Holons and Glyphs

November 2, 1996

There are two camps in science and in philosophy; one which believes that ultimate understanding must come from the bottom up, from the specific to the general, a kind of logical "fabrication" based on "atomic" rules or laws, and another which believes that ultimate understanding must come from the top down, from the general to the specific, from the interference amongst self-referential patterns or "holons", which are infinite or extended sequences of whole/parts, such as are visualizable in "fractal" patterns. The latter makes a subordinate use of the former, while the former denies the need for the latter.

Heraclitus, with his concept of "logos", the innate underlying coherency in things, was a proponent of the latter, "general to specific", way of thinking. Aristotle, with his syllogistic logic, set the stage for 2500 years of dominance in the western world of the "specific to general" way of thinking. The invasive depth and pervasiveness of Aristotelian influence in our culture is so complete that, like water to a fish, we are no longer even aware of it.

Language and culture are deeply interwoven, and it is interesting to examine how the "specific to general" or "general to specific" philosophies have penetrated language. The shift from "pictographic" alphabets or "hieroglyphs" as used in ancient Egypt and other areas, to the phonetic alphabets we use today involves a shift from the general conveying of complex archetypal "ideas" to the practice of building ideas from the bottom up, from phonetic symbols which have no intrinsic meaning themselves. The question arises; might we lose something in this deconstruction of complex ideas?

For example, it is no accident that the physicist Fritjof Capra displays an I Ching hexogram on the opening page of his book "The Turning Point". Capra, like a growing number of scientists, believe that the deeper understanding of natural phenomena is going to come from "the bootstrap principle", a "general-to-specific" approach which develops a picture of self-consistency amongst many naturally occurring self-referential, dynamic processes (holomovements in Bohm's terms).

The I Ching pictograph Capra displays, the number 24 hexogram (out of 64) is translated; "...After a time of decay comes the turning point. The powerful light that has been banished returns. There is movement, but it is not brought about by force . . . The movement is natural arising spontaneously. For this reason the transformation of the old becomes easy. The old is discarded and the new is introduced. Both measures accord with the time, therefore no harm results."

Just for fun, I looked up hexogram 24 myself, to see how consistent the translations might be. The translation by R. L. Wing [1] said; "Repeating will bring progress. To return again will not cause distress. Friends return and it is not a mistake. Repeated cycles are part of the tao, just as seven days brings a return. It is advantageous to have a goal in mind." ... "This is a time when groups of like-minded individuals can come together and work toward a common goal. Success is indicated here because the progress of these individuals is unhampered, both in the external world and in their innermost motivations."

Now that's quite a heady thought coming from one single pictograph, and its difficult if not impossible to imagine how one might think differently if one habitually used a pictographic language. For example, one would have to learn how to assemble the pictographs so that the creative interference from these interfering holodynamic patterns conveyed your meaning. One of the beauties of this approach is that it allows the recipient to "fill in the blanks" according to his own experiential specifics, rather than giving him a "literal" message based on someone else's experience. So, the processes involved in using a pictographic language are very different from those used in trying to build meaning bottom-up from phonetic letters, words, phrases, paragraphs etc.

If you sense that the bootstrap principle is the way to go (as I do), the corollary is that we would have done better to retain a pictographic language, rather than going with a reductionist phonetic language. So there are some major trade-offs here, but our culture makes no bones about judging what's best, as one can see in the following excerpt from the encyclopedia in regard to the origins of our phonetic language. It is clear that the drivers behind the development of our language were economic as opposed to "spiritual", and that's why organizations such as Good$hare are going to be needed, for a rapprochement between higher dimensional intent and economic reality.

"By 1250 BC the Phoenicians, a Semitic people, were well established as navigators and traders. Organized into city-states, they later established outposts, notably UTICA and CARTHAGE, and traveled to the edges of the known world. The Phoenicians were also fine artisans, but their greatest contribution was the ALPHABET, an idea adopted by the Greeks; the use of symbols for sounds in place of clumsier CUNEIFORM and HIEROGLYPHIC was a tremendous advance." [2]

"Tremendous advance", with no qualifications?? In such a statement is contained a theorem which exposes the mechanical axiomatic base of our western culture!

When I was trying to think of a name for the type of work I wanted to do, it struck me that the mechanical phonetic combination; "knowledge management" communicated nothing of the context which gave this topic value to me. I thought about associating a symbol along with the words "knowledge actualizing" on my business card etc., choosing the symbol or "pictograph" so that it might convey the context which I was intending. I had chosen the words "knowledge advantage" because the acronym was "ka" and "ka" was the Egyptian hieroglyph meaning spirit or consciousness. The glyph for "ka" is a self-referential, mirrored image indicating that we have both a physical and a spiritual "self". The glyph is something like the following (the best I can do on my reductionist keyboard);

" [_ _]"

So, I researched Egyptian mythology (I bought three books and put in about two hours reading parts of them) and looked at the legend of Ra and Isis "written" in hieroglyphs (with english "subtitles") to see how "ka" was used in context. "Ka" was used to indicate the power of consciousness or myth or spirit. For example, in the hieroglyphs for "Isis, great in words of power said [3]; run out, poison, come forth from Ra, ...", the pictograph "ka" within a small grouping of other pictographs which together make up the context, conveys "words of power". Similarly in the phrase; "Have uttered my father and mother my name, hidden was it in my body by my begetter who wished not to let have power him who would enchant me by enchantments over me.", the pictograph "ka" is used to convey "enchant" and "enchantments" in the context provided by a creatively interfering grouping of pictographs.

