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The Dynamics Of Ambiguity

Open systems, far removed from (thermodynamic) equilibrium by intense fluxes of resources—such as matter, energy, and information—exceeding certain critical thresholds, undergo dynamic instabilities resulting in the emergence of spatial, temporal, or functional order. These instabilities exhibit a critical region where the transformation has not yet occurred and yet, at the same time, has already occurred. This region hosts ambiguity, an ambiguity that can be captured at the critical state marking the onset of convective motions in an initially still fluid heated from below (for example, think to the critical state of the formation of the Giants Causeway, the hexagonal volcanic rocks of Northern Ireland), at the starting of a chromatic chemical clock during the Belousov-Zhabotinsky autocatalytic reactions, or at the arising of a synchronized, ordered applause from a stochastic clapping when the audience in an auditorium, driven by enthusiasm, demands an encore from the soloist.

Dynamic instabilities occur under special critical conditions in nature and in society. They also occur during perception, not seldom but continuously and systematically. Their outcome, at the critical state of the perceptive process, is the emergence of visual thinking.

Vivid examples of ambiguity in the mind can be experienced while looking at an ambiguous structure such as Fragment of Psychoplastic Structure (1963, collection of the author). This figure may be conceived as a visual metaphor for a diatomic hydrogen molecule formed by two identical atoms. It helps to visualize both the two lower energy modes of being (the so-called stationary states) of this molecule and its resonant behavior during a spectroscopic observation of it.

At first this figure, by construction, could be envisaged superficially as a two-dimensional structure exhibiting a center of symmetry. Keep looking at it as passively as possible. Its central region around the center of symmetry could be described in two ways: (1) as belonging 50 percent to the modulus at left and 50 percent to the modulus at right and, paradoxically, (2) as belonging neither to the modulus at left nor to the modulus at right. These two descriptions, though quite acceptable if considered separately, are incompatible if attributed to the same reality simultaneously, as they should be in this case. Indeed, we react instinctively to the absurdity of the situation and hasten to remove the ambiguity built into the figure by letting the two-dimensional figure invade the three-dimensional space and assign its central region to the right-or to the left-hand cubic modulus. Thereafter, visual thinking cannot get stuck in either of these positions: soon an endless sequence of approximately periodic perceptive alternations of right/left/right prospects sets in.

As anticipated, the process of perception, leading to the dynamics of visual thinking, turns out to resemble closely the process of measurement of a homonuclear diatomic molecule according to quantum mechanics. Both processes share ambiguity.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ambiguity - Ambiguity to Anticolonialism in Middle East - Ottoman Empire And The Mandate SystemAmbiguity - Ambiguity, Probability, Uncertainty, And The Arrow Of Time, The Dynamics Of Ambiguity, Ambiguity As A Permanent Cultural Value