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Evolving Systems: Background

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics


For the past several hundred years, the problems of accounting for material forms, for meanings, and for aesthetic judgments have been most commonly regarded as different, parallel, and largely non-overlapping spheres of inquiry.  In each, there has been a similar inclination to look for underlying fixed and eternal principles of order, but it has been largely presumed that the paths to elucidating such principles, as well as the principles themselves would necessarily be as different from one another as the materials being inquired into would seem to be.

An alternative possibility is that material form, meaning, and aesthetics are more intimately connected through an historical, evolutionary process that originated in and continues to be driven by some measure of randomness (see From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond).  From this emergence perspective, consistent with contemporary understandings of biological systems and of the brain in particular, what is needed to account for material form, meaning, and aesthetics is not several different sets of underlying fixed principles of order but rather a better understanding of how order itself, as well as various forms of order, could be created and reshaped by randomness and its continuing interaction with different degrees of order.  Equally importantly, this more unified perspective suggests that a trandisciplinary approach might be productive in this realm, that inquiries into material form, into meaning, and into aesthetics, might well prove to complement one another, yielding new understandings not only about how order comes about in general but also new directions for more focused research on material forms, on meaning, on aesthetics, and on particular problems in each of these realms.

Some Starting Places

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world … Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, 1938

[The absurdity of the universe] makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men … Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942

Socrates and Plato suggested that if we tried hard enough we should find beliefs which everybody found intuitively plausible, and that among these would be moral beliefs whose implications, when clearly realized, would make us virtuous as well as knowledgeable ... For Deweyan pragmatists like me, history and anthropology are enough to show that there are no unwobbling pivots, and that seeking objectivity is just a matter of getting as much intersubjective agreement as you can manage …  Richard Rorty, Trotsky and the Wild Orchids, 1992

Maybe at this point in human history we've finished cataloguing all the possible things that one MIGHT have used as a solid starting point for continuing inquiry and we can conclude (for the moment at least?) that NONE of them are in fact a solid starting  … Maybe its time to seriously entertain the possibility that looking for a single solid starting point just isn't the right way to go, that one has to find another, different way to proceed … Paul Grobstein, Writing Descartes, 2004

On beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there …  Jelluludin Rumi, 13th century

In the beginning … the earth was without form ... King James Bible

Perhaps it is not only “beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing” that there is a field on which to meet, but also before such ideas? There are intriguing resonances between Rumi’s 13th century vision and contemporary reflections on the current state of human understanding, as reflected in other quotations above.   Significant resonances exist as well between both of those and contemporary understandings of physical and biological evolution, and of the brain.  It seems increasingly likely that “ideas of right doing and wrong doing” are a late development in the history of both the universe and life, human and otherwise.  And that much of our understanding of these things are “creations of the human mind … not … uniquely determined by the external world.”  And that form itself is a product of formlessness, of a randomness that has always and will always exist, interpreted and reinterpreted by the human brain. 

From this emergent perspective, it makes sense that form, meaning, and aesthetics, the values we place on what we perceive and understand, are significantly entangled and mutually interdependent.  Without form, there can be no meaning nor aesthetics.  And without meaning and aesthetics there can be no descriptions of form.  Given an origin in and continuing involvement of randomness, it makes sense as well that there are no “unwobbling pivots” or “solid starting points” for understanding.  That which we seek to understand is, to varying degrees, continually being shaped and reshaped by both randomness and our own efforts to understand it.  As inquirers, we stand in the midst of a process of continuing emergence, one that we ourselves influence.

It is not the intention of the this project to “prove” that an emergent perspective of the kind sketched here is “correct,” that the universe, ourselves, and all our understandings are emergent processes lacking an initial plan or intention.  Attempting to do so would be to assert the existence of an “unwobbling pivot” and so be inconsistent with the emergent perspective itself.  The intention instead is to take the emergent perspective seriously enough to explore what its implications are for science, for the humanities, for religion, for art, and for inquiry and human life generally.  Can we develop ways of advancing understanding that don’t depend on any “unwobbling pivots” or “solid starting points.”  Is there “another, different way to proceed” in science, humanities, religion, and art?  Might a route to that involve recognizing that “seeking objectivity is just a matter of getting as much intersubjective agreement as you can manage” among people starting with quite different subjectivities? If so, such an exploration should yield useful new ideas and new directions for future inquiry.  The Evolving Systems project is an experiment to test whether this is indeed so.