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Week 2

Paul Grobstein's picture

Glad to see things richly bubbling already here. Emergence in process ....

Could we though agree that we have only one "topic" a week, like this one? With everyone replying to that (and, if they want, to one or more of the replies as well)? That will make it a little easier to archive chronologically so we can always conveniently see where we've been/are going. "Replies" can of course always raise new topics, so no inhibition of multiple growth points is intended.

And yes, this is relevant to further thinking about the relation between emergence and .... other things in human affairs.

Katherine Redford's picture

comfort levels and evolution

One thing that especially jumped out at me during our discussion group with Prof. Dalke on was what makes the story of evoltion useful.  We managed to come up with the obvious examples, resistant strains of bacteria can develop when we don't finish our course of antibiotics.  Farmers begin to discover strains of insects that are resistent to the pesticides used to protect their plants.  These are good examples, but I sensed that, as a class, we didn't find these examples to be satisfying.  For me, I was searching for something much bigger.  Why else is this story such a big deal? We began grappling with different ideas, "it tells us where we come from", "an idea of where we are going". But are these things really useful.  Some people reported that they found comfort in the concept of evolution.  Finding comfort in something considered to be so scientific pointed out a glaring parallel and contradiction for me.  For me science is so NOT comforting, I love it, but it has never made me feel comfortable.  I like to be sure of myself and confident in my decisions; science for me is always pushing me beyond my comfort level, forcing me to learn more, discover more, but never feel comfortable with what I know.  On the other hand, though I do not claim that analyzing literature or the written word in any form to be my forte, I enjoy it immensely.  And for me, it does provide a certain level of comfort that I can't quite articulate.  And of course this led me to the conclusion, that this differs completely from person to person, and is quite possibly the opposite for some. 

An interesting theme in discussion that weaved through the whole class was comfort.  Why aren't we comfortable with the idea that evolution might be wrong.  Many good points were brought up.  But for me, and perhaps for others, the idea that evolution might be completely off base is really rather frightening.  Because if it is completly wrong, than we will be seen by future generations as we currently see the Greeks and Romans, believing in nothing more than fairytales.  For an intellectual, isn't this frightening? To be so off base that your beliefs and "discoveries" ammount to nothing more than childrens stories.  And while one can argue that we know so much more than they knew then, the same is true for the future.  And as for the past, the myths that they created were the best they could do with their "summary of observations" of the world around them. That's all for now, sorry a bit scrambled.

rob's picture

thoughts about randomness and fixity

Rob Korobkin

Deterministic Systems:
• While deterministic systems may be different at different points in time, they can only be a single way at a single point in time. While it may look different at t = 5 seconds vs. t = 1 minute, the system will always look the same way at t=5.
• Rendered in four dimensions, a deterministic system is therefore fixed as there is no possibility of variation given time t. Just as an object is considered fixed in three-space if its three-dimensional coordinates stay constant., an object that is moving in a deterministic way is fixed in four dimensions as its four-dimensional coordinates cannot change. So deterministic systems can be thought of as solid objects in the space-time continuum.

Nondeterministic Systems:
• By definition, in order for a system to be nondeterministic, it must be possible for it to be any of a number of ways at a given point of time: it’s four dimensional coordinates cannot be fixed. If a system is not deterministic, simply knowing the time t = 15 will not be enough to tell you what will be happening in the system.
• One way to think about this, is that it’s an issue of knowledge and information: we don’t / can’t KNOW what the system will look like at t = 15. This raises several questions that I don’t feel like answering right now:
o What is the difference between not being able to know what will happen in the system because what happens is truly random or simply not knowing what will happen because you lack the information / ability to predict?
o Put differently, what s the difference between looking at a book in a language that you can’t read and looking at a book that actually has a random series of letters or a book that nobody has ever read? If you program a function to take a variable input but don’t program it do anything with the variable and don’t return it, does that make the variable random?
o Where is the randomness: is it in the subjective conscious of the observer who doesn’t know the pattern or is it somehow intrinsically in the system itself? If we define randomness as not being able to know what will happen, does that mean that deterministic systems require that somebody be able to predict them and does that somebody have to exist?
o What about things that only happen once? A deterministic system works out the same way every time, but what if the system can only be run once, so there’s no way to know if it would work out differently if run again.
o If faced with a system who’s logic you can’t figure out, is it better to assume that the system is in fact random or to assume that it has been organized by a logic you don’t see. Is there a practical difference between these two assumptions?

