Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Perceived connections, patterns, networks

Perceived connections, patterns, networks. Any consideration of networks, especially as they relate to consciousness, thought systems, history, etc. would be incomplete without some consideration of apophenia, "the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena." (Robert Todd Carroll, The Skeptic's Dictionary, 1994-2005.)

In statistics, apophenia is called a Type I error, seeing patterns where none, in fact, exist. It is highly probable that the apparent significance of many unusual experiences and phenomena are due to apophenia, e.g., EVP, numerology, the Bible code, anomalous cognition, ganzfeld "hits", most forms of divination, the prophecies of Nostradamus, remote viewing, and a host of other paranormal and supernatural experiences and phenomena. (Carroll)

The human brain is a powerful pattern-recognition machine, evolved over the millennia. Ray Kurzweil: "Humans are far more skilled at recognizing patterns than in thinking through logical combinations, so we rely on this aptitude for almost all of our mental processes. Indeed, pattern recognition comprises the bulk of our neural circuitry. These facilities make up for the extremely slow speed of human neurons." (quoted in Steven Johnson's Emergence). We evolved to see connections.

And there is some research that indicates that dopamine levels in the brain enhance pattern recognition. In a New Scientist article, "People with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find significance in coincidences, and pick out meaning and patterns where there are none." ("Paranormal beliefs linked to brain chemistry", New Scientist, July 27, 2002.)

To the skeptic, Carl Jung's "synchronicity" is an example of apophenia. Synchronicity suggests an acausal connection between phenomena, that two apparently unrelated events reveal something. (Again, see The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on Jung for an unsympathetic view.)

Saying the world can only be understood empirically, and that empirical tests are the basis of knowledge, is problematic without taking into account the role of the brain in organizing sense data into recognizable phenomena. Inasmuch as consciousness has evolved (and continues to evolve), that science has passed through various "paradigms" since Copernicus and Galileo, and that there are "qualitative" modes of scientific practice in addition to quantitative or deductive modes suggests at least that we keep an open mind about ways to knowledge.

In this vein, one would have to say exactly what "meaning" or "meaningfulness" is, in light of coincidence and metaphor, before dismissing Jung. (Per Agent Dale Cooper: "When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention." or "Coincidence and fate figure largely in our lives. Ah! Damn good coffee!" I could swear I remember him saying "Never laugh in the face of coincidence", but that could be false or true-but-clouded memory.)

The ability of the brain to see patterns, or connections, or to make connections or leaps between two seemingly unrelated concepts -- e.g., "all the world's a stage" -- is a basic, perhaps universal, human device for exploring and understanding the new, the complex, the difficult, and perhaps the unfathomable.

Along these lines, see the Journal for Patterns Recognised: "The Journal for Patterns Recognised is a journal dedicated to the study of pattern recognition. We can recognise sheep in clouds, faces in 4 well-placed rocks and a tree in a mathematically produced set of lines. This ability to recognise familiar objects in formlessness is said to be the engine behind imagination. Therefore we understand pattern recognition gone wrong as the well from which human culture, roughly defined as the framework of socially accepted interpretations of the real, flows." For more, see the background essay, "Why a Journal for Patterns Recognised?!".

The "perceived connection where none exists", a pattern recognized where no obvious or detected material interaction is taking place between the two nodes. But a connection erupts in the mind, rich in meaning maybe, revealing something. Something has happened.

This past spring, under the Kennedy Expressway on Fullerton Avenue here in Chicago, someone observed that the water dripping down the concrete underpass had created a form like Mary, the Mother of God. There is something inherently un-testable (and what does it say about someone who wants to test it?) about images of the Virgin Mary anywhere, but regardless, the pattern recognized becomes in itself a material force as people act on the idea. As word of the Virgin of the Kennedy spread, hundreds came to pray and leave flowers, candles and other offerings. "Faithful Call Image On Underpass Wall 'Beautiful' Others Call Image Salt Stain." A few weeks later, police charged Victor Gonzalez with defacing public property by writing "Big Lie" across the image with shoe polish. Police then asked the Illinois Department of Transportation to paint over the image to prevent further trouble.

