What we're about

The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society is a Meetup group that brings together thoughtful people for stimulating and civically minded conversations.

We meet in a relaxed setting on almost every Saturday and Sunday at 10:30 AM and occasionally in the evening. Most of our events aim for a small group ambiance with about 10-12 participants. Sometimes we use larger spaces with different group dynamics and formats.

Almost all our events engage participants in a group conversation to explore a wide range of topics including society & culture, philosophy & religion, design, science & technology, psychology, politics, economics, and current events.

We organize a safe, facilitated forum of inquiry and exploration.

Our interactive format engages participants to speak up and be heard, to explore our assumptions, to listen and hear others, and to find and build meanings.

We value topics that matter, diverse points of view and ways of knowing, sensitive listening, and your contributions to our explorations.

In addition to ideas and resources posed by the event host(s), our conversations are informed by participants exchanging experiences, interpretations, understandings, beliefs, feelings, values, thoughts, and ways of thinking.

Through discourse and consideration these ideas can reveal a web of relationships which participants can form into meaningful insights and new possibilities.

We start the conversation so come participate and accept your own genius.

We are always looking for new discussion leaders and other volunteers to bring new and interesting topics and perspectives to our group. Please see https://www.meetup.com/thinkingsociety/pages/14433542/Discussion_Leader_Guidelines/ if you are interested.

For more information about our group including our list of Frequently Asked Questions, please visit About the Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society (https://www.meetup.com/thinkingsociety/about).

Upcoming events (5)

Social Outing in the Park - RAIN DATE

Washington Square

THIS EVENT WAS ORIGINALLY SCHEDULED FOR TUESDAY 6/14. We hope you can join us Wednesday 6/15 instead. The weather forecast for Wednesday calls for sun; it's likely to rain on Tuesday. If you RSVP'd but cannot attend on the rescheduled date, please cancel your reservation.

It's been over a year since we've held any events in person. Thankfully, we've been able to meet via zoom and we've enjoyed many great thought provoking discussions despite being unable to get together.

With new CDC guidelines, easier access to vaccination, and dropping infection rates, we are on the path to improvement. We're not quite ready just yet to hold indoor discussion events, but we miss you! We're inviting you to join us at Washington Square Park in the city for an informal social hour.

Bring your own food or drink to enjoy as we meet and greet and get reacquainted with each other! We'll be on the grass to the left of entrance opening at 7th and Locust. Bring a chair or blanket if you wish!

Stop by anytime between 5pm and 8pm EDT.

The Networked Brain @ Comprehensivist Weds

Online event

The brain is an information processing organ. It is a successor to other less sophisticated organ systems, which evolutionarily played parts of this role. Because the brain is much more specialized and complex, it's better at processing information as discreet elements of the real world.

To understand the brain, we must understand that principally it is a network. This word "network" is most important, to explain every aspect of the brain and mind.

Our brain network (of neurons and glial cells) is comprised of many types of physical elements and organized structures:
• processing units (neurons)
• interconnections (axons, dendrites)
• signal-carriers (neurotransmitters, ions, transport vesicles)
• support cells (non-neuronal cells)
• topologies (structure, paths, patterns)

■ How does the brain's network form?
■ How do its many parts work together to create a cohesive whole?
■ Does the network's structure change as we grow? How?
■ What does the network do, to create the "mind"?
■ What does it mean for the network to be "active"?
■ How does personality & awareness emerge from just a network?

Some of these questions are very broad, and will be discussed in this meetup and elaborated in future discussions.

1) How do neurons connect to each other?
https://youtu.be/ySgmZOTkQA8 [4 minutes]

2) 3D Brain Scans show every Synapse
https://youtu.be/nvXuq9jRWKE [4 minutes]

3) The Shocking Ways Your Body Makes Electricity
https://youtu.be/UZthGjcuTDs [20 minutes]

4) The Stilwell Brain
https://youtu.be/rA5qnZUXcqo [26 minutes]


Welcome to the series "Comprehensivist Wednesdays". Transdisciplinarity, Renaissance humanism, homo universalis, and Polymathy are some of the ways of describing this approach which Buckminster Fuller called Comprehensivity and described as “macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive”.

52 Living Ideas records all their Meetups and posts them on YouTube. Feel free to keep your video on or off as you prefer.

Thinking about The Whole: Gestalt Theory, Synergetics, and Alternatives

What aspects of our world and how it works can we better understand through thinking about the whole? The practice of paying attention to the whole and thinking about it is called "holism" or "wholism". It may provide important insights that our ordinary ways of thinking overlook. What are the benefits of thinking about the whole? What does it mean to think about the whole? What insights about meaning-making are provided by gestalts or wholes? What insights about our problem-solving and our design faculty can thinking about the whole offer?

