Of Moths and Men

January 6, 1997

'The ordering [kosmos], the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be: fire everliving, kindled in measures and in measures going out." ... Heraclitus 500 BC

When mythopoeic man sat beneath star-filled skies gazing into the campfire, his mind alive with questions of nature and existence, he saw allegories, the magic dance of life ...... modern man, intent on simplicity, sees flames.

The conclusion that we are missing the ecology for the trees is hard to avoid. One has only to review our historical choices, ... Parmenides and Aristotle over Heraclitus, Newton over Kepler. Was Heraclitus right, that all material concreteness is illusory, ... no more than the silhouette of underlying harmony and flux, the cloak which clothes the bustle of a continuous "becoming"? And was Kepler right, that the message in the solar system was not "mass and force" but "harmony and experience?"

On the other hand, was Parmenides right, that nothing is real except that which "is", the solid and material "things" of this world? And his disciple Aristotle, whose ideas on the causal logic of discrete "things" have dominated up to this day ... was his a better view of our reality? And did Newton's ideas, built upon those of Parmenides, Aristotle and Descartes merit their huge measure of popular dominance over Kepler's, ... ideas built on a puritanical reduction of all of nature, through the mathematical devices of fluxions and fields, to lifeless snapshots? ... the credo of the literal and simple over the latent and complex, the "flame" over the "everliving fire".

In our minds, we continually flip-flop from "modelling" to "experiencing" nature. Have we lost or just misplaced our ability to discriminate between one and the other?

If we were to look down at a historical re-enactment of, for example, a team of scientists and engineers trying to improve the accuracy of gunfire, we would probably smile knowingly. For no matter how much precision and discipline they put into the rules and recipes of design, fabrication and use of the cannon, an irritating limit would emerge as to the accuracy of predicting the point of impact of the projectile. Worse still, as the technology improved, and as they were able to lengthen the time the shot stayed in the air and the distance it travelled, the error would become proportionately worse. Ultimately it would be recognized that the error, which grew in proportion to the time-space extension of the phenomena, was in their mental model and the assumption of a flat earth.

If we continue to look down from our platform of modernity on these historical actors as their efforts move on in time, we would see that in spite of having made major improvements in predicting the point of impact by incorporating the earth's spheroidal shape and so refining their calculations, they would continue to struggle with irreducible errors. Their projectiles, now flying longer and farther, would still come to earth at points which deviated from their calculations; this time in a confusing manner which related to both the geographical location and the direction of firing. This time, the flaw in the mental model would be one of a stationary earth.

As we watch the actors in this historical play delve still more deeply into the interplay between "motion", "time" and "space", for the moment passing by the works of Kepler, and Newton, we begin to see the curious developments and discoveries of the twentieth century; relativity, quantum mechanics, complexity. We hear a physicist observe; "An elementary particle is not an independently existing, unanalyzeable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things."

So there seems to be a transition underway, today, in which the "relationships" and "oscillations"; the "connectedness" and "thinglessness" of the quantum world, hidden away since the days of Heraclitus and the mythopoeic cultures, are coming out of the closet, perhaps to interrupt our long embrace with the "corpuscles and forces" of a Newtonian world.

At the same time, a deeply troubling question begins to raise its head; --- what is the nature of the platform on which we stand in review of these historical explorations into time, space and motion? If there's some fundamental incompleteness or flaw in our view of the world, could this be related to our current difficulties, the gap between our social intentions and outcomes; i.e. poverty, drugs, violence, mental problems?

There is a sense of "deja vu" in the modern malaise. As technology enables increased "globalization", extending the time-space reach of business and social systems, and leading to a corresponding rise in complexity of these systems, flaws in our environmental perceptions and responses seem to grow proportionately. That is, our perceptions and responses to local systems, extending over small space-time regions function acceptably well, but as systems become more extensive, there is an unpredictable and troublesome divergence between results and intentions. It is as if we were trying to reach into a stream and seize a fish without being aware that the fish and its image diverge as a result of refraction.

Taking a closer look at the platform from which we view things, our view of the world is, by tradition, fabricated from our mental model of "material things". These "solid" things stand still, move around and act upon each other so as to, apparently, manufacture the future causally out of the past. Both our language and our logic emerge from this "thing" based mental model of the world. The "subject" "acts" in some way upon the "object" and in this "material" paradigm it is our social responsibility to ensure that "A" acts on "B" in the "right" way, or at least that "A" refrains from acting on "B" in the "wrong" way. That is, from our thing-based view of reality comes our concept of a beginning and an end (Creation and Armageddon), and the idea of describing and managing behavior in terms of syllogistic logical rules and laws.

