Interrogating Dichotomies in the Arts & Sciences: panel discussion with Susan Oyama, Victoria N. Alexander & Sharon Lattig

November 8th 2002, 2-4 pm

CUNY Graduate Center

A panel discussion on new ways of interrogating dichotomies in the sciences Hosted at CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, Room 5409, by the 20th Century Group & Dactyl Foundation Panelists:

Susan Oyama is Professor of Psychology, Emerita, at John Jay College, and at the CUNY Graduate Center, New York City. Books include Cycles of Contingency, Developmental Systems and Evolution and Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide.

Victoria N. Alexander (Ph.D. in English, CUNY, GC) is co-founder and director of the Dactyl Foundation for the Arts & Humanities in New York City. She has published a number of articles on intentionality/teleology, evolution, complexity, and literature and her most recent novel, Naked Singularity, explores these themes in literary form. Part of her dissertation research (on Narrative Theory and Philosophy of Science) was undertaken at the Santa Fe Institute (, the premier center for the complexity sciences. Her various honors and awards include a Rockefeller Foundation Residency (Bellagio, Italy), Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women Fellowship, Alfred Kazin Award for Best Dissertation (CUNY), and the Washington Prize for Fiction.

Sharon Lattig is at present a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her dissertation, under the direction of Joan Richardson, attempts to forge a theory of the lyric genre informed by recent work in neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and deterministic chaos. Ms. Lattig has taught literature and creative writing at City College and the College of Staten Island. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from City College where she studied with Ann Lauterbach. Her own poetry has appeared in various journals.

The Twentieth Century Studies Group was founded in the fall of 2000 in order to serve those members of the GSUC community who do work in or related to twentieth century studies. We are an interdisciplinary, student-run organization interested in bringing together people from different disciplines (the hard sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, the arts) in order to share their work.


Sharon Lattig

Embedding Metaphor: On the Verge of Inside Out

Abstract: It has long been held that metaphors in some way reflect cognitive processes. This talk brings neurological evidence to bear on the widespread claim for the figure’s centrality to thought. I argue that the dynamic at stake in metaphor, distilled from several prominent theories, is homologous to the neurodynamical understanding of the brain’s transformation of raw sense data into percepts, that is, the mechanism by which mind relates itself to the world.

Victoria N. Alexander

Sacred/Secular: The Epiphenomenal in the Post “Post-classical” Era of Science

The “sacred” is literally that which is set aside for the gods. As a literary theorist who works with science, I would like to limit the definition of the sacred to that which cannot be explained by scientific reductionism. A sacred object might have an effect or use that cannot be fully understood through secular — temporal, worldly — experience, and thus necessitates a status distinct from the profane. In this view, sacred objects may be thought to achieve their effects by means of some sort of irreducible mental activity, an act of faith, or inspired interpretation.

I would also like to distinguish between two types of the sacred. On the one hand, there are objects that have once been the site of an apparent miracle and thus earn the designation sacred. They become associated with effects that cannot be described reductively and could not have been predicted by universal laws — mainly because they involve interpretations of coincidences. For example, in a place of worship parishioners experience unexplained joy, feelings of relief, or even recovery from illness. The site is considered sacred because the coincidence of entering the church and the emotional or physical condition that follows is interpreted as objectively and directly correlated.[1] On the other hand, other kinds of irreducible phenomena — for example, human consciousness or the kind of self-organized complexity that characterizes life — may also be considered sacred. These so-called “emergent” phenomena involve stochastically interacting parts that spontaneously form organized wholes. These wholes are interpretive contexts in which the parts function. Despite attempts of classical determinists to prove otherwise, it is now generally accepted in the sciences that the relationship of the parts to the whole cannot be understood reductively.

Although the study of epiphenomena or “emergence” (both of deterministic chaos and of self-organization) has had much critical attention in science and philosophy since the early nineties, most cases have not gone beyond epistemological emergence.[2] Epistemological emergence is based on the fact that it appears to be impossible to understand the “global” behavior of a complex system by analyzing the “local” behavior of the individual parts. Thus, complexity scientists study and compare the qualitative behaviors of different dynamical systems.[3] As many literary and cultural theorists have pointed out, the fact that some scientists speak qualitatively rather than quantitatively means that science now regards its models as metaphors and tools, informative as heuristic devices perhaps, but in no way reflecting the absolute truth of the object under study. This qualitative approach is not essentially different from the nonreductive approach of, say, the 19th century German teleomechanists, who also argued that qualitative assessments of emergent phenomena (intentionality in organisms, for example) were both unavoidable and informative, if not empirically verifiable. Emergence that is defined merely qualitatively is epistemological emergence. Thus understood it is a mere epiphenomenon. A case for ontological emergence would require a quantitative definition of emergent properties.

