Monday, January 10, 2005

Add your forty-two cents at a meeting of Cafe Philo

LOCATION: Brasserie Les Halles, corner of 12th and Pennsylvania; back room (ask a waiter) TIME: Alternate Saturdays, 1-3pm (more like 1-4pm by the time everybody shuts up) EQUIPMENT: Yourself OPTIONAL: Strong opinions, abstract theories, arms to flail in the air to emphasize your point (Who am I kidding? Those are not actually optional).

Cafe Philo is a philosophical society that meets in a back room at the Brasserie Les Halles every two weeks to discuss a topic chosen by the members. Some past discussions have included, "Is Democracy Just?", "Must Reasons for Our Beliefs Stop Somewhere?", "Can American Democracy Survive Rule By Irrational Belief?", "Who is Right - the Stoics or the Epicureans?" and, most recently, "What is Emergence?"

I've been to a few of these meetings, and they're always thought-provoking and also rather incoherent. There's a spiderweb tightrope to walk when you're trying to moderate a discussion between 20 outspoken people, each of whom would happily occupy the full 2 hours with their own profound ramblings. As a result, Cafe Philo has developed a system to allow members to sign up to speak in turn - the rules of which seem to rival cricket in complexity - which is enforced by a four-minute timer that beeps loudly when a speaker's turn is up, and punctuated by other members banging their fists loudly on the table. But the problem with this system is that with a backlog of 10 or 20 people waiting to speak, the conversation jumps erratically from topic to topic and it's hard to follow up on important or controversial points that people might raise.

That being said, the conversations are always stimulating, and at the very least I always leave with a long list of philosophers I want to learn more about. I went this Saturday to a discussion on "What is Emergence?" with my heartbreakingly super pals Kaelan and Sarojini, the introductory email for which I'll copy at the bottom, as it's a good example of the Cafe Philo style. There were some interesting points; I'd never thought before, for example, about the connections between the pattern of a society's culture developing, and the plot and characters created by members of an improv comedy workshop. And there were a few physics professors who made neat comments about quantum theory.

There are usually about 30 people, there, and if you're shy or unprepared, it's perfectly acceptable to sit in a chair in the back and just listen to the conversation - it doesn't feel awkward at all. If you'd like to be on the mailing list, just send a note to "". (Replace AT with @ in that address, of course; I just don't want to accidentally give him any spam.)


Greetings and Happy New Year:

The first 2005 meeting of Café Philo DC -- and the first of its 6th year of existence -- will take place Saturday, January 8, 2005 at Brasserie Les Halles restaurant in downtown Washington, DC (located at 13th and Pennsylvania Ave., NW), from 1 PM to 3 PM. (Note that the discussions and subsequent topic selection often run later, sometimes to 4 PM). The topic, postponed from early November to accommodate our post-election discussion of American democracy and irrational belief, will be: "What is Emergence?"

Jerry Chandler, who periodically attends our meetings, has kindly agreed to introduce briefly the topic at the meeting and has generously provided some background on the subject (below). He informs me that the items on his list of suggested readings vary in level of difficulty, so please pick and choose your readings accordingly.

As a first stab, the online Wikipedia defines "emergence" as follows:

"Emergence is the process of deriving some new and coherent structures, patterns and properties in a complex system. Emergent phenomena occur due to the pattern of interactions between the elements of a system over time. Emergent phenomena are often unexpected, nontrivial results of relatively simple interactions of relatively simple components. What distinguishes a complex system from a merely complicated one is that some behaviours and patterns emerge in complex systems as a result of the patterns of relationship between the elements."

