I'm a Pattern, You're a Pattern, Wouldn't You Like to be a Pattern Too?

"Meaninglessness and Chaos" by Michael Rowe

One of the confusing things about randomness is its apparent conflict with meaning. If you tell someone that we’re subject to random occurrences every day we breathe on this planet, you’re liable to get a quick retort that you’ve just made an argument in favor of the meaninglessness of existence (yikes!).  From that comes a deluge of angry sneers and additional arguments pushing your innocuous observation off the cliff of inadvertent nihilism.

Fortunately, the confusion is not difficult to clear up, and the apparent conflict disappears under the light of simple analysis. Let’s tackle this in two parts.

Part the first, a brief rewind to my childhood.  I was an only child until I was 10, when my parents, thankfully, adopted my sister. Until she arrived, however, I was often alone and lost in my imagination, pathologically reflective, and compulsively in search of patterns. 

Like most things I did as a kid, I have no idea why I was addicted to pattern finding, but I found them everywhere. Staring at grass, at wallpaper, at sand, at the sky, at wooden fences, at dirt, at pavement, at trees, at swarms of mosquitoes—everywhere. The game I played was to find the most detailed patterns possible. I’d tell myself that I needed to find the face of a tiger in a shag carpet, and after staring around at the floor for several minutes I’d almost always find it. The cool thing was that the pattern was never exactly as I imagined it in my mind’s eye, but it was that thing nonetheless. 

A few observations can be made about this.  One, I was a weird kid (I’ll grant that one). Two, either I was able to mentally organize the randomness of whichever garbled thing I was staring at, and pull from it a pattern matching the requirements of my mind game—or, some external force was working on my behalf to supply me with a pattern fitting the bill, drawing my attention to the particular bits and pieces of the thing I told myself I would find.

Three, either the lines, dots, cracks, swirls or whatever else comprising the thing I was staring at contained information to make the patterns I was searching for (in other words, they were actually designs embedded before I started looking—which implies that an external force put them there), or I imprinted a certain “meaning” on the elements such that they’d satisfy the requirements of the game. 

Two and three sound similar, but there’s one essential difference: two necessitates that an external force colluded with me, without my knowledge, to find patterns in randomness (sort of like a ghost controlling my fingers as they turned the wheels of an etch-a-sketch). Three simply necessitates that an external force—let’s say God—planted patterns in everything, and anyone, if they stared long enough, would find them. 

The biggest problem with that part of the third observation is that before I started looking for the patterns, I told myself what I needed to find. So, for example, God might reasonably embed a pattern of a smiling donkey in a brier bush, and if I stared at it long enough I’d see God’s happy donkey staring back at me. But since my game was all about finding something I designated, it seems unlikely that I’d miss God’s donkey and find something else entirely. 

The ghost-collusion part of the second observation has merit, if you believe that unannounced external forces enjoy playing mind games with children. If you do, go ahead and stop reading now because we’ve probably gone as far as you’ll care to. 

If you don’t, then let’s pull out the parts of the observations that do not include unknown external forces: (1) I was able to mentally organize the randomness of whichever garbled thing I was staring at, and pull from it a pattern matching the requirements of my mind game, and (2) I imprinted a certain “meaning” on the elements such that they’d satisfy the requirements of the game.

Minus the peculiarities of an introverted child, I submit that we all engage in those two activities every day.  We have to, because finding patterns is not just a lonely kid’s game, but a biological coping mechanism that we use to stabilize ourselves in a tumultuous sea. Without this evolved ability, we’d truly be lost, and really, really scared—because, let’s face it, randomness is frightening. 

Going back to an earlier post, consider the horror of routinely stopping at a red light and moments later being flash fried in your front seat. Or consider the misfortune of standing in the lobby of an office building just as a man who you never saw before in your life walks in, pulls out a gun and starts firing, and you happen to be the first person he hits (another real life example I was unfortunately too close to recently). Any example you can think of like these hinges on a mixed medley of factors, each happening at just that moment, in just that place, in just that way. 

You can tell yourself that an external force has ordered these elements to result in an atrocious outcome, and if you do then you’re left with a truly bizarre and, I’d argue, irreconcilable devotion to a malevolent force.         

Or, you can accept that we are, in fact, creatures deigned to chaos—but not only that, because we’re also creatures with tremendous faculties of pattern imprinting and meaning creation.  

If randomness were antithetical to meaning, then we wouldn’t even be able to have this discussion, because neither you nor I would have the ability to weave together a schema—which is just another way of saying a mental pattern–of “stuff” to reach a mutually acceptable basis for communication (even if we end up disagreeing on outcomes).  We impose meaning on our communication—both via our evolved abilities and our internalized knowledge and experience—or else it’s little more than a pile of sand blowing in the wind.

Part the second of this discussion will make a showing in the next post.

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