As Newton saw it, understanding the motions and forces involving "corpuscles" or "things" could give us a complete understanding of "the system of the world". As for issues of harmony and metamorphosis, those curious effects which completed the story of nature, this was God's domain.

But Kepler seemed to have another mental model, in which God and nature were not so roughly partitioned, but were as one. Kepler spoke of geometry itself being most fundamental, as if the motion of shapes and forms was more basic than their material substance or "thingness". In fact his laws do not include material variables. For example his third law, T**2/R**3 = C speaks simply to the consistent spatial harmonies in nature. "Things" such as planets, he seems to regard as mere markers useful for tracing out and otherwise exposing the "real" truths; nature's innate harmonies. In this line of thinking, Kepler shows himself to be in the same camp as Heraclitus and Wittgenstein. To Heraclitus, the "Logos", the "underlying coherency in things", was the essential understanding that man needed to come to terms with. And to Wittgenstein, logical structure (i.e. "object" based structure) was simply an expedient, a "ladder" upon which to climb up high enough to get a good view of things, and then to be recognised as a tool of no intrinsic value and thrown away once that view was obtained.

Could such a philosophy as attaches no innate worth to "material things", the very foundation of western culture, make any sense?

Given that in the twenty-first century we may be resurfacing this debate on the fundamentality of material things (particles and forces) versus nonmaterial harmonies (waves and interference), it may be worthwhile returning to our "historical stage". But rather than looking at our actors struggling to refine their mechanical view of the world (i.e. struggling to determine how "things" move in time and space), we can look at one of the great turning points in history, as western culture stripped the divinity out of nature's geometries, re-molding "Him" in a human image and seating him on a heavenly throne, above it all. And in so doing, wresting the magic and myth from nature and subjugating it to a transcendant God and Man empowered by God's will.

Up until that time (the shift came at the end of Darius' rule over Egypt, Greece and the Eastern Mediterrean, in about 480 BC), the ancient peoples were universally agreed "in the fundamental assumptions that the individual is part of society, that society is imbedded in nature, and that nature is but the manifestation of the divine." ... "with the single exception of the Hebrews." [1]

Heraclitus' ( 500 BC), perhaps drawing on the wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, had a very different view of time, space and motion than did Parmenides who came between Heraclitus and the Socratic philosophers (and Aristotle). Heraclitus believed that all things are in flux, like a river, and that one cannot step twice into the same river (for "one" and the "river" will have changed in the interim).

Since the idea of a mental model of a world of energy flux which contains nothing truly "solid" or immutable may seem difficult to contemplate, one might ask whether our minds are adequately equipped for such "asomatous" modelling.

According to Einstein, not only are our minds so equipped, our mental experiencing of the geometry of the physical world is fundamentally removed from any dependency on rigid structure. As he says in "Geometry and Experience", "A geometrical-physical theory as such is incapable of being directly pictured, being merely a system of concepts. But these concepts serve the purpose of bringing a multiplicity of real or imaginary sensory experiences into connection in the mind. To "visualise'' a theory, or bring it home to one's mind, therefore means to give a representation to that abundance of experiences for which the theory supplies the schematic arrangement."

In other words, our intuitive view of physical reality comes from the reconciling of many prior experiences. What we come away with is the essence of which concepts facilitate a consistent "fitting" together (harmonizing?) of these experiences. As Kepler put it; "... as the philosophers teach --- mind, by understanding itself and in itself all things, stirs up ratiocinations, and by dispersing and unrolling its simplicity into them, makes everything to be understood." The "ratiocinations", as Kepler refers to them are "rationalities", ordered concepts in the mind which both include and transcend logic. A "ratiocination" as described by the quantum physicist David Bohm, goes like this; "As things are related in a certain idea or concept, so they are related in fact." Thus the mental process of "understanding" our experiences involves the employing of such ratiocinations as allow for a self-consistent fitting together of our observations of nature. The result is an intuitive geometrical-physical theory.