A team of theoretical physicists at the Santa Fe Institute led by James P. Crutchfield claim it is possible to analyze emergent phenomena quantitatively rather than qualitatively. Crutchfield was one of the original investigators of deterministic chaos some twenty years ago, and he has now begun to formulate the first theory of pattern discovery, meaning, and emergence.  Instead of interpreting a data stream according to a given model, Crutchfield argues that scientists should look at a model stream. The regularities found in the way a model improves with learning will become the basis of conceiving universal laws regulating how complexity emerges from the interplay of disorder and order.[4] In this way, emergence of an organizing self is defined by the process itself not by an outside observer imposing his or her interpretation on the system.

Crutchfield’s research in computational mechanics investigates the way nature computes or processes information. He and his group have revolutionized the way we may think about meaning and representation. Computational mechanics offers a theory of theory building. Crutchfield went so far as to announce at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston February 2002 that the “problem of representation has been solved.” Such an assertion, if true, would certainly be of interest to humanities studies. With his new approach, argues Crutchfield, the mode of representation — the language — used to describe a system under study is defined by the system itself. This represents an objection to postmodern theories, which have supposed that, since all models of the world are constructed by language, they are subjective.

Before computational mechanics, an emergent pattern (which defines a self-organized system as such) was recognized by an observer who, looking at the data, imposed a preconceived model upon the pattern. We might also say that the observer was able to recognize the pattern only because he or she had a ready-made model that happened to fit the data. Thus, one could not say the model of the pattern was objective. This is as postmodernists have claimed. The pattern would be, in some sense, constructed by the observer’s model. But Crutchfield’s approach is to fold the observer into the system, so to speak. Now the “model” of the pattern is found in what is called the “causal architecture” of the dynamical process itself, that is, the procedure that produces the pattern. Scientists now examine how the causal architecture changes in time, and this becomes the model of the process. As Jeffery Goldstein puts it, Crutchfield’s

defining emergence in terms of an intrinsic computational capacity raises all sorts of scientific and philosophical issues, such as the philosopher John Searle’s (1994) contention that computational capacity always contains an external connection so that it is not really totally an intrinsic property. Crutchfield’s postulation … points to how emergence has the potential of generating self-maintaining mechanisms that serve to distinguish it from subjective impressions, serendipitous novelty, or merely epiphenomenal activity.[5]

The importance of Crutchfield’s findings in terms of the sacred and the secular (what is off-limits to science and what is not) cannot be overstated.

So then, we may have a way of understanding transcendence in scientific, but not reductive, terms. If this changes our notions of the secular and sacred, the change is neither traumatic nor problematic. Computational mechanics provides an unexpectedly smooth solution to an old problem. Crutchfield’s notion of intrinsic emergence allows one to attribute relative objectivity to irreducible phenomena, which I have associated with the second type of sacred. The first type of sacred phenomena are not, perhaps, as readily absorbed by this new kind of science, mainly because they involve interpretations of the kinds of patterns that occur once rather than interpretations of patterns that tend to be repeatable. It is not possible to assign a quantitative value to the way successive models of a functional relationship change over time if the phenomenon only occurs once. Nevertheless, the argument that interpretive contexts do result in relatively objective effects can be applied, in theory, to singular phenomena as well. Crutchfield’s current research focuses on this, which he refers to as extrinsic emergence.

Although there can be little doubt as to the novelty of computational mechanics, if one takes a wider historical perspective, in some sense we have actually arrived back at one of the oldest ways of investigating the relationship between the sacred and the secular. Artists have often supposed that their models, based on changing layers of experience constantly interacting, illustrated the transcendent, the whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Typically, the position taken by artists on the sacred and the secular had appeared to be an anomalous one.  With 21st century hindsight, this no longer appears to be the case.

Henry James expresses an idea similar to Crutchfield’s in “The Art of Fiction” (1884).[6] In Crutchfield’s view, a self-organized system is composed of interacting parts whose collective behavior exhibits increased structural complexity, a global effect, or an epiphenomenon. Although no observing/interpreting part “knows” the whole global pattern as such, Crutchfield argues that there is evidence that the pattern has been indirectly communicated to the local level because there is a change in their behaviors, which become amodel of the whole. Similarly, James argues that a novelist (a local observer) who records and accumulates impressions (or models) can understand something of the truth of whatever is being represented (a global effect). Furthermore, for James as with Crutchfield, the emergent pattern (a relatively objective truth) is to be found in the dynamical nature of the interpretive process itself.  As James claims, stressing the recursiveness of the observation process, the “cluster of gifts” that “constitute experience” gives one the “power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern” (53).

In place of the dichotomy between the sacred/secular forms of understanding there is an aesthetic understanding.