Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kent to Frank, August 16

Kent's response was, as usual, thoughtful, thorough and pleasurably kind and generous at the end. I am enjoying this a lot.

Hi Frank,

I think you've touched on the weakest point in the argument which opposes a city being a literal organism.  Atoms and molecules are not felt to be alive, and yet when assembled into a cell these same molecules suddenly are felt to be alive.  It doesn't seem logically consistent to deny life when assembled one way and to acknowledge life when assembled another way.

So likewise, the argument could go, which is the way I see you arguing, why couldn't the same thing apply to cities. Yes, the individual components of a city, such as roads, buildings, etc. are not alive, yet when assembled together are alive.

We all recognize life when we see it, but it's hard to come up with a definition which includes all forms considered to be alive and excludes all forms not considered to be life.

Here's part of the write-up in the Wikipedia article on "life."  I'm including this in order to try to come up with common ground about the definition of life.

It is still a challenge for scientists and philosophers to define life in unequivocal terms.[12][13][14] Defining life is difficult-in part-because life is a process, not a pure substance.[15] Any definition must be sufficiently broad to encompass all life with which we are familiar, and it should be sufficiently general that, with it, scientists would not miss life that may be fundamentally different from life on Earth.[16]


Since there is no unequivocal definition of life, the current understanding is descriptive, where life is a characteristic of organisms that exhibit all or most of the following phenomena:[15][17]

1.. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature.
2.. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life.
3.. Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
4.. Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
5.. Adaptation: The ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity as well as the composition of metabolized substances, and external factors present.
6.. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion, for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism) and by chemotaxis.
7.. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.
To reflect the minimum phenomena required, some have proposed other biological definitions of life:

a.. Living things are systems that tend to respond to changes in their environment, and inside themselves, in such a way as to promote their own continuation.[citation needed]
b.. A network of inferior negative feedbacks (regulatory mechanisms) subordinated to a superior positive feedback (potential of expansion, reproduction).[18]
c.. A systemic definition of life is that living things are self-organizing and autopoietic (self-producing). Variations of this definition include Stuart Kauffman's definition as an autonomous agent or a multi-agent system capable of reproducing itself or themselves, and of completing at least one thermodynamic work cycle.[19]
d.. Life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.[20]
e.. Things with the capacity for metabolism and motion.[15]
f.. Life is a delay of the spontaneous diffusion or dispersion of the internal energy of the biomolecules towards more potential microstates.[21]
g.. Living beings are thermodynamic systems that have an organized molecular structure.[21]

From the discussion at Wikipedia, the two areas where I see a metropolis as an organism failing to meet the criteria of life is that a city is not literally composed of cells (as brought out in point #2 in the section about organization), and that if "life is a sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution," which is brought out in the section under proposed guidelines of a definition of life, then a metropolis organism would not meet that criterion either.

To go back to your original comments in the email about whether I see humans somehow transcending biology, I would be inclined to say "yes," but I would have a hard time proving that humans transcend  biology.

But I find such a line of reasoning also undercuts a metropolis as being an organism as well.  I would argue that humans do indeed somehow transcend biology, and it seems you would argue that a metropolis also somehow transcends biology for it to be alive as well.   Or another way of putting it, I see that a human is not part of a larger organism, and I think you would move that boundary in order to consider cities not being part of a larger organism.

To be consistently logical, it would seem that we would need to say that there is no life whatsoever, and thus only recognize that everything in the universe is deterministic atoms and energy particles bumping around, or the reverse; we would have to say that if humans and cities are organisms, and that even the building blocks of life, which are atoms, must also be alive.

Historically it seems that mankind has looked at all of existence as being alive--- meaning the rocks and waves as well as people are alive, and that only in modern times have we split off most matter as not being alive. Humanity has basically had an animistic or polytheistic viewpoint that even a rock has a rudimentary spirit or life-force.  For example, until only about 150 years ago the concept of vitalism taught that through spontaneous generation that a rotting corpse could spontaneously generate flies---  meaning something dead generating something alive.

But as I've been writing in these emails, it seems that the old idea of humans or other animals as not being part of any higher or greater collective system of life is giving way to your idea about cities literally being alive--- meaning that we appear to be moving towards transhumanism which is radically altering how we perceive and define what life is--- as machines are being melded with humans and other life forms.  When a robot will be able to do everything a human can do, it will be hard to deny that the robot is alive.

I would be pleased to see the film by one of your students which you mentioned. I look forward to receiving the link when it is posted.

I think being involved in film like you are is a very creative and rewarding life.

I occasionally tell my artist or musician friends that I heal people only one person at a time, but people like yourself can heal a whole group of people all at once when a whole room full of people can watch an uplifting film or listen to a health-giving piece of music.

Sincerely, Kent

Frank to Kent on August 10 & 12

Kent's email was so rich and there were so many thoughtful ideas that I had to punt and take time to think about what he had said. He was pulling me off my argument but I felt there was wisdom in his point of view and I want to hear what he was saying above the din of my own agenda.

