Generally True Patters: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature
Part 21 of 22
Three of us were finishing lunch at the most popular restaurant in town. A fireplace just behind gave the kind of meaningful heat that provides warmth to more than just the body on a day when a blizzard rages outside. We watched the mounting snow level when a Swallowtail butterfly (genus Papilio) chose that moment to complete its metamorphosis and emerge from the purse of my guest just arrived from California. It had sulfur-yellow wings marked with four stripes of calligraphy on each side that were outlined in black across the bottom. The little creature pupated between California and New Mexico in time to arrive, wings still wet and unfolding, as the visual dessert to our meal. Its means of entry into the purse remained mysterious. But ultimately, a manifestation of the idea of a generally true pattern.
Now, as part of our lives in an unsuitable environment, I could do no more than take it home and release it to the relative hospitality of my house. It fluttered about for two days before dying. From the Papilio perspective, its mission in the world remained unfulfilled. We however were filled with wonder for two days by this demonstration of forms of conversion whereby the movement of energy restructures a system. It also demonstrated two generally true patterns:
A thing becomes a thing following its move from an abstraction to a concrete reality or process.
Realized outcomes of things, events, and processes are both deterministic and unpredictable.
We are surrounded by manifestations of generally true patterns. Recognition of them could lead to an ideology of inclusion to replace the current one of loss and person/nature disconnection. The momentum towards loss is ascendant, but is there is hope for metamorphosis? Can we accept the pattern: Nothing is one thing alone. All systems of the three realms are connected (even if distantly). The generally true pattern, change compounds, is, like all patterns, one we cannot wish away just because of the inconvenience of that recognition. The heart of the person/nature split is the denial of three-realm consequences. Social experiments in biology (species elimination and forced behavioral changes such as animals changing from diurnal to nocturnal foraging) and physics (change in atmospheric composition leading to deterioration of Antarctic ice shelves) push all systems into chaotic change. The biological and physical conditions contemporary with the rise of civilization were mostly favorable to us. There is, however, no rational argument showing benefit to civilization from the destruction of pure air, clean water, or fertile wild and agricultural land. The ideology of loss as the pathway to gain finds no support in the natural world.
If morality can arise from physical laws of the universe, it may manifest as an ethics of relationship recognition where inclusion is given higher value than loss. The libertarian ideal of a virtue of selfishness values both loss and exclusion, an expression of the highest immorality under the inclusive laws of nature. This immorality of loss becomes all the more vivid if an argument is made for acting in self-interest alone by worshiping the falsehood of separation. Preservation of the air we breathe, water we drink, land and seas we live upon (with all their attendant creatures), cultures we interact with (even if not our own, having wisdom to share) is an essential act of individual and civilizational survival. Generally true patterns show the impossibility of separation of the social from the biological and physical realms. Violations of pattern rules by pretending that they do not exist (belief in non-consequence of actions) become actions that can fairly be described as immoral.
The separation thinking of the Great Chain of Being remains an active a force in our lives leading to the creation of false hierarchies. The pattern recognition of inclusion recognizes other species and cultures, land, sea and air environments as boundary-less vis-à-vis us as individuals and members of societies. Our concept of morality must be extended to include the undeniable existence of relationships. Pattern recognition is imminently practical. Since we are of nature, we must work within its rules or face gradual or swift decline.
The generally true patterns, those listed in these essays as well as others which will be identified, are straightforward. The practice of pattern recognition at first appears difficult since the presence of multiple interacting simple rules is the font of complexity. That something can be both certain and imprecise, deterministic and unpredictable, specifically different but generally true, challenges us to the limits of our perceptive abilities, but consider this as a measure of probability: You don’t always have to be entirely precise (absolutely true) when being somewhat precise (generally true) has a higher likelihood of achieving the correct answer. Think of shooting at a target bull’s-eye with a rifle. Using precise control methods (a steady arm, a calculated aim) leads to one of two results: exact target contact or complete miss. By contrast, firing at the target with an imprecise weapon such as a shotgun leads to two slightly altered results: the near certainty that most of the pellets will miss the target and the relatively certainty that at least one or more may well strike the targeted area. Since systems are continuous through time and space, the imprecision of the generally true will fit more cases than the precision of one specific case. Bertrand Russell showed that such uncertainty in mathematical calculations operates with vague but real logic.
While many machines and calculations do require exact precision, most of what we encounter in the course of a day—running a project, acting within an organization, or coping with our private lives—is inherently imprecise, especially when judged by our ability to predict exact outcomes of particular actions. Precise, linear thinking may lead to the right decision by chance, but application of generally true rules will arrive at a near-correct answer more often. But what is the nature of “generally true” itself?
