Evolving Systems: Starting Positions

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

Starting Positions

The Evolving Systems project began in the late spring of 2009 with an initial core group of nine participants.  Below are their "starting positions" for the project, brief sketches of what they bring to the project and hope to get from it.  Others interested in the project (see overview and background) are invited to add their own "starting positions" in the on-line forum below, as well as to comment on any starting positions included here and in the forum. 

Anne Dalke

See Starting from "what happened here before"

Paul Grobstein 

Fifty years or so as a scientist, educator, and parent, together with fifteen or so somewhat overlapping years as a child and student, have persuaded me that there has to be a "less wrong" way to go about trying to make sense of the world and the place of humans in it.  Having lost any confidence in their being a "right" way to do this, I've become interested in the notion that it might be productive to take seriously the apparent absence of a "right way," to start with that and ask what follows from it. 

The notion is neither as fatalistic nor as nihilistic as it might at first seem.  Biology provides a number of different examples of processes of exploration that are quite successful despite the apparent absence of any pre-existing objective.  A common characteristic of all of these is a web of somewhat unpredictable interactions among a diversity of somewhat unpredictable elements which generates and tests by local criteria ways of doing things and, in the process, creates both new candidate ways of doing things and new criteria by which to test them.  In such emergent, distributed systems, each element both influences and is in turn influenced by the larger web of which it is a part.

If this is actually a less wrong way to proceed, an ongoing conversation among people with a variety of different experiences in trying to make sense of the world and humanities place in it should yield both new ideas about how to do so and new ways to test those ideas, with practical significance both in local and more global contexts.  I imagine the Evolving Systems project as a experiment to test whether that is so, and, in turn, whether it is in fact productive to take seriously a "less wrong" approach to inquiry and, perhaps, to life in general.

Hank Glassman

I come to this group as historian specializing in the religious culture of medieval Japan [c. 1200-1600]. I am especially interested in the layered nature of religious texts, images, rituals, and so on. What I mean by “layered” here is that the meanings, audience, register, and intention of a given tale or statue or performance piece are constantly negotiated and reorganized so that the object in question can be approached from many different angles. My emerging project is a history of a certain kind of stone grave monument, called “the stupa of the five elements,” from the 13th to the 15th century. This type of grave, ubiquitous by the close of the medieval period, is first found at the close of the 12th century and would seem to be unique to Japan.

The “five elements” referred to in the name are not the five elements/phases of Chinese or Daoist yin-yang theory but rather the Indian five elements associated in Japan primarily with esoteric or tantric Buddhist doctrine. The grave monument stacks these elements represented as five discrete geometric solids one atop the other. From the bottom they are: earth, water, fire, wind, and empty space. Cube, sphere, pyramid, crescent (or date), jewel. I am interested in exploring the “form/meaning/aesthetics” of this monument (as well as two-dimensional iconic representations thereof) with this interdisciplinary mix of scholars.

This gravestone is connected to tantric doctrines on the creation of an adamantine body and Buddhist embryologies, but also can be tied to ancient traditions of stone worship. The graves are full of complex meaning connected to textual, ritual, and meditative practices (foundational?) and also, especially after they have been abandoned and forgotten and have become anonymous fragments, represent a deep layer of autochthonous religious response to lithic-as-numen(non-foundational?).

Alice Lesnick

I teach and study education.  My main interests are in collaboration and collaborative learning; feminist pedagogies; the role of writing in learning and forming intellectual communities; the relation of craft knowledge to critical thinking; and how people learn, or come to be, or persist in being, good. One of my ways of making sense of experience is to write poems, which I started doing while working as a high school English teacher one phase back. (Two phases back I was a third grade teacher; there I recovered an interest in science and sports.) I am sharing two poems here as a way of introducing my interest in the problems and possibilities of transformation.


One: a wooden figurine from China
carried over on a ship;
two: a blue ceramic bowl, and three:
a cannister of tea, gold and green, bearing
the image of a Chinese ship
sailing over the sea,
over the blue sea.

Tell me, how does one give way to the next:
horse's hide to whip? How does grace convert to
debt? What instant burns
in gold and green?

