Monday, 28 January 2008

"Which just leaves the question of where the story's going..."


Apophenia is the human experience of seeing patterns or uniformities where none exist: seeing connections between arbitrary items in random data. Alfred North Whitehead said that philosophy is the search for the pattern in the universe: searching for “the ultimate nature of things [lying] together in a harmony which excludes mere arbitrariness.” Which is right? The scientist or the philosopher? Does the universe have an underlying pattern behind it or would such a perception be nothing more than the fruit of a faulty syna
pse? Note however that this does not represent an absolute dichotomy; there could both be wrong or both be right or one could occupy a grey shade in between the two (like the following does).

To a certain extent the difference lies in one’s perception of coincidence. Some people view coincidences as random happenings, a few of which are inevitable in a system of such extraordinary complexity as the planet Earth. These things happen. One of the quotes of the day on my Quotations Page widget was Sir. Arthur Eddington. He wrote “We are bits of stellar matter that got cold by accident, bits of a star gone wrong.” This represents the scientific view that human existence is a cosmic coincidence. As such, in this universe of blank valueless matter, any pattern seen would have to be human-imposed or the result of a faulty human perception.

However in writing this I notice just such a coincidence: on a day when I intended to blog about the characterisation of existence as either random or meaningful, the first thing I saw when I opened Firefox was that quote by Arthur Eddington, which perfectly correlates with the patternless viewpoint. It could easily be apophenia which leads me to posit a connection between myself and a quote which doubtless thousands of people will also read today. On the other hand it could be evidence of something else.

Some people view coincidences as meaningful. Coincidence is a prevalent theme in Charles Dickens’ work but the important thing that this is not true coincidence of course. He specifically wrote the stories so that the character’s lives would intertwine and follow a certain pattern. John Forster wrote On the coincidences, resemblances, and surprises of life, Dickens liked especially to dwell, and few things moved his fancy so pleasantly. The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought; we were all so connected by fate without knowing it; people supposed to be far apart were so constantly elbowing each other; and tomorrow bore so close a resemblance to nothing half so much as yesterday.”

Dickens felt that we were all connected in some way. As an aficionado of literature and the world of writing, what I would say I experience is a distinct narrative structure. Life seems to flow so perfectly, complete with tragedy, ironic twists, coincidence, and connections between seemingly unrelated ‘characters’, so much so that it seems there must be an underlying narrative structure. This again could be categorised as apophenia but amidst the turmoil and randomness of life, events seems to happen for a reason which may not become apparent until later. The world seems to flow along a path of destiny. Fate.

Like all truth however this is subjective: where one sees consequence, another sees coincidence. The best one can hope for is to strike the desired balance between logic and intuition in the truths one clings to. Maybe any pattern we search for beneath the universe is subject to Blue Car Syndrome. Maybe philosophers see patterns because they want to see patterns. Maybe all philosophers or writers suffer from apophenia or some related mental disorder.

And, believe me, that would not surprise me in the least.

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