Jan Zwicky thinks the experience of meaning is embodied in wholes or gestalts. Is the whole the source of all our experiences of meaning? What is the significance of finding meaning in wholes? Buckminster Fuller organizes his approach of Synergetic problem-solving around the whole. How can this be more effective than alternatives? What are its strengths and weaknesses? The 2012 book "The Design Way" claims that there are several significant aspects of the whole that must be taken into account for effective design, for creating "intentional change in an unpredictable world" (which is the book's subtitle). They also survey several other meanings of the whole that might be relevant or irrelevant in various situations. Which of these many ideas of the whole provide you with new insights for better understanding our world and each other? Do you agree that the whole is fundamental in all our design efforts? How? Why? Why not?

How should we think of the whole? The whole Universe? The whole world? Your whole life? The whole of any given experience in life? The whole of any given object? The whole of any given subject? The whole of any given system? Are there any important principles of working with gestalts or wholes that you find valuable in your thinking? Which ideas about the whole do you most value? Why? Are there any dangers or caveats in thinking about the whole that we should be aware of?

● Resources

Our primary resource for this exploration is the explanation of the gestalt theory of learning in Jan Zwicky's video presentation "The Experience of meaning" (http://y2u.be/je1ZN907HzQ). Zwicky's presentation was delivered during the 2013 conference "Simplicity: Ideals of Practice in Mathematics & the Arts". The papers of the conference were published in the 2017 book "Simplicity: Ideals of Practice in Mathematics and the Arts". Pennsylvania residents can get electronic access to the book through Temple University's PA Borrower's program. Message me with your e-mail address and I can send you a copy. Zwicky published a book "The Experience of Meaning" in 2019 which significantly expands and restructures her essay to make its points in book length form. I have quoted extensively from the paper for those who cannot get a copy.

There are a number of Buckminster Fuller quotes below with links to on-line resources for extra context. But there is no condensed resource for Buckminster Fuller's view of The Whole in Synergetics. My writeup here will hopefully be adequate.

Finally, to round out our thinking of The Whole, below I will summarize a number of approaches that are highlighted in Chapter 4 of "The Design Way" by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman including their recommended approach to The Whole in design.

● Main questions for the event:

* How does the gestalt theory of learning think of the whole? What is the role of "resonant internal relations" and "the particular" in forming the whole? What is a resonant whole?

* What are the strengths and weaknesses of Zwicky's idea that the experience of meaning is involved in our gestalt experience of the whole?

* How does Buckminster Fuller's Synergetics think of the whole? What is the Principle of the Whole System? Why is its importance?

* What are the key ideas of thinking about the whole in design situations?

* What other ways are there for thinking of the whole?

* What is the value and importance of thinking of the whole?

● My notes on Jan Zwicky's treatment of the Gestalt Theory of learning from "The Experience of Meaning"

The Gestalt school whose leading exponents were Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, and Kurt Koffka maintained that "wholes are different than the sums of their parts; and we perceive wholes first. Wholes, they argued, are both logically and epistemologically prior to their parts".

Zwicky says, "A Gestalt itself ... may be defined as a structure all of whose aspects are in dynamic interrelation with each other and with the whole."

Zwicky argues that melody provides a striking example: "Melodies are aural shapes, and we perceive these shapes, not their constituents, spontaneously."

Facial recognition is another example. We may recognize hundreds of faces, but we cannot draw nor describe them. Laboratory experiments show that subjects who are asked to identify or think about the parts of the faces they attempt to recognize do more poorly than subjects just asked to recognize faces.

Zwicky argues that the experience of meaning, the experience of gestalts, come in two forms: "we move from a chaotic situation ... to a situation in which we discern pattern or structure" (she calls this "gestalt crystallization") and "we see a given thing or image as something else" (she calls this "gestalt shifts"). In both cases we perceive structure. In the first it is structure manifesting out of chaos and in the second it is a metaphorical shift.

She distinguishes the two types using the language of poetry. Gestalt crystallization is "like haiku: single images through which the resonance of something much larger sounds. Whereas, gestalt shifts are like "metaphor: x is not y; and yet it is".

In her 2019 expansion of her 2013 presentation, Zwicky provides a list of other names for gestalt insight: "Wittgenstein called it Sehen als [seeing as], Gerard Manley Hopkins called it the sensation of inscape, Plato described it as κατ' εἶδοζ λελόμενον [kat' eidos legomenon, understanding according to a form that collects particulars into a unity], the old Taoists called it awareness of zìrán [self-evidencing]".

