This is a useful primer for this note of mine: https://www.quantamagazine.org/20160421-the-evolutionary-argument-against-reality/
It is very difficult to talk about “existence.”
The mere utterance of the question “what exists and how does it exist?” usually causes readers and audiences to run from what assuredly is going to be a gobbledegook filled philosophical Socratic rant. Existence is so apparent, so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated — “I can see it with my own eyes” is the prototypical verbal dismissal levied. Though some forego even that notion and instead reject the question as outright non-sensical and beyond our reach.
Over the past year or so I have posed this question philosophically, artistically and commercially even — I have experimented with various answers to the question but mostly, due to the nature of this question, almost every experiment is a reposing of the question. My efforts have met mostly with a thudding silence — a non audience — and in some cases a clear rejection to engage. That is not a problem in of itself. It is mostly an indicator that I have failed to articulate the question and this exercise in an engaging way.
The twist of this story is startlingly simple: this is the question all of us ask all of the time, constantly, in every single thing we do. It is what every single “thing” “asks”. I’ll. steer clear of the metaphysics of whether a rock or a blackhole “asks questions of existence” and stick to humans and the activity of humans.
A couple of human activities are worth calling out and brushing over in broad strokes. Learning is a process of distinguishing between patterns — distinguishing objects from other objects, people from other people, events from other events, etc. Science is a methodical process of testing hypothesis directly about what the extent of a phenomenon is or is not and how it behaves or relates to other phenomenon. Religion is a practice of socializing over shared conceptions of what really controls all existence. Economic exchange is communicating and agreeing about what services, products or ideas are useful or distinct enough to warrant valuation and/or pricing and/or trade. Art is a lot of different things but in some very broad sense it is process of remixing experiences through various mediums and directly asking is this fiction or reality?
More fundamentally measurement of space, time, money, connectivity and every compounded notion is the process of noticing differences between those dimensions and objects in relation to those dimensions by way of measuring devices (also objects themselves within space, time, connectivity, etc). Data, in some sense, is the trace or the impression or pattern of measured objects, events, etc within other objects — often our measurement devices.
(This is usually where I lose people, so I’m flat out asking for patience with this argument.)
Here I make the big claim: everything is data. Data is everything. Everything is a trace of anything that evolved into that thing and the current things related to that thing. That’s a lot of things — every and any- so I’ll use different words. Every object from subatomic particles to cosmological systems are patterns of existence — or simply patterns. There is not anything I’ve been able to observe or conceive of or read about that was anything other than patterns of patterns of patterns… OR it’s possible that while there is objective, standalone “stuff” of existence, the only way to measure, observe or talk about “stuff” is to distinguish and describe it -to note its properties and relations — its patterns. The most abstract relations are patterns: crystal structures, genetic codes, light spectrums, electron orbits, spin of subatomic particles, gravitational waves. The most human output are patterns: Language, signs, symbols, images, movies. all are patterns of patterns.
It is this very pattern-ness that comprises the experience of existence. That is, if there were not patterns and patterns that differ from other patterns there would be no possibility of noticing anything.
The activities of science, law, art, business, religion, education and so on are about noticing, distinguishing and valuing patterns within other patterns — the law, broadly, is about describing acceptable patterns of behavior and encoding those descriptions in written laws used by different communities to enforce behavioral patterns. Business is about describing and constructing patterns (products and services) that help people describe (consume) and construct other patterns (products and services). And so on, the whole of activities can be reframed as patterning.
Science and mathematics is the process by which one systemically reduces functionally equivalent patterns to more fundamental patterns and/or temporarily establishes patterns as fundamental. Euclidean Geometry, for example, was a fundamental pattern that made it possible to equate a variety of natural phenomena (patterns) to planes and shapes in 3 dimensions. It was only a temporary pattern model until non-euclidean geometry was described and other algebraic patterns could relate and classify more patterns. Technology is the engineering of pattern distinguishing and transcoding devices so that a pattern in one medium can be transferred to a different pattern in another medium. (Yes, mediums are just patterns too.)
Now what’s the value of reframing all of this as patterns? The biggest value is in breaking down the artificial barriers between investigative activities/disciplines. It also makes it clearer why programs, statistics and mathematics are so useful. These are efficient pattern transcoding activities — perhaps the most efficient (this remains to be seen). Efficiency defined as computational or thermodynamic efficiency — roughly path of least resistance. The reframing is a falsification process by which reified concepts can be broken down — that is, patterns that are not unique can be classified with their functionally equivalent siblings.
The reframing also puts data and data science into a more useful view — that is, data and data science are part of every single activity humans do. The current forms of online data, data basis, machine learning are more an expression human technology than some fundamentally new pattern of existence. Before humans stored information in abstract databases humans chiseled in mud, scratched rocks, passed on oral traditions while their. bodies, geography, etc encoded various patterns. Why call this out? The abstraction and build up of data in databases has created a new access problem — most data and databases are beyond the pattern abilities of a single human or thousands of humans and millions of machines. Humans and computers now need to create visualizations and other signs that reduce the dimensionality of the data in order to transcode it into other humans or other machines, etc.
I am making another big claim: humans are doing what they’ve always done — they pattern match at the maximum fidelity of their own pattern and the extensions of their tooling (patterns).. There is a computational efficiency threshold — a computational conservation — that comes into effect. Patterns can only recognize patterns at the same fidelity or less. As new tools allow for distinguishing more fidelity the extent of the overall pattern recedes. (A quasi claim is that this explains our observations of relativity such as spacetime expansion. To see more of things in and of spacetime (existence) the cost is extent of space time recedes away from us, the observing pattern. The more deeply we look the wider the universe grows…. Think less metaphysically, consider a scientific discipline. The deeper that discipline goes the more of your life you must dedicate to learning it. Very few, if any science, is done as independently as it was 300 or even 100 years ago. The more knowledge we have the bigger the unknowns grow. That’s just a balancing of computation….)
When you pull this altogether there are some possible useful implications or rather some explanations of what useful is at all. That is, if there is any pattern at all — any differing patterns at all — whatever the differences between patterns is (data!) is really the stuff of existence — the noticeable stuff. I’m not sure it would be possible to have a human existence without the variety of expressions of differences — the activity of noticing — the foraging of information. And this foraging activity (art, science, religion, play, virtual realities, programming, etc) is also about differentiating patterns… And we all, as foraging humans, use all of these activities and will continue to use a larger variety of these as we extend ourselves, our humanity, with technology. The more people and the more technology we create the more variety of patterns we will seek/notice/create/generate/uncover. More science, more art, more culture, more awareness, more computing, more variety of experiences.
The huge useful implication here is To Keep Asking. Assuming there will ever be an answer to What Is Existence is the second most destructive thing one could do. The first being denying the question at all.