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Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities

Remote Ready Biology Learning Activities has 50 remote-ready activities, which work for either your classroom or remote teaching.

Exploring Emergence

The World of Langton's Ant:
Thinking about "Purpose"

Reflections, and Further Considerations

"The World of Langton's Ant" was conceived with several different objectives in mind. At the most basic level, it was intended to provide a model of science education following the goals defined in "Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising" (see Further Considerations: Education).

At a slightly more ambitious level, the aim was to provide a useful introduction to core ideas in the developing interdisciplinary field of "emergence" or "complex systems". (see to left)

Most ambitiously, the intent was test an intuition about the complementarity of teaching and research: the idea that carefully working through an elementary phenomenon in the way needed for effective teaching would also help to generate ideas and frameworks that could advance professional understanding in particular fields of inquiry. (see to left below)

Emergent Systems: Core Ideas
(as given in the story)
  1. Quite sophisticated behavior can result from simple interactions of simple things.

  2. One can often usefully and relatively rigorously distinguish two general classes of emergent systems
    • deterministic
    • non-deterministic

  3. One can often usefully and relatively rigorously distinguish four aspects of emergent systems
    • Agents
    • Environments
    • Observers/participants
    • Creator/architect/designer

  4. Changes in behavior can occur with no change within an agent, resulting instead from changes in the environment.

  5. Changes in the environment can be produced by an agent as well as by an observer

  6. A bidirectional relationship between an unchanging agent and an environment modifiable by the agent can produce behaviors that an observer may see as "purposive" even in a deterministic system.

  7. Behaviors that appear "purposive" to an observer do not depend on any representation of the "purpose" within the agent.

  8. Systems that exhibit "purposive" behavior need not depend on any conception of that "purpose" in the mind of a creator/architect/designer

  9. Signs of "purpose", and even systems that exhibit what an observer would characterize as "purposive" behavior can come into existence simply because of indeterminate processes, ie need not involve minds at all.
  10. That a world does things that are surprising to an observer does not establish whether it is deterministic or not.

Emergent Systems: Moving On?

  1. How generally useful is the deterministic/non-deterministic distinction (2 in list above)? Can it be made generally rather than in the case specific way done here?

  2. How generally useful is the agents/environment/observer/creator distinction (3 in list above)? What are its limitations? Where does it break down? Where is it irrelevant?

  3. How generally useful is the invariant/variant distinction (item 4 in list above)?

  4. One might imagine a classification scheme for at least some emergent systems based on items 1-3 above. Do their exist emergent systems of all sixteen possible kinds? Is their any interesting variation in any capability of emergent systems that correlates with membership in one or another of these categories?

  5. Is the recognition that bidirectional causual relations exist successively at the levels of agent/environment and world/observer more generally significant? Can it be usefully extended to creator/combination of world/observer?

  6. Would it make a qualitative difference if the bidirectional relationship affected not only agent behavior but also agent state?

  7. Is the notion of some degree of "purposiveness" arising from bidirectional causal relationships more generally significant?

  8. Is the notion of observer as adding "meaning" in a way that can vary more generally significant?

  9. Is there a way to replace "interesting" as a creator criterion with a "non-purposive" selection mechanism?

  10. Is there a way to create a world/observer relation that obviates the need for any continuing monitoring and adjustment by the creator?

Continuing discussion of "Moving On?"

"The World of Langton's Ant" was produced by Paul Grobstein with the Summer 2005 Serendip/SciSoc group. Applets were created with NetLogo by Rebekah Baglini, building on earlier work. Our thanks to the Emergent Systems Working Group for fertile conversations from which this emerged and to which we hope it further contributes.
Looking Inside
Agents/Environments | Observers | Architects | Beyond Determinism?
Summary and ...
Further reflections on Emergence and Science Education
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