Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Human Revolution: Symbolic Culture

 "Symbolic culture" is a term used by social scientists to describe the symbolic world of shared language and concepts that each one of us carries within us and is a creation of our culture.
Symbolic culture is a domain of objective facts whose existence depends, paradoxically, on collective belief. [ED: such as money or marriage]
Long before the late twentieth century invention of the Internet, evolution allowed humans to flit between two realms, reality on the one hand, virtual reality on the other. Symbolic culture is an environment of virtual entities lacking counterparts in the real world.
While all words are symbolic, there are gradations when it comes to their reality. For example, everyone has to share a belief in the value of paper money or it would be worthless -- although the paper itself would still exist.

This Hungarian money became virtually worthless after World War II. It experienced the worst hyperinflation the world had ever seen.

Yet everyone does not have to share a belief in the sun -- as the sun will come up tomorrow whether they believe or not.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Symbols are both virtual, subjective and shared collectively but also relate to an independent objective reality. Some independent objective realities are more independent than others -- to paraphrase Orwell from Animal Farm. And some symbols are more subjective than others, think of 'love' for example.

Related to the idea of symbolic culture, the "human revolution" is a term also used by social scientists who study the origins of human beings. This revolution refers to the point in human evolution when the symbolic culture emerged -- and which changed humanity forever.
"The Human Revolution" is a term used by archaeologists, anthropologists and other specialists in human origins; it refers to the spectacular and relatively sudden – apparently revolutionary – emergence of language, consciousness and culture in our species...
Symbolism was not an optional extra – life following the transition became fundamentally organized through symbols. (A summation of the thinking of 

Christopher Henshilwood and Ian Watts)

Now to relate this to the topic of deconstructing time 
I believe that time is one of our shared subjective symbols. Yet it does relate to the unrelenting undeniable objective progression of time. For example, we have all agreed that 12:25 in the afternoon is a symbol we understand. But we can also correlate this clock time to a specific point in objective time. 

Why Modern Time Is Subjective
Yet just about a hundred years ago there were no time zones in the United States, for example, but literally hundreds of local times in towns and cities each of which were synchronized to the noonday sun, which was different every couple of miles east to west. When the transcontinental trains were built, local time became too confusing for train schedules, so time zones were implemented. While time zones made scheduling much easier for commercial reasons, the local times were more accurate as each local noon correlated exactly with the sun at the peak of its travel -- a fact which kept people more in tune with the daily rhythm of the sun.

Clocks were actually an intrusion into daily life and changed the nature of time itself around the year 1300.
It was into a world of "natural time," based on the sun's march across the sky, and varying with the seasons, that the first mechanical timepieces -- time machines -- were introduced in thirteenth century Europe. At odds with the conception of time as something that flows, with the first clocks came the idea of measuring time by splitting it into equal, discrete chunks and counting those chunks. (Before that hours were variable based on the movement of the sun during the day which varied from season to season.)
Keith Devlin from his blog: Devlin's Angle
The combined effect of modern time keeping has been to disconnect us from the natural cycles of the planet. Few people today notice when the solstices or equinoxes occur, for example. Noon, that should be the highest point of the sun in the day, is no longer at the zenith for most locations since time zones mandate that noon be the same for all locations within a time zone. And even though the word 'month' comes from moon, our calendars are not synchronized with the moon and few of us know when the phases of the moon occur. Even fewer people can identify constellations which had been used for thousands of years to indicate seasonal changes.

Instead the modern world has substituted the rhythm of commerce for the natural and more precise cycles of the Earth. 

Yet we can imagine that in paleolithic and neolithic societies, and older civilizations up until about 500 years ago -- or about 99% of the time humans have been alive -- people told time by the sun, the moon and the stars. I imagine that members of these cultures were expected to know exactly what phase the moon was in and which stars or constellations were rising or setting. Of course the above is conjecture, yet I believe it is quite reasonable given my research.

If you think such ideas are out of date, consider the fact that much of Asia operates today on a lunisolar calendar. These areas include some of the most advanced and rapidly growing economies. And it you think it doesn't matter see my note at the end of this blog.

The phases of the moon were critical for most cultures before the industrial age. They organized time based on the moon's cycle.
 Eight months from a medieval calendar known as the Book of Hours: This is from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Each month is illustrated with the appropriate activity or work for that time period and days can be read in either a solar or lunar mode.
Above each month in the Très Riches Heures are the positions of the important Zodiac constellations for that time period. Before the industrial age, the Zodiac was used for telling time on a monthly or seasonal basis.
Galileo, whose insights formed the basis for modern science, realized that time measurement was critical to his understanding of physics. He was the first to use pendulums to improve the accuracy of his measurements. His discoveries led to our mechanical world and changed our idea of time -- from being a continuous flow to time consisting of sliced and diced fragments.

Drawing from the Works of Galileo Galilei, Volume 2, illustrating the dynamics of a pendulum. 

Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.
Galileo Galilei 
Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.
Albert Einstein 

"A geometrical and military compass designed by Galileo Galilei," ( and built around 1604.

An early pendulum clock design -- by Galileo. 
Time is not a reality (hypostasis), but a concept (noêma)...
Antiphon the Sophist, Greek thinker circa 5th century BCE

People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Albert Einstein

While this blog is a work in progress, I am certain of this: our shared notions about time create what we think of as time -- and that with different symbols, words and shared beliefs we would have a different experience of time. Our sense of time lives in our virtual internal world of symbols, our symbolic culture -- and that if we choose we could change it.