O Ink-eyed child lost to sleep, it is not
just the wind. Your mother loves you, but the daily news
is bad. It wastes her strength
and distances --
from carver's hand, to bowl, to sea, to child --
are large, and unreconciled.


Three Arts


I remember another mother.
Light on her feet, pleased
With the silks around her ankles.
Eats little, but loves the early markets.
Lovely, wise, and I have missed her,
But I miss my mother more.


Another hard day --
Not enough air
And your asthma coming on again.
Past the shoulder
Of a bannister, you could see
An unwelcome fender.
You would recompose the scene,
Put a girl there. You would,
But not until so long after.


Don't worry too much about Paradise.
You can use the blue in the king's jacket
For sky, and the black of the clubs
For piano keys. Red abounds, so
No problem there.


Mark Lord

I work as a theater artist, as a director of plays and a dramaturg for new works of performance. In my working, I notice that the "big" questions are always in play and that they are almost always legible in the small decisions over which I labor. More, I observe that the "abstract" is always concrete in art, or at least in the art I appreciate. Finally, I relish the fact that, as a performance plays out over time, the models of that experience which I conjure towards "understanding" the piece are all provisional, each one yielding to the new information and the failure-incompleteness-oldness of the previous models of understanding. As one learns to appreciate performance more fully, one learns to let go more easily of what is in Paul's schema the "more wrong" and to reach for an incipient model, one that is still forming in the fuzziness of consciousness, grasping with a joyful and a widening consciousness the "less wrong" that may, for a moment, seem like knowledge, and then fades as the next model begins to present itself. I bring this experience with me to this conversation.

Elizabeth McCormack

I'm attracted to exploring the connections that situate our work broadly as human pursuits of meaning and the intersections with  traditions outside of academia.  What boundaries do we inevitably traverse in pursuit of meaningful lives?  How do they drive each other, how do they squelch each other?  As a start, I am interested in the connections between the disciplines. How do the interpretive ideals in modern physics compare with those in the humanities? What is the role of unifying concepts such as “symmetry” in intellectual traditions and current practices?  How do they spill over into the diverse realm of every day experience and reflection?  What are the consequences of the different models of knowledge and belief that operate today?  I am looking forward to a lively exchange.

Benjamin Olshin

I am interested in this project from a variety of perspectives. First of all, from a personal point of view, I am curious about “big questions” of knowledge, the nature of the universe, and the relationship between our minds and that universe. In addition, I am curious as to the models used by the scientific method as an approach to these big questions. My background is in the history and philosophy of science and technology, and while I believe that science is quite sound as a method, I think we need to develop a parallel tool (but NOT religion or “New Age” thinking) and a brand new series of models for investigation of these meta-questions. Current science and even philosophy do not seem designed for such a task.

Bharath Vallabha

Here is the main thing I am looking forward to exploring further with the group: having non-specialized conversations on issues that really matter with fellow academics. It is not often that academics get a chance to really just talk to each other as people and think together about topics that really resonate with us. It is wonderful to have a space for trans-disciplinary conversations which explore where each of us is coming from and where we might go together.

In particular, I am looking forward to conversations about understanding ourselves and the world as evolving and emerging systems, and to explore the possibility that this idea of emergence might provide a space for a common dialogue from different perspectives and disciplines (especially sciences/humanities, theoretical/practical, religious/a-religious and so on).

How can we have such trans-disciplinary conversations when the structures for them are not already readily available (and perhaps can’t be so available)? As I am thinking of it at this starting point, the aim isn’t to bridge disciplines or change institutions. Those are noble and important aims, but the beginnings have to be more humble. It seems to me that the aim is to see how the people in the group will engage with each other in an open space and to see what will emerge from the group as structures which can guide us.

So I am interested in the group not only as a space to discuss emergence, but also as a space of emergence. I am starting with the idea that each of us is a complex, emerging system which cannot be summarized in a few, well worn ideas. So the understanding I seek in the group is not to discover which ideas best summarize the other members of the group or even to discover which ideas all of us as a group might agree on. Rather, I think the understanding we seek is that of actually engaging with each other and seeing where that might lead us.

