Join the ISN as a Summer Fellow
the week of June 15th, 2009 at MIT

UPDATE (4/27): The Conference has been called off, but the Seminar will take place as planned. Contact us if you need more information.

This summer the ISN will hold its third annual fellowship program for students called the “Summer Seminar,” followed by a small conference for the Summer Fellows (i.e., students) and scholars.

In addition to the overview below, there are also:

For photos from last year, see the schedule pages for the 2008 Seminar and 2008 Conference. More photos, as well as proposed t-shirt design, at the Facebook event.

All this information (overview, schedule, and logistics, scholarships) as well as an application form are available in the full application package (PDF); you can also download just the plain application (PDF/MSWord). Final deadline for all applications is March 16th, but those received by the initial deadline of February 23rd receive $50 off tuition.

Reduction, Emergence, and Essence

What Is This All About?

The most famously successful strategy of the natural sciences has been “divide and conquer”: reduce or split a system up into its component parts in order to understand how it works.

In contrast the past thirty years have seen a resurgence of interest in the subject of “emergence,” roughly defined as the idea that a natural whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The subject seems to inspire more questions than answers. What’s all the furor about? What is emergence, and why do so many scientists and philosophers think it important? 

Emergentists talk is of wholes as exercising “downward causation” that can’t be explained by the simple interactions of the parts. Is it all mystical babble, or a sort of “God of the gaps” explanation? Or is there a kernel of truth in the irrational-sounding talk?

To bolster their case, today’s emergentists cite examples such as the human mind, organisms, non-equilibrium thermodynamic systems, and complex systems. Do these defy reductionistic analysis? If so, how? If not, how do they disguise themselves as examples of “emergence”?

Was emergence known before modern times? If not, how was modern analysis a prerequisite? Where and how did emergence talk originate? How does that original conception compare to today’s?

The wholeness signified by emergence is reminiscent of the classical conception of stable, relatively independent wholes whose “whatness” was comprehended in the notion of essence or form. But are emergence and essence synonymous? Does the success of reduction disprove the reality of essences? Are essences vindicated by emergence? Or is the relationship between the ideas more subtle?

Is “essence” more mystical babble? But isn’t science's talk about things “essence talk”? Exactly what sort of causal powers did the ancients and medievals attribute to essences? Was it separate from the powers of the parts? But can it ever make sense to speak of an activity of a whole that does not involve its parts?

And after all this controversy, the question remains: what exactly does emergence mean anyway?

The Institute for the Study of Nature invites you to join us in a Summer Seminar the week of June 15th-19th, 2009, on the campus of MIT to begin considering these challenging questions with the care they deserve.

Honor Scholarships

Three Honor Scholarships will be awarded that include full tuition, room, and board. The scholarship application consists of the standard Seminar application package, plus a basic five-paragraph-style essay, not to exceed three pages in length, addressing the following questions:

Why is analysis into parts such a successful strategy for understanding natural things? What are the limits of this strategy?

The essays will be judged on clarity and thoroughness of reasoning, not on the particular conclusion reached.

To Apply

Look here for forms and requirements. Final deadline for all applications (including scholarship essays) is Monday, March 16th, 2009. A discount of $50 off tuition for applications received by the initial deadline of Monday, February 23.

Help Us Promote the Seminar!

We've a number of items you can download and print up to spread the word about the ISN Summer Seminar.

  1. Letter-sized poster
  2. Letter-sized poster (colorful)
  3. Letter-sized tri-fold brochure (standard/with flipped back page)
    1. standard
    2. flipped
  4. Letter-sized Conference poster
  5. Seminar materials with alternative text better suited to Great Books schools:
    1. Letter-sized Seminar poster
    2. Colorful letter-sized Seminar poster
    3. Brochure (flipped)

This page last updated on April 27, 2009