So, there seems to be no basic mental constraint standing in the way of viewing the world, not as a world of solid "things" whose material-causal behaviors make "the world go round", but as a world of geometric motions, of undulating energy billowing up out of itself and subducting down into itself in such a way as to give rise to phantom shapes and forms which we take for "things". In such a world, material "things" and their apparent "behaviors" are simply a convenient "gridding" or "netting" as Wittgenstein might say, to make nature's flux manifest and to facilitate inference as to its behavior. But this "netting" of "things" should not be mistaken for the real, it is simply an expedient ladder on which to climb up to gain a view of reality, and once there, the ladder must be seen as expendible nonsense. ....the world of solid things, according to Heraclitus, is such a ladder which must be seen as expendible nonsense once we comprehend the underlying, ultimately fundamental "Logos".

What are the basic essentials of this "material-less" model of reality as Heraclitus spoke to? In Frankfort et al's [1] interpretation of Heraclitus' writings;

"All things are one. Things that are distinct from one another, or qualities that are each other's opposites, have no permanent existence. They are but transitory stages in a perpetual flux. No static description of the universe is true. "Being" is but "becoming". The cosmos is but the dynamics of existence. The opposites which Anaximander saw "separating out" from the Boundless are for Heraclitus united by a tension which causes each of them ultimately to change into its opposite. 'Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.'

But if the universe changes continually according to the tensions between opposites, it is senseless to ask for its origin in the manner of myth. There is no beginning and no end; there is only existence. Heraclitus states magnificently: 'This world which is the same for all, no one of the gods or men has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.' Fire is the symbol for a universe in flux between tensional opposites. As Burnet says: 'The quantity of fire in a flame burning steadily appears to remain the same, the flame seems to be what we call a "thing". And yet the substance of it is continually changing. It is always passing away in smoke, and its place is always taken by fresh matter from the fuel that feeds it." [i.e. much as the human body seems an unchanging "thing" although its constituents are continually renewed as new substance (fuel) flows in and through it, almost totally replacing the old over the passage of a few months time].

"In the writings of Heraclitus, to a larger degree than ever before, the images do not impose their burden of concreteness but are entirely subservient to the achievement of clarity and precision."

As the above interpretation indicates, it seems fully possible to speak of models of the world which are clear and precise yet have no dependence on concreteness and rigidity. At the same time, there is an initial "culture shock" in contemplating a view of the world in which the "fabric" is nonmaterial, being woven from poles and opposition, oscillations and interference, harmonies and experience, all insubstantial entities.

If we look at Kepler's third law, that the ratio of the square of the period of the orbit to the cube of the radial distance between orbiting and orbited body is constant (T**2/R**3 =C), we can see that it is measured in "cycles" (naturally "whole" delta-t -- delta-f cells) and distance; or, in cycles-squared (harmony) and distance-cubed (space). It suggests that one of the essences of a thingless view of the world is "spatial harmony".

As Kepler said, what we need to be mindful of is this constancy of the whole, rather than the parts; " while the harmony does not adorn the termini, i.e., the single movements, in so far as they are considered in themselves but only in so far as by being taken together and compared with one another, they become the object of some mind;"

Kepler's discovery was born of the direct geometric observations and constancies of nature whose existence owed nothing to "things" apart from their role in illuminating the trajectories, in the manner of aerial acrobats who stream colored smoke from their wingtips to give lasting substance to their spirals and rolls. Neither did Kepler's laws owe anything to mathematical devices, the mathematics being a purely descriptive tool. Thus the "oval shape" of the orbits of his first law could have been described in most any mathematical space, his capturing of the sense of speed by the relationship between an emerging area and its perimeter, in his second law, is also free from any particular mathematics, as is his third law of spatial harmony in which one can imagine orbital ellipses rhythmically painting themselves out in the heavens.

Newton, with his fluxions and fields, transformed Kepler's findings into the abstract mathematical world of instantaneous behaviors, tearing down the colored streamers and shutting off the music in the process. Newton's world is fashioned out of the Wittgensteinian ladders we were supposed to use only to get a better view. Newton's use of the x, y, z, t and dx, dy, dz dt grid ultimately confounds and confuses the issue of separating mental model and experience, since the foundation of a thingless world cannot be things. Yet the foundation of a world based on discrete differences between independent things is such a base of things, as one cannot have discrete differences without having discrete things.