Now, Jerry's exposition:

Prepared by Jerry LR Chandler
Dec. 28, 2004

The concept of emergence is developing as a central explicatory theme
in several central disciplines. Despite the absence of a common
definitions or a satisfactory mathematical basis, the abstraction of
emergence phenomena appears to be displacing other narratives of

The richness of the topic of Emergence vastly exceeds my abilities to
do justice to it. I merely offer a few words of introductory guidance
to place the topic in perspective and references to some thoughtful
articles available from the Internet. I believe that the concept of
emergence will eventually become the basis of a coherent philosophy of
science. At present, the topic of emergence is closer to "chaos" than

Several informal descriptions of the term "emergence" may be offered:

1. A view of the creative relations of nature in contrast to reductive
2. An explicit, clear, logical, materialistic explication of the
3. A synthetic co-mingling of scientific, historical, philosophical and
religious beliefs.
4. A synthesis of systems theory, cybernetics, mathematics and

The theme of emergence is conjoined across many disciplines by several
common abstract concepts or threads of reasoning. As a philosophy of
science, emergence transcends individual theories of various sciences.
Scientific examples come from cosmology, evolution, social and cultural
development: communications theories, information theories,
linguistics, mathematics, art, music, communications, economics,

Central Concept: Unity of history of the universe - temporal
development of various species.
Each species as a merelogical whole, emergent from relations among
Each whole, each science, can be viewed as a "code".
Emergence viewed as the construction of a sequence of codes.
Codes beget codes beget codes…

Primitive basis of Emergence: Big Bang Theory, Very very ancient
beginnings of history.
Presume a starting point and expansion of universe over extremely long
periods of time.
Presume development of universe was a continuous re-patterning of
matter in space and time.

Planetary basis of emergence:
History of earth approximated at about 4 billion years.
History of biology - approximated at 3. 7 billion years of development.
Major events in history of Earthly events: Emergence of Life, Emergence
of Multi-cellular organisms, Emergence of Consciousness.
History of man - approximated at circa 1 million years
History of symbol usage - approximately 30, 000 years.
Phases of human development from early man to present as development of symbolic codes from a variety of cues.

Attempt to construct a coherent story of nature based on unifying codes
from different sciences. Code development as "information." Concept of
a "system" - a coherent unity.

Possible attributes of emergent systems:
Not solely a mathematical theory but mathematical considerations play a
profound role.
(Mathematical theories invoked - chaos, fractals, catastrophes,
non-linear dynamics, networks, algorithms, …)

Not solely a physical theory, but physical theories provide a
simplistic beginning for early history.
Not solely a chemical theory, but the history of the earth and of
biological evolution are traced in the records of chemical species.
(Gaia Hypothesis, Lovelock)
Not solely a biological theory but organization of living systems
forces re-evaluation of the scope and meaning of "laws" of physics.
Not solely a cultural narrative or "just so story", relations among
facts (for example, chemical functions of man's body and brain are
integral to the emergence of man.)

Some references from a Google search under the term: "Emergence

The first reference is a good starting point for history of issues and
early terminology from a British perspective:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Systems Theory and Cybernetics - G. Bateson, G. Pask, J. Warfield, R.

For a high level summary of the reduction - emergence relation:

Invoked in relation to theory reduction, Hans Primas, Emergence in
exact natural science.

Invoked in downward causation: Downward Causation. Minds, Bodies and

Invoked in Sociology / Reductionism

Invoked as source of paradigm shift:

Invoked in Mind - Body problem:

Invoked by Music Therapists, Poetry therapists,

Invoked by Psychotherapists

Invoked to describe grammar, JH. L. Elman, in the "Emergence of

Invoked to explicate science / theology debate by P. Clayton:

Invoked to describe emergence of public institutions:

A huge range of further reading material is readily available from the
Internet search topic.

Be forewarned, as an emerging philosophy, the task of evaluating the
available literature is substantial.

Books worth reading:

Francois Jacob: A History of Heredity, The Logic of Life
James Lovelock, The Gaia Hyothesis
Teilhard De Chardin, The Phenomena of Man.
K. Jung, The Collective Unconscious
Harold Morowitz,, The Emergence of Everything.
S. Oyama, The Ontology of Information
Jerry LR Chandler and G. Vander Vijer, Closure.

For further discussion of some of the issues involved, it is always worth consulting our Café Philo DC Dialogue discussion list at

Best regards,

Ken Feldman
Moderator, Café Philo DC


Blogger Brian said...

Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

I have a online advertising site/blog. It pretty much covers online advertising related stuff.

Come and check it out if you get time :-)

12:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home