Monday, March 4, 2013

Of Patterns and Parabolas

So, I've been thinking a bit about formal cause, thinking inspired by the book by Marshall and Eric McLuhan, Media and Formal Cause, which I've discussed here before, notably in a post entitled, appropriately enough,  Media and Formal Cause, and do note that the book can be ordered directly from Amazon by one of those widgets over on the right.

So, anyway, not too long ago I completed an essay on the subject for a book project I'm working on with fellow media ecologists Robert K. Logan and Corey Anton, and I'll share more about the project here when the time comes, which it hasn't, not yet. And I'm not going to post the essay here, sorry about that, but I did want to share some thoughts.

One aspect of formal cause involves pattern recognition, a mode of perception and way of knowing that Marshall McLuhan stresses in Understanding Media.  Pattern recognition is especially needed, McLuhan argues, with the speeding up of communications, because it becomes harder and harder to engage in linear and analytical, step-by-step thought processes. When information is coming at you rapidly, there's no time to think things over, and you have to employ a different, more intuitive or right-brained, holistic form of perception. 

In my own experience, playing first generation video games like Space Invaders, Missile Command, and Galaxian helped me to fully understand pattern recognition as it relates to electronic media. It's the idea of being immersed inside an environment, rather than objectively distanced from a scene, which corresponds to McLuhan's notions of acoustic space (which surrounds us) and visual space (in which we are an outsider looking in).

Pattern recognition is holistic, in playing video games it meant not focusing on a fixed point the way we use our eyes when we read, but rather scanning the environment, almost in the mode of peripheral vision. And even at slower speeds, it's the kind of approach used by skilled chess players, as opposed to the brute force of computation that chess programs rely on, running through all the possible moves at inhuman speeds (which is why philosophers say that computers don't really play chess—which is to say, computers are cheaters, at least that's the answer that was given when philosopher Hubert Dreyfus's claim that no computer could play a decent game was chess back in the 60s was shown to be in error by Seymour Papert, as Dreyfus was soundly beaten by a computer).

Pattern recognition relates to formal cause in that the pattern or form is recognized by the individual, and therefore in the eye of the beholder. In the most modest sense, the individual applies the pattern to sensory data in order to make sense of what is being taken in, and that active  organization can be considered a kind of causality. To use a phrase favored by Gregory Bateson, as well as Edmund Carpenter, we're talking about the pattern that connects, or to invoke Bateson's famous quote:

What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you? And all the six of us to the amoeba in one direction and to the back-ward schizophrenic in another?

Bateson also used the term metapatterns to talk about patterns that recur across many different contexts, and this became the subject of Tyler Volk's fascinating book, entitled, appropriately enough, Metapatterns.  According to Bateson,

The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect. 

And according to Volk,

A metapattern is a pattern so wide-flung that it appears throughout the spectrum of reality: in clouds, rivers, and planets; in cells, organisms, and ecosystems; in art, architecture, and politics.

Volk, in his book, discusses patterns that occur in space, such as spheres, sheets and tubes, borders, binaries, centers, and layers, and also in time, such as calendars, arrows, breaks, and cycles. 

So now, connecting Bateson with McLuhan, I am arguing that formal cause can best be understood as patterns that direct. That is to say, patterns are not just effects, but that there is a tendency for things in the universe to fall into certain patterns, based on physical laws, not the least of which is the Second Law of Thermodynamics which establishes the ultimate triumph of entropy. The tendency of material phenomena to fall into certain patterns, even as they move towards increasing chaos, is also discussed in very insightful fashion in Terrence Deacon's recent book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, and Deacon does relate that tendency to formal cause.

In this sense, forms are real, not in the ideal sense that Plato thought them to be, but in a dynamic sense as patterns associated with events. Entropy itself is a pattern that directs.

Now, in another previous post, They Became What They Beheld, I brought up the wonderful videos of Vi Hart, and in particular one inspired by Edmund Carpenter. This time I want to introduce another video of hers entitled Doodling in Math Class: Connecting Dots, which she describes as "anti-parabola propaganda, plus musing on math class, cardioids, connect the dots, envelopes of lines, even a bit of origami." It's really quite marvelous, so please take a look:

Now, Vi only emphasizes the many ways that we can encounter parabolas and their cousins in mathematics, but what also emerges is that this is a great example of a metapattern, or pattern that directs, as it relates to gravity, ballistics (Angry Birds style or otherwise), seashells and other biological forms, not to mention planetary orbits.  

Vi Hart is, in my opinion, the contemporary equivalent of Hypatia, the 4th century Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who, remarkably for her time, became head of the neo-Platonist school in Alexandria. She was the subject of the 2009 film, Agorawhich I was very impressed with:

The trailer doesn't do the film justice, focusing as it does on action and conflict, which is a part of the story, and indeed much of the emphasis is on early Christianity's intolerance of Greek paganism and the philosophy associated with it, resulting in Hypatia's murder or execution. 

But for me a key theme in the film was Hypatia's attempts to understand the movements of the planets, trying to reconcile the conflict between the assumption that the planets would follow the perfect form of the circle, and the reality that their movements do not. The film speculates that she arrived at the answer of the ellipse, but never had a chance to relate her realization before her death.

The relationship among circles, ellipses, parabolas, and hyperbolas were first explored by the ancient Greeks, with the understanding that all are conic sections, as illustrated above (and as shown in Agora). That these patterns in geometry represent patterns that different physical phenomena fall into is, in my view, a form of formal cause, and an example of patterns that direct.

Now excuse me while I go play with some parabolas on my phone...

No comments: