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Paul's Brain as a Starting Point

Paul Grobstein's picture

This is a place for conversation about projects in the Grobstein lab during the summer of 2007. Others are welcome to look in, and to leave comments on these conversations. to get started, looking forward to your thoughts about

What's interesting/less so? Clear/less so? How do these stories relate to your own? What new questions/stories can we create together?

Ian Morton's picture

Response to Childhood Origins

edit: moved to other thread
Mawrtyr2008's picture

Mindfulness in the Classroom?

To everyone, but especially Heather,

I just saw this on and I thought it might be relevant to your research!



Ian Morton's picture

Shake 'N Bake: some quick thoughts on emergence and religion

These are just some thoughts I had that connect to Paul’s paper on emergence and to the article on resistance to science.

A point I would like to touch on here are the implications of Paul’s paper for religion. Paul's paper on emergence presents a view of the universe that proposes the possible emergence of complex life (humanity) through a process of simple objects (starting with the “active inanimate”) interacting to yield ultimately more complex entities. Such a process is not directional, but rather more of a random movement with the potential to yield surprisingly complex outcomes. That is to say, this process does not necessitate a conductor with the intent to arrive at some particular outcome. This has implications on the existence or role of a god behind the emergence of life and the human condition. While this far from disproves God’s existence, this “story” offers an alternative possibility for the appearance of human beings possessing “free will” on Earth.

I believe that the importance of God/religion in many people’s lives has the potentiality to drive a resistance to hearing Paul’s story, to blind them, not from the “truth,” but from an alternative explanation that may be “less wrong” (this is not directed at you, Ashley). My concern here is that due to the manner in which religion has become engrained in societies, some people may feel that to propose a view of the universe devoid of a god is to devalue the nature of existence, in particular, to devalue the human condition. I instead offer that the emergence of the universe from a process lacking ultimate intent could perhaps be viewed as even more “valuable” than a universe created by God. While such a universe would lack any ultimate Meaning, such a universe is no less awe inspiring when one considers the process in its entirety and how it lead to the creation of creatures with the capacity to reflect on their experiences and thus alter their future activities. [How could one’s mind not be blown when considering the possibility that consciousness is the result of simple entities interacting in simple ways for billions of years? That what started as an “active inanimate” became active, free-willed, animate beings?] The value of considering the universe in these terms stems from the wealth of questions it inspires as to the process and nature of existence.
Ashley Dawkins's picture

Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

The real world provides many ways to develop misconceptions when it comes to physics.  We can’t see our world functioning properly in a society that’s not literally in a vacuum.  For example, the idea behind the laws of gravity; EVERYTHING is supposed to fall at the same rate no matter the mass, width, density….But we find in our world if you ask a person “what will drop faster a penny or a feather?”, more often times than not, they will say the penny.  In reality, they both fall at the same rate, but the feather encounters air resistance that makes it seem to float slowly to the ground.  BUT when these two are placed in a vacuum, they reach the bottom at exactly the same time.

            As we grow up we see how things behave around us and justify them in our head.  These justifications are usually wrong and we develop misconceptions.  When a science is being taught it is the responsibility of the educator to find out what these misconceptions are and address them properly, or people will go back to their old ways of thinking; naive physics. Therefore, I agree with, “The problem with teaching science to children is thus ‘not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by theories we are trying to teach’”.  In saying this, I don’t believe behaving in this way (as the previous examples) is resisting science.  In fact, they have become somewhat of scientist in order to make these false observations in the first place; it’s just basing science on what they have observed; but in many cases it’s VERY wrong.

            I do believe that problems can arise from people who misconceive science, but I don’t believe it’s because people are trying to purposely resist it.  These are issues that need to be addressed and explained, most likely in a school setting. 

This article also states that if people are resistant to evolution, they are then resistant to science. I don’t believe this is true. I don’t agree with evolution, but I love science. Although, I do agree that we have a science ignorant society.  But there can be many reasons for this - people were turned off to it early on. I think it’s important to remember that science has developed because be were wrong about how the world works and there was a desire to become less and less wrong.  Scientists are most often wrong in the lab and they learn from that, we can help people learn their misconceptions so they can progress in their knowledge.

I do believe that problems can arise from people who misconceive science, but I don’t believe it’s because people are trying to purposely resist it.  These are issues that need to be addressed and explained, most likely in a school setting.  The question is; how can we address the science ignorant society to first create an interest in science.  Without an interest, they may not be interested in changing their misconceptions.


Rebecca Woodruff's picture

Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science

It strikes me as quite funny that on the first read-through, I found myself agreeing with many of the central assertions of this paper, and on a second, deeper read-through, I was offended by many of those same assertions. On a third read-though I’ve figured out that it’s more the first part of this paper and the included characterizations of what constitutes science, conceived problems in education, and the lack of incorporation of storytelling that offend. As I'm continuing my inquiry into the problems associated with education, the authors’ closed-minded definition of science, and the representation of preexisting assumptions as problematic took me aback.

