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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 #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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