August 10:

Hi Kent, thanks for all your thoughts. You have given e me lot to think about. I certainly want to 'hear' you above the noisy ramblings of my own brain. What you write is intriguing and worth thinking about. So I will be mulling on this especially while on vacation at our cottage in Canada.

Tonight is the 16MM film festival, the final screenings of my film students at the School of Visual Arts. In 9 short weeks they must learn how to use an ancient Bolex camera and shoot and edit a film. We, along with the guests, focus on what we like about the films, or debate the idea put forward. No critics allowed. There are always surprises and usually a very good film or two.

Then I thought of a question to ask him that would bring us back to my thesis and help me understand why he rejected the Metropolis Organism thesis.

August 12:

Hi Kent,

While meditating on your last email, I though of a couple of questions more inline with your first email.

If a city was an organism, what would that mean to you?

And, when you say that you wind up seeing the idea of a city as an organism as a metaphor, not a real organism, I assume that you see humans, though being an organism and composed of organisms or organic elements, somehow biologically transcending ordinary organic status, and therefor not able to be part of a larger organism. I'll repeat this convoluted question in some different ways if it is confusing: do humans somehow transcend biology? Am I getting at why you reject the idea that a city is a biological organism?

By the way, one of my film students, a brave 19 year old woman from Germany, did a fabulous film for the class. When I post it I'll send you a link.

From Kent Barshov on August 5, 2011

Kent wrote back to me a thoughtful email that contained ideas in the philosophy of science and his own philosophy of life and medicine:

Hi Frank,
This is in response to your email to me which originated at the Starbucks in Nyack.
It seems what we are debating and discussing between us is how to live out our lives in the face of the seeming or even real contradiction between determinism and free will--- meaning that we won't solve the contradiction, but we can talk about which way is the most fruitful in dealing with the contradiction.
I like you have had training in science and yet also feel an attraction towards the liberal arts; likewise, I enjoy philosophical discussions.
A well-known quotation from philosophy teachers is the quip that all of philosophy is simply a footnote to Plato--- meaning that for Western culture, all philosophy is contained in kernel-form in Plato and then expanded or modified down through the centuries.
Because of my day-to-day work in dealing with people in the context of physicality, I often turn towards medical understandings of things, which I feel is proper, because for me medicine is  like the Archimedean lever and fulcrum upon which we turn and move all other things.  Yes, astronomy has debunked man's earth--- and hence man--- from being the center of the universe, and quantum mechanics grounds our being in mysterious clouds of probability and uncertainty, but practically we are still at the center of things--- at least in how we live our lives.
The medical notion that immediately comes to mind is that of the left brain/ right brain divide: the LOGICAL vs the Artistic.  The logical says that all is determined; the artistic says that we have free will.   Plato was the artist and his student Aristotle was the logician.   For me, philosophy is like an endless argument back and forth between Platonists and Aristotelians.  But we carry that philosophical divide within our own being between our two cerebral hemispheres.
The doctor who taught me the soul of medicine relates that the left brain/ right brain divide moves into unity when we are being creative.  He writes how in his opinion, play is one of the highest forms of human activity.
Your e-book Metropolis Organism contained the sop to our logical side by writing prose with a neutral, dispassionate tone, but then you filled your e-book with striking photographs and videos which call our artistic side to wake up and pay attention.  For me, reading your book was like going out and playing, and in that playing I could perceive what you are getting at---- it would be hard for me to explain what I felt, but it's easier just to operate in the feeling.  
Here are some of the lines in your email which particularly struck me:

When you choose to think of a city as organism as a metaphor, it is implicit that you feel you have to choose between either a city is an organism or a city is not an organism. That makes perfect sense on the surface but I think it is more complicated than that.
My foundation for approaching dilemnas is that all knowledge and all existence is one--- meaning, for example where there is a perceived difference between science and religion, it's due to our lack of understanding and not a real difference.   The two cerebral hemispheres exist, but a higher order of existence is that both hemispheres are actually interconnected, and this interconnectivity is most easily activated through creativity and play--- through the words of the lyrics in conjunction with the music.  Or another way of putting it, science and religion are at loggerheads, but at a deeper level are one.   For Aquinas, the fountain of philosophy until this day, whether acknowledged or not, is an example of one who tried to unify all knowledge into one grand scheme.  I don't feel he really succeeded, but I feel he was on the right path.
Or another classic example, whether light is corpuscular or wavelike.    In my way of perceiving it, although in some instances light is definitely little packages of photons, and in other instances it moves in waves, it is not really a particle nor a wave, but something of a higher order which we as humans find difficult to comprehend.    I think most of us live our lives out of our left-brain--- because that's how Western culture has been built since the time of the Greeks and Romans, which we are the inheritors.   Creative writers, artists and musicians are a saving grace which provides some measure of balance.  But in my heart of hearts I feel that we should be living in creative balance. My medical mentor calls it living by being aware of the belovedness of all things.  Another way of saying it is that a life of creativity is Love.