What offends me about the first part of this article is the preconceived notion about what "right" science is, what "right" education is. Fundamentally, in this article Bloom and Weisberg attempt to describe several types of American subcultures, and the way the people included in those cultures respond to what are traditionally known as scientific stories. Though never stated explicitly, I couldn't help but glean an undercurrent of subtle judgment of those who didn't subscribe to traditional scientific thought throughout the entire piece. I guess I don’t have any problem with the keystone observation that “some resistance to scientific ideas is a human universal” but rather how they define science to begin with. As we’ve discussed before, brain structure and function vary. Human perceptions and stories vary. However, because of the brain’s capacity to change, and its evolutionary role as an information gatherer, we’re all every day living out the scientific inquiry process. It’s how we work at a very fundamental level. Besides their problematic definition (or lack thereof) of science, I strongly disagreed with the assertion that “The problem with teaching science to children is thus ‘not what the student lacks, but what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by theories we are trying to teach’”. To me, this sentence completely discounts the worth and the usefulness of different stories in the classroom. How do these observations relate to these models of education?

In the second part of the paper, I found that the cultural observations were much more powerful and useful. This section weighed the factors contributing to opinion formation in a less judgmental way. I especially thought the observation on “explicit assertion” vs. “implicit assumption” was an interesting one. I personally connected with the shock of leaving one environment with a set of implicit assumptions for another with a different set of implicit assumptions in my experiences with culture shock. This reflection brought me to a new one. I never thought before about how a child might experience similar emotions and responses to culture shock when leaving her home for the science classroom!

I'm really curious about what the authors' intention was with this paper. It's interesting to me that they make these well-cited, well-researched observations about contemporary American thought, but they don't state the ramifications (intended or otherwise) of these observations! I could see some communities reading this and saying 'Good! Let's do our best to keep "nonscientific ideologies ... grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources" for the preservation of our society!' just as easily as I could see another community saying "Bloom and Weisberg have identified a flaw in the American education system. Let's tackle this problem of 'what the student has, namely alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding the phenomena covered by the theories we are trying to teach'." I guess overall, I'm puzzled as to why the authors spent so much time observing, and so little time commenting on the significance of their provocative observations. Why do these "biases" exist? What do you propose to do about them? Are stories other than our own useful? Are they detrimental? Does culture emerge from education and vice versa? Do you see these differences as a problem to be fixed or as human variability that is at all costs to be preserved?

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Models of Education link in this post

The link I tried to post should have gone here:



biophile's picture

Social and Biological Hierarchies

When I was much younger, an aspect of biology that fascinated me was hierarchical systems and the ways in which the living world was categorized. In hindsight I can see that they’re not as pervasive as I thought, but the way in which the subject was simplified and taught at a middle school level made it seem that way. I enjoyed tracing through phylogenetic trees, seeing how we organized the world and narrowed everything down into highly specific little boxes. I liked to look to each level of organization, from ecological communities to single cells, and see how the patterns behind them related to each other. I knew that there was much interaction within those levels and between those levels in both directions, but it didn’t occur to me to think of the world in a way other than hierarchical. Later on as I took more advanced courses I realized that the world was not so easily cut into parts and that the interactions between organisms and their parts were not so simple or easy to follow. When I first heard of biological systems in which there was no pacemaker or leader I was thrown for a loop. Humans really don’t think in terms of mutual interactions between individuals starting a cascade. For example, when we think of a revolution we picture a group of underground rebels led by a few exceptional people who convince others to follow them. It almost seems as if we’re trained to look for a hero or a leader and to focus on that one in the story. We tend to think that without a leader any movement will be uncoordinated and will break down quickly. Whether it is the brain sending signals to muscles to contract or a political leader gathering support for a campaign, we often see the leader in the system without an appreciation of how much work is done by individuals within the system. Perhaps that’s why so many people cannot comprehend a universe in which there is no grand designer: where does this order and this appearance of purpose come from if not from a purposeful, ordering force? To use the terminology in the paper, the storyteller in us wants to assign a purpose or objective to the order we see around us because that’s what it has evolved to do. Even applying the emergence perspective to what is around us and saying that more complex things arise with no architect is making a story that fits the observations we have made.

I have been convinced that distributed interactive systems are the norm in biology (though I wonder why systems with a leader evolved in a few particular cases, such as the pacemaker cells in the heart). Still, I’m not sure how a society based on reciprocal action would work. We’re not unthinking matter; we’re all very much conscious of the world around us and we want to look after our own best interests. I can see this system working in a smaller, more intimate environment like in a family or in the classroom. In fact, I think that we could really benefit from it. I think that many children rebel against authority because they feel as if they are powerless. Children aren’t listened to very much, even when they have something important to say. I remember feeling very frustrated in an environment in which I was treated like a nonperson, being subjected to lectures and forced into activities I found pointless. Even today in places where children are well cared for they are still constantly reminded that they have no power. If there were more communication between teachers or parents and children I think that there would not be so much tension. I find that children respond to lessons better when you ask them questions directly and talk with them instead of telling them what we feel they need to know. Again, though, I really can’t see how this would work on a larger scale. Even though humans are very creative, we display the same tendencies throughout history and we are creatures of habit. Such an approach would probably would very well in smaller settings, but would be impossible to uphold in larger ones.

The next point that stuck with me was the importance of listening to scholars in other fields with open ears instead of holding onto the belief that one’s own research and opinions are more valuable. There is a peculiar tendency in academic and research communities to hole up inside one’s own circle and to hold other subjects in contempt. That’s not to say that everyone is guilty of that, but I’ve encountered it often enough even at the undergraduate level. It seems as if so much effort goes into tearing down others’ work and bragging about one’s own. At the same time, it can be difficult to find a worthwhile interdisciplinary program. Even though it’s important to keep what we’re studying and researching in a broader context and to make it accessible to anyone who’s interested it’s very easy to water down certain areas when taking this approach. It’s easy to say that we need to foster cooperation between different fields and to bring greater perspective to our studies, but how can we do it without losing something of each field in the process?

biophile's picture

Beyond Emergence and Complexity Theory

Perhaps what struck me most in the emergence paper was the point that we cannot view the world objectively – that there may not even be an objective reality. We are part of the world, not mere observers. While I know that there is a push by some in the scientific community to acknowledge this inability to view the world objectively, it seems to be ignored by mainstream science. For example, written reports are still styled in a awkward, passive voice and first-hand, personal accounts are generally not included. So much is left out when experimental write-ups are published. The findings of a study are very much influenced by the biases and perspectives of those conducting it. That is, we cannot place ourselves outside of ourselves when we are exploring what is around us. It is misleading to believe that the mind can transcend the body, that our true thinking selves are trapped in human bodies. We are the manifestation of millions of years of evolution; our minds, although amazingly complex systems, are not mystical entities. We are a part of the world and we interact with it, changing it and being changed. We cannot view reality fully, if there is such a thing. We are always going to be subject to the idiosyncrasies of our bodies, even if we have technical equipment that supposedly compensates for that We cannot escape the fact that we each view the world differently and we need to own up to that if we want to understand how the world works.

Another point that interested me was the idea that inquiry is not a process of uncovering things that already exist in the universe and that properties and rules may only be creations of the mind. If the concept of emergence is valid, then there is no architect using mathematical formulas and rules to construct our reality. And math itself cannot make a world; it’s just a concept, something intangible. So what makes a mathematical law true? Math seems to govern a wide host of phenomenon in nature and we can use it to make amazing technological advances – but how? An observer can look at natural phenomena and see mathematical patterns, perhaps even proposing that math guides the unfolding of these patterns or that math underlies what we see. We can try to reason why these things are the way they are and apply our own logic to the situations we encounter... But, at the heart of it, does logic really matter? Nature doesn’t use logic or math or any cognitive process we can relate to; it just is. After years of being told in math classes (or at least having it implied) that math is the only thing we know to be true- that the sun could not rise tomorrow but that the derivative of sin x is always always ALWAYS going to be cos x- it’s very strange to think that math could be something that is created when the observer interacts with and views the environment. That’s not to say that we can’t use math to make our own creations because that’s obviously false. It’s just disconcerting, thinking of the world in a way that contradicts the way we’ve been taught from the start.

Although the emergence perspective cannot be applied to everything, it does serve as a useful tool for thinking of the world. I just can't see how we can use it to explore in an organized way. There are so many facets to any one thing that we could study. Emergence just doesn't focus on top-down and bottom-up - it goes in all directions. In order to have a more complete view of what we are studying we need to explore how the thing in question interacts with the outside and with others and also how parts making up the thing interact with each other, the outside and with the larger thing of which they are part. It seems a very difficult thing to do and it seems very intimidating, almost impossible, to plan out and go about exploring in an orderly fashion. Perhaps that's another hurdle that we must make: the assumption that science is a straight-forward and ordered process.

Finally, where does our sense of self originate? What was said in the paper makes sense: our conscious is not in direct contact with the world, but rather we gain information about it from unconscious parts of the brain that act in specialized ways to tell us about it; it is this system of two levels or circuits that allows us to impose our own stories on the world and make sense of the information our unconscious acts on. The differences and interactions between these two levels make us different from other organisms. And as the article said, it is very counterintuitive to envision our brains in this way. When I look around me and touch something I have an immediate experience of it. I don’t feel as if there is an intermediate between myself and the environment; I feel as if I have direct contact with what is around me. How can these two circuits work so quickly and seamlessly together? Where does this sense of coherency come from? And why does that sense of balance fail sometimes, such as when we feel dissociated from ourselves and the world? Something as complicated as the human brain makes me wonder why we ever evolved this way, why there is a tendency in the universe to defy entropy and to self-organize into structures of increasing complexity.

