Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Middle Way, Part 11 (Nature, Culture, Geometry)

There is a relationship between the way nature is ordered and the way human societies are best ordered. This is one of the lessons Marinoff wants to teach us in The Middle Way. I have previously discussed what Marinoff says about the relationship between geometry and the Middle Way, but let us revisit the issue. No doubt Marinoff points us in the right direction with the geometry of fractals, as it is increasingly obvious that the universe is fractal and/or biotic (bios is a kind of creative fractal that, instead of staying around the same strange attractor(s) in the same phase space, leaps to new attractors and creates new phase space) in nature. A healthy society is one that maps well onto nature (though we must also be careful not to falsely assume with Rousseau that the natural is necessarily good in and of itself in such a way that it means that that which is uniquely human is bad), and if nature is fractal and bioltic, then so should our societies be. Bios in particular points to the fact that growth and creativity -- making new things, and more complex things -- is natural.

The fractal also shows us something interesting about the nature of things, including ideas and truth itself. When Marinoff suggests that the Mandelbrot set looks remarkably like a Buddha statue, he raises an objection to that idea by observing that there are "those that assert that the Mandelbrot set is nothing but a fractal inkblot, not full but rather devoid of meaning" (162). He then goes on to observe that that for Buddhism this is no objection, since all things, even chaos, are both full and empty. But how is this possible? It's in the nature of the fractal itself. A fractal has a finite space circumscribed by an infinite border (a border created by a time-series, meaning finite space is circumscribed and complexified by time). One will notice something else about a fractal, and that is that its center(s) is/are empty. There is an absent center which creates the meaningful border, and it is meaningful precisely because it is repetitive -- that is, it repeats the same images over and over regardless of scale. Magnify a section of the border, and you will get the same Buddha shape. Keep magnifying, and you will get it over and over, infinitely. I have suggested in my dissertation that words patterned in a self-similar pattern are the meaningful words (with some preliminary support from Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure). Patterned repetition is meaningful -- or, at least, humans give such patterns meaning. And if, as Nietzsche suggests, it is humans which give meaning, then it is no objection to say something doesn't have meaning if meaning is given something by people.

The idea of meaning is very important, because the Left tells us that we do not have "a meaningful place in the grand scheme of things" (170), which has led to "increases in mass consumption of psychotherapy and prescription drug use" (171) as we try to fill that void. So what should be do? I don't think this means we should return to The Great Chain of Being or rigid interpretations of Confucius, but I do think it means we need a new understanding of the comfort and power of hierarchies. We are a social mammal, and social mammals are hierarchical, so we cannot and should not have thrown our hierarchies as such so easily or quickly. Nature shows us that fluid hierarchies, where individuals can move up and down in them, are most natural. But the hierarchy itself works to show us where we fit in with society -- it thus gives us roles and, thus, meaningful social lives. This is precisely why Nietzsche saw democracy and socialism as leading inexorably toward nihilism. Deprived of a place in society, where we do not know what role we play, we see our lives as meaningless. Thus we are overcome by a stifling nihilism. This is dangerous because people need meaning in their lives, and without healthy versions of meaningfulness, we will accept unhealthy versions.

Truth works the same way, as we can see if we look to Plato's Phaedrus. In the Phaedrus, Socrates observes that his first speech, which occurs before noon, when nothing happens, is the same as his second speech, which occurs after noon. Now, the two speeches appear to contradict each other. They are in fact complementary opposites. Each speech approaches the truth (represented by noon, when everything is "enlightened" by the sun, though Socrates and Phaedrus are at the time in the shade of the plane (Platon) tree), but neither in fact reaches the truth. In the dialogue, nothing happens at noon. There is an absent center. truth is thus like the border of a fractal -- it is always approaching the strange attractor of truth, but never quite reaching it. As the system seeks out different trajectories around the strange attractor, the fractal image emerges. Thus, we must always seek after truth if we are going to come closest to it. The fact that we will never reach it is no reason not to try to discover it, for in the discovery, we get the beautiful fractal image -- and it is the image which is, perhaps, truth itself.

Confucius, in the Analects, observes that society itself has fractal self-similarity in a power law distribution (power laws simply state that there are many small things, fewer medium-sized things, and even fewer large things, that this is how complexity is distributed, and that the small makes the medium makes the large, and not vice versa): "To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order." And of course, for the family to be in order, the individual must be in order, whole, healthy, with integrity. "Persons of integrity contribute to an integral home, family, community, and humanity" (110). The person with integrity contains the Artistotlean virtues of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom (117) and the Abrahamic virtues of faith, hope, and charity (love) (117). But please note that all but charity (love) can be attained in isolation: "To exercise charity, you need beneficiaries" (118). Combine these with the Confucian virtues of benevolence, beneficence, goodness, love, respect, magnanimity, sincerity, earnestness, kindness, and propriety (right conduct in the right situation, depending on your relationship with the person) (118), and you will be a person with integrity. Note how with both Aristotlean and Abrahamic virtues, the focus is on the individual, but with Confucian virtues the focus is on the social relations. "So in Confucian ethics, only one in ten cardinal virtues can be practiced by the individual alone; nine of ten require a society of persons to be exercised. In classical Western ethics, six of seven cardinal virtues can be practiced by the individual alone" (119). We need to practice all sixteen, as we are both individuals and members of social groups. We must be good individuals and good members of society, family, etc.

All of this presumes tat order is to be preferred. This depends on your definition of order. There is the order of a salt crystal with its meaningless, noncreative repetition of Na-Cl -- and then there is the fractal order, which lies on the borderlands of order and chaos. We see that life emerges our of the flux of the universe in seeming opposition to entropy. Now, we typically think of entropy as increased disorder, or the decay of order. Seen this way, complexity seems impossible, even counterintuitive. The universe is getting more disordered over time, so where is this order coming from? However, information theorists define entropy as increased ignorance of the state of the system. With such a definition, complexity is allowed, as the more complex something is, the harder it is to understand it. Complexity is the name of the game, and it is what we need to understand if we are to understand the world. As Marinoff observes, "Living beings are much more complexly organized systems than nonliving things. Humans are more complex than other terrestrial beings, but for that reason are also more unstable, ever prone to cruise in entropy's slipstream toward unbalance and disorder. Human families and societies are more complex still, because they combine all the complexities of individuals plus the additional properties of relationships and groups" (109). It is work to keep ourselves together, let alone our families and societies. Disorder is easy; order is hard. Order requires constant attention and care. Order requires constant change. If you want to keep your house looking the same, you have to constantly clean and maintain it. You have to change it to keep it the same. Otherwise, disorder will take over. This is how self-organizing, dissipative structures remain organized -- and they are the origin of living order.
Post a Comment