On to another line:
Though people still debate the Determinism Dilemma, I think it is time to accept the results of our philosophical investigations "without further appeal."  We are both free and determined. Having spent some time with this result, it seems obvious that we don't have any other choice and that rather than debating the dilemma our time would be better spent trying to find out how contradictory realties can exist.
 What I would want to say here is that, to simplify things for the sake of this discussion, it's a left-brain approach that something is "either-or," and it's a right-brain approach which is comfortable with "both-and."   But what I would like to say is that it's somehow more than "either-or" or "both-and."     That's more of a right-brain statement, but so be it.  

And another line:
 Philosopher of science Ernest Nagle described theoretical science as looking at "the relations of dependence among things irrespective to their bearing on human values."
This is of course one of the lines you begin your e-book with.  I find Ernest Nagle's statement to be a left-brain statement, which I guess is a badge which theoretical science would proudly wear.  For me, running totally along a left-track or a right brain track at some point exhaust its fruitfulness, which then needs to be brought into a creative synthesis between the two tracks.  
To reiterate, your e-book's written sentences were left brain, your videos and pictures were right brain, and then in the end you touched on transhumanism and a hope we would live better lives, which is a call for creativity.
An area where you could expand your book is in the "so what?" category--- meaning, OK, if cities have a reality as a metropolis organism independent of humans, what difference does it make for our lives? I realize that there is pure science for science's sake, without any current utilitarian justification. I realize that you can leave your book as it is and let us come up with the "so what?"  It seems that your concluding your e-book with transhumanistic ideas--- the combining of the machine and the human--- would be where you see the metropolis organism heading.

Here are a couple books which also come to mind in discussing all this.  I picked up this book several years ago but have really read only the first few pages.  It's entitled The Robot's Rebellion (University of Chicago Press) by the psychologist Keith Stanovich (his title when he wrote the book: Canada Research Chair in Applied Cognitive Science at the Univ. of Toronto); published in 2004.  To me it's a dry, somewhat dully written book, but sometimes I make myself plough through such materials.
The line in his book, on the first page of the introduction, which drew me in was: "The purpose of this book is to explain to the general reader the conceptual reorientations that the biological and human sciences are forcing upon us."  I'm not sure I would agree with this author, but I like reading things that challenge what I think or belief.

Another pertinent book which I have read cover-to-cover is this book: Anatomy of the Soul by the psychiatrist Curt Thompson, MD (2010).
A line that strikes me as I'm thumbing through his book for this email is: "When we ask the question 'why?' we're not so much looking for a left-brain explanation (that is generally an answer to a 'how' question) as we are seeking validation for feelings that feel far too overwhelming to be understood. We use why as a substitute for the difficult work needed to integrate our right and lower brain emotional states with our left hemisphere linguistic function."

Here's a photographic of Dr. Curt Thompson

And finally, since this round of emails was generated at Starbucks, I thought you would like to read the following article which came out a few years ago. It's written by Howard Schultz, one of the founding partners of Starbucks.
So, I sincerely submit all this to you,

