemes: Flesh-eating predator, Order: Carnivora. Furbearer, Family: Mustelidae, generally characterized by short legs, rounded ears. Then, in contravention to the inner wildlife biologist, the naturalist emerges as well: this group of animals is generally perceived as aesthetically pleasing to those of us who do the classifications. The family includes minks and skunks, but this is a miniature predator, Genus: Mustela, or weasel. Later, in reviewing my field notes, I find that I have tentatively identified this one as Mustela erminea(Ermine or Shorttail weasel) with “reddish top, cream bottom.” An Ermine is whiter on the ventral while Mustela frenata(Longtail weasel) is more yellowish. Frenataof the same sex is marginally larger, but what sex and what age is this one? And what is marginally? They are all small. As to tail length, I didn’t get a good enough look at the tail to know for sure.

This Mustela of whatever persuasion has no problem sighting me and after a moment’s peering and consideration from the vantage point of its rock, vanishes. It is simply gone from one second to the next while my brain has not registered the progress of its disappearance. This is not unique; an entire herd of elk can fade into deep brush even as we watch and then be gone as thoroughly as if they never existed. This feat is even more easily accomplished by a creature I could easily hold with one hand and nearly enfold with two. I climb across unstable rocks to reach the place once occupied by the creature. There is a deep hole into which it apparently has dropped. Above, on cloudless day, the sun has passed through mid-afternoon almost to the moment where its rays will noticeably angle. For now, all the upper world is in a state of bright luminosity making the blackness of the hole all the more exceptional. I lie down on the rocks and push my face to the edge of that blackness trying not to cast further shadow upon the entry into the miniature cave.

The weasel looks back at me, I suppose with equal curiosity. Like other predators, they are seemingly fascinated by what goes on around them, including the highly unfamiliar. In this remote place, far from any trail, it is possible that this one has never before beheld a creature of my kind. An occurrence of optical physics works to my advantage. A narrow beam of light at the same angle as the tunnel shines in just enough that, while it gives no illumination of the rocky dimensions, shines directly into the eyes of the weasel like that of car headlights reflecting from the eyes of an animal on a night road. Its eyes glow like silvery metallic turquoise beads, a description that must do although it is far from the mark.

A physicist might gauge the frequency of this reflected light to determine its place on the light spectrum; a biologist could kill the weasel, then pluck out its eyes to count the rods and cones and pigment fragments concluding with a check of its mammae, teeth, and of course, length and ventral coloration. But as I encounter this elegant being, I am seeing an order of a different kind, a reflected color from the eye that I have never seen in nature or art. I will be forever haunted by the moment. Those eyes are made of atoms from suns so long ago exploded and dispersed through the galaxy that even the broadest use of our imaginations can scarcely cope with the time and distance. The way we choose to order things in relation to other things is the key to how we perceive the three realms.

The way we order our knowledge of nature (relationships within the entirety) tells everything about us. How we do so is generally predictive of how we will treat one another and all other agents of the environment of which we are a part. Our resistance to accepting that energy input into a system leads to motion and instability, and that it thus means change, is severe. Perhaps this is because major change suggests literal death or at least metaphoric death of our ideas and ideology. Even when it is accepted, it can be melancholic as in Tennyson:

And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:

‘The old order changeth, yielding place to the new.’

Our continual attempts to deny a connection to something larger than ourselves are a form of resistance to the lessons of the generally true patterns. The patterns suggest a person/nature connection; we are in relation to all else with no possibility of being alone. But the way we live now, practicing the way of the person/nature split, places us in a kind of afterlife, something like the ancient Greek shades (ghosts or souls) of hell who live within observation distance of nature and at the same time beyond touch or understanding of it.

Then as now, the truthfulness of those who wield power can be tested: the more they conjure fear and enjoin hatred in their followers, the more likely they are to be liars who say what they do to gain control over others by a call to person/person separation or person/nature separation. Negativism is made easy to buy into because of our broad scale disconnection from the other two realms. The belief in separateness itself makes the potential order of the generally true patterns invisible. We have become shades by choice rather than by death. The massive violence inflicted by peoples upon one another and against nature must arise from our beliefs, or to put it another way, from our disbelief in the order of connection.

Next essay: Chapter 5 Part II The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order

 

 

 

 

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Generally True Patterns #9

Daisy, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Daisy, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

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

 

 

Part 9 of 22

Chapter 4 Part II Connection and Separation (boundaries)

The belief that we can arrive at absolute knowledge of something presupposes that that something can exist in a static, unchanging state. The evolutionary view of pattern recognition suggests the impossibility of an unchanging condition. Our perceptions and consciousness of nature is in an endless process of movement and change. We are not separate from the reality we speculate upon. Consciousness and external connections form a continuum of boundaries, expanding the first statement of the pattern:

All situations of things, events, processes, and organizations exhibit motion and change—there is no situation of unchanging condition.