With the advent of digital readouts for time, the circular, cyclical aspect of time is no longer apparent. People accustomed to the round, repeating time clock wonder if something hasn't been lost when time is simply a number that goes forward in a linear fashion. But you can make a choice: you can decide which type of time display you prefer.

A digital readout is linear -- time going forward in a straight line with no sense of the cyclical character of time.

A circular clock emphasizes the repeating, cyclical nature of time.

NOTE: Mechanical time vs. natural time -- does it matter? Time is a basic reference point that we refer to many times a day, thousands of times a year. The word 'time' is the most used noun in our languages. 
For example, If we look at the moon for a time reference, we might be more in tune with nature itself -- and be less prone to adversely affecting the environment. I think our current commercial type of time affects us in major ways -- but I will save a full discussion for a later blog.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Patterns & Memory

It could be a "which came first -- the chicken or the egg?" type of problem, but I'm betting on the chicken. 

When I first considered writing this blog about the human experience of time, I questioned whether time was as crucial as I thought. The only other human capability that seemed equally important was our skill at grasping patterns.

The power we have as humans comes from our ability to see patterns. We see patterns everywhere. Discovering and utilizing patterns gives us the control that has allowed us to now dominate the Earth.

Finding a pattern is finding order. We are hardwired to see order, to create order, to manipulate our world based on order -- this is an essential drive in the human psyche, almost as compelling as sex.
...patterns have an underlying mathematical structure; indeed, mathematics can be seen as the search for regularities, and the output of any function is a mathematical pattern. Similarly in the sciences, theories explain and predict regularities in the world.
A scientific law "is a theoretical principle deduced from particular facts...expressible by the statement that a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions be present." (Oxford English DictionaryQuoted in this article:
Also read: Humans Are the World's Best Pattern-Recognition Machines 
Once a scientific law is established, it gives us the ability to build, create and predict based on those laws -- as we have now, in effect, cracked the code of nature by discovering an underlying pattern.
Why Order Is So Important: Comprehending order gives us comfort, predictability,  control, safety and removes uncertainty -- all of which allows us to have a better chance at survival.
I believe that this compulsion to find patterns is separate from our experience of time and the way that our brains put memories together. 

So Which Came First?

I believe the human sense of time -- hundreds of thousands of years before civilization began -- gave us the edge as a species and came first. Because without an ability to recall the past, we would not have the data necessary to discern a pattern. 

Before we could perceive patterns we had to have had a clear memory and a detailed understanding of what we had seen and experienced so we could connect the dots. 

Yet the combination of the two: a sophisticated understanding of time combined with a sophisticated perception of patterns, gave us a tremendous advantage.

The beauty and power of patterns is that they can apply to a variety of very different phenomena. Take the spiral: this basic design in nature can be the structure of a shell, a storm or a galaxy.

A spiral in a fossil shell. (

A spiral in the aloe plant. (

A spiral in a low pressure system when seen from a satellite. (
Massive spirals: colliding galaxies. (NASA)
Spirals can be understood mathematically as in this example by Theodorus of Cyrene, a Greek mathematician in the 5th Century BCE. Fundamental aspects of the spiral will apply to a sea shell, a plant, a storm or a galaxy and even similar molecular stuctures such as the DNA helix even though they are made up of quite different materials and vary considerably in size. (
And what does this have to do with time? 
Finding a pattern means that we connect things we have seen in the past to things in the present which we can then project into the future. 
My point is that human memory came first but it was combined with a separate remarkable ability to discover patterns. This led to agriculture, astronomy, mathematics, science, technology and civilization.

As our civilization progresses we have become increasingly sophisticated at finding patterns and building on what we have established. The discovery and development of fractal geometry was only possible with computers, for example. 

A natural fractal is displayed in the veins of this plant. It was not until computers could do the complex calculations that a mathematical pattern was discovered in fractal structures. (
In the following, wonderful example, the famous mathematical relationship discovered by Pythagoras 2500 years ago (in a right angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides) is used as the basis for an increasingly complex fractal design ending with a lifelike tree. This illustrates how we often build on our existing patterns to make increasingly sophisticated patterns.


There often is no use for a pattern when it is first discovered. This was true for fractals. Yet as time goes on, people often see how a new pattern applies to various real world problems. In one of the first practical applications, the fractal antennae is much smaller, lighter and more sensitive than previous small antennas and quite useful for cell phones. I believe we have only begun to see the ways that fractals can be used in the real world.
Design for a fractal antennae. (
The impulse to see patterns is so strong we often find them when there is none -- such as the face on the surface of Mars. Since a large part of our brains is devoted to face recognition, it was hard to *not* see a face when the lo-res image had facial characteristics. It turned out, of course, to be a geological feature on Mars, a mesa. Yet millions of people believed it was evidence of life on Mars while logically it was almost certain that it was simply a surface feature on the planet. 

The low resolution photo on the left appeared to show a face on the surface of Mars, but as the photographic resolution increased (middle photo & higher still on the right) the facial characteristics disappeared. (NASA)
When I watch the very popular detective shows on TV, shows that seem to dominate programming -- such as Criminal Minds, Elementary, Castle, The Mentalist, Person of Interest, Law And Order, CSI, NCIS, Hawaii 5-O, Cold Case, Numb3rs, Bones, Without a Trace plus numerous made for TV movies and documentary type shows like NBC's DateLine -- the bulk of the story is about finding the pattern that leads to the killer. It appears that even in our leisure moments, we are looking for patterns and enjoy the game of finding them.

Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco -- a popular TV police drama. In the last 60 years there have been about 650 crime dramas on TV around the world. Many ran for a number of years. (