There is a network of interactions, let's say, independent of human consciousness. Say salty melted snow running off of a highway, rusting steel, dripping down concrete. Molecules interacting, the workings of ice and salt, bonds breaking and re-forming, themselves influenced by Winter yielding to Spring, by the motion of Earth around the Sun. (Is there not something wonder-full even in that process?) And then there is the interconnection of consciousness with sense perceptions, the sparking of recognition of a pattern on the concrete, yielding meanings, shared by some, contested by others. Another network, this one of ideas, thoughts, understandings. Why not the Goddess revealing herself, exerting herself, in the most mundane, dismal, anti-Nature of places, the expressway underpass, the literal underside of another network, the infrastructure of Global Warming and Planet Destruction? Or maybe the pattern recognized is "just" illusion, or dis-illusion. Prompted by the hunger of the dispossessed who beg under that underpass, and the workers crawling along Fullerton in perpetual rush-hour Chicago traffic on the way home from another day of mind-dulling, soul-stealing work; the hunger for a Sign that they might achieve a future worth living in? Or does it say that that which you long for is nothing, void of meaning, a stain? Which is the Big Lie?

Something in the "perceived connection", even if it is not agreed upon by all parties.


Friday, August 26, 2005

More on maps

Related to the post yesterday about maps -- I brought along a GPS receiver, compass and topo maps on a trip to the Colorado canyonlands a couple of years ago. I wanted to work on reading maps, but it quickly became clear to me that experiencing a place through a map is not the same as experiencing the place. Certain areas of the brain fired when looking at the grids and topo lines and the numbers and drawing lines on the map, trying to convert the mapwork into geological features. But the map could not come close to the rich sensuousness of sitting and listening, hearing, smelling, seeing the place.

This is the difference between the network diagram and the process (I hesitate to even use "network" as synonym for "process", as "network" suggests that a derivation or abstraction has already taken place). "Knowing the process" versus knowing the map.

But... Last February my brother and I were tramping around the Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas. He could look at a topo, and project a hint of what would be there. He could read a map. In its proper place, the map was a powerful tool. In itself not a complete knowledge of what was being represented, but contributing a piece to the puzzle of understanding.


Thursday, August 25, 2005

Open access to state-collected geocode data

Making maps is a kind of networking activity. Or seeing networks is a kind of mapping activity. Accurate maps have been one of those state-sponsored activities critical to social development. One might argue that all geo-information is a public good (inasmuch as all intellectual activity is, in that it always takes place in a social context, i.e. interconnected with everyone else throughout time). If that is too much to accept, at lease state collected geodata is a public good -- after all you paid for it. Geodata -- the raw material of maps ("information with a spatial component" per the site mentioned below) -- is a source of power: where development is taking place, where the environment is being destroyed or thriving, where voters are and are not, etc. It is the quantitative data used to get a snapshot perspective of what is happening, towards developing effective strategies for change. Knowing the network as a first step to transforming the network.

The Open Geodata project is an effort to pry this public data out of the hands of just the state agencies (UK-focused for now it looks). In addition they sponsor projects to create copyright-free street-level maps, a kind of popular mapping initiative. The project is part of the Open Knowledge Foundation Network.

The Open Geodata project has a manifesto which they invite you to sign.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Here's an interesting abstract: "Four correlates of complex behavioral networks: Differentiation, behavior, connectivity, and compartmentalization: Carving networks at their joints"

[The full paper is available here.]

The authors identify two properties of networks -- "selected"-ness and "behavioral". The first property is present if the network developed or evolved under "selective pressure" (e.g., as in "natural selection", where some features would tend to persist because of environmental or other pressures). The second property is present if the network demonstrates "network-level behaviors".