Ludwig von Bertalanffy in his General Systems Theory postulated the existence of “isomorphisms” or similarities of organizational structures in different systems. His purpose in systems research was to identify the underlying mechanisms of affiliation. He recognized the loss of reverence for the living world. We kill ourselves as we kill nature, but how do we internalize this message of the world as a single organization? How do we push beyond the edge of problem-recognition into that place where problem-solution is actively sought? Where do we find the edge of the person/nature split? It is not an exact place but rather one whose edge is always in motion. A few years after the compilation of Bertalanffy’s work, another writer in applied relational thinking, Robert Pirsig, observed that the frequent recurrence of a fact has greater usefulness than one that is rare. For him, similarities and differences were less important than “the recognition of likenesses hidden under apparent divergences. Particular rules seem at first discordant, but looking more closely we see in general that they resemble each other; different as to matter, they are alike as to form, as to the order of their parts.”
Generally true should not be read as forever true since what is general may change in its substance over the course of evolution and will certainly change over the shorter run of our perceptions of it. The organization of the universe and all its components may have an ultimate form, but even if so, it is unknown to us. We impose organizational concepts to make sense of the entirety. These concepts change in our reckoning as a result of developments in science, philosophy, and attitudes. Nonetheless, by not going beyond the fixed points of reductionist thinking, we limit the sense of meaning that can be derived from a broader view.
The concept of generally true patterns can be misused (accidentally or intentionally) if not collaborated by actual (not false) three-realm examples. There are infinite choice/decision, if/then bifurcations in the ongoing history of any system, so any one outcome may not be predicable in advance, although in hindsight the outcome sometimes may be analyzed to find out which bifurcation seemed to lead to that outcome. Bifurcations appear as indeterminism or chance as small changes become amplified into large emergent outcomes. The unfolding generally true patterns provide order to apparent randomness:
In terms of outcomes of situations, there are not infinite possibilities; there is instead one possible, unknown outcome.
A generally true pattern is something like a wave, a phenomenon of flow, until it breaks upon our beach and we can experience its existence as a concrete thing, event, or process. While a pattern is generally the same in the three realms, its specific existence as a concrete fact in the physical realm is not exactly the same thing as its manifestation in the world of biology or in a social system (each individual occurrence, an example of specific separateness). Each individual example presented to establish the existence of a generally true pattern is true only in its own case and not in every case. An individual example illustrating a pattern is specific only to a physical system, a living system, or a social system but does not cross boundaries. However, when these specific examples are taken as an aggregate, they do define a generally true pattern that is true across the whole range of nature. The larger issue concerns the ways in which we might interpret the signals (information, data, etc.) found in nature in a coherent way.
There is no one approach to finding the generally true patterns, but since all parts of the entirety are ultimately (even if distantly or mysteriously) tied to all other parts, our application has the goal of explaining observations in a useful way. This method of building models from the observation of nature credits both the linear, reductive approach and the systems approach of examining multidimensional interrelationship processes. Consideration of generally true patterns does not need to achieve absolute certainty, but instead, “appropriateness” (Laszlo’s term) in the search for meaning within unfolding potentialities.
My observation of nature is that events and processes give the appearance of reoccurring through physical and living systems in such a way that they can be said to be generally true. Patterns operate in our perception as inter-connecting systems and can be interpreted across the three realms. We can establish the existence of these patterns by identifying specific examples. We can draw lessons from the patterns assuming that what is generally true for the rest of nature is also true for human beings. This knowledge can be used for problem solving by leaders in organizations and by individuals in their personal lives. Living in accordance with the patterns can be applied by all of us in our relationship with nature, as a denial of separateness, and as proof that the relationship is ultimately with ourselves. There is no other.
Postscriptum: Long ago, on a visit to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, I experienced a manifestation of imprecision and inclusion in the form of a visual pattern. Here I borrow terms from art history. The clouded overcast sky and the vast array of sand dunes had taken on the same value, that is, the gray lightness of air and land were exactly the same. As a result, what is called the vanishing point (the horizon where parallel lines meet) had itself vanished. Perspective ceased to have meaning so that near and far could not be distinguished nor could the up and down of elevation. The difference between a meter or one hundred meters and a kilometer could not be ascertained by the eye although, beneath the clouds, the air was entirely clear. A step down could give an unpleasant jolt because the ground level had not changed, or it could send one unexpectedly tumbling. Lateral distance and elevation change became the same in my mind only since, in the physical realm, nothing had changed. My connection to the desert was absolute in a weird kind of inescapable oneness, disconcerting inclusion, imprecision of depth perception, visual illusion overriding physical certainty. It could have been a lonely spot, but instead the desert had enveloped me, unfolded its potential to amaze by erasing and at the same time enhancing its essence. For a little while I was fully included.
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Also published on Medium.