biophile's picture

deterministic systems

The thought of a fixed system being a solid object in space-time seems beyond me. It makes sense in the terms you put it, but I've never heard it put as such before. How can a system be proven to be deterministic, though? I mean, we call certain artificial systems deterministic because if we let them run forever they'll never run any different, supposedly. But we can't let it run forever. How do we know that it will never change?

Jumping down a bit... If a non-deterministic system follows a logic that we can't understand, then there's always hope that we'll crack the code, so to speak. But for the time being, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference. I'm not sure if there's a practical difference, though. I can't foresee how approaching one of these systems with one bias or the other (random vs. deterministic but not understood) would influence how we interpret the data we collect from it. I can't imagine that it would not, though. These things are much more subjective than we realize.

samkaplan's picture

David Morgan-Mar: Crazy, Crazy Guy

So this guy wrote an operating system based on a system of reward and punishment:

In other words, the computer "learns" what it should do

shikha's picture

wow, quite interesting. i

wow, quite interesting. i wonder what i would have to do if i punished the program for something but then later wanted it to do that very thing. this has nothing to do with anything, but it kinda reminds of a movie i saw, click, with adam sandler (i think) in which he gets a remote that can fast forward through parts of his life. but the remote remembers what he forwarded through and always forwards when it happens again. like if he forwards through a shower, the remote will remember that and he'll never experience a shower again.

so i went to that website and found that this guy has written other esoteric programming languages, one of which is intelligent design sort. this language is "a sorting algorithm based on the theory of intelligent design" and "rejects the idea that lists can "evolve" to a sorted state."

samkaplan's picture

I agree, it seems like it

I agree, it seems like it would be impossible to get it to do something you wanted if you had previously not wanted it to do that thing.

Anonymous's picture


If all there is is love and understanding and acceptance and honesty and caring and responsibility and sensitivity and sharing and helpfulness and mutual respect and honor and thankfullness and self reliance and not depend-dance on outside sources of survival(taking away our power and creating a power over vibration,mentality and existence) their is no need to ever punish,take to court,kill,beat,protest,picket,sit-in,beat up,rob,torture,cheat,feel jealous about,lonely about,angry about,sad about,sick of,threaten or be threatened
tired of,defend,hate,violate,protect,be bitter about anything or anybody past present or future. We all have a 100% choice in what to think,feel and do every moment of every day. We all have chosen to live in this or whichever society, being and having the potential for perfection in the image of the creator which is in all things perfection...We must acknowledge the light in us all and change our inner and outer images(our thoughts-feelings/tv,books,radio,ect) to our innate goodness,our inherent right as conscious cosmic citizens......see Department of Peace Blessings sistah...Love brings us all together! Suffering is not nescessary!

hayley reed's picture

language's limitations

I am going to regress a bit and go back to Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better”. There were many things that I loved about this piece but, one of the things that struck me right away in reading about Clive’s creative process is that: language is incredibly limiting. In the story, Clive discovers that he needs something more than simply “the right words” to describe what he feels. Zadie writes that Clive found it difficult to describe his main character’s silk blouse, her pencil skirt, and even harder to get under her skin. When I write, I experience these same feelings of frustration & restriction that Clive experiences in writing his novel. Sometimes when I try to describe something I have experienced I feel that words are not enough, that there is something that language can’t fully capture. This course focuses primarily on storytelling…yet I have found and continue to find that words alone can’t paint the whole picture. And as a dancer, when this happens I rely on movement  to express whatever I might be feeling.


