Monday, 9 July 2007

Word of the day

Thank you to Kim for today's word, which is apophenia. This means assigning patterns, connections and meaning to random and unrelated phenomena, coined back in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, according to the Wikipedia. It can be, according to this source, accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness".

The real problem with this word is in distinguishing between phenomena which are random and unrelated, and those which are meaningfully connected, to paraphrase the definition. This topic is a prolific one for bloggers, as a blog search will show, because what is also called "faulty pattern recognition" is a common phenomenon. Or perhaps that phenomenon itself is an example of faulty pattern recognition, because the reality is that things are interconnected in multiple ways that we don't understand? I guess abnormal meaningfulness and abnormal meaninglessness are both concepts to juggle with, and our natural (and healthy) preference is to find meaning in things.

There was a blog post by Evan Maloney last week on this topic which provoked a small avalanche comments about similar experiences. Maloney points out that "Jung first presented the notion of the meaningful coincidence, or synchronicity, in a quasi-scientific way. Jung believed there was a causal principle that linked seemingly random events."

And Kurt Vonnegut coined a word for apparently meaningful patterns which are in fact meaningless - granfalloon, "a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless in terms of fulfilling God's design." These are "associations and societies based on a shared but ultimately fabricated premise." As examples, Vonnegut cites "the Communist Party, . . . the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows - and any nation, anytime, anywhere."

We mostly prefer meaningful to meaningless, even if the former is just a coincidence which charms and delights us. Except for scary coincidences - they are just examples of faulty pattern recognition.

2 comments: said...

The doyen of language bloggers Languagehat has remarked on your blog, Derek:

And he draws attention to a particularly interesting discussion of apophenia in 2005:

Best wishes to you, and every success to your blog.

Derek Whitehead said...

Thank you noetica - I had a look at the comprehensive coverage of apophenia at the languagehat archive. I was impressed by his statement of the human condition - "doomed to see meaning in every damned thing."