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From complexity to emergence and beyond ...

Paul Grobstein's picture

Your thoughts on, resulting from, the draft essay handed out in class?

shikha's picture

thoughts on paper

as has already been said, the paper is not what we would typically call a scientific paper, but i don't believe that that is something that works against the paper. i have never read something of this format before, and while i wouldn't have called it a scientific paper before, our discussions in class have suggested otherwise. someone pointed out, and i agree, that it is not conducive to analyze the paper using the traditional scientific lens. i did feel a little lost sometimes in the paper and without the context of discussions in class, i don't think i would've been able to follow some of it, although it would still be very interesting. what I've taken away from the paper is that it very nicely puts together what we've talked about in class and presents a format not used in traditional scientific papers, thus showing the limitations placed by traditional science.

Lauren's picture


Overall I would say that the draft does an excellent cohesive job in pulling together all of the points that we have discussed throughout the semester. For those that have been unable to participate in the Emergence course as of yet, I imagine this piece to be very thought-provoking and may even, in the future, serve to bolster further interest in the course and greater emerging field. However, for those like myself, who have spent a semester considering many of the points present in it, the essay does not appear to present anything new (or, at least, a more clear jumping off point for further inquiry). Yes, the field is constantly emerging in all directions; nonetheless, I thought I would have come out of this philosophical 'struggle between the narrow/broad approaches of science with a more definitive heading. The final concluding statements really echo this lingering uncertainty, which I think is entirely realistic and indicative of our findings throughout the semester.

Jessica B's picture

Schrodinger's cat and the emergence of rules

This is a big of a tangent, but thinking about the emergence of rules and how no one rule is better than another got me thinking about Schrodinger's cat. I'm sure I have an incomplete understanding of this thought experiment, but my understanding of it is that it basically states that any observation of a probabilistic state is going to fix the state one way or another and therefore alter it. The cat is either dead or alive before you look at it. Looking at it fixes it as dead or alive and therefore changes its state.

This has to do with the idea, which some people have been stating, that when we form these rules about existence, we are in effect fixing our understanding of existence a certain way. In a way, as we observe the world, we are changing it to conform with our current understanding of how things work. An interesting result of this could be that the idea of emergence could literally change the world. What I mean is that since it is so different from the mathematical, rules-based idea of the world's functioning that we subscribe to now, changing our thinking patterns to accept emergence could change how we view the world in general and, in effect, change the world.

mgupta's picture

From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond

I agree with Heather about why something has to be certain way and not another way. Earlier, it would be a lot more comfortable for me if something could be defined by a gives set of equations and explained through the theories of Math and Physics because it gave the security of an outcome. But after reading this paper, it really makes me think of why something is thought of only in the way of what it is and not something else. That is why I really like the aspect where Professor Grobstein mentions about "conceiving new possibilities."

Something else that I really like about the paper was the example of education - the teacher and the students and encouraging them to develop abilities to inquire. However, like Rob says, I agree that today, for many students, grades interfere. I feel like education has become more about that resume and that GPA and grades rather than the actual concept of learning.

samkaplan's picture

My Thoughts on the Paper

I'm going to try to keep this short, because I always hate when people write long posts in these forums.

Like other people have mentioned, I think this paper does a great job of essentially describing the progression of the Emergence course. The argument is logical, well-reasoned, and relatively straightforward.

I do, however, have the same nagging doubts and feelings of skepticism about it that I think we've had about emergence all along: everything seems too easy. (This is not a criticism of the paper, but rather a criticism of popular conceptions of western science that have existed since the scientific revolution.) Reading the paper, I often thought, "Okay, this all seems good. But what about... everything else? What about the non-emergent science we've been doing for centuries?"

Clearly, we are so used to deterministic, foundationalist science that it is hard to imagine anything else. As Wolfram wrote in "A New Kind of Science," we are trained to think that things must be hopelessly complicated, and to suggest that they are simpler is tantamount to treason. Hopefully, more papers like this will help to give emergence the foothold it deserves in the cutthroat world of scientific research.

My favorite part of the paper dealt with emergence as it relates to education. I fully agree that it makes sense to connect emergent ideas to theories of education. I think such an idea is far less controversial than other aspects of emergence; there have always been critics of "skill"-based education, from John Dewey to Paolo Freire. Perhaps, as standardized testing become more and more pervasive, people will rise up against the pedagogy of mandatory "schooling," and if they do, perhaps they will realize that such ideas are equally applicable to other scientific disciplines.