A Blanket of Trust

I grew up in federally subsidized housing in Brooklyn. I was part of a generation of families that dreamed about the American dream. My dad had a series of blue-collar jobs. An uneducated man, he was kind of beaten by the system. He was a World War II veteran who had great aspirations about America, but his dream was not coming true.
At the age of seven, I came home one day to find my dad sprawled on the couch in our two-bedroom apartment in a full-leg cast; he had fallen on the job and broken his leg. This was way before the invention of Pampers, and he worked as a delivery driver for cloth diapers. He hated this job bitterly, but on this one day, he wished he had it back. In 1960 in America, most companies had no workers’ compensation and no hospitalization for a blue-collar worker who had an accident. I saw firsthand the plight of the working class.
That experience had a significant effect on how I see the world. When I got into a position of responsibility at Starbucks, what I wanted to try to do was build a kind of company that my father never got a chance to work for.
We at Starbucks have been trying to create an industry that did not exist, and a kind of brand that was very unusual. One real anomaly is that we have spent very little on advertising. We’ve had corporate executives try to understand how a brand could become so powerful and ubiquitous with so little promotion. The truth is we had no money to advertise, so we had to figure out a different way. We said to ourselves that if we wanted to build a large enterprise and a brand that had meaning, relevance and trust for all its constituencies, then we first had to build trust with our employees. So we tried to co-author a strategy in which those who worked for the business were really part of something. As a result, in 1989 we began to provide equity in the form of stock options to our employees.
When we did this, we had a couple hundred employees and fewer than 50 stores. Today, we have close to 50,000 employees, whom we call partners, and we will open up our 3,500th store at the end of this month. We have built, I think, an enduring business upon a premise that says the experience that we create inside our company will be the defining mechanism of building our brand. We said we must first take care of our people.
It’s critically important in building a business that every single strategic decision go into the imprinting of that brand. If you don’t tell the truth to some constituency, you can’t later say that decision just didn’t matter. Everything matters. A business must be built on a set of values, a foundation that’s authentic, so you can look in the mirror and be proud of what’s going on.
Recently I was walking down a street in London that was a very high-fashion piece of real estate. It had one designer store after another. Expensive stores, expensive rents. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a storefront that just did not fit. It was about 12 feet wide, and no more than a 500 square foot store. In the midst of all these fancy signs and fancy stores, this store had one word on top of the door: “Cheese.” I couldn’t figure out what it was, so, curious, I went in.
Behind the counter was a poorly dressed 70-year old guy, and I was the only customer. As soon as I walked in, he came to life. I said, “I don’t know much about London, but it appears to me that this store really doesn’t fit on this street.” He replied, “Many people have said that to me, young man. But the truth is, it’s been here over 100 years.”
I said, “I’m sure you can make a lot more money on this store if you leased it or you sold your business.” He replied, “Well, I wouldn’t lease it because I own the building. The legacy, responsibility and pride that I have is to the generations of my family who have come before me. That is why I come to work every day to be a purveyor of cheese to honor the people who’ve come before me.”
The cheese just came to life with his words.
Think about all our experiences every day. How often does anybody honor us as a consumer? Rarely. But when it does happen, the power of the human spirit really does come through. At the end of the day, when business is really good, it’s not about building a brand or making money. That’s a means to an end. It’s about honoring the human spirit, honoring the people who work in the business and honoring the customer.
When I was in Israel, I went to Mea Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox area within Jerusalem. Along with a group of businessmen I was with, I had the opportunity to have an audience with Rabbi Finkel, the head of a yeshiva there. I had never heard of him and didn’t know anything about him. We went into his study and waited ten to 15 minutes for him. Finally, the doors opened.
What we did not know was that Rabbi Finkel was severely afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. He sat down at the head of the table, and, naturally, our inclination was to look away. We didn’t want to embarrass him.
We were all looking away, and we heard this big bang on the table: “Gentlemen, look at me, and look at me right now.” Now his speech affliction was worse than his physical shaking. It was really hard to listen to him and watch him. He said, “I have only a few minutes for you because I know you’re all busy American businessmen.” You know, just a little dig there.
Then he asked, “Who can tell me what the lesson of the Holocaust is?” He called on one guy, who didn’t know what to do-it was like being called on in the fifth grade without the answer. And the guy says something benign like, “We will never, ever forget?” And the rabbi completely dismisses him. I felt terrible for the guy until I realized the rabbi was getting ready to call on someone else. All of us were sort of under the table, looking away-you know, please, not me. He did not call me. I was sweating. He called on another guy, who had such a fantastic answer: “We will never, ever again be a victim or bystander.”
The rabbi said, “You guys just don’t get it. Okay, gentlemen, let me tell you the essence of the human spirit.
“As you know, during the Holocaust, the people were transported in the worst possible, inhumane way by railcar. They thought they were going to a work camp. We all know they were going to a death camp.
“After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep.
“As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, ‘Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?’”
And Rabbi Finkel says, “It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others.”
And with that, he stood up and said, “Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people.”
by  Howard Schultz

(His photograph below.)

Response to Kent Barshov

I responded to Kent on July 30th:

Hi Kent,
Thank you so much for the thorough response to The Metropolis Organism. I appreciate the positive comments you made on the book and also the references you brought into the discussion.
I have read about Brand before but the series How Buildings Learn is new to me. I watched the first episode and look forward to watching more. The title reminds me of a book that came out recently by Kevin Kelly titled What Technology Wants. I bought it and loved the lengthy introduction but had trouble with the rest of the book for reasons that I will explain later. I had read a little on transhumanism but not sure if I have read anything about Arth. I'll keep an eye out for his film and for Baraka.
I fully understand your feeling that the idea of a city as an organism is good as a metaphor but nothing more. However, the purpose of my book is to move the idea beyond that. I'd like to tell you some of my philosophical narrative and hear what you think.
When you choose to think of a city as organism as a metaphor, it is implicit that you feel you have to choose between either a city is an organism or a city is not an organism. That makes perfect sense on the surface but I think it is more complicated than that.
Let me go back almost 50 years to when I first discovered physics in high school. I fell in love with physics and was a wiz at it. But it didn't take long before I discovered the deterministic implications of physics. I was flying high intellectually at the time and the determinism dilemma brought me crashing down. I had been able to figure out so much, why couldn't I figure out what was wrong with this apparent conflict between science and the free will I knew I had?
I spent 10 years struggling with the Determinism Dilemma. I thought it was because I was dumb or twisted, so I was greatly relieved when I discovered philosophy of science and learned that the great philosophers through the centuries had struggled with the dilemma and had gotten nowhere with it.
During that time I read nobel laureate Peter Medawar's The Limits of Science. Like many, I thought that the power of science was limitless. But Medawar sowed me that science has clear limits. As he says 'science is a house with empirical furniture.' It can tell us anything about physical, measurable things. But it can tell us absolutely nothing about non-empirical things, like where we came from, the purpose of life, in short anything spiritual.
Next I made something I call the Einstein Maneuver. In the early part of the 20th Century experimental physics kept giving apparently contradictory results. They did experiment after experiment trying to resolve the contradiction. The stunning thing that Einstein did was to accept the contradictory results "without further appeal" and he made them the primacies of his new theory.
My maneuver was to accept that I both had freewill and didn't. From my humanistic perspective, I have freewill. From the perspective of science I do not. I was greatly gratified when I came across the book of another Nobel Laureate, physicist Erwin Schrodinger. In his book What Is Life? He eloquently summed up my point of view:
“(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.
         (ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, by which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.”
Though people still debate the Determinism Dilemma, I think it is time to accept the results of our philosophical investigations "without further appeal." We are both free and determined. Having spent some time with this result, it seems obvious that we don't have any other choice and that rather than debating the dilemma our time would be better spent trying to find out how contradictory realties can exist. I have my own speculative thoughts that have to do with the nature of science, but I don't think they are germane to the point I am trying to make.
In my mind I have separated scientific reality and humanistic reality. They are independent and have nothing to do with each other. I think mixing these two worlds up is confusing and not productive. For example, there are evolutionists and creationists arguments everywhere. I think these discussions are pointless. Evolution is in the domain of science and creationism is in the domain of humanistic spirituality and they have nothing to do with each other. Philosopher of science Ernest Nagle described theoretical science as looking at "the relations of dependence among things irrespective to their bearing on human values." (my italics) Probably the greatest philosopher of science, Karl Popper, wrote, "It is important to realize that science does not make assertions about ultimate questions – about the riddles of existence, or about man’s task in this world. This has often been well understood. But some great scientists, and many lesser ones, have misunderstood the situation. The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles while in fact the search for truth    presupposes ethics.”
So, it is from the perspective of science that I say that cities are organisms.
As I write to you from the Starbucks in Nyack, NY, I hope this finds you well. I want you to know that I very much appreciate having someone to discuss this with.
All best,