Rebecca Woodruff's picture

New Thought re: Story Telling and Story Sharing

In reasearching this afternoon, I just read that, "...certain experiences cannot be adequately understood unless they are shared. But then, where exactly would a person have to be in order to share my inner experience, to know what it was really like?" Doesn't this complicate the possible path to the idealistic society we discussed earlier today? We didn't really talk about the limitations of artistic, verbal, written, physical expression and how that might impede story telling and story sharing...

Ian Morton's picture

Can we get past subjectivity?

I agree that we cannot escape the boundaries of subjectivity. However, I believe Paul would suggest the very nature of this limitation calls for the implementation of story telling rather than impeding it. I will attempt to state why as clearly and concisely as possible. What I am trying to say is that I believe an aspect of Paul’s open-ended transactional inquiry is the recognition that everyone’s story will be confined to subjective experiences, and that because of this restriction we should continue to share stories. The limitations posed by subjectivity calls for the continued contribution of stories because just as the nature of existence/experiences is an ever-changing process (societies change, politics change, new religions appear, etc.) so too will stories change. As stories are subject to this ongoing process of evolution, we must understand that they can never enumerate atemporal, objective knowledge. For this reason we should make the sharing of stories an ongoing process. Further, Paul holds the belief that the subjective nature of stories is beneficial, as it allows for a wealth of perspectives for us to compare and contrast, contributing a greater understanding/new story.

To more directly address your concern, while we are limited in our ability to fully convey our experiences to others (e.g. the experience of pain) we do possess the ability to empathize with the stories of others. Movies have moved us to cry, music has elevated us to levels of ecstasy, books have left us speechless, and dance isn’t really my thing…but despite the limits of stories, we should not deny their power. While subjective experiences cannot be conveyed in their entirety, what they do offer is still of importance. [A topic that I may come back to address is that of the ethics of witnessing, specifically, of witnessing the pain of others, and the involvement of empathy, and morality.] Additionally, I believe that there are connections between individuals that we have yet to really grasp (e.g. collective unconscious, possible implications of mirror neurons), and I believe these connections allow a bridge into the subjectivity of others that stories may not be able to accomplish on their own.
Ashley Dawkins's picture

From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond

Gerald Schroeder, The Science of God, states, “The Hebrew word for evening is erev.  The root of erev is disorder, mixture, chaos.  The Hebrew word for morning is boker, its root being orderly, able to be discerned.  In the subtle language of evening and morning, centuries before the Greek words for chaos and cosmos were ever written…the Bible described a step-by step flow from disorder (erev) to order (boker); from the plasma of the big bang to the harmony of life” (97). (Genesis 1).  

I’m not is total disagreement with the idea of Emergence, but I do not agree with the idea of lack or purpose and that, “organization can exist without either a conductor or an architect” (6).  The creation of this Universe has been very purposely and this can be seem through the life and environment on the Earth.  I don’t like how you do not allow the door open for any other ideas, beside this one of things “…have no explanation OTHER than…”(7).  If simple things interact with simple things, why can’t it be guided by something?

Also, your Biblical reference to the “Word” is not entirely accurate. This encompasses God, the Bible, Jesus…many more things that you have allowed for.


biophile's picture

The first part of this

The first part of this reminds me of something I read for a class a long time ago... I forget who wrote this and I can't find it online (I know, it's bad of me to reference something I don't have the name of) but it was all about looking at certain parts of the beginning of Genesis and using principles of astrophysics to elucidate them. For example, the author said that in a way the claim that the world was made in 7 days does not conflict with scientific evidence that the world evolved over billions of years, as the passage of 7 days on Earth corresponds to millions and millions of years in some far-off parts of the universe... The article wasn't entirely clear, but it was interesting.

However, at the risk of sounding rude I don't see how applying modern scientific ideas to the Bible enhances its reading, as that was not the intention of those who wrote it down. Whether or not one believes that the Bible was devinely inspired, it was recorded by humans with imperfect understandings of the world. They would have written it in a way that made sense to them. I hope that doesn't sound like I'm bashing your post... I just find it interesting when people go back and apply modernistic intentionality to writings made thousands of years ago. Some of my teachers back in Sunday school and my Catholic middle/high schools did that a lot and it usually confused me.

I agree with the point that we shouldn't close off other possibilities, though. And it is important to be respectful of them, since other beliefs bring up points that we wouldn't have been made otherwise. In any case, I think that looking at NetLogo models would be cool... Even if you don't believe in emergence without a conductor, it's interesting to see how things play out without any specific intent.
Ashley Dawkins's picture

The Value of Stories and Story Sharing

I found myself agreeing on many aspects of this paper.  Not only was I able to find links in Physics.  On the other hand there were some areas in which I did not agree and would like some clarification for.  Over all I thought message was positive one – value people and what they have to offer.

