Saturday, February 20, 2010

Patternicity: Order in Chaos (but it's all chaos)

Scientific American published an article last year on "patternicity", a term coined by author Michael Shermer to describe the "tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise".

Indeed, human beings are fundamentally set up to find order amid chaos. Give a day trader a fake sheet of random stock prices, and he'll derive great significance from the data. And even the most logical gamblers insist their luck runs hot or cold, though their odds of success at any given moment remain constant. Why don't non-Catholics ever find the Virgin Mary's face in tree stumps or stalagmites? We project. It's not rational, but it's who we are.

But Shermer presupposes that there's an alternative to patternicity; that some of the patterns we find in the world are meaningful, rather than random and noisy. And that's daft. First, how do we meaningfully gauge meaningfulness?

The assignment of meaning is always a highly subjective kludge. I defy you to define a tight rule to determine whether a given formation of matter is or isn't a chair. Computers have a hard time making such distinctions, because there's no way to crisply define what a "chair" actually is (or, even more difficult, what a chair isn't). The term more or less covers a fuzzy, subjective range of objects. That said, it's certainly a useful fuzzy, subjective category for purposes of human cognition, but outside our minds, stuff just "is" (hence the computer's fail). Names and labels are all graft-ons; some more useful to our purposes than others, but none with intrinsic meaning. All categorization is patternicity.

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