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thoughts, critique and references by Kent Barshov

Kent Barshov, an American born physician practicing medicine in Israel bought my eBook The Metropolis Organism and wrote the following thoughtful and thorough response:

Frank, greetings

I eagerly and quickly read through your enhanced e-book on the metropolis organism shortly after it arrived in my in-box.  That was almost a month ago, and since then I've flown to American and back (from my home in Israel) and so I had opportunity once again to look at various cities and cityscapes from the air.

My printer at home doesn't function the best, so it's hard for me to print out a hard copy of your book. Normally in responding to your ideas, I would have underlined things here and there in order to respond point by point. Since I haven't done that, I'm responding with a few notes I jotted down as I was reading your book.

I am a physician and so have had training in biology both as an undergraduate and during medical school (where biology morphs into being looked at as physiology, pathology, etc.).

I loved your gallery of photographs of different cities around the world, and your illustrations and short videos as a whole throughout your work. I, like you, just enjoy looking at such things.

I loved your metaphor of looking at cities as a species of an organism. For me that concept as a metaphor is almost self-evident. For example, journal advertisements in the medical profession, to sell a drug or a new procedure, are often based on how a cell or human body is like a city--- so that idea is rather common, if underutilized.

Also historically there's the idea of how a human body is a microcosm of the greater universe or macrocosm. To my knowledge this metaphor was at it peak during the early days of the scientific revolution in the 1600s. So I see that your city as organism is conceptually close to the historic microcosm-macrocosm idea.

I typed in "body as a city" in Google images and this is one of the things I found. It's not exactly an illustration from a medical advertisement, but it gets the idea across. The image shows how a monitoring system is like the human circulation.

On my gut level I don't literally accept that cities are an organism, but I recognize the power and beauty of the metaphor.  But I realize there are some scientists who are conceptually close to what you're driving at.  For example, there is the idea fostered by sociobiologist E.O. Wilson that an ant colony simply serves to foster its gene pool and the whole colony itself could be looked at as being a single super-organism.  Then there's the idea of the Gaia hypothesis that the whole earth is a single organism.

Also the mathematical concept of fractals as applied to biological phenomena gives beautiful insights into how self-similar structures appear from microscopic to macroscopic levels.  The veins in a leaf are replicated in the tributaries of a river, etc.

Would you apply your same logic to looking at a termite mound or beehive as you do to cities?---- that termites or bees are not the creators of their collective homes?

Ultimately I don't believe in city-as-an-organism, microcosm-macrocosm, Gaia hypothesis or sociobiology. I see their power and beauty as metaphors, but at the end of the day I accept them only as metaphors.

I've studied Marshall McLuhan's thought about how communication-instruments are tools which shape the user, and about his concept of the whole world becoming a "global village."  For me, more than individual cities being separate organisms, I think we are moving into a stage that the whole planet will function like a single city, and thus I see that we're moving closer to the conceptual framework of the Gaia hypothesis--- which again for me functions as a metaphor rather than an external, objective reality.

