Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Stream: learning about it is complicated enough, but recognizing our biases, how we think, is just as important as the information we collect.

As I walked past our little stream that rattles and splashes down the hillside at this time of year I was thinking about music (It was music to my ears). If I concentrated on sound rather that seeing ( my dominant way of perceiving the world) I could hear a complex blend of notes: high trills, lower rushing noises, and so on, and if I took the time to walk along the stream these all changed in type and intensity. Not only was what I was observing a complicated visual pattern but the sounds produced were equally interesting. A sound-scape and landscape. One could imagine that this was music, or that music had some of the qualities contained in this natural phenomenon of time and space
What I questioned however, was how I was receiving and processing the information coming from the stream. How much was my mind's habits of filtering and categorizing influencing what I was defining and describing? Because we all have the experience of stereotyping. We get through a complex world of events and situations, not by deeply questioning but by a set of shorthand ideas. In our families, relationships, work and in the natural world that we inhabit we are often on autopilot. We carry a pack of ideas around and apply them appropriately as the situation seems to suggest. So much for the independent, thinking individual. More likely, even the 'individualist' simply selects a variant of acceptable differences, a cultural subgroup, and tags along. Humans are great imitators.

And yet, surely scientists are trained to think outside the box? Very rarely I suspect. They are conforming to a special set of ideas too, use a certain tool set, and very few will make the leap to a new set of relationships, something truly original.

But back to the water flow which was producing a stream of information for me to process. Most of the time I will simply not notice the stream, visually or audibly and step over it, my mind on other things, but if in this case I began by thinking about it in terms of music, then I would still be selecting certain aspects of sound that fitted into that category and ignoring the rest.

But obviously there are also a large number of other ways I could be thinking about this stream: as a flow with all sorts of eddies and falls, as a place for certain bugs to live, as simply a narrow ditch carrying off the extra winter run-off from the hill and road surfaces on the slopes above, to name but a few.

I could also think of the stream creatively as a metaphor for the passage of my own life, or to be really fanciful, imagine what it would be like if I were only a couple of inches high and being swept down through the rapids. I could actually use the sounds, falls and eddies to make music or paint a picture that used the dominant forms and colours and captured the movement.

All these ways of observing and recording, of thinking sideways, of making new structures suggested by the stream use different approaches, different sets of imagery, sounds and words. Mostly we specialize in only a very few ways of relating to the enormous flow of information that surrounds us on a simple walk beside a stream. Perhaps we think in practical terms, or scientifically or creatively, but not all at once or in a coordinated sort of way.

All this is to say that understanding the world is not only complicated by its sheer complexity, but by the tools we use to understand it by. Knowing about the words we use and the ideas that stand behind them is equally important. We know but darkly. Reality is elusive.

Annie Dillard's 'Pilgrim at Tinker Creek' might be worth checking out. I wrote about my experience of reading it in Dragongate a couple of years ago (June 14th, 2014).

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