Guess this ended up being kind of long after all.

biophile's picture

Possibly random, but it's what I thought of while reading

Parts of the paper made me think about how we model reality mathematically according to the basic laws of chemistry and physics. I've often wondered how we figured out how to model the world this way and why it works. The idea that rules and properties could be just one way of viewing the world instead of the ultimate one is something that I've been confused over for most of my life. I would read as much as I could about mathematical and engineering concepts at an age when I really couldn't understand what was going on and I would try to make sense out of how we came to have these laws. I couldn't figure out why they worked.

Like Descartes said, some things are what they are and we can't imagine them in another way, i.e. mathematics is sound and it is the only thing we can be certain of. But could there be another way? The question of whether properties and rules are actually characteristic of things external to us or if they are merely made up by our brains in order to make sense of the world is one that may never be answered satisfactorily and that bothers me. Math and physics obviously have some basis in reality because otherwise technology and engineering wouldn't exist and I wouldn't be on this computer right now typing. But how much do we know? How much of our understanding can be applied to the universe at large with predictable results? I'm reading a book right now by Fritoj Capra and he starts off by talking about how the emergence (and yes, he uses that word) of prebiotic cells was governed by the basic laws of chemistry and physics. He makes it clear that there was no mysterious jump from the primordial soup to the first living cell; it is within the realm of our understanding. But what does that mean if laws aren't necessarily the ultimate reality? Why does the world work the way that it does; why do these laws exist? Do they exist everywhere?

And finally, how did the inquirer arise according to these laws? Our brains are hybrid systems, but how did the conscious parts come from the unconscious ones? It doesn't make very much sense to me but it can't make perfect sense to anyone or else we would be done with the question after millennia of debate and finally move on.


rob's picture


I feel like if Papa G can write an autobiography as a science paper, then it seems to me that I can write a poem as a response.

In the beginning, we woke up
And looked around and swallowed.
Some drowned in the sensory submersion
And forgot that they were Breathing,
developing telescopes and microscopes
and periscopes Out of their minds to see
atoms or galaxies or cells with strong membranes
and organize the tumultuous and messy waves.

But how does the Who emerge from the What?

Others realized that we Choose
What we have seen. We construct
our reality, and the hardest labor
Comes in making a good choice.

But how does the Good emerge from the Who?

And maybe matter is meaningless.
It’s just energy and dust.
It has structure but not logic.
Yet all understanding is in our upper brains
Where every thought, feeling and hope
is probably just a misplaced neuron,

And all we are is dirt?

Anna G's picture

While I agree with much of

While I agree with much of what has been said, this paper discusses a few things I am wary of agreeing with:

1. The fact that "properties and rules" are constructions of our brain (which are emergent systems, with therefore no "purpose" as seen by a conductor or architect) seems to relegate the theories that we come up as no better or worse than the next one. To me, this seems to give too much liberty to the fact that there could be realities out there which we know nothing about, and therefore cannot create "properties and rules" about. If it is true that we ourselves are emergent systems, that gives us an even greater reason to trust what our brain tells us (while admitting its obvious limitations). As emergent systems, our way of inquiry is to set up "properties and rules" so that we can pit them against one another to see which theory can stand the test of time.

I'm not sure that “neither predictably nor reducibility to a fixed set of properties and rules are appropriate general criteria by which to measure the success of inquiry" because when you can predict something, time and time again isn't that a measure of how "right" you are? If the scientists building airplanes weren't "right" about their sums, well they sure got lucky. Sometimes things are "right enough." What is stated next, is that what is important to an inquirer is not accounting for present things, but what new things into existence can be explored. But for those new things to be explored, I think that you need to set up rules and properties that set up a framework that can be torn down by later scientists. When working on the genome project, a slow but methodical approach was taken, and when the scientists were halfway through, a maverick scientist came up with an even faster way to do it; but were it not for the initial scientists efforts and some might say "lost" years, the new method would never have been discovered.

2. I also don't know how useful empirical non-foundationalism can be in a classroom. Teachers becoming partially students are dangerous to the dynamic of a classroom if the classroom isn't prepared to handle such a dynamic. The fact that a teacher can be partially a student not only effaces some of their power, but also makes students less likely to trust what the teacher is saying. This may be okay, even ideal, if the students then take their own learning into their hands, but if the students then become naturally distrustful of all or any authority figures without the will to learn for themselves they will become merely skeptics with no education. Being an informed skeptic is what science is all about, but being an uninformed skeptic is what this idea threatens to implement. Imagine a school in say, West Virginia where a teacher admits we don't know the whole story about evolution, and opens up the floor for the kids to teach what they think happen. You can imagine the lecture about Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, etc that would follow. Relegating both stories to just that, stories, forgets that we have much more evidence for evolution, many floods, and perhaps a Mitochondrial Eve and a Y-chromosome Adam (who never would have met) but not the idyllic Adam and Eve of the bible. This distributed authority system is like Castalia in Hesse’s the Glass Bead Game; in a perfect scholarly world, it can be stable, but in the world as a whole, it cannot.

Paul Grobstein's picture

sharpening the argument

Thanks for the thoughts. I agree with you that "our way of inquiry is to set up 'properties and rules' so that we can pit them against one another ...". The upshot, I'd argue though, is not so much to see "which theory can stand the test of time" as to see what new theories/stories are created, ones that improve on existing theories/stories because they not only account for all observations to date but motivate new ones. If the current manuscript isn't clear about the ongoing reciprocal and mutually dependent relationship between observing and story telling (creating "properties and rules"), it needs to be made more so.

I agree that in the classroom empirical non-foundationalism would make students "less likely to trust what the teacher is saying", and actually see that as an asset rather than a problem. I would indeed like to see students (people in general) become "distrustful of all ... authority figures". Can this happen without also causing a loss of the "will to learn", yielding simply "skeptics with no education"? I share your concern that people should not become "uninformed skeptics". My own sense is that the risk of this happening is greater when teachers act as "authorities" then it is when they act as "empirical non-foundationalists". After all, it is already happening. Maybe "empirical non-foundationalism" could help to correct it, not only in and for "a prefect scholarly world" but for the real one, where we have serious problems about conflicts between authorities and many people feel they lack an alternative to being "merely skeptics"?

natsu's picture

The goals of an educator

After reading "From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond" and then reading the discussion that had been started on this forum, I started to think about a debate that had gone on during the course "Critical Issues in Education." A topic that was repeatedly brought up through out the course of the semester was whether a teacher should bring in his/her opinions to the classroom at all. Many (but not all) students argued that teachers should maintain a neutral stance, only giving students information on the facts, and have the students come to their own conclusions about the topic that the teacher introduced.

While I would not go so far as to say that teachers should be completely neutral, I find appealing the idea of a classroom where the teacher partially becomes a student and the students partially becomes teachers instead of the teacher just conveying his/her opinion as the truth. In my mind, the most important goal of an eductor is to foster in the students, the ability to doubt assumptions. That would not mean that the educator cannot convey his/her stance on a subject; it just means that the teacher must be willing to accept and even encourage counter arguments. However, there is one question that remains in my mind which is, is it wrong for an individual to wish to become an educator because he/she has a desire to convey a certain belief that he/she strongly believes is important to pass down to the next generation? From my personal experience, some of  the most influencial teachers that I have encountered are those that hold such beliefs, and there definately was no room for emergent pedagogy in their teaching...

rob's picture

Thoughts about education

The strucure of a classroom shapes the way that people learn to think. If some average twenty five year old is put in front of a group of kids, and they are told to revere his words as divine, then they’ll either end up subservient or they’ll rebel and cause problems.
Seems to me that if you want to get people thinking for themselves, you have to challenge their ideas and get them to challenge yours. I also think it's a negligible difference whether the ideas and values that a teacher expresses are their personal beliefs, or the more widespread beliefs of our society, like that the US is a democracy or that people came to be through evolution. I read an article about the public outcry in response to a school district’s attempt to put labels saying, essentially, “CAUTION: THIS IS ONLY A THEORY” in every evolution textbook. I was like right on, let’s get those in every book in the library. The goal of a good education in my mind is to get kids to think and express themselves, to ask a ton of questions and have the intellectual tools to make progress toward finding reasonable answers.
I believe that grading interferes with inspiring kids to take intellectualism seriously. I don’t believe that teachers should be focusing on making value judgments on students; rather i think they should care enough about the stuff they teach to want to talk about it and listen to what we have to say. Grades give teachers way too much power and prevent honest relationships based on trust and open communication between students and teachers. It’s like one of my friends used to say: don’t say “good point,” say “I agree.” Enlightenment comes only when we move beyond shallow value judments and actually listen to the substance of what we each have to say.
School has to be based on the here and now, not the instrumental value of our work if it’s going to be enjoyable and genuinely rewarding. My grades won’t matter until five years from now if I decide to apply to graduate school. Creating a structure of the masses and the noble leader of the classroom makes actual discussion hard and constructs a system defined by bogus and unnecessary value judgments. Whomever you are, it’s arrogant to think you know what’s up because all you see is what you see. Teachers have got to learn to listen and not just grade if kids are going to learn to speak and not just bullshit.