How real is the abstract mathematical world of Newton relative to the natural world of Kepler's observations and experience? As Einstein says; "... At this point an enigma presents itself which in all ages has agitated inquiring minds. How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality? Is human reason, then, without experience, merely by taking thought, able to fathom the properties of real things.

In my opinion the answer to this question is, briefly, this: As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.

"... Geometry treats of entities which are denoted by the words straight line, point, etc. These entities do not take for granted any knowledge or intuition whatever, but they presuppose only the validity of the axioms, such as the one stated above [Through two points in space there always passes one and only one straight line], which are to be taken in a purely formal sense, i.e. as void of all content of intuition or experience. These axioms are free creations of the human mind. All other propositions of geometry are logical inferences from the axioms (which are to be taken in the nominalistic sense only). The matter of which geometry treats is first defined by the axioms. Schlick in his book on epistemology has therefore characterised axioms very aptly as "implicit definitions." ... "In axiomatic geometry the words "point," "straight line," etc., stand only for empty conceptual schemata. That which gives them substance is not relevant to mathematics.

Yet on the other hand it is certain that mathematics generally, and particularly geometry, owes its existence to the need which was felt of learning something about the relations of real things to one another. The very word geometry, which, of course, means earth-measuring, proves this. For earth-measuring has to do with the possibilities of the disposition of certain natural objects with respect to one another, namely with parts of the earth, measuring-lines measuring-wands, etc. It is clear that the system of concepts of axiomatic geometry alone cannot make any assertions as to the relations of real objects of this kind, which we will call practically-rigid bodies. To be able to make such assertions, geometry must be stripped of its merely logical-formal character by the co-ordination of real objects of experience with the empty conceptual frame-work of axiomatic geometry. To accomplish this, we need only add the proposition: Solid bodies are related, with respect to their possible dispositions, as are bodies in Euclidean geometry of three dimensions. Then the propositions of Euclid contain affirmations as to the relations of practically-rigid bodies.

Geometry thus completed is evidently a natural science; we may in fact regard it as the most ancient branch of physics. "

In other words, Einstein is saying that there is a mental world of experience and a mental world of axiomatic (logical) models ... fire and flame. The former being the full and complex reporting of our sensibilities on what's "out there", and the latter being a convenient simplifying abstraction which we can use for communications and other purposes. Propositions or ratiocinations can be used to link our logical models to our experiencing of nature. Thus, we can form the proposition that; people (i.e. the mental model or abstraction) relate to the vital constituent processes of people (i.e. the experiential notion of people), as flame relates to fire. This brings us back to the view of Heraclitus, wherein material "things" themselves, and their apparent behaviors are no more than the "rational model", the convenient "netting" which is to the "Logos" or underlying process, as a flame is to the process of "fire".

But if, for example, we confuse Newton's mathematical world with its "things" and motional "laws" with our experiencing of nature itself, we will have erred seriously. For in the limit as delta t goes to zero, all motion ceases and if motion is the essence of nature, we are truly left with "the ghosts of departed quantities" as Berkeley maintained. Moreover, we have taken on the "burden of concreteness" in going into the Newtonian domain and lost the incredible lightness of nature experienced as a continual, harmonious state of becoming, as in the Heraclitean and Keplerian models. And we shall have to pay the huge "bookkeeping" price which comes with this new burden.

And if "material things" are mirage, what becomes of their behavior, since behavior comes in the form of laws, rules, procedures, description, prescription whose subject and object is "things". If "things" are the flame-like netting which gives apparent "tangibility" to fiery process, "behavior" must be the flame-flickering or apparent motion of the "netting"; motion which envelopes fire as a sack encloses playful kittens. In a world of flux rather than "things", we tune in to ongoing harmonies and their legacies as opposed to discrete and instantaneous behaviors.

It seems that we discriminate rather casually between the abstract mental model and the actual experiencing of nature. In the case of a human being, our "flame" view is often simplified to the point that we think of an individual as a walking talking piece of meat --- the tangible material causal behavior view. Yet we also know that people are inherently buzzing ecologies of living substance, much like rainforests which have a rich history going back for millions of years, the product of a complex evolution. The human make-up is also suggestive of the common order of the terrestrial and astronomical as there is more empty space in a human than "material" and the basic geometry and harmony of the molecular structure is not that different from the solar system. By the time one gets down to smallest so-called "building block" in the human, we are confronted with H. P. Stapp's words, " An elementary particle is not an independently existing, unanalyzeable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things." Thus there are two "views" of a person, a mental model or flame view which sees people as walking, talking bodies of meat, and an experiencing or "fire" view of people in which the consciousness of two bustling "rainforests" dance with one another.

