Pirsig, Patterns, Thought, And Language


I’ve written, during this four-part interpretation of ZenAnd The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, about how the human mind distorts Underlying Reality via its Sense Filter and its several Mental Constructs (such as Space and Time).  But these Distortion Lenses are not the only tools our minds are using at the pre-conscious level.  The mind is also very busy making PATTERNS.   

As I’ve said previously, our Sense Filters cause us to totally disregard what might be MOST of the Universe.  We take the fractional amount of information that actually makes it past this Filter and we begin finding and imposing Patterns on those remnants.  The mind highlights certain aspects of Reality, and pushes into the background other aspects.  Patterns emerge.

The more superficial cases of Patterns bleed into our consciousness and we can become aware of them with the tiniest bit of self-analysis.  For example, let us take the constellations of stars in the night sky.  Our Sense Filter does not allow us to see the stars during the day, and even at night, we cannot see all the stars in the Cosmos.  From the few that we do see, we can catch ourselves naturally forming them into Patterns, just as we might do naturally with passing clouds on a partly cloudy day.  We see a Big Dipper here, a Little Dipper there.

The stars, of course, are in three dimensional Space and spread out all over the place.  If we could circumscribe a circle big enough so that all the stars in a certain constellation were near the middle of that circle, and we could travel ninety degrees around that circle and look back toward the center, the constellation we know would no longer be there.  All of its stars would appear to have shifted.

Besides Space, we are also filtering our view of the constellation in question through Time:  some of the stars we see may no longer even exist; they could have burnt out thousands of years ago, but their last light has yet to reach us.

Here’s another example of Pattern-making:  the human mind has a predisposition to make the Pattern of a FACE out of anything that could even remotely symbolize a pair of eyes and maybe a nose or mouth.  Like this…   :)

I find it very intriguing how much effort the mind puts into face-Patterning and facial recognition.  There are cases of persons who have damaged face-Patterning or recognition, and these people can sometimes not even recognize their best friend!

The Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus uses a river as an example of human Pattern-making.  A river’s just a collection of water molecules—and not even the SAME water molecules from moment to moment.  And yet, our minds see the pattern “river.”

It may be worth noting here that Borders are intricately bound-up with our Pattern-making.  We shouldn’t insist too hard on Borders in life:  they are only the lines that our minds are creating between Patterns.

In Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig uses, for his example of mind Pattern-making, the motorcycle.  A motorcycle’s tires can spin, its handlebars can turn, it can even get a great big dent, or it can wear five pounds of mud— and yet we maintain our constant perception of the pattern “motorcycle.”

When it comes to subconscious Pattern-making, sometimes it can be hard to see the trees for the forest.  In Pirsig’s book, a minor character has difficulty really SEEING the details of a building because the Pattern of “building” in her mind is, more or less, causing all the details to become lost in the whole, the multiplicities becoming unified into one, monolithic thing.

Why do we impose Patterns upon Reality?  Probably for this reason:  it is a way to even further simplify the sense data we are receiving.  If we look at a dog, we don’t have to deal with seeing every fiber or molecule or atom of its being; we just glance at it and realize it’s a dog.  Then we can saddle on it all of our accumulated knowledge, associations and instinctual feelings about entities that fit the pattern “dog.”

Patterns are built-up from the many, many molecules of our environment that we perceive.  If we actually saw the world as a jumble of molecules, I honestly don’t think our little brains could cope.  I think (pretending for the moment that this situation could actually exist with all other things remaining constant) that our minds would overload, and proper processing would freeze-up or burn-out; in other words, we’d go insane, and rather quickly.  And even if we could keep our wits for a time, we’d doubtfully be able to defend or feed ourselves— not to mention that sex, unlikely to happen, would be quite strange if it did.  We’d probably not be able to even recognize we HAD a body.

Some of the Patterns we make form Images.  Images are how we see the world—not only how we see it, but how we think it.  As Pirsig says in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, to understand something in our world –anything– we can only judge it from what we’ve seen before.  Pirsig calls these previous Experiences, “analogues.”  Thus, according to Pirsig (and I agree) we measure and judge each new Experience in terms of analogy.  And I think this may be the ONLY way we judge things.

Pirsig goes on to point out that “we build up our LANGUAGE in terms of these analogues.”

