Generally True Patterns #14


Moss Campion, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Moss Campion, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

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




Part 14 of 22


Chapter 6 Part I Organization, Leadership and Imprecision (Determinism) 

On a windless summer day, sitting in the outdoor, tree-shaded patio of a popular local restaurant with a Japanese-born architect, I was confronted with the imprecision pattern. On the table was a rectangular dull orange ceramic bowl containing several kinds of paper-packaged sweeteners in a space half as long as a standard pencil and only half that wide. The food server, who perhaps thought we were looking at it, asked in reference to the bowl, “Is there anything not in there that you want?” She appeared surprised when we looked at her not knowing how to answer. “Is that a philosophical question?” I asked.

A Buddhist koan, we decided. What might not be in there? A chocolate mint? A winning lottery ticket? Taoist emptiness? What could be the range of things not in there that I might want, if anything (everything) could be included? My companion and I later decided that it could take several days to come up with an approach to the question, let alone come up with an answer. Since the food server was busy with the onrush of lunchtime customers, I said, “No.” But it was not clear what I said no to. How, for instance, is it even possible to know the full range of what might not be there? There could be things not there that I don’t even know about wanting, but which I might want if I knew about them. But how could I know? Perhaps what I most want I don’t know about. Can there be an “anything not”? What if I want something not in existence—would that count as an “anything not”? And what if I had wanted anything not in the bowl, what then? Would any answer be a matter of fact or would it be a statement of belief?

In belief systems we may affirm something based on no understanding, then negate or deny this something as we seek meaning, and then perhaps affirm it once again at a later time, but this time knowing why we do so. The sugar bowl contains everything or nothing. The origin of printed words on the packaging can be traced back to the beginning of time. Although the outcome of unpredictable determinism, with hindsight we might trace back every signal, every chance or planned bifurcation that led to the sugars’ presence on that table at the moment the question was asked. The enfolded potential of the universe, there from the beginning, unfolded into specific, realized form. If so, then perhaps what I want is already in there—but would I recognize it?

So is there anything in there that I want? No. An answer in the negative could be a correct reply only if there is meaning to back it up. On the other hand, what if in answer to her question I had said, simply, yes? What then: You can’t always get want you want, but if you try sometime, you might find you get what you need? In the event, I took nothing from the bowl other than a sense of disquiet and asked for nothing more either there or not there.

Imprecision and instability need not mean despair. Application of imprecision provides the structures required to build our lives and organizations. It is in part a nod to the physicist’s uncertainty. All systems of the entirety are characterized by creative, evolutionary change, inherent movement, and dynamic cross-realm relationships leading to certain but unpredictable consequences:

All agents within all systems operate with some degree of imprecision.

For one asteroid striking another into a different trajectory, for an eagle swooping down on a meerkat, for us contemplating taking a risk in business, extreme adventure, or love, the prevailing pattern at work is one of imprecision, increasing or decreasing levels of control, always something less than absolute certainty of a specific outcome, but at the same time based on existing or impending potential (or emergent) order.

In this essay I will suggest a number of generally true patterns that present guidance through acknowledgement of imprecision in light of giving up on the hopelessness of certainty. Pattern recognition is the way past Einstein’s quandary of a universe that is either un-creatively deterministic (i.e., this-worldliness, time and history have no independent existence) or ruled by pointless chance (otherworldliness, time and history are irrelevant). The generally true patterns suggest the reverse: unpredictable determinism is the agent of creativity; and chance, rather than existing without meaning, is the ever unfolding realizations of enfolded potential over irreversible time. Also in paradox is the very concept of certainty, which is not supportable as a three-realm pattern. As Prigogine pointed out, initial conditions of anything (since all events, things, and processes seem to go back to the beginning of the beginning) cannot be precisely measured. However, much about nature can be imprecisely known. Consciousness about the meaning of the patterns can bring not only guidance but a degree of comfort as well.

This is the underlying premise for the imprecision of patterns:

All systems of the three realms are ultimately, even if distantly, connected to all other systems.

Organic and inorganic processes on earth have created an interconnection of all living systems. Cultural and cognitive processes have evolved from those systems and remain dependent upon them. Open systems encompass a wide range of energy forms such as thermal (physical) and informational (cognitive).

A functional system is one in which the inflow of energy is sufficient to maintain its operations.

The pattern holds equally true for both natural and cognitive systems. For natural systems this means adequate physical energy input; for cognitive systems, adequate information inflow. A closely related concept:

The vitality of any system depends on the free flow of information.

In systems from phone line data transmission to political structures, access and distribution of information is the determinant of system efficiency. Signals at the most basic levels in physical systems, the migration of genetic codes in organic systems, and the spread of scandalous rumors in social systems are examples of decentralized flow. Support for distributed, non-hierarchical power sharing in organizations might find a model in this pattern. In a change-driven environment the ability to adapt is the key to survival.

