Understanding Regularities 5: Regular Gestalts
It is easy to think of a regularity as a platonic ideal, an eternal form that regulates a particular phenomenon or process. However, the platonic regularity is not the view I have in mind. In fact, a regularity is a pattern that regulates the response of an organism to its surroundings in the here and now. It is a momentary grasping that passes as soon as the object is grasped. There is no such thing as an abstract roundness as a regularity independent of the round ball in my palm. At the same time, the roundness of the ball is related to the roundness of apples. The universal inheres in the particular, as the Naiyayikas liked to argue.
In physics, it is possible to reify regularities and make them autonomous entities. We can make Newton’s laws into universal principles that live outside of time and space. Whatever the merit of that view, we cannot afford to adopt that position in organismic biology. As far as any organism goes, what is real is what is present to it in the here and now. Regularities are part of the furniture of the organsims immediate universe. Equally importantly, regularities never present themselves in isolation. Newton’s laws can be separated from other laws that regulate a piece of matter, such as the laws of thermodynamics. However, a regularity always appears in conjunction with other regularities in an organism’s environment. Roundness never appears by itself, it comes with a certain texture and density in balls, which differentiates balls from apples. The roundness is never fully separable from the other regularities. Regularities are always part of Gestalts.
Let me end with a quote from Wolfgang Kohler’s “An Introduction to Gestalt Psychology” (p. 62):
Our view will be that, instead of reacting to local stimuli by local and mutually independent events, the organism responds to the pattern of stimuli to which it is exposed; and that this answer is a unitary process, a functional whole, which gives, in experience, a sensory scene rather than a mosaic of local sensations.