He repeated it over and over again and each time I cringed. I wanted to shout “No, not pattern recognition, pattern construction.” We were watching the new Cosmos series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this week’s episode tracing the evolution of life on earth, Tyson kept talking about pattern recognition as the source of human survival and the reason our species flourished. This vision, though certainly broadly held and nearly canonical as a foundation of science, needs to be questioned. To put it succinctly: Are we pattern recognizers or pattern makers? Do we discover or do we invent? Now while this distinction at first glance may seem to be just rhetoric and definition, it has profound and broad consequences. For it is the distinction that has driven the schism between the sciences and the arts.
The sciences think we are discovering the “real” nature of things. These patterns are in nature for us to discover. The arts deal with patterns too, of course, but clearly arts patterns are constructed. We need only think of the patterns in today’s abstract art which artists clearly construct and other than the general “rules” of art these patterns came out of the minds of the artists. As long as one side thinks they are a voyage of discovery and the other side thinks they are in a workshop inventing, how will we ever see unity between them.
In my book Elegantly Simple I argue through a variety of examples, particularly Maxwell’s Equations, that the patterns of science are invented. Two very, very different visions of nature in Newton’s Mechanics and Maxwell’s Electrodynamics coexisted for more than 50 years as true representations of nature. These patterns were as different as we can imagine. The same is true for General Relativity and Quantum Theory. Oh, we can argue that each of these theories covered different aspects of nature, but do we really expect nature to be schizophrenic and work in entirely different ways depending upon what part we are looking at?
I argued that we construct patterns in science, unique patterns for storing and sharing nature’s information, patterns that can be used to predict new information. We invent these patterns, and these patterns enable us to discover new experience. Maxwell’s Equations were such inventions. They not only defined all of the possible shapes of electromagnetic fields, they showed that changing fields would produce electromagnetic waves which acted exactly light visible light. Since this light we see is just a small part of the possible electromagnetic wavelengths, the Equations predicted that there would be other forms of these waves that we do not see. Heinrich Hertz actually discovered non-visible electromagnetic waves some 20 years after Maxwell published his invention. All patterns are inventions, human inventions. They enable us to discover new experience, and thus broaden our view of nature.
So scientists like artists are patternmakers who value creativity and invention. We invent new patterns. We evaluate patterns esthetically. And we test new patterns by their capability to discover new experience.