The change process is all-important.

As organizations (social, biological, physical) increase in size or complexity, differentiation occurs.

This occurs as a result of changes in the physical locations of agents, and also of the abilities of the agents, the demands on them, and the separations or joining with other agents. These processes sometimes modify the environment itself. In the social realm, both business organizations and nonprofit agencies experience identifiable life cycles, including rebirth, as a result of disaster or reorganization. Interpreted as a pattern that is generally true, differentiation is an aspect of the meta-pattern of evolution. Darwin’s Galapagos finches evolved from a common ancestor to include several types which are of the same organization (finches) but which perform specialized functions. The principles of science increasingly inform the perceptions of organizational change. Dynamic disequilibrium from energy input forces change from the quantum level to the corporate. Change also exhibits the quality of position:

Information (or energy) does not move in a vacuum but through an already occupied space.

This is true not only on the subatomic and molecular levels (even allowing for the vastness of space between objects in the quantum realm, agents there do run into or otherwise affect one another), but also in politics and organizations. Space, in its various aspects, is crowded with systems that we may or may not see. Information running through social systems inevitably bumps into something. Yet it also keeps going:

Information exhibits the quality of continuance over time.

Next essay: Chapter 6 Part II Organization, Leadership and Imprecision

Generally True Patterns #13

Lake Fork Peak, New Mexico

Lake Fork Peak, New Mexico

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




Part 13 of 22


Chapter 5 Part IV The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order (it’s about time)

One other important aspect in the category of order is time. A basic shared assumption developed by all cultures is the perception of what constitutes time – both in the immediate term and in the historical period in which the culture or organization operates. This perception will have an important influence on how we chose to interpret and define patterns. Western culture assigns much importance to linear time, measurable by appointments in desk calendars or other kinds of commodity-type units. Time can also be measured by accomplishments so that simultaneous actions can take place. (One of the most important systems theorists Ilya Prigogine gave much attention to the nature of time.)

Time shows other characteristics as well. Historic or longer-term time focuses or broods upon the past. Contemporary concerns can keep us in the moment. Dwelling on the future gives us a chance to look ahead or to avoid something for now. Cyclical time experiences history as repeating like the seasons. Systems, by having come from some place, advancing toward another, and for the moment, teetering on a chaotic edge of the temporary steady state, repeat generally true patterns even if not specific events. A system flows through all the pasts, presents, and futures of time at once. Agents of the system are carried on this stream and affect its course at the same time. It is possible to imagine the pattern recognition naturalist as a time-perception traveler, not limited to any one definition of time, but choosing to use whichever concept is useful in achieving a particular task or vision.

This kind of naturalist can experience time itself as a system and, with intent, try to operate within that system at a level of appropriateness to the situation. Linear time (realized, quantitative) is expended for planning (control) while development time (potential, qualitative) admits that some parts of the system are not subject to the attempt to control. Avoidance of time-entrapment necessitates going back and forth between different senses of time. This is not an either-or issue. It is possible for a particular task to exist in both planning and development time. It may be that time, like other things, events, and processes, operates in the same kinds of ways regardless of scale.

Conflict within oneself, within an organization or between an organization and its environment (other organizations or other kinds of systems) arises out of misunderstanding one’s own or others’ time definitions. The place to look for the meaning of whatever we are trying to describe is not in the individual agents but in the interrelationships and interconnections of those agents. The pattern, of which time is a part, is big and impersonal. The level on which the individual living agent interacts with the entirety is highly personal. The limitations of the cold logic of science, as it has come to recognize the mathematical complexity of reality, necessitate the use of a deep immersion approach to organizing knowledge and the need to re-forge our connections to nature and time. The natural and social worlds are part of a single larger whole within the entirety moving through time.

But where are we located in this larger order of the entirety? Is it self-centered to believe oneself at the center of the universe? As you are implicated in the entirety, there may be fundamental truth to ascribing your position as being in the center. In an infinite universe, all distances from where you are lead to infinity, with yourself in the middle as a kind of hub. You are, in some respects, still in that place. This compact connection of the quantum and cosmological entirety in a point represents an intimacy of magnitude on a scale we cannot comprehend, yet the concept is important, for if this theory from physics in correct, then no person/nature split can physically exist. All things, events, and processes were implicated from the beginning to unfold into manifest and permanent relationship.