Also a New Urbanist by the name Michael Arth has put out a documentary film about his urban rehabilitation of a neighborhood in a city in central Florida. Here is part of a review of the film on "Amazon" which combines some of Marshall McLuhan's thought and the transhumanistic ideas with which you end your book "Metropolis Organism."
Quotation from film review:

This finally leads into the subject that the "New Urban Cowboy" is the first in a trilogy of films under production by Arth. The second film is to be about the "Twelve Labors of Hercules" on how to approach some of the world's most pressing problems, and the third film is to be about the ultimate extension of what Arth labels as his own personal philosophy, which is "Secular Transhumanism"--- which is in part the using of technology to transcend current boundaries in human life. In this Arth was preceded by the 1960s media-analyst Marshall McLuhan who was quoted as saying that "the computer holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the 'logos' that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace." The rejoinder by McLuhan's interviewer was that "Isn't this projection of an electronically induced world-consciousness more mystical than technological?" To which McLuhan replied, "Yes--- as mystical as most advanced theories of modern nuclear physics. Mysticism is just tomorrow's science dreamed today."
As I mentioned in my initial previous email to you, I love cities and urban planning, and so I'm very glad to have obtained your enhanced e-book for a case beautifully presented.

You've probably come across the movie "Baraka" (from 1992) which is a "non-narrative" film. There are a few scenes of urban life which are looked at abstractly.These scenes in "Baraka" are to me are almost hypnotically beautiful. If you haven't seen the film, I think you would really enjoy seeing the urban scenes.

Also, there's a TV documentary series which is available to be seen for free on the internet. The TV series on "How Buildings Learn" was made by Steward Brand.  I think you would enjoy watching the series.  Stewart Brand's first claim to fame was putting out the "Whole Earth Catalogue" back in the early days of the ecology movement.

A statement you made on page 128 of your book is the closest area where I come into agreement with you. You wrote: "There is a force animating germination and growth of cities. It is the same unknown force that breathed life into the lifeless inorganic molecules swirling in the primordial sea four billion years ago. I have no idea what that force is, but I know it exists. I call that force the biological imperative."

I leave you with two extensive collections of information. The first is a write-up with links to watch the TV series by Stewart Brand, and the second is a write-up about transhumanism by Michael Arth.

I hope you enjoy this material.  Sincerely, Kent Bar-Shov

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built
By Stewart Brand

The following was written by Steward Brand:

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno. The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They're Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that's part of why I wrote the book. Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don't bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project. Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital--- shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That's why the sound is a little sketchy, but there's also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual. __________________________________________________________________

Part 1:  "Flow"

Part 2: "The Low Road"


Part 3: "Built for Change"  (Includes the line: "a building is not something you finish; a building is something you start." )

Part 4: "Unreal Estate"

Part 5: "The Romance of Maintenance"

Part 6: "Shearing Layers"

(Book Review)

How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. 1994. New York: Viking Penguin.

All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong. There's no escape from this grim syllogism, but it can be softened.

From these words, Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has crafted a book that calls forth memo-ries of several other writers (e.g., J. B. Jackson's Dis-covering the Vernacular Landscape and Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House), while still being an im-portant new addition to architectural theory. Writing in a hip, management-theory style filled with acronyms and alliteration, Brand banters his way into real insights about the nature of change in buildings that so often seem permanent.

Brand presents his basic argument in an early chapter, "Shearing Layers," which argues that any building is actually a hierarchy of pieces, each of which inherently changes at different rates. In his business-consulting manner, he calls these the "Six S's" (borrowed in part from British architect and historian F. Duffy's "Four S's" of capital investment in build-ings).

The Site is eternal; the Structure is good for 30 to 300 years ("but few buildings make it past 60, for other reasons"); the Skin now changes every 15 to 20 years due to both weathering and fashion; the Services (wiring, plumbing, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling) change every seven to 15 years, perhaps faster in more technological settings; Space Planning, the inte-rior partitioning and pedestrian flow, changes every two or three years in offices and lasts perhaps 30 years in the most stable homes; and the innermost layers of Stuff (furnishings) change continually.

Brand is still an ecologist at heart, and he draws on what is called an hierarchical concept of ecosystems to surmise that the slow-to-change elements of the build-ing drive the quick-to-change--the site is a determinant of structure, the structure drives the skin, and so on down to the level of furniture:

A design imperative emerges: An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff. Otherwise the slow sys-tems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the oppo-site, and destructive as well. Thus, pouring concrete on the ground for an instant foundation ("slab-on-grade") is maladaptive--pipes are foolishly buried, and there's no basement space for stor-age, expansion, maintenance, and Services access. Timber-frame buildings, on the other hand, conveniently separate Structure, Skin, and Services, while balloon-frame (standard stud construc-tion) over-connects them (p. 20).

Over-connection is only one flaw Brand notes in the difficulty of modifying modern (and particularly Modern) buildings. In a central series of chapters, Brand takes great glee in blasting 20th-century archi-tects from Wright to Pei for their pictorial over-emphasis on the central layers of the model--Structure, Skin and Services, and primarily the central of these three--and a willingness to divorce these from the lay-ers before and after.

These buildings have been designed as sculptural (and eminently photographable) objects, unable to move or adapt, perfect in their moment of pre-habitation. In criticizing this practice, Brand uses the very tool that the "magazine architects" have used for justification: the still photograph. But Brand subverts the formal purity of the designs by photographing these buildings with people using them, by stacking up photos taken over time, and by comparing these pho-tos with similar images of other buildings less hindered by the immaculate moment of their creation.