On page four you quote yourself from pervious papers saying, “This ‘story’ is one’s conscious experience, one’s description of oneself and one’s relations to the world, including one’s sense of objectives and of alternatives that might be pursued to achieve them”.  I think this can also be linked to Quantum Mechanics’ wave – particle paradox. Gerald Schroeder in his book, The Science of God, states, “Bohr pointed out that this paradox of duality has a strong implication relative to our knowledge of the subatomic world.  If we measure an entity in a way that assumes it is a wave we find a wave.  If we measure the same entity and assume it is a particle we find a particle.  We see the world as we assume it exists”.  The duality paradox theoretically is applicable on a macro scale as well.  If we can only see the world as we perceive it, than our “stories” can only be created through our own experiences.  And I do agree with by acknowledging these “stories” people will be shaped because other “stories” and important, not just your own.

What I don’t agree with is that we area product of evolution.  I cannot not fully explain as to why this is not true in a short critique; but I know there is scientific proof that this is not possible, or at least statistically true due to the age of the Earth.  There have also been evidence that has made scientists rethink their previous ideas, such as Charles Walcott’s discoveries about the Cambrian life forms. 

I also believe the idea that as humans we have free will is confused with your ideas that we do not need a leader in our lives and that there is no human nature.  I am mostly in agreement with, “What we are aware of is a more or less coherent self, who is (or supposed to be) ‘in charge’ of what we do and expects it to be in line with its own ‘objectives’.  This is a deep statement, but without going too much into detail, I think this is a good example of the free will God has granted us.  We are free to make our own decisions, but must be aware of that we will also have consequences. Also, I do believe that we are changeable people and we have this free will to make decisions; but this does not mean we are lacking human nature.  I need a better explanation on what is meant by human nature before I can comment any further. 



Side note: you paper references figure 2c, but this figure doesn’t exist


Ian Morton's picture

Considering Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology

In his paper Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Sharing, Paul considers social organization and the importance of interaction between subjects.  Paul argues that there is one, a presumption that hierarchical organization is necessary for effective social environments and two, that there is an inclination to resist hierarchies.  Paul questions the value assigned to hierarchical organization and points to “distributed interactive architectures” as an evolutionarily favorable social organization.           


Unlike in a hierarchical system, in a distributed interactive architecture there is no single element in control.  Instead, each part has an influence on the others, constituting a system of reciprocal, interconnected interactions.  Each of these elements in turn has no absolute information as to the function of the system as a whole and instead acts according to partial, locally available information and its organization.  Finally, none of the elements represent an overall objective for the system as a whole.  The system does not act according to an objective as defined by one of its parts, rather the manner in which the system operates reflects the semi-independent activities of its parts as affected by the reciprocal connections of information sharing.  In sum, a distributed interactive architecture reflects the emergence of phenomena from the interactions of leaderless parts, which have a bi-directional influence on one another.


Paul points to examples of such distributed architecture in biological systems of all levels (from social to molecular), arguing that the predominant presence of this architecture suggests that evolution has favored it over other forms of organization.  One important example of such an organization is the human brain.  It is interesting that our inclinations tell us that our brain is the leader of our body as a whole.  However, it turns out that is not the case.  There is one part of the nervous system dedicated to interacting with the outside world.  This system is comprised of specialized circuits of neurons that function in terms of their organization and locally available information.  These circuits operate simultaneously and are able to intercommunicate to produce coordinated activity, all without creating a conscious experience of this process. 


Conscious content is created when the systems dealing with information received from the outside world send signals to the neocortex.  The neocortex receives a cacophony of inputs working with a large number of variables and attempts to create from them a simplified, coherent story of the collective entity and its relation to the world.  Due to this bipartite organization, we only become aware of the “story” created by the neocortex, while the activity of rest of our nervous system goes on unknown to our conscious self.  Paul suggests that this could be the rationale behind perceiving our conscious self as in charge, and I agree.  While we like to believe that our conscious selves are in control, the truth is there are many times when we act without the involvement of conscious thought.  Think, for example, of breathing, walking, catching a ball or running away from a predator.  While the storyteller function has its clear benefits, one must recognize that there are many situations in which nonconscious action is far more useful.


To digress, I believe our attachment to the belief in our conscious self as being in control stems from our need for a sense of autonomy and agency.  Throughout last semester, in a course I took with Paul on neurobiology and behavior, the class showed clear discomfort when facing the realization that our conscious minds are far from being as in control as our inclinations/logic tells us, that perhaps, free will doesn’t really exist.  For instance, people became upset when considering that “we” may be nothing more than products of the interactions of our nervous system.  (See here, here, and here).  Perhaps it is this need to take comfort in the belief that we have agency in our lives that drives our belief in a hierarchical organization of self.  Perhaps following from this belief in a hierarchical organization of self and a need for a sense of agency, social groups have adopted hierarchical organization as the primary way to construct society.  Such organization allows for a stronger sense of agency for some (the Master) and supports the belief that we, as conscious individuals, are in charge.


