Monday, June 28, 2010

The Skeptical Anarchist

If I look over my blogs and Facebook posts, I realize that two topics tend to come up more often than others: superstition and free expression. Though I have made attempts to connect a number of ideas together in the past, I think I have failed to unite these two accurately, mainly because I think that there are enough internal contradictions that I am disposed to what I condemn; belief. The belief I am speaking of is the creation of order through chaos. The music I like, and play is free, even anarchistic in form. There is very little applied structure, yet when analyzed later by critics, musicians and listeners of any kind cohesion can be found, even if that unity wasn’t intended. This happens all of the time to me. I speak with a musician, and compliment them on the use of spectral dissonance through harmonic clustering, or something pretentious like that, only to hear “we were just jamming at midnight.” Now that doesn’t make my analysis wrong, or the intent wrong, but it does suggest that I am deeply involved in trying to mentally connect dots, even though the dots were actually laid out randomly.

 The wonderful documentary film “Between The Folds”, explores a world of extremely serious origami artists and scientists, which I had no idea existed. This group includes a range of people, from the compulsive paper folder who creates life like animals with over 1000 folds, to an MIT mathematician who uses origami techniques to solve some of math’s most difficult questions to a group of style improvisers of the form, which the film calls The Anarchists. The absolutely contradictory styles of the Mathematician and the Anarchists especially appeals to me. The Mathematician concentrates on the perfection of each fold in relation to consecutive folds. He uses computer models to enhance this. While this may seem crazy, in doing so he was able to not only solve some esoteric mathematics theories, but even practical ones, like the most efficient way to fold an airbag for car safety. The Anarchists by contrast bunched and folded paper in completely random chaotic ways. It is the free jazz of origami, and like free jazz they create something that is both highly interesting, and also complex when analyzed. The forms they create may or may not resemble figures, but they do have inherently enlightening results at their best. The Anarchists even perform improvised experiments on the completed forms, like seeing the effect of sunlight over time, or water, or heat. You in a sense viscerally learn things that the mathematician would have trouble formulating.

The fascination with these two approaches is what leaves my time partially in the quantitative and experimental world of applied physics, and partially in the anarchistic world of free jazz and surrealist poetry. Somehow I think that by doing both I will be able to recognize patterns that are unique and surprising. Though I suppose that there is nothing wrong with this, there may be nothing right about it either. In his recent TED Talk, the great skeptic Michael Shermer points out that animals (humans included of course) are predisposed to search for patterns, even when they do not exist. There is good Darwinian reasons for this because the problems with not seeing patterns in life and death situations are more immediately life threatening. He speaks of a predator/prey situation. When an animal has before heard a predator rustling leaves, he learns to run. Therefore even if he hears the wind rustle leaves, he is likely to run. He may have been wrong, but it was safer to be wrong. With more highly evolved pattern recognition we can arrive at misinterpreted correlations, which in turn can do harm.  Decisions made about education, food, weapons and drugs, which are based on false pattern recognition can do a great deal of harm, and do all of time. In fact Shermer points out that we are not even all that good at recognizing patterns. We see patterns in everything, and not always the correct ones, as he shows with some slides of dots, some of which have embedded figures and some nothing. People will see figures where none exist, see wrong ones where they do, and sometimes get it right. All is possible with our limited abilities.

So what is the point of all of this introspection about my own abilities at pattern recognition? Perhaps it is to enjoy the anarchy even when there is no pattern to be found. There is truth in its own right in chaos, where our thoughts and anxieties so often reside. Then, perhaps some lucky time useful patterns will emerge that will allow a communication between reasoning and freedom. 


  1. This essay brilliantly explores the relationship between creativity (the birth of the new, the birth of insight, the great "surprise") and the known (the known being a form of superstition, also called dogma, accepted truth, the cultural norms). I think that one of the ramifications of your piece is that it highlights the constant dialectic between the past and the future. We are always trying to develop ideas or theories to explain (and to defend against the terror of...) what is essentially the complete mystery of existence. And over time these ideas are constantly being trumped by new discoveries in the sciences, in the arts, in all human endeavors. What's important is not to get frozen in dogma as a defense against "potential predators" and also not to use chaos and improvisation as avenues of escape from reality (as "reality" now presents itself), but to find a way of balancing these opposing aspects of the human experience.

    I find this same paradigm operating in art forms that excite and inspire me. When I was making my film, "The Definition of Insanity" this same dialectic came into play. We had a shooting script that we started with. But in the process of making the film, we constantly came up against obstacles and accidents that forced us to adapt and change in order for us to complete the film. We also encouraged our actors to improvise their lines within the highly structured scenes. So we were constantly in a state of anarchy versus pattern. And I think that this dynamic made for a more powerful film.

    Which is why I believe that finding that same balance in our lives between structure and "chaos" is what leads us forward as individuals and as a culture.

  2. Thank you so much Robert. I remember so well when you called me to say that you were starting to edit "Definition of Insanity" and that it might take awhile since you had 100 hours (or something enormous)of footage. For anyone to sit and watch those 100 hours it would have certainly seemed like a random scatter of disconnected scenes, yet you and frank composed order from that chaos. The big question remains rather there is always something to be seen behind what first appears chaotic? You and I spoke about looking into the night sky at the stars, all of which are positioned light years apart from each other, but to our eyes we create form, like the big dipper. Seeing patterns can lead to superstition, but it can also lead to a lot of beauty and fun. Thanks again for your comment.


Please feel free to comment. It helps me with ideas, and to start a discussion.