In short, Brand replaces the narrative of created form with a more humane narrative of habitation. This is the central and existential theme of the book--that we have narrative rather than static connections with places, and that habitation is always active and pur-poseful. "Age plus adaptivity," says Brand (p. 23), "is what makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it."

The final chapters offers Brand's way out of this mess, which is to offer a more fluid version of what architects have conventionally called programming. Brand calls his approach "scenario planning":

The product of skilled scenario work is not a plan but a strategy. Where a plan is based on prediction, a strategy is designed to encompass unforeseeably changing conditions. A good strategy ensures that, no matter what happens, you always have maneuver-ing room (p. 178).

The way to soften the inevitable need for building revi-sion, Brand argues, is to fully understand that revisions are inevitable in buildings from highest Monticello to the lowest gas station, that our relationships with places are as inherently fluid as our relationships with people.

Brand's book playfully humanizes the shifting landscape through photos and captions that offer the reader a temporal, narrative connection with these al-tered places. In this way, Brand offers the environ-mental design professions a vital glimpse of what the past hundred years of magazine architecture has almost taken away--an understanding of habitation.

Overall, How Buildings Learn is an "almost-great" book. Certainly, it does what Brand set out to do: to humanize and temporalize the world of buildings and help remove them from the limbo of the perfect object. But what he misses, somehow, is a sense of affection for the places he shows us. He writes, glibly and with detachment, about a phenomenon that obviously has human--and not simply functional--origins. He helps us see but not feel these places. Luckily, the photographs give us more than Brand himself intends they should, and they save him.

--Herb Childress

          UNICE - Abstract
    Definition of UNICE

    Pronunciation: you-niss
    Function: noun
      1. UNICE: Etymology: An acronym for Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities, the hive-like consciousness that is theorized to emerge from the interpenetration of computers, humans and advanced forms of the Internet. UNICE will be composed of a collective consciousness, or group mind, and numberless individuals. It will also be capable of producing any number of protean, non-biological entities.

      Also a homonym with Eunice, a woman's name ("Good Victory" in Greek), and: uni- (meaning "whole", or "all of") + us, or you + us. UNICE looks like U-NICE, which as "you nice" could be a hopeful description of UNICE in pidgin English.

      Alternative spelling: sometimes written as EUNICE, but only when referring specifically to the Earth's portion of UNICE. (I.E. Earth's Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities).

      2. UNICE: Forthcoming feature documentary about UNICE.

      3. UNICE: (obsolete usage) formerly an acronym for Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederation of Europe. Now known as BusinessEurope.

    What is UNICE? UNICE is an acronym for Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities, a term coined by artist and futurist Michael E. Arth in the 1990s to describe a new form of intelligent life that he and many others theorize will soon emerge on Earth from a hive-like interaction of computers, humans, and future forms of the Internet. Arth believes that a local form of UNICE will envelope Earth and then, unbounded by biological substrate, will propagate outward into the wider universe. If there is an existing, self-aware Cosmic Internet beyond this planet, our local UNICE could eventually join up with and merge with the greater UNICE. The acronym EUNICE is sometimes used to differentiate Earth's Universal Network of Intelligent Conscious Entities from a truly universal UNICE.

    Thus, the term UNICE refers to what will probably happen on Earth and what will or perhaps has already happened throughout the universe or multiverse. UNICE is what will result from accelerating technological change that appears to be leading to a computational or technological singularity. The term Singularity, usually capitalized to differentiate it from a black hole or mathematical singularity, has been described by Ray Kurzweil as "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history". Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, a description and prediction about this accelerating pace of technological change, is a further elaboration of Moore's law.

    The first published use of the term Singularity in this context has been credited to mathematician John Von Neumann in 1958, while I.J. Good wrote of an intelligence explosion in 1965. Verner Vinge popularized the term beginning in the 1980s and wrote an essay in 1993 titled The Coming Technological Singularity. Inside the singularity surrounding a black hole, gravitation is so strong that not even light cannot escape. Applying this metaphorically to the evolution of technologies such as genetics, robotics, computation, and nanotechnology, the Singularity refers a point in the future beyond which it is impossible from our current perspective to shed light on the impending technological changes. This modern transhumanist myth of an emergent UNICE is an attempt to peer over the event horizon to give us a peek at a possible future.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Limits of Science


By Frank Vitale

At a recent meeting of the Illusion-of-Freewill Meetup group in Manhattan, the NewScientist Free will article of April 16th was passed around to the 8 people in attendance. That number of people, and the newly published article in New Scientist made me re-evaluate my impression that the free will debate had gone the way of Newton, into the distant past. I had lonely struggles with it in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and had stopped paying attention over 20 years ago. To my surprise and delight, I found that people are still struggling with and discussing the ancient dilemma.
The NewScientist article was interesting and informative, yet it contained within it an assumption that I want to challenge. The main focus of my article is to do that, but before I start, I want to give a brief description of the meeting, as it was lively, engaging and more interesting that I had expected.

