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Are patterns ontic or epistemic?

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©  2009 GERRY NOLAN

 

Are patterns ontic or epistemic?

As I indicated on the home page, we see patterns everywhere in everything, in fact, it may be argued that we are ‘hard-wired’ to perceive patterns.

It is obvious that everything around us is changing all the time. Even the objects that appear to be most permanent and unchanging such as large buildings, for example the pyramids, or geological structures like Ayers Rock (Uluru), are in a state of constant flux because they are comprised totally of atoms and sub-atomic elements that are in a state of violent motion.

On this basis, for somewhere from which to start our investigation into ‘pattern’, let us hypothesise that nothing has any permanency, that everything is in a constant state of flux. At this point we could say that only the patterns have an stability, but that would be preempting our investigation because we don’t know yet whether patterns are ontic or epistemic.

However let us go on, since the beginning of life—possibly including prokaryotic bacteria, the first known life forms—organisms that could recognise patterns in the ever-changing flux would have had an evolutionary advantage. As one of the most important abilities, even a necessary ability for survival, these organisms would have evolved to become ‘hard wired’, with the result that the ability to perceive patterns is now a fundamental attribute of every animal. In other words, we are all pattern seeking machines.

As life developed through the genera and species the ability to distinguish and differentiate would have become more and more specialised, each development bestowing a progressively greater evolutionary advantage.

For babies, humans as well as other anilmals, life is ‘one great blooming, buzzing confusion’ (William James) because they have not yet learnt how to recognise the patterns in the flux. It is all ‘white noise’. Of course, under normal circumstances, babies will quickly learn to recognise/distinguish the pattern that is their mother as well as the patterns of sounds and smells associated with her, her expressions, and so on.

An example of this extraction of recognisable patterns from white noise was the production of the full range of sounds for the Link Boeing 707 flight simulator (1960s analogue version). The sounds audible to the aircrew during a flight include engine noise and the rush of air around the flight deck, both of which vary greatly for different speeds and power settings. Also included is the audible ‘thump’ of the nose-wheel bumping over the joins in the runway and taxiways which, depending on speed, also varies in intensity and frequency. All of these sounds are ‘picked off’ or selectively filtered from one source of electronically generated white noise and then amplified into a speaker in the flight deck or intothe pilots’ headphones.

Now it seems that we need to decide whether we there are at least two different ways of recognising/distinuishing patterns: first the patterns that seem to exists in our surroundings that we learn to recognise and, secondly, the patterns that we produce by filtering white noise.

elephant 01
At first glance there does not seem to be anything in this image except a grey blur, but continued study reveals the pattern of an elephant.

elephant 2
In this image the pattern of an elephant has become more easily discernable.
elephant 3
In this image the pattern of an elephant is obscured by a conflicting circular pattern.
girl-hag
This image shows that the observed pattern may suddenly switch from one pattern to another.