In many ways I agree with Wittgenstein’s theory that human beings are trapped in a fly bottle of language. Our whole world is built around language and because of this we can never escape the restrictions of language. I don’t believe there is any one right truth but, I guess my question is, can we express or truly capture individual truths even with the restrictions of language? Does the evolution of stories have to do with this attempt to reach beyond language?

biophile's picture

Language being limiting

Oh, I don't know. I wouldn't call language limiting. Verbal language (or sign language or what have you) has opened up so many possibilities. Developing the capability for a relatively unambiguous method of communication was arguably one of the most important steps in human evolution. That sounds so stupidly obvious, but think about it. We rely so much on this one ability; our minds our shaped by it perhaps as much as our minds direct our use of language. It's amazing to think that the code for language is somehow locked away in our brains and that it comes to be expressed only when we're socialized. It's such a mind-blowingly complex interaction; we could never sum it up verbally or mathematically.

There are some experiences or feelings in life that are hard to sum up using the words we know, true. But I don't think that's a weakness in verbal language. Much of what we find hard to describe is instinctual and intuitive. Not only that, but trying to neatly categorize and label everything going on around us is more than we can chew. Yeah, it can be hard trying to describe the pictures we have in our heads or even the simple things we see around us, like a ray of sun lighting the outline of a tree's leaves in just a certain way. But we can't process everything. It's impossible. What verbal language has captured is pretty impressive, especially when you consider certain obscure words that condense a few sentences of meaning into a few syllables.

natsu's picture


I have never read about Wittgenstein's theory, but it sounds fascinating! I guess I can't really comment on it, since I don't know it entirely, but for now, I don't know if I completely agree with the idea that language is limiting... Although language is an extremely useful tool of communication, I think that a great amount of things are developed because of the fact that we cannot communicate everything with spoken/written language. I think your example of using dance and movement as a mode of expression is a great example. Even though there have been beautiful forms of dance, music, art etc. from thousands of years ago, many many new forms of art have continued to emerge. I think that the major reason for this is because of the power of language. Our need to expand on what we say/ write makes us start going in new directions. I don't know if I'm making myself clear, but i guess what i really want to say, is that all these forms of art are also language, just not the same kind... 

mgupta's picture

I think that it is not the

I think that it is not the power of language that leads to the emerging art, but the limitation of language. Language in itself is not limiting, but compared to art, it certainly is more limiting. I think that language is a form of art, as opposed to art being language...

samkaplan's picture

Some Stuff on Language Vs. Communication

I once read a Star Wars book that featured a group of humans who were enslaved for hundreds of years. During this time, they were not allowed to speak. Eventually, they developed an entire language based on non-verbal communication.

I guess the point of this is that "language" is really just a more highly specific and, most importantly, less ambiguous form of communication. I would agree with Natsu that music is a language, however I would be more wary to include dance as a language, and I would be very opposed to calling art in general a language.

I think what separates music from those other art forms is that it appeals directly to our sense of sound in a way that not much else does. What kinds of things do we hear? I'd say we hear only three different kinds of things: oral language, ambient noise, and music. That makes music a pretty important form of communication. Dance and art appeal to the eyes, which have a lot more on their hands, so to speak, since they are our primary guide for moving around and stuff, as well being responsible for reading written language.

Bringing this back to emergence, or at least attempting to do so, I would say that all languages "emerge." Visual art and dance are both certainly forms of communication, but they lack a universally accepted code that maps meaning to various commonly accepted symbols. (When you say something to someone, that person usually can figure out what you mean pretty easily, much more so than if you had painted that person a picture or performed a dance.) Perhaps if, for example, we lost our sense of hearing, something like dance could evolve into a fully formed language. In this way, the evolution of various languages is definitely an emergent system—a point that I think has already been made in this forum, but one certainly worth repeating.