What will happen when we engage with each other in a space where the complexities inherent in each of us is allowed to breathe and grow? Can it lead to a coherent trans-disciplinary conversation and even new questions? I am glad to be a part of an experiment to find out.


Robert E. Johnson's picture

My unconscious at play again

Continuing from my first contribution of June 28th (above).
More Robert aphorisms.....

I used to be manic-depressive but my doctor gave me something to stop the ups and downs. Now I'm depressed all the time.

This year for Lent I gave up...!

I'm firing on all salamanders.

He is a golfer, par excellence.

It's enough to cast a smile to those aside me, marching toward loneliness.

I feel as if I have tacked around the mark after an interminable windward leg, and now I am on a broad reach with the sun on my face.

This place is so isolated. They should put speakers in the field and pipe in the sound of crickets.

The best thing a woman can do for a man is to follow her instinct and reject him, thereby assuring he will reach his star, for he will always strive to believe that he was deserving of her heart. His key is not having what he wants the most.

Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus with a peg leg, and there’s a beaver chawin’ on it.

I twanged myself with my magic twanger.

Tell me where it hurts.

It was a cliché masquerading as an insight.

I have been accused of equivocation. True enough, but there are good and bad things about this.

I mine inspiration where I can.

I find it useful to consider the world as perceived energy rather than a collection of objects to be craved or criticized.

I feel hope fueled by hunger.

I have a hyperactive super-ego.

Deborah Hazen's picture

Deb Hazen: Starting Point

I have no singular starting point. I teach, upper elementary students, and each day I am reminded that they come to me believing that I will give them what they are supposed to "get" so that one day they will be able to go to middle school, then high school, then college. They vaguely articulate dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. They come to school each day because they have been told that is what they do. Where else would they go? I look back at them and tell them that they will learn as much from each other as from me, that I want to learn with and from their insights/perspectives. They like the sound of that, and it fits with their idea of how some Quaker teachers talk to them. Then we struggle through a disorienting dance. Sometimes I lead. Sometimes they lead. Sometimes a faceless bandleader calls the steps with warnings that if they don't replicate certain steps perfectly they will not be invited to the next dance. Frequently the music and steps allow everyone to feel safe; once in a while we throw all caution to the wind and enjoy each others' dance, letting it open new possibilities for our next moves. More often than not though we are all hearing the same music. Self-selected, like-minded communities do that.
I collaborate with other professionals and sometimes, when we are sharing a common story it is affirming. The kind of affirming that sustains life, builds new worlds, and embraces all of the idiosyncrasies of the participants. When we do not share a common story the experience is painful and seemingly dangerous. This is illogical, especially as we agree from the outset that each of us holds a piece of the truth. We reiterate, when we have cool heads, that great growth and new understanding comes from sitting with conflicting stories and being willing to be less right. It is hard to keep a cool head sometimes.
I live in a neighborhood where election yard signs can be the death knoll for long-held friendships. I watch my fellow commuters, driving, alone, tuned in to their preferred radio station. We look like so many Langston Ants with purpose and seeming connectivity. But I wonder, how thin is the veneer of connectivity? Or how deep is the actual connectivity and mutual reliance that we then bury beneath membership in bodies like political parties that give the illusion that we've got our mutually exclusive stories all figured out?
In the bustle of daily needs to do my job, be present for family and friends, I forget to listen for other stories. I forget that I am telling a story. So, I come to this group wanting to be challenged to notice the stories unfolding around me. I come wanting to hear stories and perspectives that are very different from the ones that I form as an elementary school teacher. I want to be reminded of the stories I imagined when I was studying biology, anthropology, and womyn's studies.
I want to share stories from the classroom inhabited by 10, 11 and 12 year olds. They have already learned to look for the one right story. Challenging them to sit with their own stories and experience the healthy conflict that comes from grappling with the unexpected, a divergent view, or a new observation that questions their original supposition is hard. It is also a process that offers insight I think into why or how the brain scrambles to claim a story. Stories are power, power comes from our stories. As Wil writes it is a "dangerously absurd world" and I would argue that it becomes more dangerous than absurd when  we lose the ability to "see" the storyteller present in all of us.

