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Evolving Systems: October 2009 Core Group Meeting

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

October 27, 2009 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion

The I Ching and the Emergence of Form

Background (Ben, excerpted from a longer .pdf):

In this session, we will examine the process of the I Ching, and speculate on what it says about causality, probability, the (mathematical) structure of the universe, and the emergence of form. We may also consider what the I Ching and its model says about the other “emergence” question in our Evolving Systems Group mandate — that is, the emergence of meaning.

  • What is our modern view of chance, probability and the structure of the universe and the events that take place in it?
  • Why is divination so common in many different cultures and societies? In what forms does it exist in our own society?
  • What is significant about the particular aesthetic of this Chinese I Ching system?

A meeting summary (Alice) -  see also Ben's presentation slides

Ben gave a presentation of the I Ching as a model for existence based on convergence rather than causality in a fully distributed system.  In this model, there is no conductor (think orchestra, not electricity or train), and no single goal or end-point.  Used to inform human decision-making, the I Ching “captures everything going on,” all of the “factors” or “states,” manifest and otherwise, at the time of decision.  It’s a given that “everything is in play and then it’s all going to change. “  Paul argued that also in play is randomness, introduced by the coin toss or yarrow throw.  In contrast to the idea that God guides the hand of the person opening the Bible seemingly at random, with the I Ching, there is no such thing as arriving at the right page.  Everything, Ben explained, is in a “fated relationship” to everything else. 

After consideration of parallels between Tarot cards and the I Ching, discussion turned to an understanding of time as prompted by the I Ching.  The view of the “block model” of time taken by quantum physics, in which  time block  doesn’t change, contrasts with the phenomological view, in which “every time the wave function collapses, the block model of time collapses.”  Ensuing questions included:

  • What happens if you choose not to consult the I Ching?
  • What should the attitude of the consulter be?
  • Is the universe unknown, or is it random?  If unknown, is the idea of emergence done away with?
  • Is God inside or outside time?
  • What is the work and status of interpretation?  When people read oracle bones, four meanings are possible:
    • The bones give a message from the future; thus the universe is determined.
    • The bones enable a fuller expression of the present, which is created anew, ongoingly.
    • The bones add a random element to an undetermined future.
    • The bones are what they are; interpretation is beside the point.

 A question remaining is whether the distributed system under consideration in imagined as complete or complex.  If complete, human interaction has no bearing on it beyond people’s (likely doomed) coming to knowledge of it.  If complex, human interaction, as with interactions among other of its living parts, is part of realizing it (in the sense of creating, changing and recognizing). 

Continuing discussion (below)


The_I_Ching.pdf161.93 KB
Olshin-I_Ching_presentation.pdf2.92 MB


bolshin's picture

Emergence on Bohm's Scale

I think that the group has raised a lot of great questions, and I like Anne and Bharath's comments here about the I Ching, etc. -- there is lots to ponder, I see. We still have some major issues, though: first, we are talking about the emergence of form -- so, is there form? We saw in Grobstein's session how the brain takes external noise and resolves it into images and meaning. But what is the nature of that noise? And if it's noise, then it doesn't really have form, or does it? Second, where did our brain's resolution mechanism come from? Sure, it could have come from evolutionary processes, but where did those come from if "all is noise".

More directly, I am interested in our addressing a question related to what Bohm talked about: the implicit versus the explicit order, which is kind of what Grobstein's presentation talked about, and what the I Ching inclines toward. What's the real structure of reality? What is the implicit order? If we found it, would its form surprise us? Is reality quite different from our perception of it?

Anne Dalke's picture

"speculative realism"

For some thoughts on our possible over-emphasis on the human dimension of emergence, see "speculative realism."

Paul Grobstein's picture

onions, culture, and humanity

Here's to keeping the "human dimension" in its place in a broader context, as per "culture as the outer layer of an onion."

Bharath Vallabha's picture

I Ching as a tool for meditation

Here is what might be a fifth possible reading of the I Ching. On this reading, the text is a tool for personal transformation and meditation, and a way to focus on what really matters in life.