 Our perceptions of divisions divide us from each other and from nature, but we can also perceive reality as a flow rather than a series of breaks. How we order language, mathematics, and knowledge in general shows the deep ways in which we connect or disconnect the things and processes of reality to and from each other.

Divisions in our perceptions of things, events, and processes are confused for actual breaks in reality rather than analytic tools. In contrast, the harmony of individuals and societies with nature could arise from a recognition that patterns work in a similar way across all boundaries, including those boundaries we cannot define precisely. Indeed, giving up a need to define all boundaries with certainty may be achieved more easily as we begin to understand that such definitions are not always important.

If we re-order our perception of nature so that vague boundaries do not become insurmountable barriers, then we accept that our understanding of it may reasonably change over time, just as nature does itself. There are historic examples of our having changed the way we conceptualize. Newton and Einstein in science or Picasso and Kandinsky in art changed how we use physics and how we use visual imagery. Following these perception shifts, language evolution—new words or new uses of old ones—followed. Similarly, the statement of generally true patterns represents a way to achieve the recognition of flow, rather than disconnection, as the more accurate model of nature.

All events, objects, entities, and knowledge are not things separate from each other, but are realized specifics unfolded from the potential of generally true patterns. Everything that is realized in a way we can recognize (supernova explosions, garter snakes catching lizards, the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, a radioactive waste spill) is part of a larger process of change and movement. David Bohm makes an analogy to the flow of a stream, the ripples, waves, and vortices of which create patterns that are seen individually but that are not independent of the larger flow. Herakleitos observed that a river may be entered once, but not twice, since the water first encountered has moved on. In Siddhartha, Herman Hesse wrote that a stream always lives in the present, at once at its source, its middle, and its end. The state of constant change itself seems to act as the one quality that does not change. Knowledge itself is a manifestation of this generally true pattern. According to David Bohm in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, all thought and all things are themselves abstracted from the total process of reality, “incorporating both thought and what is thought about in a single movement,” a direct philosophical conclusion drawn from quantum mechanics.

The implication of pattern recognition is that we affect and are affected by the systems (business, relationship, environment, etc.) of which we are a part. The causality of events, consequences, and ideas have effects that pass through time and distance while not being interpretable in a merely linear fashion. Nor can any measurements account for all the variables of the system. Given this difficulty in accounting, generally true patterns reveal laws, rules, and tendencies within nature that exist on a broad scale. Applying awareness of these patterns to the circumstances of our own lives can provide guidance. Admitting to the primacy of change as basic to all operations of nature is a first step in this process.

The structures of generally true patterns are helpful in the examination of boundaries since systems are not entirely isolated from each other but subject to mutual influences through the various levels as well as among the three realms. At the quantum (very small) level of system activity, measurement is difficult because the rapidity of change may be greater than the response time of instruments needed to record the change. Bigger systems—commodities markets, for example—change more slowly, but the problem of measuring the rate of change or analyzing the pathways on which events move through adjacent systems remains daunting. Specific, localized quantum rules are different from commodities market rules, but the underlying pattern of change is the same: the pattern potential unfolds as realized events across particular cases.

On a larger scale, Einstein thought of the universe as a kind an unbroken whole rather than a collection of components. An example of wholeness comes from astronomy where energy across a spectrum of light and sound from different places and different times travels through time and space to intersect our seeing and hearing. Traveling energies are folded together through the vastness as a potential which, when it strikes us and our instrumentation, becomes realized events of sound and light, a depiction of an unfolded whole: not a final conclusion, but a demonstration of connectedness to the rest of nature.

The conceptual belief in boundaries and unchanging permanence is based on the analogy of machine-like parts that interact but exist independently of one another. By contrast, the enfolded order can be understood as the biological analogy of a living body (or system) where parts are not independent or even interdependent but are in an entire relation of uncertain boundaries. Further consideration of generally true patterns will help in explaining the connections.

Next essay: Chapter 5 Part I The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order

 

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Generally True Patterns #8

Buttercups, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Buttercups, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

 

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

 

 

 

 

Part 8 of 22

Chapter 4 Part I Connection and Separation

On the prairie, as elsewhere, everything starts with the sun, but it is grass that first captures the imagination, grass which lives in a kind of symbiosis with fire. Tall grass rattles together like the sticks of wooden chimes suspended from porch eves. It is a mass of interwoven stems which, except when burned off, grazed down, or defoliated, intercept even the hardest rain, transforming its harsh impact to a gentle slide along ramps into the soil. Wind-blown grass forms troughs and crests so that the prairie sea appears light green when seen with the wind and dark green when the wind makes it bow towards us. The prairie turns from a photosynthesizing life color in spring to reddish-dun as summer passes; it changes to red-copper in wet gray autumns, then to blanched straw in winter, seemingly dull or glowing depending upon clouds and the angle of diffused or direct light escaping from above. At the end of winter, fires cause the above-ground parts of the plants to wither into ash. Briefly, the land itself becomes black.