Paul Grobstein's picture

ways to measure evolving systems project success

The evolving systems project will, for me, be a success if it can live up to your wish to "to be challenged to notice the stories unfolding around me."  And even more so if it helps you make it easier for your students to "sit with their own stories and experience the healthy conflict that comes from grappling with the unexpected, a divergent view, or a new observation."  Maybe they, and we, can even learn to value/enjoy that as evidence of being alive, active participants in an evolving universe?

jrlewis's picture

I have been silently stalking

I have been silently stalking this group on Serendip since its inception because it was having the sort of discussions I desired…

I love thinking about those broad trans-disciplinary problems.  My educational career tells the tale of my search for a greater range of perspectives.  I came to Bryn Mawr to major in chemistry and successfully completed it.  The part of subject that I found most appealing was biochemistry, so I decided to pursue a minor in biology.  The minor grew into the major.  Along the way, I took Grobstein and Krausz’s philosophy of science.  That led to an interest in philosophical thought and a return to the humanities.  This semester I am taking half humanities courses and half science courses.  So to sum it all up, I am concerned with the nature of inquiry and its relationship to disciplinary, institutional, or other frameworks. 

One reason for the delay in expressing my interest is a fear of commitment.  I am afraid that if I commit myself to a particular starting position, then I won’t ever be able to reach certain other areas.  I am thinking along the lines of selection rules in quantum mechanics stating that an electron can not get from a specific state to another specific state. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

starting points, commitment, and evolving systems

Interesting issue.  Let's think about it in the context of evolving systems, as per the illustration to the left (click for larger image) ?  Yes, starting points influence where one goes next and evolution is probably irreversible, so you can't go home again.  On the other hand, there are lots of directions to go from any given starting point and lots of different ways to get to any given place.  And its awfully hard to get less wrong if one doesn't have a starting place to get less wrong from.  Maybe a "starting place" is a "commitment" only to an ongoing process of exploration, and so doesn't in principle preclude anything? 

For some additional related thoughts prompted by your concerns,  see Alice.

Robert E JOhnson's picture

Starting Point

I am pleased to meet you, Bryn Mawr community. I arrived here after sending Prof. Grobstein this e-mail:
Dear Professor Grobstein,

In the last two days, I have come across several web sites that have been comforting. They are the site of the John Templeton Foundation, and the Serendip web-site. Comforting because I see that the issues of perception, consciousness and morality that I constantly ponder in my amateurish way, are in fact valid courses of study. I feel revved up to do some serious delving. I won’t say
more because I don’t know what I’m talking about except I’ll mention a marvelous technique for problem solving that I came upon.

It involves the command to oneself to submit the problem to the subconscious . After defining a problem, I will purposely not think about it in “internal dialog mode”, but silence my brain and just wait. Quite often, whole solutions will just float up out of nowhere as if by magic. As a simple example, I was faced with coming up with a new slogan for a volunteer Fire Dept. I quieted my brain, trusted in the technique, and seconds late the phrase “Come on Baby Fight my Fire” came to me. Thank you Jim Morrison. (I did not win the contest because the phase implied that there actually might be a fire which terrified the Chief).

I find this rather amazing that one can solve problems in the background and the solutions can have a richness that one could not have thought your way into.

Robert Johnson - 161 Reservoir Avenue - Randolph, NJ 07869

Paul suggested that I, if I wished, post the email here.

Starting Point: I work as an electronics engineer but my degrees are in Fine Arts and Physics with a Master's in Industrial Design. I've finally concluded that both of my hemispheres are recessive.

I often jog, and while jogging I find that ideas float up that truly seem to come from some alien source. They are usually mildly humorous (debatable) one-liners that I can tell I have not heard before.

"My parents left it to me to figure out how great I was."
"I want to go from idiocy to wisdom, then return triumphantous."
"I'd rather let something go than have it taken away."
"New Coca-Cola campaign. Coax the best out of Life."
"Every person should take responsibility for another, and then start by fixing themselves."
"I want to become a Buddhist without really trying."
"In my world, reason blends into metaphor."
"I want to run myself through a self-improvement wringer, against my will."
"An instant of sublime exhilaration can last a lifetime."
"My brain is effervescing."
"Robert is a genius. He sees connections where none exist."
"Something is burning inside me melting my shell."
"There are no steps to follow when you're on a roll."
< there are more >

I found that the more unusual and creative, the more ephemeral they were. I would forget them as quickly as they appeared. I then started carrying a recorder with me. That worked. Then I noticed if I simply spoke into my hand, I would remember them too, so I ditched the recorder.

