Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A snowflake

Image by Alexey Kljatov

I see something beautiful here which draws my thoughts as well as my senses. Looking into the pattern makes me realise that what we are seeing here is the perceptible expression of water's invisible power (ability? potential?) to structure itself in a certain way when temperature drops below zero deg C. I'm having difficulty finding the words here.

Reading into such patterning, we understand that  everything in the world - at its root, core or kernel - whether living or non-living -  is patterned, and there is something which makes it so. We can see the results expressed in the world of perceptible phenomena, although we cannot directly examine whatever it is that generated it. We just see its effects.

This is the core of Schopenhauer's philosophical distinction between the Phenomenon and the Noumenon. The one is the perceptible representation of the other. He says the Noumenon is the 'Will to Life', and if so a crystal shares this noumenal will or energy as much as a leaf, a beetle - or me.

To explain such patterning in nature people may fall back on analogies with particularly human abilities of intricate creation and fabrication, suggesting it betrays the hand of a supernatural, transcendent fabricator - a Creator. They colour the workings of the Universe with human attributes. Plato suggested that nature followed transcendent templates called 'Forms' or 'Ideas' which existed in an imperceptible, transcendent, ideal reality. The world of phenomena (substantial, perceptible things) was just a pale shadow of these Forms. Thus Plato makes a conceptual separation between Form and Substance, Pattern and Material. However our perception of phenomena does not make such separations: we experience them through our five senses and translate them into a holistic and meaningful synthesis. We are the creators of our perceptions.

Physicists point to inherent mathematical properties in matter and material processes which make patterning a fact of the Universe. Snowflake patterns can be expressed as mathematical equations. Liquids have a tendency to flow in meandering patterns, whether on Earth or on Mars, and these too can be expressed as mathematical equations. I suspect that only mathematicians can fully experience phenomena in this way.

Perhaps it must be left to ordinary human experience to appreciate, and to the arts to reveal, the obscure - yet strongly felt - meanings that are inherent in nature's patterning. Schopenhauer would say they are generated by the 'Will to Life' as it is manifests itself in the Universe. The beauty of snowflakes points into the creative heart of physis, of nature itself - uniquely perceived and wondered at by humans.

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