To build on the example Ben introduced, suppose I am facing a choice, say about whether to take a job or not. Normally given human psychology, this is a very stressful situation where one is forced to consider dozens of variables, all in the face of an uncertain future. Here the stress of making the choice is amplified by the sense of feeling inundated by many more variables than one can calmly process. In thinking about my decision, I might feel that I have to think about every aspect of the job (location, colleagues, money, freedom to pursue one's thought, how others think of the place, its financial situation, how I might be two years from now, what my family will think of it, its ranking, etc.), and that only once I have come to a complete understanding of all these variables, should I make a decision. Here I would suggest the overwhelming stress comes from the fact that our minds cannot process so many variables at once, and this stress actually negatively affects our ability to think well about any of the factors, and so stress builds upon stress.

In a case like this, what would help is a mechanism which actually eliminated variables for me to think about, whereby I am able to just focus on the one or two things which enable me to achieve peak performance with the minimal amount of stress. I need something which will help me breathe out and get rid of the stress I am putting on myself to know what is the one, right choice (to take the job or not).

I wonder if the I Ching was helpful when it was put together because it was such a mechanism. We now look at it and think that it is bizarre because it is adding irrelevant variables to a decision. We want to ask, what does the location of the clouds have to do with whether I should take the job? But I would suggest this is misleading. The I Ching isn't adding variables to one's decision making process; it is not saying, just like you have to think about the salary, location, etc., you should also think about the clouds, what the temperature is and so on. Rather, it is doing the opposite. It is saying: just like you can't control the clouds or what the temperature is, so too you can't control what to make of the salary or location or rankings or anything like that. By putting all variables on an equal footing, the I Ching cultivates in the person who would consult it an attitude of meditative awareness and performance which soothes the mind and frees it from the stress it puts upon itself.

On this interpretation, the I Ching isn't a primitive decision making algorithm. It is actually a very sophisticated mechanism for dealing with the stress brought about by the perhaps false self-confidence that the person herself is smart and capable enough to make any and every decision and can process all relevant facts.

This is I think the Jungian reading of the I Ching. Jung's point, which I am inclined to very much endorse, is that if we ignore or discard practices such as consulting the I Ching on the basis that it is primitive, trivial and idiotic,  then we might actually be losing mechanisms which can help us now. The fact that the I Ching is old and in some sense out dated, doesn't mean that it is simple and trivial. What if consulting the I Ching was a group practice which emerged as a way to deal with the stress which results from excessive and unproductive thinking? What if in discarding it we are ironically getting rid of the very structures which we can build on to deal with our sophisticated intelligence? What if the point isn't to substitute the I Ching with better, modern rational thought, but to substitute it with better meditative mechanisms which can work for us now in this age?

This reading of the I Ching is similar to the Taoist attitude in that it doesn't treat the "answer" as the main thing to get from the process. The process itself is the main thing in that the process is what helps one be better attuned to the world. But this reading is different from the Taoist attitude in that this reading puts the answer in a broader context, that of meditative awareness. The Taoist I imagine would eschew thinking about it even this much, and suggest that the answer is the answer is the answer.

Linking to Alice's post, perhaps this meditative reading of the I Ching relates to a corresponding picture of education: that education is a tool for personal transformation and for embracing the overall mystery of every aspect of life.

Anne Dalke's picture

producing mystery

Liz and I are @ a conference for the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts in Atlanta this weekend, where we presented a roundtable w/ Ava Blitz, a colleague who is a visual artist. In tracing the process from "encoding through decoding to transformation"--whether one is making art, doing science, or criticizing literature--I think we added yet another layer to your suggestion that we "embrace mystery." Disrupting the expectation that decoding will lead to clarity, we tried to highlight the production of mystery that inevitably occurs in this process; all our attempts to make the world clearer result inevitably in the production of further mystery.... 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Forms of "embracing mystery" in an evolving systems context