In response to the original question, I would hesitate to say that there is any kind of universal meaning behind the words that we use to convey meaning. Even beyond written or spoken language, every piece of information that we try to convey to someone else, or even simply to think about, is transmitted via language. The closest thing I can think of to pure meaning, unhindered by language, would be a baby crying. Only that baby knows what the cry means, if he or she even does. On the other hand, good luck trying to understand if you're not the baby. So sure, maybe language is inaccurate, but it's better than nothing.

asmoser's picture

I think it's an interesting

I think it's an interesting but potentially flawed contention that music is a language. Obviously music can be used to convey emotion, or meaning and in this sense has language-like properties. However, there are an unbelievable number of different genres. Not just Classical, and Rock, but ambient, even aleatoric music. I have a record in my collection (the name of which escapes me) of music by a 14th century composer written entirely in quarter notes, not one sound of which you will find in modern music.

Assigning lingual properties to music is one thing; it would be impossible to argue against. But the claim that music is a language is much much more difficult to defend. Consider, anyone can listen to a piece and appreciate it, but the meaning behind the piece may not be readily apparent. Even more, a person may not even be able to appreciate some music. It is clear to me that while my parents would be able to absorb punk through their ear-holes, the small riffs and drum lines that stand out to me above the raucus of the rest of the rest of the music would be lost on them. They would hear, but they would not even begin to understand.

I mentioned aleatoric music earlier. Aleatoric music is music composed using random sounds. A fine example of this genre is The Books. The Books use a little of everything you've ever heard to create music defined more by the gaps and silences than by the sounds themselves. It is a hollow sound that is hauntingly beautiful and playful if you know what you're listening for. My father's only comment was it sounded like I was flipping around on the radio. Music does have an ability to communicate, but this ability is based on the listener's social context. Our individual exposure to different types of music and to different types of art and writing largely shape the aesthetics we can appreciate. We develop a conceptual language for understanding art and music that is defined not in words or chords but in the shape the object of our study takes on. I realize that this isn't a very cogent explanation here, but it may not be that accurate either. I'll try to post again about it later.

samkaplan's picture

I tend to agree with you,

I tend to agree with you, actually, but I think if you're going to argue that music isn't a language, you should first define what a language actually is. Certainly, there is less potential for successful communication using music than using, say, English, but I wouldn't say that necessarily makes it not a language.

Shayna Israel's picture

What Acts Brings Us Together?/ Why Do We Defend Ourselves?

I am a sociology major and we have been reading Durkheim. We had a paper due about what we define as civil disobedience. Reading about the thousands of people organized around social justice issues such as the one Paul was describing in his post about the protest organized by United for Peace and Justice, seems to correlate to how I, based on the Durkheim readings, define civil disobedience. I believe that civil disobedience is an act that brings people together more than any other act.

I define civil disobedience as an act of punishment carried out by the masses against a governing or authoritative body or person who has committed an act that disrupted or offended the collective morals of the masses such as creating a punishment that contradicts the morals of the collective or going to war for a reason against the morals of the collective.

Durkheim argues that punishment is something that brings people together because it is based in collective morals that make up the moral fabric that holds societies together. These collective morals are usually somewhat in tangible and thus hard to rally around because people are confused by what it is or can’t articulate what it is. However, penal law is neat and tangible and based in the collective morals of the masses. Thus the breaking of penal law can insight clear direction in which the masses can travel.

If this is the case, that means that the masses, we, are intent on maintaining the survival of society because we have penal law—a system of punishments whether that is in a visible code or a system of punishments that are in our psyche. Why is this so? (We have penal laws in our Honor Code.) If punishment exists in all societies across space and time, then does that mean what we innately desire to protect society, the collective? Do we innately desire to protect Haverford and Bryn Mawr? Do we protect society because there is some intrinsic value in the collective or society? Or do we do so, because society protects us and we want to innately protect ourselves?

I believe that we have internalized the values a particular society and those values help, in turn, define us and because we innately want to protect what we define as us, we create a system of punishments to get rid of something or someone that is a threat to what we define as us. However, what I don’t understand is why do we wan to protect what we define as us? Why does beings of this world have a defense mechanism? Is there some intrinsic value in us? Is there some value in us that is born when we are born? If so, what is it?