1. Introduction
2: Patterns
3: Patterns, Objectivity and Truth
4: Patterns and Processes

The Pattern Library:

  1. A pattern of Difference
  2. 2. A Pattern of Feedback
The Hourglass Pattern

This is a pattern that I like very much, because it is simple and yet very unusual. I call this the 'hourglass pattern' because of the shape, as you can see below.
 Description interface, boundary, wall, gate,...
  Hourglass Pattern
 Notes - The interface can demarcate ‘inside’ from ‘outside’, but also mediate, or be an intermediary between different domains, or demarcate a transition between ‘parts’ and‘whole’
- The processes can also reflect back to the locus or bottleneck

The hourglass pattern has basically already been discussed a few times, and has returned in the posts  in various guises. The essential idea is that something gets a form, or takes up shape, because of interferences with other things. At a fundamental level this was already discussed in the notion of 'patterns taking up form' because of their mutual interferences, and also the concept-context duality is based on this idea. In terms of PAC, these are all instances of the hourglass pattern.

The hourglass pattern sketches how certain processes come together in a strongly localised fashion - an object, an event, or something similar- and that they form something because of their mutual interactions. The lines in the pattern sketched above are the processes, and the neck of the hourglass is the strongly localised spot where these processes interfere. Rather, this is where the interferences are maximal.

The pattern is a criticism against reductionist approaches in science. It does not criticise the use of reductionist approaches in itself, but it challenges the idea that any object  (or event) can be fully understood by looking at the components of that object (or the circumstances that resulted in the event). An example of my own professional career may make this more clear. I used to work in machine construction and robotics, and because I was a mechatronical engineer at the time, I used to spend extensive periods of time at customers in order to get the machines and robots to work. There I experienced that a production robot is more than just a technical thing, hat can be described by looking at the components that makes the machine. First, the machine changed the moment it was taken up in a production street, because it takes up a place in a wider (technical/functional) space. This, of course, is concept-context in action.  The most vivid manifestation of this effect, was when I would revisit a customer a year or so after a machine was put in operation. At that moment I would see the operators do things with that machine that I never envisioned when we were designing the machines. Machine and operator had, to some extent, transcended the strict functional description of the machine's designs, and created a new symbiotic relationship. But the hourglass pattern was most manifest in the time when the machine (usually a prototype that was being prepared for production conditions) was put in operation. Then I would see that the machine was also, amongst others,  a commercial entity, a socio-political entity and a psychological entity on a production floor. All of these processes cannot -or at best only partially- can be described in terms of the electro-mechanical  parts that make up the machine: reductionism fails at these levels of description!

But before sociologists and psychologists trump victory, one must realise this also applies for psychological and sociological reductionism, because the technology still influences these aspects! The only means one has to fully understand a machine in a production plant is to follow all the processes that come together in the hourglass. And this is a problem, because these processes may have an enormous reach. Some processes can be overseen -such as the process  at a customer that resulted in a decision to buy a machine, or the process at a company to design and build it, but other processes -such as the impact of the machine in an extended environment -consumers, local community, global warming, and so on- are much harder to grasp and can at best only be approximated. This is the reason why such an object is complex; because it comes with a  uncertainty. Maybe not for its immediate instrumental function, or its ability to address a problem at a customer, but for all the other aspects (i.e. processes) that gravitate around the object and the event of its placement in a production facility.

Therefore, if we set out fully understand the hourglass pattern that is formed when a machine is placed in a production plant, we would have to invite a scientist who could oversee all the processes that interfere at the neck of the pattern, or we would have to assemble an interdisciplinary team that would be able to span this scope. And even then, it is highly likely that a number of processes escape attention, resulting in uncertainty, and therefore limitations in achieving this goals of fully understanding the machine. As a result, a Cartesian, deterministic universe or Laplace's clockwork universe cannot exist , although it can contain orderly (which can be overseen) processes. Science can make descriptions of certain aspects of our life-world which, given certain approximations of other aspects (the details), give an adequate or optimal description of the process under consideration. But this can never result in absolute certainty of the full scope of the hourglass; uncertainty travels with every description of an object, event or other 'neck' of the hourglass pattern! Hence we have to accept that we are always working with limited knowledge, and that every description, whether it is a model, a theory, or an interpretation, is potentially fragile in real world settings.

Some people may  consider the above to be obvious to the level of trivial, but many scientific explanations -such as a radical gene-centric approach to our human existence (we are the sum of our genes)- either implicitly or explicitly advocate one dominant narrative of our human 'being' and ignore the others. This, by the way, is often also the problem of the critics of gene-centric views. Both engage in rather useless 'who is wrong and who is right' discussions (like the nature-nurture debates) and miss the really interesting question, which is at what point a certain model begins to lose its expressive power. I have no problems in accepting a gene's eye view on the colour of my eyes,  but when it comes to questions of human aggression, homosexuality and human identity, I have no problems accepting that a gene-centred narrative becomes less influential with respect to other narratives. The interesting methodological question then becomes why this is the case.

Another consequence is that some themes cannot be addressed at all by reductionist approaches. Take consciousness for instance. Most scientists and thinkers will implicitly or explicitly take an atomistic approach to consciousness, and localise it somewhere in the (human) brain. As a result, it is assumed that we can find it by looking at the function of the brain, and studying it.  Neuro-scientist Merlin Donald, however, takes a radical different approach. He thinks that our minds to do not have something we could call consciousness, but that consciousness is formed in interaction with our life-world and with other minds. Consciousness 'comes to us' as it were. Our brains have certain qualities to enable consciousness to form -a certain ability to process patterns, a certain plasticity to create novel forms from existing knowledge- but this is not enough to come to a full description of what consciousness is. Consciousness forms when novel patterns come to us, and we are able to give it a certain context. Put in more practical terms, consciousness happens when we learn something new, when we are 'made conscious' of something we did not realize earlier. Likewise we 'become conscious' when certain patterns rekindle knowledge that is in the background of our minds, and we realize that we knew this before. With this, consciousness is not a substance in our brains, but is a moment when we experience a, what the Germans call an aha-Erlebnis, a moment of realisation.  

The hourglass pattern is an assembly of another pattern, which basically forms the minimal hourglass: it is called friction, and occurs when two or more processes interfere. The pattern is depicted below. The shape has been derived from quantum-mechanics, where similar shapes often are used to sketch interactions between quantum particles.

 Notes -As an interface can host a myriad of processes,friction tends to a combinatorial explosion in and around the interface. Every single process may be understood, maybe even at the level of mathematical and causal descriptions, but the friction between the processes causes interferences, which at some point, can no longer be determined analytically.

The hourglass pattern is both a call for cross-disciplinary approaches in science and certain humbleness for our pretences to know our life-world. In all its simplicity, it breaks open many suppositions we carry with us, and forces us to realise that majority of things that happen, happen beyond our immediate scope of attention. I think Science 2.0 requires less people who enclose themselves their specialisations, and the haughtiness that often travels with recognition of expertise, but more of an open-source mentality that realises that progress is usually a co-operative effort that no one man can claim.