What I am interested in is exploring whether the meditative aspect of jogging that produced these insights can be created by willing myself to stop one's internal dialog and see what ideas float up (like watching the magic eight-ball with the little window).

Actually my bigger interest is in learning to view the world as a baby might before they learn the words for things and thus then take objects for granted and believe them to be real.

"I find it useful to consider the world as perceived energy rather than a collection of objects to be craved or criticized."

Here's my question. Does the visual cortex and whatever part of the brain that "names" objects that are seen, always active simultaeously? If one could train to break that link, might one instead exercise the part of the brain that is active during the phenomenon of Blind Sight. Maybe learning to process the world with that part could imbue one with something approaching wisdom independent of words.

Paul Grobstein's picture

thinking as an evolving system

Glad to have you aboard.  Re "rather than a collection of objects to be craved or criticized" and "wisdom independent of words" see The Taoist Story Teller and Culture and Thinking in Pictures.  And re "ideas float up that truly seem to come from some alien source" see the image to the left (click on it for a larger view).  The painting is by a colleague of mine (click here for a gallery of Sharon Burgmayer's paintings) to whom I was trying to explain my own thinking processes.  The blue tabs are ideas that float up out of my unconscious with no indication whatsoever of how they got created.  I can't control what appears or when, but do seem to be able to nurture the pool by not hassling it and keeping it fed with new things to play with.  Hence ... an evolving system?  For more along these lines, see Perceptual Fluidity and Introduction to Evolving Systems.   

alesnick's picture


What does it mean to not hassle the unconscious?  What does that look like in practice?

Paul Grobstein's picture

how to not hassle the unconscious

Hmmm, thanks for asking.  A few things I've learned over the years ...

  • Accept that your unconscious is the primary resource for everything you do
  • Maintain an active and collegial conversation with your unconscious; don't get impatient with it, frustrated with it, or annoyed at it
  • Remember that your unconscious consists of a loose alliance of many different components and has little or no interest in consistency across the components
  • Don't expect your unconscious to change quickly or in the absence of substantial new experiences meaningful to it
  • Appreciate the need of your unconscious to exercise; don't deprive it of opportunity/room to express itself
  • Don't expect your unconscious to be able to do any particular thing at any given time
  • Learn to recognize what you unconscious  feels like doing at any given time
  • As much as possible, do things your unconscious wants to do rather than things you think you're supposed to do
  • For things you (or others) think you're supposed to do, try and organize life so you can do them when your unconscious wants to; trust that at some point it will


Paul Grobstein's picture

Peter Beckmann

Posted on Peter's behalf.  An excerpt

"We must continuously remind ourselves: we have not arrived."

For all of Peter's fifteen starting points see here

Wil Franklin's picture

Wil Franklin: Intersecting with Evolving Systems

Thanks to Paul for the invitation to intersect with the Evolving Systems Group.  Having participated in several related incarnations of this type of working group, I look forward to the chance to cross-pollinate with other interested individuals.  Coming from a botanical background, let me clarify the term cross-pollinate.  I intentionally use it here to draw out the similarities with the “trans-species” interactions between flowering plants and a whole variety of “others” – variety and others being of particular value for this type of endeavor.  Furthermore, I like the “fruitfulness” that the interaction engenders as well as the mutually beneficial nature of the relationship.  Of course the analogy breaks down a bit when considering some of the more biological ramifications of syngamy, but if we consider “ideas” to be the “gametes” of our gene pool, then perhaps the synecdoche remains useful.

More specifically, I bring many questions about inquiry, meaning and learning.  Can the emergent perspective help me understand the construction of meaning and if so how, as a teacher/parent/co-worker, can I aid others in developing an understanding and mastery of inquiry that allows for the construction of meaning in this dangerously absurd world we inhabit?


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