To return to Paul’s paper, he argues that as distributed interactive architectures appear to be the predominant form of biological organization, perhaps humanity would benefit from a similar form of social organization.  Paul also points out that there appears to be a natural inclination among humans to resist hierarchical organization.  However, I must disagree.  While I do believe many people will resist such social structuring, I believe their resistance stems from a sense of a lack of agency.  I argue it is predominantly a slave mentality to resist social hierarchies, as they are the ones who aren’t at the top of the chain and who consequently lack agency.  [I use Master/slave in the Hegelian sense.]  Further, I believe that within any hierarchical institution, there will be an active resistance to anyone who opposes the institution, a natural inclination to maintain the structure.


While I believe Paul is right that a distributed interactive architecture would be most beneficial to society, I believe achieving such an organization is a much more lofty goal than Paul lets on.  Perhaps I am just pessimistic, but I would venture to say we will never achieve such organization on a large social scale (and I hope I am wrong).  One must examine the requirements for such social change.  Paul points out that this would require a willingness of individuals to share their own stories and to hear the stories of others as well as a socio-political-economic system that discourages hierarchical power relationships as well as reactive anarchy.  These requirements, while logically necessary for the desired end, do not appear to me as easily met.  As I said before, my experience tells me that within any hierarchical institution, there will be an active resistance (physical, psychological, passive aggressive, etc.) towards anyone who acts to disrupt that system.  The nature of this is very involved is a topic of its own for another paper, but one need only examine one’s own life for evidence.  Voices that oppose the predominant opinion are silenced (women have been silenced for years, individuals who preach financial reform are deemed “communists” and dismissed from consideration, when minority students at Haverford attempt to discuss the racism that exists on our campus they are ignored or their words are heard but never thoughtfully considered and incorporated into our actions…the list goes on).  Further, if silencing opinions proves not to be effective enough, dissenters are reacted to with violence (lynching of heretics, hate crimes etc).  One need only look at our society for evidence of a hierarchical system trying to preserve itself by any means necessary. 

After reading this paper I am left with several questions.  What drives our presumption of hierarchical systems?  Do we possess an innate predisposition to hierarchical structures?  Is this predisposition a result of how our brain is organized (e.g. bipartite organization) as Paul suggests?  Why are we so attached to hierarchical organization (while we may have an inclination to resist such organization, experience shows that we actively attempt to maintain it)?  Do we, as humans, require a sense of agency when living in a complex social environment?  If our attachment to hierarchical structures is a result of neural predispositions, how can we work around those predispositions to achieve important social change?  This is a topic I hope to further examine and I encourage anyone to add his/her $0.02.

Ian Morton's picture

Paul's Notion of Non-Foundational Inquiry: Summary and Thoughts

In his paper, From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide for Inquiry, Paul considers a notion held in science, the belief that we can come to an understanding of reality/truth through field specialization and the characterization of simple phenomena that give rise to complex phenomena.  The theory follows that from this approach we can establish sets of properties and rules that we can use to define and predict reality, constituting an understanding of reality.  Paul asks that we consider the implications of adopting such an approach to science and to question whether it is really the best approach for scientific inquiry.


Paul’s rationality begins with complex systems.  The complex systems perspective holds that simple things interacting in simple ways can yield complex outcomes, which accounts for our inability to find a simple relation between parts and wholes.  Following from this perspective, Paul agues that scientific inquiry should aim to investigate how parts with unique properties interact to yield the whole and its properties rather than searching for parts that share those properties of the whole.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, the complexity perspective challenges the notion that “understanding” should be invariably connected to predictability.  Instead, Paul wants us to consider the possibility that there may always be a degree of indeterminacy to reality.


The emergence perspective likewise focuses on phenomena as the result of simple components engaging in simple interactions.   However, the emergence goes a step further to recognize that organization can arise without the input of a conductor or architect, that organization can be the result of simple things interacting in simple ways in the absence of any intention.  With this notion in mind, one must face the possibility that the universe itself could be the result of an emergent process, devoid of an architect, intention or meaning; architects, conductors, rules and properties may be the result of emergent processes.  Paul stresses that we should not presume the presence of intent or an architect behind observed phenomena and that properties and rules should not be considered an unshakable foundation for inquiry.  Emergence, rather than serving as a way to explain reality, is the process by which reality arose, it stresses that phenomena are the result of and basis for an on going process.  The inquirer, then, like any other phenomena, is an object situated within this larger process and therefore a potential contributor to it.  Consequently, the world is both characterized by emergent processes and by the contributions made by architects/conductors.


The human brain is an example of a hybrid system, blending both emergence and architect function.  The brain itself is made up of billions of simple parts (neurons) interacting in relatively simple ways (chemical and electrical signaling across synapses).  From these interactions complex phenomena such as consciousness arise, hence the brains emergent characteristic.  A major pattern of brain interaction between parts involves a bipartite arrangement.  The brain consists of numerous specialized circuits of neurons that interact directly with the world.  These interactions occur simultaneously (in parallel) and unconsciously.  Reports of the activity of these systems are then sent to further sets of neural circuits including those in the neocortex.  The neocortex takes the inputs from unconsciousness activity are tries to create from them a coherent, simplified “story,” which works with a small representation of variables with simple causal relationships between them.  This allows the brain to rapidly conceive of goals and various options for achieving those goals, constituting our architect function.  However, as a consequence of this system we also develop a preference for rules and simple causal relationships. 


