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Erik Hare

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Blogs by Erik Hare

Pattern Taxonomy
4/20/2007 7:53:24 AM

Reductionism, and the entire Western notion of science and philosophy, is based on the assumption that the universe is static or at least quiescent. A world of great change defies our ability to categorize things taxonomically, and our entire approach to understanding things breaks down completely at some point.

I would like to offer an alternative.

First, I would like to offer the four works that influence my way of thinking. The first is "The Third Chimpanzee" by Jared Diamond. In this book, he explains that between the Pygmy Chimp and the Common Chimp there is 96% common DNA but humans share 98% of their DNA with the Pygmy Chimp. We have many unusual characteristics in common with Pygmy Chimps, such as female orgasm. What separates us from them is little more than language and a ferocious ability to match and relate patterns, both being useful skills when you are a pack hunter on the grasslands.

The second is "A Pattern Language" by Cristopher Alexander et al, and is a how-to guide for how to build cities and buildings, organized by the kinds of patterns that our species inherently finds attractive and inviting. Architecture is an intuitive exercise in this case, a matching of things that we are used to with the new and exciting.

The third is "Connections" by James Burke, which was a BBC series on the history of Technology. Burke explores "The Trigger Effect", which is the way that the presence of technologies invariably led to their being combined in ways that appear rather obvious in retrospect to form new technologies. In many ways, the game "Civilization" is an exercise in this way of thinking.

The last is the "Tao Te Ching", which is a 2500 year old work of Chinese philosophy and religion credited to the "Wise Elder" or Lao Tsu. It teaches us that things are what they are, and our descriptions are merely our reflection of the true way of the world. I use this as the caveat to any attempt to rationally understand how things are.

Looking at the world more like our base hunter-gatherer chimpanzee instincts understand things, a dynamic world can be described by combining and matching patterns rather than specific descriptions. Understanding any object or thing as merely a combination of basic types allows for the addition of additional basic types without the cognitive dissonance inherent in the reductionist need to define and describe in great detail.

For example, what happens to zoology when bioengineering allows us to cross a cat with a cocoa bean? It is more reasonable to take the patterns associated with feline - hunter, mammal, smallish - and modify them by adding "caffinated". Even the most Frankenstinian creations can then be seen as what they are, which are combinations of what is known. Our ability to define, discuss, and digest is not modified by the pace of the world.

So it is with the aspects of civilization the politics, the language, the architecture, the technology. They are all patterns stitched together over time. Each takes a bit from here or there and makes it part of a different whole. This is not to argue that Western reductionism is wrong, but simply that it has its limits as the categories become too many in number and too divergent in discipline.

Someday, I will try to outline all of the different patterns that make up a civilized world. Sadly, I do not have the time to do this on my own right now, but I think it is a worthy exercise.


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Pictureland: A Matthew and Mason Adventure by Alan Cook

Matthew and Mason are off on another adventure in a dystopian world...  
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