I very much like the idea of thinking of the I Ching as "a way to deal with the stress which results from excessive and unproductive thinking" and agree that an alternative of "embracing mystery" has a lot to be said for it in the educational realm as well.   Perhaps though it would be useful to parse "embracing mystery" a bit, since it is likely to mean different things to different people at different times.
"Embracing mystery" might be heard as accepting an in principle limitation to one's understanding.  While that might well serve for some people at some times as an antidote to stress, it also creates a distinction between things that can be inquired into and things that can't be.  I'd find such a distinction unpleasantly constraining in my own life, and would be disinclined to encourage it in a classroom.
"Embracing mystery" might alternatively be heard as accepting an in practice limitation to one's understanding at any given time.  This appeals to me more both in my own life and as a useful classroom recognition.  If we are ourselves evolving systems embedded in evolving systems, we must always act based on less than complete information, so there is no point in being stressed by having less than complete information.  Act when one needs to, based on whatever one's understanding is at the time, and be done with it. 
I suspect though that both "embracing mystery" and the I Ching are more than simply stress relievers that can help us get along with life.  Trees don't think, and so don't need the I Ching.  And we actually don't either unless we forget that we, like trees, have resources beyond thinking.  Our unconscious has lots of information in it that we don't know we have unless we stop thinking and act on it.  And so we might understand "embracing mystery" as embracing the unconscious.
One more step in parsing "embracing mystery" seems to me worth considering.  Acting is done not only for the present but for the future, not only to survive but to find out and contribute to what comes next.  In a deterministic universe, what comes next in some sense already exists.  There is actually no mystery, only what already will be but has not yet been seen.  In a non-deterministic unverse, one in which casting yarrows actually has causal significance, there are genuine mysteries: what the future will bring and what role we ourselves will play in it.   So one might understand "embracing mystery" as cherishing the opportunity to see what new things will happen and what our own contributions to that will be.   That too appeals to me both personally and as an educational contribution.    

alesnick's picture

more parsing

Does this work?

Mystery can pertain:

to the inquirer (my reach is limited)

to the inquired-into (it is beyond comprehension)

to the future (it is not yet)

to the past (we can tell new stories about it)

or to interesting combinations of these:

 --as the inquirer grows and changes, different things become available to inquiry

-- as different things become available to inquiry, new stories of the past become possible

And still the future is untold






alesnick's picture

mystery, mastery, inquiry: teaching on a triangle

I've been thinking about how formal education doesn't usually help people very much with embracing mystery. (I've written something about this at /node/5421. )  Most formal education might be based on a belief in the sufficiency of rational thought that Bharath calls into question.  It seems better to say that rational thought is necessary but not sufficient, and then to think about structuring education and intervention/helping in ways that use but don't attend exclusively to it?

alesnick's picture

analogies in approaches to education


The outline of four different purposes and context of interpreting  the cracks of bone maps fairly neatly onto an assortment of paradigms of pedagogy. Corresponding to the idea that the bones give a predetermined message from the future is what is called variously a process-product approach to education, or a positivist one: the idea that “curriculum” is loaded into students’ brains via certain processes/treatments/interventions, and that students are then produced as people whose brains carry a model of this curriculum, this “knowledge.” We also find this kind of determinism in some critical approaches to education that stress power relations so ardently as to make them appear practically inevitable.
Corresponding to the idea that the interpretation of the bones enables a fuller appreciation of the present is the constructivist view of teaching and learning, the idea that learners do not only discover but create knowledge through interaction with other people and the world. In this framework, brains, and learners, are creative agents in the process of knowledge, not only reflectors of knowledge that is “out there.”
The idea that the bones and their interpretation add a random element to the universe, change it in unanticipated, unpredictable ways, runs parallel to radical approaches to education such as we find in the old Summerhill and in the “unschooling” movement. Here, learning is structured from the specific learners and their contexts outward, no (or precious little) imposition. 
The final one, the idea that “the bones are the bones, “ is the only one without a parallel in educational theory. This is not surprising, given the way in which it is essentially anti-pedagogical. If education is a process of change, in which meaning is carried and created anew, the “it is what it is” approach admits of no translation, no exchange. It may well be an important mode of being, but it’s not recognizeable as a mode of education, which even at its most conservative, has an activist dimension.


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