In the interlude between when I threw in the towel on grad school and when I began working full-time at Boeing I had time to slow down and spend time on things I'd previously ignored. One of these things was reading and watching the books and movies people had recommended to me over the years. Musing on Watchmen and other bits of philosophy of mind, this was the result:
While he’s being psychologically evaluated near the center of Watchmen’s story arc, Rorschach has this to say about patterns and meaning:
“Existence is random. It has no pattern save what we imagine after looking at it for too long.”
The quote is effective at establishing Rorschach as the avatar of existentialism in Watchmen and an absurdist hero in his own mind, but is ineffective at being an accurate observation about perception and reality. The subtlest of glances yields patterns and signals across all our senses. We see flickers of light in the dark and imagine things going bump in the night. We listen to chatter in a noisy hallway and are convinced we hear someone shouting our name in a break in the noise.
The data being taken in through our senses are so noisy and corrupted that the only way to ever piece together a coherent picture of the outside world is by building a parallel world of pattern and causation, quickly, in the conscious mind. Stare at one place too long, or repeat a word too often, and weirdness and meaninglessness ensue. We best understand patterns in short, sharp glances; they seem to decay rapidly with age.
Of course, what Rorschach was getting at was a claim that there isn’t really an underlying pattern in the interactions we observe in the universe around us. Such pattern and meaning is either there or it isn’t. Our intuitions have no bearing on its existence. But the idea that more observation leads to more delusions is wrongheaded. Data break the fever of delusion, and while they pose a challenge for interpretation, that job is a real and not an imagined one. We’re embedded in a pattern that’s real. The unknown questions are how intricate and knowable the pattern is. So far, the smart money’s always been on assuming intricacy over knowability.