One fellow had taken a bus from New Jersey and confessed that in the Port Authority he had gorged himself on pastries. He described himself as morbidly obese, as having Asperger’s syndrome (one of two in the group), as having thought insertions (schizoaffective disorder), OCD, as having a father who escaped Auschwitz and the fellow himself as a Mensa. He posed a question to the group. Was his gorging, which he admitted he knew was unhealthy, a product of his own free will or was his behavior determined and he had no control over it? I laughed and turned the question back on him, asking him what he thought. I was pleased when he answered that he might have been able to control himself. He gave his best honest answer, not a rationalization.

One person in the group said he knew deeply that his will was determined. I found that interesting because I feel just as deeply that I act of my own free will.

The leader of the group reasoned that if free will was an illusion, then deviants and criminals would be treated more humanely by society. The leader, the man from New Jersey and a couple of others in the group seemed to be coming at the free will perspective from an emotional perspective backed up by reasonable rational arguments.
But I, and a few others in the group approach the determinism dilemma more in terms of physical science.  And, though the article in NewScience focused on psychological experimentation, there was a fundamental scientific assumption that needs to be challenged.
The article seemed to assume that because neuroscience tells us so much about behavior, and that because neuroscience is making more and more headway every day, that eventually the brain/mind will be completely unraveled by science, that the neurological and chemical cause for every human behavior will be explained and potentially controlled, that the potential of science will be realized: human will will be demonstrated to be determined and free will an illusion. 
I am going to challenge this, but first I want you to know that I am not afraid of science, I am not jealous of science and I do not hate science. Like you, I want hard-nosed, unvarnished, unsentimental truth. I have a bachelors in physics. Discovering physics was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I loved physics. I ate and drank it. I marveled at its power and I interpreted the world through it.
I believe, as Peter Medawar wrote, “…science is incomparably the most successful enterprise that human beings have ever engaged upon.” We are completely surrounded by the results of scientific advancement, our cars, our buildings, our computers, our phones, even our good health comes to us via science.
But soon after I discovered physics (in high school), fell in love with it, I saw something disturbing and confusing. Physics began telling me I had no free will. On the one had I knew I had free will, on the other science was telling me I didn’t.
I was locked in the determinism dilemma for 20 years. Though I had other fulfilling parts of my life, but that part, the philosophical struggle with determinism was lonely and despairing.
In the 80’s my perspective shifted slightly. I realized that while my science mind was telling me that I had no free will, there was another mind that was not as measurable and concrete as the science mind but that was just as powerful and important. It was telling me I had free will.
Erwin Schrodinger, Nobel laureate for his contributions to quantum mechanics, came to the same conclusion:
            “(i) My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the Laws of Nature.
            (ii) Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, by which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.” (What is Life?, p86)
What is important to come to terms with, what is difficult for us lovers of science, is that science has limits.  We tend to think of science as limitless, that because everything is made of molecules and because science can potentially tell us everything there is to know about molecules, that therefor science can tell us everything about the world and about existence. As another Nobel laureate in medicine and writer in the philosophy of science, Peter Mediwar, puts it, "...there is no limit upon the power of science to answer the kind of questions that science can answer." (The Limits of Science p60) 
However, in his little book, The Limits of Science, he points out that the, “propositions and observation statements of science have empirical furniture only,” (81) and that it is “logically outside the competence of science to answer questions to do with first and last things.” By this he means questions like, “How did everything begin? What are we here for? What is the point of living?” (66)
Karl Popper, the venerated philosopher of science, wrote, “It is important to realize that science does not make assertions about ultimate questions – about the riddles of existence, or about man’s task in this world. This has often been well understood. But some great scientists, and many lesser ones, have misunderstood the situation. The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles while in fact the search for truth presupposes ethics.” Dialectica (32:342)
The human experience of free will is not “empiracle” and “is a riddle of existence,” and as such is outside the domain of science.
The mistake is often made that science tells us there is no God. This is a logical mistake that results from expecting too much from science. Science has no facility with which to see God because God is not subject to empirical observation, God is not physical or measurable. The inability of science to ‘see’ God should not be thought of as evidence that God does not exist. Science is structurally incapable of ‘seeing’ God. God is outside the domain if science.
And it is naive and, I think, intellectually dishonest, to think that everything that exists is in the domain of science. Everything about our humanness is outside the domain of science.  Our sense of self, love, faith, happiness and even our will, are not empirical and therefore outside the domain of science. Our humanness is not as concrete as the empirical world, but its existence is just as real.
Scientists and philosophers have been debating the determinism delimma for centuries and have not been able to resolve the conflict. It is time to accept the simple fact that our behavior is both free and determined. Centuries of debate have shown us that there is no other option.
I don’t mean to suggest that determinism and free will are compatable. They are contradictory. But I think we are asking the wrong question. It is not a question of wheter human actions are free or determined. The question should be, how can human actions be both free and determined?
In my enhanced eBook, The Metropolis Organism, I use words, images and video to look at cities from a scientific perspective. From this perspective humans are necessary but unremarkable organelle of a larger organism. From this perspective humans are things and do not have free will. (find out more at

But from another perspective, one which I have no better name for than the human perspective, humans do have free will. As with Schrodinger, I know this from my own direct experience.