We remain in this relationship of the entirety because of generally true patterns that are in force regardless of placement of the scale from basic to principal. Quantum mechanics (behavior of subatomic particles), special relativity (perception of space and time as an outcome of motion), general relativity (the shape of space and time as influenced by matter and energy, i.e., thermal history), operate without us, but also operate within us (and not as something separate) as generally true patterns that are equally applicable to the physical, biological, and social realms. Any other interpretation allows the argument that nature is a thing apart from us and not significant in relation to actions we may take. Arguments to the contrary come from notions of reality that perceive progressions as only linear in form. These linear relations do exist in much the same way that Newtonian mechanics exists even in the age of quantum mechanics. The limitation of these approaches is historic, an unwillingness to accept the literalness of natural history. All relationships are connected relationally through time: systems are part of other systems because of shared time ancestry. This concept is difficult to depict graphically.

Generally true patterns are enfolded potentiality, which is to say they are abstract. Since they are not things, they do not lend themselves to placement on relational charts. We can, however, infer their existence through observational natural history, the realized, concrete events of things, events, and processes that take changing form over time. The entirety in either its abstract enfolded or concrete unfolded form is a moving target beyond absolute description: evolving historic relationships (determinant in hindsight), manifesting in this moment of purely conceptual and illusory present, and continuing onto an indeterminate future. In this time-based system our challenge is to find the means of connecting the processes that unfold to become the three realms of the physical, biological, and social. To the extent that we disbelieve the possibility of relational connections within the chaos and complexity of the entirety, we create the static existence of a person/nature split where our actions do not matter.

One means of finding order (or ordering) within this moving-target universe is to recognize nature’s tendency towards patterning. The fundamental stuff of atomic and subatomic particles may not be precisely eternal, but the events of which atoms are a part occur within time. The transformation of generations of solar bodies, to take but one example, occurs over billions of years. Physicists claim that atoms did not exist until sometime after the Big Bang, but the meta-pattern of creative evolution seems to have been present from the beginning, perhaps a concept as close as possible to describing something eternal. Such implicate forms mysteriously give rise to a process of potential becoming realized.

A thing, event, or process becomes realized at the moment its existence acquires meaning in relation to something else: it effects and is affected by other things, events, and processes over time. At the moment of its unfolding into a specific, an agent acquires a history in time that connects it to all else that has ever happened or ever will happen. It finds relation in terms of momentary position and evolution in terms of its rate of motion. The development of meaning, from the creation of the first atom to the first dinosaur to the first self-aware conscious thought about the world by a living creature becomes in this way more than novelty. Time itself becomes both object and subject of natural history. Within evolutionary time, physical, biological, and mental events become not things separate, but relationships inherently implicate within one another.

In describing the workings of the entirety whether through generally true patterns or any other means, we should consider this warning: “Every time you write a rule, something escapes.” (Attributed to Ralph Hummel by Professor David Carnevale, University of Oklahoma, personal communication, June 1999. Of course, this rule, by its own internal logic, may not be correct since anything could escape to prove it wrong.) A truism from art history applies here: All photographs of paintings are lies. The representation of the object is not the object; the actual object cannot be captured in reproductive models.

This is not as obvious as it seems since representing complex systems from fractals to business growth statistics in two-dimensional form is the standard—but one pattern that does not exist in a generally true way in nature’s complex systems is the two-dimensionality of standard linear models. Simplified depiction in the form of flow charts, organizational charts, matrices, and the like gives the impression of a linear, reductionist approach even where not intended. Allowing that this is one kind of description, depicting a generally true pattern throughout its manifestations in physical, biological, and social systems may have to be accomplished in another form than the two-dimensionality allowed by paper. The talents of the visual artist, the computer programmer, and the mathematician (the place where art meets science) are needed to depict a new graphic, perhaps a hologram accounting for multi-dimensionality. By whatever means it is conveyed, both the passage of time and the reality of change over time need to be reflected graphically if the model is to show the system as a whole. The resulting pattern:

All systems have a history in time.

 Order is identified through text and charts. Impressive for each such attempt is what is left out—agents conveniently ignored for not fitting within a particular scheme (it can’t exist if it is beyond our explanation) or not considered important enough to warrant explanation (cases of conspicuous by its absence). This was the failure of the Great Chain of Being. A chart that includes small to large things (like atoms to galaxy clusters) falls short in explaining quantum mechanics, relativity, gravity, and electromagnetism while theoretical concepts such as graviton particles may exist from most basic to most principal inclusion, but have not yet been discovered. What is the speed of thought and imagination compared to the velocity of light? Does our conceptualization ability outrun photons to instantaneously connect vastly separated things, events, and processes? Non-linear relationships such as consciousness are impossible to depict, as is the concept of the spiritual.

Patterns operate at the scale of the unimaginably small to the incomprehensively large. The broadest of them, such as evolution, are present at every scale of physical size and time. The inherent movement within the entirety is of all agents to all other agents. As a generally true pattern this can be expressed:

As things, events, and processes evolve, so also all the relationships among them.