It's interesting how difficult it is to describe a thingless world in words, but understandable how this situation came about (see "holons and glyphs" elsewhere on this web page). English, Greek and the original phonetic language, Phoenician, came from a trading and commerce drive, where inventories of "things" were the central theme. Prior to this time were the pictographic languages, more potent in communication complex concepts, but more difficult to learn and use. Thus this english is itself an expedient of a "thing-based" view of reality. Had the glyphic language still been available, I might have arranged in proximity the glyphs for heart and head, forest and river system, to convey the innate nature of a human, rather than struggling to build it up from "substantives" and their behaviors.

Looking at higher levels of human organization such as the team and the company as we just did the individual, there is a similar duality in how the mind perceives them. In a very recent "Wellspring" exercise with retirees, the participants described the company as an entity which, formally, was a command-and-control structure getting things done by issuing commands at the top and cascading them down for execution by department and staff member. This was the mental model or abstraction of the company. But the experience of working within the company was something entirely different. It was more like participating in the ecology of a rainforest, with hidden, undocumented networks of friends and associates sharing information and knowledge, teaching, learning and helping each other to get the job done. The retirees cautioned that modern management too often confused the mental model, the "free creation of the human mind" or "empty conceptual schemata" as Einstein termed it, with the experiential reality. To see the company solely in terms of this "empty conceptual schemata", and attempt to refine and perfect it on this basis while leaving the experiential reality flapping in the breeze is not a formula for success in either human or business terms.

So it appears that the duality of view of the world, mental model versus experience, flame versus fire, are often confused and the latter often forgot. As Heraclitus said; "Most men do not think things in the way they encounter them, nor do they recognize what they experience, but believe in their own opinions [mental models]."

R. D. Laing in "The Politics of Experience" gives an assessment of the social damage being self-inflicted by the denial of experience which comes through looking at the world solely in terms of logical mental models. It is not a pretty picture. "As domains of experience become more alien to us, we need greater and greater openmindedness even to conceive of their existence." "... This state of affairs represents an almost unbelievable devastation of our experience." "What we call 'normal' is the product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience."

As the modern sciences of nonlinear dynamics and complexity are showing, things in nature set up their own opposites and then engage them, much as the bow and the lyre in Heraclitus' writings. The fractal trajectories of nonlinear systems, by virtue of where they range and where they don't, set up their own "strange attractors" and proceed to flit about them as a moth flits around a flame. As Heraclitus said, "They do not comprehend how a thing agrees at variance with itself; it is an attunement turning back on itself, like that of the bow and the lyre." "The name of the bow is life, its work is death." In looking at nature in the form of trajectories in infinite dimensional phase space, one could say the same for a pendulum, or a human life.

While a wholesale change in the nature of the way we see the world is not easily achieved, we have a choice, when we look at a person, to see "flame" a walking talking piece of meat, or "fire", a rainforest of ecological bustle which carries the mystery of a long evolution, of harmonies familiar and unfamiliar. And we have a choice to think of our meeting with that person, not as a study of their tangible form and instantaneous behaviors, but as an intimate engagement of consciousnesses exchanging information on old harmonies and opportunities to build new harmonies.

We have a choice, when we look at organizations, to see "flame", headcount and structure made to produce products and results, or "fire", an experiential social ecology too complex to be "directly pictured" being "a representation of an abundance of experiences", from which new reality and value can self-organize.

We have a choice, when we reward and nurture things, to reward "flame", the causal products of the material facade, or "fire", the harmonies of a hidden ecology of human consciousness and and experience, as it emerges in the form of new harmonic role-models and new and sustainable harmonic legacies.

On a final note, it is said that Kepler "said his prayers in the language of mathematics", though the divinity to which he prayed was nature. It is also recorded that Newton encapsulated the Scriptures in 15 logical propositions, suggesting that his God was a mathematical abstraction, to whom all experiential truths were to be sacrificed.

... Flame or fire; fire or flame, a question that both moths and men will entertain for some time to come.

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[1] Frankfort, Henri et al, "The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man", The University of Chicago Press, 1946