It is clear that the single pictograph "ka" conveys a holodynamic pattern close to that we would call "consciousness". Both "enchantment" and "words of power" imply some operation of consciousness. The use of the pictograph "ka" in context, allows it to add a great depth of meaning to the specifics of the context. That is, there is no literal meaning to "ka", but rather it gives meaning in a particular context. In the context of someone having mental power over you, it means "enchantment", in the context of a great leader making important pronouncements, it means "words of power". Thus it is inherently about the subtle interplay between things, rather than being about a literal thing and its causal impact.

At the minimum, there is an economy of writing here. If I had put "ka" on my business card, and you had also known the meaning of "ka", this would have conveyed much more than "knowledge management" about what I was focusing my energies on.

Of course, the english subtitles of the legend of Ra and Isis tell the story pretty well too, so does that suggest that the two approaches to language are more or less equivalent? The answer is NO, because language is used in many other roles than story-telling. Story-telling is the "sacred" home ground for language, the wellspring of meaning. If I use "ka" in a normal everyday conversation (e.g. in a letter to a friend), it invokes stories, such as the story of Ra and Isis. But if I use either of the words "words of power" or "enchantments" in my particular context, I am back to a more atomic mechanical "build" level and I have lost the "magic" of a story-telling base for language and have to try to rebuild it within the letter itself. So deconstructing back to an atomic phonetic base and rebuilding concepts by adding word to word like brick on brick to build a building, is a tough way to get to the higher dimensions of consciousness.

As indicated in my essay on "Complexity and the "Learning Organization", Goedel's theorem basically says that you can't logically deal with consciousness and creativity using only mechanical axioms. Thus you can't get to consciousness concepts directly in mechanical letter and word constructs. This is where poetry comes in. Poets construct the equivalent of pictographs from familiar word combinations to convey complex conscious thoughts.... e.g. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day, thou art more lovely and more temperate" (line from Shakespeare sonnet). Now this borrows heavily from common general experience and illustrates the "bootstrap principle". That is, the phrase assembles a number of holodynamics such as "thee", "summer", "day", "being" "loveliness", and "beauty" in such a form that you can fill in the blanks with your own experiential specifics and come up with a very relevant and personalized thought which re-engenders the (poet's intended) emotions within you.

In the domain of painting, one has similar choices in the conveyance of meaning via bottom-up detail, as in "realism" or in top-down patterning, as in "impressionism". Rather than presenting you with a literal, atomically detailed "fabrication" of an instant in time (i.e. as in realism), impressionism conveys inter-related time-evolution dynamics via patterns of color and shade, added in by the artist on the basis of his own emotional experiences, but generalized to the point that the viewer can "fill in the blanks" with his/her personal experiential and emotional specifics. In a sense, impressionism in art and bootstrapping in science and rational thinking are to the world of conscious idea creation, as mass customization is to the world of unconscious product fabrication.

Thus, the poetic and impressionist traditions are parallel to the "bootstrap" technique as employed in "Complexity and the "Learning Organization" and to the leading edge scientific techniques through which physicists are currently trying to provide a unified explanation of nature. Of course the subject material in these cases is, initially at least, somewhat dryer.

One of the barriers to understanding complex problems, in my opinion, is the resistance to letting go of the "bottom-up" approach. The bottom-up, or linear fabrication approach is a mechanical approach which won't get you to the higher dimensions of conscious thought (which appear resident in nature and evolution itself), unless you get there by superimposing poetry or impressionism. And the problem with those artforms are, while they are unexcelled in the emotive beauty and richness in which they are able to convey meaning, they represent "once-off" creations which are hard to re-use and refine in the manner of pictographs.

In the nonlinear sciences, it is fractal patterns and strange attractors that appear to be taking the place of pictographs but it is early days for developing a fractal language. For one thing, it is far better to look at fractal trajectories on the computer where one can see their dynamics including how often the trajectories flip from one attractor to another. This is important information about the state of the system which is being discussed or communicated. The other advantage of a nonlinear mathematical base for higher dimensional concepts is that one can actually assemble them and let them interfere and see the results graphically, and then play with them; for example, change the "initial conditions" such as the energy level.

The disadvantage is in trying to relate them to complex human experience. One would presumably have to start from human holodynamics, as in the Shakespearian sonnet and then agree on a "fractal pictograph" to convey that particular holodynamic (Don't forget, the I Ching hexograms and the Egyptian hieroglyphs, while somewhat self-suggestive of their contents, are fairly abitrary but standardized through usage). Then these "fractaglyphs", a standardized alphabet of them, could be assembled and their creative interference, producing a new fractaglyph conveying complex meaning, stories etc.

The advantage of such an approach is that the individual or duo or group viewing the "fractaglyphs" can fill in the blanks according to their experiential specifics.

That concludes my thoughts on holons and glyphs for the moment. The point seems to be, as Wittgenstein spent his life trying to say, there are intrinsic philosophical biases and limitations in language which we are going to have to become aware of and overcome, if we are going to transcend some of the complex problems of society. These limitations also apply in the domain of scientific understanding. Historically, it appears that we were on a more powerful understanding "track" when we thought in terms of dynamic interrelationships (e.g. the logos of Heraclitus, the endless knot of the Celts etc.) and when we were developing understanding by going from the "general to the particular" in a bootstrap-like format, in which you could fill in the blanks with your experiential specifics after you created the generic interference patterns.

Unfortunately, we are currently submerging ourselves in itty bitty detail and attempting to fabricate complex understanding from the mechanical assembly of these unconscious bits. Goedel proved it can't be done, but who is listening?

[1] Wing, R. L., "The Illustrated I Ching", 1982

[2] The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Microsoft Bookshelf

[3] Budge, E. A. Wallace, "The Gods of the Egyptians", 1969