Paul argues that the bipartite nature of the brain allows us to make use of both emergence and properties/rules for understanding and characterizing the world around us, depending on which proves more useful at any given time.  Rules and properties allow for a simple understanding of the world, thus acting as a useful foundation for quick actions when there isn’t time for deliberation.  On the other hand, the storyteller function allows one to conceive of possibilities beyond observed rules and properties, allows us to conceive of the world beyond the restriction of previously experienced patterns of inputs.  The storyteller function gives inquiry a generative quality, allowing one to conceive of new possibilities for inquiry and for the notion of “understanding.”


So what implications do emergence and the bipartite brain have on the nature of inquiry, particularly within the context of hybrid systems, where both emergence and intent contribute to an ongoing process?  Emergence is not meant to replace field specialization as an approach to inquiry, but is rather a beneficial addition, suggesting that similar explanations may apply to phenomena across different fields.  When thinking about how we should go about reaching an understanding of reality, Paul would stress that we take note that first, as inquirers we are active participants/contributors to the very process we are inquiring into.  That is, reality should not be conceived of as an external, consistent phenomena (simply a set of properties and rules), but rather as an ongoing process, which is affected the very moment we inquiry into it.  Second, meaningful, complex phenomena can arise from simple interactions, in the complete absence of intent or an architect.


Following from these two important ideas, Paul suggests that instead of dogmatically approaching inquiry as a process of uncovering rules and properties to use as a foundation for understanding reality, one should rather treat inquiry as an open-ended process, for which there is no unshakable foundation.  By open-ended, it is meant that there is no absolute truth to uncover, for, as reality is an ongoing process, so too will truth be an evolving phenomena, not a fixed objective to be reached.  Inquiry, then, should be about “getting it less wrong” as apposed to being “right.”  The process of inquiry is facilitated by both defining what is and by conceiving new possibilities and the subsequent comparing/contrasting of these various stories (a transactional process).


I find Paul’s call for open-ended, transactional inquiry to bear a resemblance to an argument put forth by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty.  Essentially, Mill argues that a degree of negative freedom (individual’s freedom from subjection to the authority of others) is necessary for reaching an understanding of Truth.  This demand for negative freedom stems from what Mill refers to as social tyranny or “the tyranny of the majority.”  Social tyranny refers to the manner in which customs, ideas and belief become integrated into society and accepted as true for no other reason than because they have become the most popular opinion.  Such a system runs the risk of establishing “truth” through people believing themselves to be right rather through reason. 


Mill argues that everyone should have the freedom of thought, speech and action, for to silence an opinion, be it right or wrong, is to deprive humanity of a more complete understanding of truth.  If the silenced opinion is right, humanity is deprived of the opportunity to exchange error for truth, and if the opinion is wrong, humanity misses an opportunity to better understand truth as understood through contrasting it with error.  Further, Mill believes everyone should have the freedom to act as they chose, to experiment with their lives and examine different opinions through first hand empirical inquiry.


Paul’s assertions reflect those of Mill in the sense that both Paul and Mill value the role of multiple lines of inquiry and communication between parties, so as to compare and contrast the results and value of different approaches.  However, Paul goes a step further than Mill to argue that there is no set Truth for us to reach.  Truth as a continually evolving thing further necessitates the need for freedom of inquiry and speech so that we do not tie ourselves down to a single “understanding.”  However, would Paul go as far as Mill to argue for a necessary freedom of actions?  To allow for freedom of action is make the argument a moral issue, and this became Mills’ greatest problem in his essay.  Mill includes in his essay a harm clause in which he says we may only right interfere with the actions of others when those actions may harm others.  However, there is no specification as to at what point one’s actions are harmful.  If we are to follow Paul’s suggestion and value multiple lines of inquiry, does that not mean we are also supporting lines of inquiry that could be potentially harmful (to animals, to people, to the environment, etc.)?  So how then do we confront the moral issues surrounding inquiry? 


Additionally, I must ask, if we are to believe there is no truth for us to reach, why inquire in the first place?  What is the purpose of engaging in an act that can never reach a set goal?  I suppose the most logical response is that inquiry allows us to better understand our reality (get it less wrong) and therefore allows us to more effectively act within reality.  However, maybe we shouldn’t require of inquiry and ultimate purpose and appreciate inquiry for what it is in itself.  As humans we are naturally inquisitive, so perhaps that is reason enough to engage in this ongoing process.  Or rather, maybe it should be understood that there is a goal to inquiry, to get things less wrong, which is not a set goal, but rather a continuous one.