See what he’s done here?  Pirsig’s taken us from Underlying Reality, through the Sense Filters and Mental Constructs, beyond the Pattern-making and Image creation, into our mind’s foundational way of thinking (which is by analogy) and all the way to language.  The mind starts with the raw bedrock of the Universe, cuts from it only the small portion of stone that we need, then shapes that stone into building blocks of understanding, forming a pyramid whose apex is our language ability—the best language ability in the Universe, as far as we know.

Inspired by Pirsig’s work, I have some further conjectures here…

Just before or just after birth, we begin to become conscious of information we are receiving via our senses.  The brain, designed to impose Patterns, imposes them.  Points of reflected light become Images.  Groups of sounds become Speech.  Streams of molecules striking our olfactory nerves become Smells.  Et cetera.

Now, here’s where I get excited:  I’m supposing, riffing off Pirsig’s Analogue theory, that there’s some mechanism in our mind that causes us to judge and sort incoming Patterns in a BINARY way.  Each Pattern we perceive, the mind asks if it roughly matches some Pattern we have previously perceived.  The answer will be simply Yes or No.  Binary.  If it is Yes, we group that Pattern with the matching ones.  If No, we either (basically instantaneously) keep comparing til we find a Yes, or decide it is a New Thing.

Furthermore, I speculate that the mind arranges our Patterns in hierarchies.  And so, most of the time, we are not comparing an incoming Pattern with some specific thing we have experienced in the past, but with groups and categories of things we have experienced and previously sorted into Pattern-Groups.  For example:  we see a Pattern and the mind can’t help itself: it begins judging the Pattern against Analogues in the memory.  Banana? No.  Dollhouse? No.  Car? Yes.  Mustang? Yes.  Convertible? Yes.—It’s a Mustang Convertible!  All these binary questions are asked, probably via Parallel Processing, in an instant.

Even more bizarre, think on this:  We see a Pattern coming down the street.  Tree? No.  Toolbox? No.  Human? Yes.  Male? Yes.  Old? Yes.  Certain gait, certain height, certain posture ? ? ?—Yes, yes, yes.—and boom:  Dad? Yes!

Here’s another continent of thought I’m exploring:  I’ve said that I believe we THINK in Analogues.  Many of these Analogues are associated with Words, but not every Analogue has an associated Word, and by no means does each Word perfectly superimpose upon its Analogue; a Word cannot perfectly express each Experience or Pattern;  there are places where the Word overhangs the Analogue, and places where it does not fully cover the Analogue.  This imperfect fit of Analogue and Word is the basis for much of our confusion in this world.

There is debate about how much we humans could think without language.  Since I believe that we think in Analogues, I say we could do a fair amount of thinking without language.  However, language is definitely a boon to thought.  For one thing, our brains are wired in such a way that our best Analogues are VISUAL Patterns.  And it is precisely for concepts that have no image-friendly Analogue that we really need language to take thinking to the next level.

For example, I used the word “however” to start a sentence in the above paragraph.  Without the word “however” we could still think the concept “however,” but it would be more cumbersome.  Here’s how we could do it:  Imagine we experienced in childhood our Dad tossing our little Sister up into the air—Fear!  She’ll get hurt!— But then, Dad catches her.  Thus we have an Image for “however” that we can use as an Analogue for future thinking:  Dad throws Sis in air –HOWEVER- he catches her.

Pirsig mentions in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, that in the English language, 26 characters can be combined in different ways to describe pert-near anything in the Universe.  I think we could say something similar for Analogues.  Remember:  Analogues can be simple Patterns or COMPOUND Patterns; a Pattern-Group is also a Pattern, and thus can be used as an Analogue.

All these Simple and Compound Patterns could be viewed as the VOCABULARY of our thinking.  And because of the simplifying nature of Pattern-making, we would not need as large of a Pattern vocabulary as you might at first think.  Probably most of us get through a day using no more than –what?—four thousand different words?  Since many Analogues have associated Words, it would probably not be outside the realm of the possibility to suppose we could go all day using only ten-times that number of Analogues, or only 40,000 Patterns, to do our day’s worth of thinking and sort out the world.


Pirsig’s Quality Theory Of Reality

Me & Not Me:  Pirsig On Subject-Object Duality

Zen And The Art Of Romanticizing Science


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