Catastrophe, Gestalt and Thom’s Natural Philosophy of 3-D Space as Underlying All Abstract Forms – Thought of the Day 157.0

The main result of mathematical catastrophe theory consists in the classification of unfoldings (= evolutions around the center (the germ) of a dynamic system after its destabilization). The classification depends on two sorts of variables:

(a) The set of internal variables (= variables already contained in the germ of the dynamic system). The cardinal of this set is called corank,

(b) the set of external variables (= variables governing the evolution of the system). Its cardinal is called codimension.

The table below shows the elementary catastrophes for Thom:

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The A-unfoldings are called cuspoids, the D-unfoldings umbilics. Applications of the E-unfoldings have only been considered in A geometric model of anorexia and its treatment. By loosening the condition for topological equivalence of unfoldings, we can enlarge the list, taking in the family of double cusps (X9) which has codimension 8. The unfoldings A3(the cusp) and A5 (the butterfly) have a positive and a negative variant A+3, A-3, A+5, A-5.

We obtain Thorn’s original list of seven “catastrophes” if we consider only unfoldings up to codimension 4 and without the negative variants of A3 and A5.

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Thom argues that “gestalts” are locally con­stituted by maximally four disjoint constituents which have a common point of equilibrium, a common origin. This restriction is ultimately founded in Gibb’s law of phases, which states that in three-dimensional space maximally four independent systems can be in equilibrium. In Thom’s natural philosophy, three-dimensional space is underlying all abstract forms. He, therefore, presumes that the restriction to four constituents in a “gestalt” is a kind of cognitive universal. In spite of the plausibility of Thom’s arguments there is a weaker assumption that the number of constituents in a gestalt should be finite and small. All unfoldings with codimension (i.e. number of external variables) smaller than or equal to 5 have simple germs. The unfoldings with corank (i.e. number of internal variables) greater than two have moduli. As a matter of fact the most prominent semantic archetypes will come from those unfoldings considered by René Thom in his sketch of catastrophe theoretic semantics.