I believe that many of the points Paul presents in this paper are of exceptional worth.  Particularly, I believe it is most important to consider reality in terms of an ongoing process of which we are involved and active contributors to, rather than viewing it as an objective/external thing for us to define.  Every answer is only a tentative one; there is no absolute “right.”  Consequently, it is important to view inquiry as a collective practice rather than an individual race to be right.  And as Paul himself would agree, this paper should not stand alone as something absolutely “right,” but should instead be understood as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about the nature of inquiry, as well as the implications of existing within a hybrid system.  Paul ends his paper by applying his notion of empirical non-foundationalism to teaching and to social structure, which he further examines in his paper Social Organization as Applies Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Sharing.  I will discuss the social implications of Paul’s ideas in another post.

Kate Shiner's picture

Re: Non-foundational inquiry- my thoughts at the moment

I am struck by what I perceive as the perhaps newly evolving focus on interdependence in Paul's new writing. Of course, this could be that I am merely looking at it differently from my own evolving perspective! In any case the idea that the observer cannot help but interact with, change, and be changed by what is observed has roots in experiments in quantum physics, right? Some academics, particularly in the social sciences, have long been arguing that science needs to move from the mechanistic metaphor for understanding that had its origins in Descartes and became so popular in Newton's era to a paradigm that takes into account a new interactive understanding. But the challenge is, how does this new paradigm work: how can it actually be applied in a practical way? I see Paul's idea of science as story as a fundamental part of the new paradigm. It is more inclusive. It gives credence to both "bottom-up" and "top-down" approaches.

I am also intrigued by his assertion that "Rules and properties allow for a simple understanding of the world, thus acting as a useful foundation for quick actions when there isn’t time for deliberation." I wonder what implications this idea has for education; in particular for teachers who are expected to quickly and effectively implement research-based and often rule bound practices in their classrooms. What room is there in practice for the new understandings that occur to an individual practicioner? What freedom should a teacher have to modify his or her instruction based on new understandings and what evidence (or documentation) should he or she realistically have to produce to justify these modifications? How can science in general actually take into account the shifting barriers to learning in individual classrooms? Right now I am writing a paper about this issue for a special education course and I would say it could be doing a much better job.

Rebecca Woodruff's picture

Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology

While, on the whole, I thought this paper was very thought-provoking, the concept that I spent the most time thinking about was merely part of the entire message. I wonder if Resnick, Johnson, Keller, Dalke, and Grobstein's "major general insight of the twenty-first century (3)" didn't just do away with the definition of a leader, but revised the story of what a leader is. The observations relating to bird flocking behavior, task allocation in ants, the wave, etc. are fascinating ones. I wonder though what the role of the initiator is in all this and how that role relates to what was formerly thought of as a leader. Take the example of the wave. It's a sad sight to see someone gleefully stand up, arms thrown back, at a football game hoping to start an impressive chain reaction, and have their hopes completely dashed as no one else joins in. I'm curious about the role of choice making and the ability to predict possible future outcomes of an action with regards to this issue. It seems appropriate that the place to begin exploring such roles in initiating a chain of unified events is the brain. What structures are involved? How does culture affect these brain processes? How could they be pharmacologically influenced?

I think it's also very interesting that advertising campaigns have capitalized on this phenomenon. Wasn't there some cellphone commercial a few years ago that dealt with the idea of one action prompting a chain of happiness? Something where a man picks up something another person dropped, which prompted that person to do something nice to another stranger in turn, etc...? It's interesting that this idea is well represented physically, emotionally, culturally... especially so that it's used within the traditionally scientific community as well as the nontraditional scientific community.

It seems that this idea of a sort of chain reaction ties tightly in with the "The Scientific Mind, the Brain, and Human Culture" paper as a possible way of proactively going about creating a more responsible society, better equipped to deal with and facilitate the evolution of stories?

Rebecca Woodruff's picture

Story Telling and Story Sharing

The hidden message of this piece seems to be one of responsibility. In the past two semesters at Bryn Mawr, I've taken Neurobiology and Behavior as well as a Buddhist Philosophy course, and I was astounded at how similar many of the recurring themes were. This message of this paper is one such example. We are individuals, we are capable of change, and therefore in every possible sense, we are our stories.

The only part of this paper that I found difficult to access was the use of the term "generation" in the second paragraph. I figured this term was intended to convey the changing of scientific perception and understanding embodied by the changing stories of the times, but perhaps there was another meaning as well?

In the same paragraph, I struggled with the sentence, "Both lacked a single intention or plan at their outset and both continue without a conceived goal or end state." While evolution in its purest (?) understanding might be intentionless, directionless, and purposeless, throughout the years since its publication it has been disturbingly misinterpreted and misapplied. I find it hard to accept that communities should passively absolve harmful actions simply because they were the consequence faulty stories that can be learned from. It seems to me that such an idealistic, even utopian(?)society referred to in this paper as well as in many religious texts might be hard to attain as long as our brains create stories centered on revenge, anger, and even perhaps justice. Nevertheless, these reflections as well as interdisciplinary conversations seem to be a good jumping off point for gearing our minds differently.