Per the authors, networks with these properties are similar in four respects:

Differentiation: The networks accommodate more types of structure through a variety of types of nodes

Behaviors: Networks demonstrate a greater repertoire of behaviors through an increased number of lower-level behavior types

Connectivity: The networks tend to maintain a consistent network diameter as they grow, via increased connectivity

Compartmentalization: For efficiency sake, the networks tend to become increasingly "parcellated"


Sunday, August 14, 2005

"...Merleau-Ponty said that we live 'out there among things,' in a kind of communion with the world: 'there is no inner man, man is in the world, and only in the world does he know himself.' [apply appropriate gender transformations - jd] Through their descriptions of pre-reflective experience, then, the phenomenologists disclose human existence as a network of relations; our being is not locked up inside us, but is in fact spread throughout this web of worldly interactions in which our existence continually unfolds." -- Andy Fisher, Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life. 2002. State University of New York Press. (p 11)

Thursday, August 11, 2005

How to know the network?

"Network science" has been pitched as an alternative to "reductionist" science. That is, after dissecting processes into ever smaller units, and trying to understand the process by understanding the units, "knowing" the process still eluded scientists.

Now we are close to knowing just about everything there is to know about the pieces. [an absurd claim, no? - jd] But we are as far as we have ever been from understanding nature as a whole. Indeed the reassembly turned out to be much harder than scientists anticipated. [!] The reason is simple. Riding reductionism, we run into the hard wall of complexity. (Barabasi, Linked, p6)

"Network science" then comes to the rescue, revealing the laws of self-organization: per Barabasi, complexity has a "strict architecture", and its name is network.

One might argue though that this is just a deeper reductionism. Instead of just the parts -- now called "nodes", we add another abstract fundamental, the "link" to represent the richness of interconnection (reducing that to a bundle of discrete threads, each of which can be examined and presumably understood). Simple mechanics are enhanced to include another order of properties. Concerning ecology, a discipline that is heavy on interconnection, William Brinton writes "ecological perspectives within the sciences often only strengthen reductionistic directions, since they provide important details about relationships, which in turn help 'fine tune' the existing mechanical models." ("Environment as Data versus 'Being': Is Goetheanism possible in the West?", http://www.ifgene.org/brinton.htm)

In a harsh critique of "complexity", Steve Talbott argues that the more abstract theories and observations become, the more they become about nothing. "The problem with a scientific method based on maximum generalization and abstraction is that the more it succeeds -- that is, the more general and abstract its results become -- the shallower they tend to be. They tell us less and less about the particular contexts we wish to understand... In our drive toward generality and abstraction, we end up with what we ask for... We will get a theory that 'connects' diverse things, but in the process loses the things we are connecting." ("The Lure of Complexity", http://www.natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic7/complexity.htm)

How much simpler can the abstraction "network" become? The network diagram is to the actual process or phenomena as a stick figure is to a painting, or really, to the phenomena represented in the painting.

In general, modeling and abstraction are useful tools and part of the dialectical process of coming to understand phenomena, assuming that the researcher makes the return trip to the phenomena. Goethe's assertion that "the phenomenon is the theory" is a powerful insight. The abstraction is not the phenomenon.

A phenomenon cannot be understood as a "network". The "network" reduction is an abstraction. Certainly (I think) the "network" reduction, as part of a bigger project of isolation, focus, and then re-assembly, re-contexting and re-imagination, can lead to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. Ultimately, though, "knowing the network" is a process of imaginative participation in the phenomenon. In part this is because the "complexity" of the interactions can only be grasped imaginatively, and in part because the network is a process in time, developing, changing, growing or dying or both, and likewise only graspable in the imagination. "Knowing the network" is a challenge that requires a holistic approach, a holistic scientific method.

Okay, so I am struggling through the ideas above. See The Nature Institute's website for more on what has been called a phenomenological approach to Nature, or holistic science, qualitative science, Goethean science, etc.

- jd

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

You don't need silicon to calculate poverty - The Clash