Next essay: Chapter 6 Part I Organization, Leadership and Imprecision

Generally True Patterns #12

Kingscrown, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Kingscrown, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

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



Part 12 of 22


Chapter 5 Part III The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order (perception)

While order is a matter of perception of connection and disconnection, it is also a matter of scale. Nature is characterized by multi-dimensionality of scale (size) and time, further qualified by qualities such as luminosity and electric frequencies. Mapping this reality in the 20th century became a primary goal of the systems scientists. They took on the difficult task of creating diagrams and charts that would quantify the scales and qualities of the measurable and immeasurable. The problem with relational scale is that the physical distance between the very small and the very large is difficult for the mind to grasp. Within physical systems are the extremes of small (photons, nucleons, properties of subatomic particles) and the extremes of large (galaxy aggregations, the astronomical universe). Within biological or living systems are natural components (organisms, ecosystems) and the special case of humanity (socio-systems, and cognitive processes that can occur as a result of our existence).

Inherent to this scheme of organization seems to be a hierarchy of complexity. To some extent, each higher system (in the progression from smaller to larger) is smaller in absolute number than the previous one, but at the same time is greater in diversity. There are more atoms than molecules, more molecules than organisms, more organisms than societies, but with increasing complexity from one level to the next. Since systems can be seen as crossing even these boundaries, assigning definite place to anything within this order can be seen as more convenient than real. The difficulty in describing systems is compounded in two ways. One is that they are multidimensional, expanding in all directions as they evolve through time in connection with other systems. The other is that complex systems are abstract constructs whose components are our own creation, simplifications necessary for comprehension. Even where constructs such as length, width, and depth make sense, the possibility of mysterious quantum dimensions makes near nonsense out of the concept of dimensionality. Hidden dimensions may be enfolded into the more familiar dimensions.

Both the big and the small of physics, cosmology and quantum mechanics, edge into claims that sound metaphysical: the universe contained in a singular point before it expanded; a post Big Bang expansion rate that seems to have outrun the speed of light; and subatomic particles whose vibrations may be a connection to the origins of all patterns. Scale, however, is yet more complex than just bigness and smallness. It is also a matter of relative importance of all agents within the entirety. For relatedness of scale to exist in nature, some sense of hierarchy must exist, one based on physical dimensionality (numerical quantification) but also, like the Great Chain, on our perceptions of order (reasoned qualification). The concept of relative importance, or increasing inclusion, is the ultimate denial of static constancy since the boundaries of things, events, and processes are not clear. Each class of agents within the entirety, however, can be thought of as containing more or fewer aspects, including actual components such as atoms or thoughts. Subatomic particles (either discovered or undiscovered) comprise the most basic class. On a scale of increasing inclusion, human consciousness, particularly in its more esoteric speculations, could be considered the principal class.

A scale of increasing inclusion from basic to principal works like this: The more basic a class, the more of the universe that must contain it as a component. In the physical realm, people contain atoms, but atoms do not contain people. In the biological realm, all life forms from the microscopic level show basic reaction to stimuli, but only fully sentient life forms imagine into existence philosophy, a principal class of living system outcome. In the primary and secondary educational structure of the human realm, the learning that occurs in lower grade levels is the foundation upon which learning at higher grade levels is based. Another way to put this is that the more basic classes are incorporated into the more principal classes so that the higher classes are dependent upon the existence of the lower, but not the other way around. Lower classes are more basic because they are components of all higher classes. Higher levels are more principal because they contain as components all of the lower. Our planet can exist without nation states, but if earth were to disappear from existence, there would not be countries. An individual atom contains within it less of the universe than does a person, especially when we include knowledge as a component including the knowledge of how to place the agents of the entirety in some kind of order. (The organizational scheme of relative levels of increasing inclusion has a history that includes systems science work by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Erich Jantsch, and Ervin Laszlo. Ken Wilber used the terms “fundamental” and “significant” in his diagramed explanation.)

All that we do, all that we are, is part of a larger reality from which there is not even the possibility of separateness. All realms are interconnected by the generally true patterns which run through them, independent of both order and scale. The patterns are enfolded potential outside of either increasing or decreasing inclusion but the unfolded generally true pattern describes the inclusion process:

Each higher emergent state includes the properties of the previous stages.

Regardless of whether matter collects or disperses, change compounds change in any direction or diagonal within the entirety (or any of its systems). It is characteristic of all generally true patterns that they are without specific directionality, without entry or exit point, but do manifest as particular things, events, and processes. In the physical realm, chemical compounds are the emergent properties of combinations of molecules, each of which is the outcome of atoms combined of quarks and other subatomic particles. In living systems, the alpine biome is a collection of ecosystems made of sedges, grasses, forbs, lichens, and so on. In human systems, a university consists of colleges made up of departments. Basic components combine to emerge as grand principals (foremost, from our perspective). While each specific example is different from each other specific, the generally true pattern is the same.

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

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


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





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


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

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

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

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