Fires gold-rim the night hills in convex semi-circles of neon crowns. In the day, grass smoke from prairie fires can rise in fast thermal columns enveloping a passing cumulous cloud, a wispy gray embrace of white mass. Below, drifts of black ash pile against revealed sharp fragments of flinty rocks hidden beneath the grass at other times. Rains will turn the land to dirt brown again without the danger of erosion. The greatest extent and biomass of grass lies beneath the surface where each plant may have roots cumulatively miles in length. The boundary of the prairie is somewhere between deep in the earth and far up into the sky; it extends into eastern forests and western deserts, with a linage going back over ten million years. Its sod lay unbroken since the last ice age until ravaged by machines.

The boundaries of a plant or an ecosystem or a solar system are less subject to physical proof regarding its proposed extent than to the system of imagination we impose in the seeking of definition. There is first the physical problem of defining where a grass plant begins or ends. Does it start with sub-atomic properties? Does it end at the tip of the blade, or with the blades of its distant kindred, or does it end with the visual termination of the prairie aggregate, at the gash of a road or the sweep of a river bend? Even if those questions could be answered, the boundary of a plant or a prairie or of the thermodynamic forces at work in the creation and maintenance of that system are in constant flux—as is the way we imagine that plant or prairie to exist in the world.

When I lived in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I would follow the fires across ranch land. Fires have been purposefully set by humans from the time before the entry of the Europeans to the present. The prairie as it has evolved over the past several thousand years is a human/grass ecosystem. Burning off dry grass releases nutrients back into the soil and despoils the above-ground portions of old dead growth so that new growth can take advantage of maximum sunlight. The blackness behind the fire is just grass ash; the ground does not change color except by what overlays it at a given moment. The passing wall of fire, even where it flares up to many times my height, is often thin, in one place the length of my hand, in another about three paces across. There are brief moments when it flashes forward, wind-driven. Walking close behind the fire is not dangerous when the wind is not threatening, for it cannot turn back upon itself in places where the fuel has already burned. The ground remains warm behind the fire path, but burned grass leaves no hot embers. Whitish rocks show an oily brownish cast from plant resins, but stay hot for only two paces behind the just-passed flames of a slow moving fire, thereafter quickly cooling. Broad-leaved shrubs may survive the fires if they have received enough moisture. Cow dung (it used to be bison) continues to smolder after fire passes over, casting out thousands of little smokes from the black expanse. When a tree succumbs, a miniature fire may range inside its walls for hours afterwards.

Ashes crumble to the slightest touch. A strong wind will sort out the ash, sift it from piled to flat so that within a day or two the blackness will start to diminish. Winter wheat fields, riparian shores and deep thickets of sumac are unaffected by the passing firestorm, although white smoke crept through those places with choking force while the fire raged. Every curve of hill and all wheel ruts and previously hidden rodent trails show graphically after the fire, transforming the landscape to a vulnerable nakedness in which meadowlarks and crows and killdeer and coyotes hunt for the charred bodies of insects and rodents or the live survivors with nowhere to hide.

Within a few days wildflowers show everywhere as life rises from the ashes; the life/ash ecotone is a continuum and not one of separate components. Within a week, coffee brown earth will be tinged with green, and in two weeks the land will become recognizable prairie once more. In a month, the tall-grass prairie will be fully restored. It was once like this over much of the North American continent. Except for parts of the Flint Hills in Kansas, the Sand Hills in Nebraska, parts of the Dakotas, and lesser remnants of unbroken sod elsewhere, the original ecosystems of the prairie are largely destroyed. The remnants keep to their fire and rain rituals, growing in spring, decaying back to visually simpler form in the off-season, waiting for us to leave, to reclaim the overgrazed pastures and the wheat fields, to cover and protect the land again when we are gone.

The prairie, a story of fire, is one specific example of a generally true pattern:

There is no situation of un-change.

 Identifying generally true patterns is a means of making sense of non-linear processes. Coming to a deeper understanding of processes, rather than prediction of specific outcomes, is the goal of pattern recognition. Physical occurrences such as fire force change on life systems in a way that is sensible in the aggregate while much less knowable in the outcomes for individual lives. The lessons of prairie fire ecology present a model of interconnectedness. Our more common approach of fragmenting problems into manageable bits can be a useful illusion particularly in technical matters of science and engineering. But separation, as a thing itself, has its limits as shown by the impossible task of determining the boundary of even a single prairie grass plant.

If the perception of separation creates separation, then it may be equally possible that the perception of connectedness could create connectedness. Pattern recognition presents a way to imagine connectedness in a meaningful way. The person/nature split is an outcome of a belief in certainty. When beliefs are assigned permanent true/false values, they lead us to a static view of nature and society, thus becoming a limiting factor on thought and a self-perpetuating mechanism keeping our knowledge in a fragmented state. Were language to allow, the perception of holistic reality would create a holistic response. There is no one way to look at realities, but many ways to look at one reality. There is no arrival at absolute truth (through science or any other means), but there are insights changing over time that give us a way into understanding the nature of knowledge and experience.

Next essay: Chapter 4 Part II Connection and Separation

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