Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Metaphor and reality

Update: This post is a partial review of Kenneth Boulding’s Ecodynamics and James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the metaphors that Kenneth Boulding uses to describe the natural world in his Ecodynamics (1978). One such metaphor is evident in his statement that knowledge, or know-how, is embedded in the structure of natural objects. The way in which Boulding expresses this idea is that “in a certain sense, helium ‘knows how’ to have two electrons and hydrogen knows only how to have one” (14). This is a case where ‘structure’ has the ‘ability to “instruct”’ (13). One benefit of this particular way of looking at knowledge is that it limits what is determined about a subject to what can be known. A fact of an atom of helium is that it is an atom of helium, and that fact can be stated in terms of know-how. (Boulding uses this method to show how unhelpful the idea of the survival of the fittest is, for it really is just a statement about the survival of the survivors.) This metaphor is particularly powerful because it allows for our understanding of communication to explain natural phenomena like the replication of DNA. Know-how is communicated from the existing structure through other materials that lend themselves to communicating that structure as well. By accepting this metaphor, statements about language, the realization that “communication . . . becomes a process of complex mutuality and feedback among numbers of individuals that leads to the development of organizations, institutions, and other social structures which affect” the outside world (16). The spread of know-how through communication—the “multiplication of information structures” (101)—leads to complex behavior and organization, in persons as well as in nature.

lorenz attractorThis phenomenon, communication through the propagation of order and know-how, can be seen in other natural structures. In Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), James Gleick identifies several of these phenomena like entrainment or modelocking, an example of which being when several pendulums, connected by a medium like a wooden stand that can communicate relevant information like rhythms, all swing at the same rate (293). Similarly, in the phenomena of turbulence, “each particle does not move independently”; in their interdependent interaction, the motion of each “depends very much on the motion of its neighbors” (124). I don’t think that it is much of a stretch to say that know-how is propagated through the constraints of strange attractors (the image to the left is of the Lorenz attractor) and similar phenomena. Chaotic phenomena behaves in a particular way because that is what it knows how to do.

Supposing we can accept this metaphor for behavior in nature, that it is a kind of communication where what is being communicated is knowledge, then it seems like it would be completely reasonable to use the language of rhetoric to describe natural behavior. The sensitive interdependence of the parts of a system, recognized 1) by Boulding in animal development where “the history of a cell in an embryo depends on its position relative to others rather than its past history, because its position determines the messages”—or information—“that it gets” (107), and 2) by the physicist Doyne Farmer, who, in describing mathematical equations notes “the evolution of [a variable] must be influenced by whatever other variables it’s interacting with,” for “their values must somehow be contained in the history of that” variable (266) suggests a rhetorical way of looking at nature. As Boulding acknowledges, everything depends on everything else, a point that rhetoricians have been making about the persuasive situation since the discipline was formed. This connection opens up the exciting possibility of rhetorical analysis of natural systems, where the tools of monitoring persuasion in language could be used to track the movement of know-how through nature.

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