Zwicky argues that the structure of a gestalt experience is comprised of "resonant internal relations" so that "the aspects of a gestalt are interdefined".

Zwicky gives three images to further clarify the experience of meaning: a visual proof of the Pythagorean theorem, a visual puzzle, and the Necker cube.

Can you think of situations in which your breath has been taken away or your vision has been altered? Do these examples corroborate Zwicky's argument? If not, what is the difference between your experience and the gestalt experience?

Zwicky argues that reductionist prejudice, a focus on the aggregative synthesis of parts, obscures our gestalt experiences of meaning and makes it harder to discuss. Do you agree with her? What is the value and relative importance between gestalt thinking and synthetic/analytical thinking? Which form of thinking is to be preferred? In which situations? Why?

Zwicky argues that "We frequently use the vocabulary of recognition to describe our experiences of insight". Does this make sense? Why is re-cognition involved?

Zwicky points out that even though "insight" and "recognition" (the language of gestalt experience) imply a sense of truth, in fact, gestalt experiences may not be veridical, may not be true, may not truly represent reality. She gives the example of the phi phenomenon (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phi_phenomenon) which is universally (hence objectively) perceived as a moving light when in fact it is just two flashing lights. She also refers to Kepler's insight that planetary motion is connected to the five perfect solids (the tetrahedron, octahedron, hexahedron or cube, icosahedron, and dodecahedron).

Zwicky writes, "the experience of meaning is not always an experience of truth."

Zwicky summarizes her characterization of the experience of meaning: "to experience meaning—to have a gestalt crystallize out of chaos, or to sense the internal relations between one gestalt and another".

She gives this further description and illustration: "the whole is experienced through the particular, which is an aspect of it. This is possible only if every part is internally related to every other part: if it is the nature of the whole that determines both what and that any part is."

Zwicky infers Leo Tolstoy's insight in "War and Peace": "Paring life to its basics allows one to experience its ontological core, which is that the natural world—in all its magnificent complexity—is a resonant whole. One becomes able to perceive this resonance in individual beings and this perception brings joy."

She continues, "Visualize a geodesic sphere. Because its nodes are dimensionless points, each exists only as a set of angles. Now imagine the sphere's lines are threaded with elastic, so that any or all of the nodes can move. If any one of them does move, this will affect the angles that define it: some will contract, some will expand. As will the constituting angles of every other node. Now, put the whole thing in motion. Each node will be in interdefined dynamic relation with every other node; and each will, necessarily, reflect the state of the whole at every moment."

Does this explain how the "resonant internal relations" of a gestalt experience work? Does this example show how simplicity is misplaced whereas the resonance of gestalts can remain dynamically powerful even when a detailed analysis of angles would be complex? Or would you argue that gestalts integrate these dynamics and reveal the simplicity in what from an angular measuring point of view would be incomprehensibly complex?

She also cites as examples, the protagonist in Tolstoy's "War and Peace", Pierre Bezukhov, and a passage from Arthur Koestler.

Zwicky writes, "At the core of the Gestalt theory of learning is the view that to understand something just is to perceive its relevant structural similarity to some other thing or situation. The perception of telling similarity is the litmus that understanding has occurred."

Zwicky adds, "we experience meaning as resonant interior attunement". She cites Ludwig Wittgenstein as corroborating the view that "internal relations [are] at the centre of his theory of meaning" in "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus".

Zwicky concludes, "[we want] the revelation of meaning. We want to experience gestalts so powerful they make us change our lives. I do not know why we want this. One possibility is that that's what being itself is: the resonance of gestalts."

● My notes of Buckminster Fuller's treatment of The Whole in Synergetics

In the following two citations, Bucky argues that synergy is different from both holism and gestalt:
- "Synergy means behaviors of wholes, whole systems unpredicted by the behaviors of any of the system's components considered separately.... The word 'holistic' is not necessarily that: it can mean all the parts without any of the behavior between them." http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/SynergeticsDictionary/SDCards.php?cn=17581&tp=1
- "The German word 'gestalt' like the English word 'constellation' means a complex standing together, but infers no more than the desirable of having all the regular parts" http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/SynergeticsDictionary/SDCards.php?cn=17594&tp=1

Evidently Bucky either didn't have good sources on holism and gestalt theory or he misinterpreted them (assuming we accept Jan Zwicky's account). But now let's consider what he said about the whole.

In "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth", Bucky writes: "“How big can we think?” … we begin to think of the largest and most comprehensive systems, and try to do so scientifically. … Can we think of, and state adequately and incisively, what we mean by universe? For universe is, inferentially, the biggest system."

In Synergetics[masked], Bucky writes, "Universe is the aggregate of all humanity's consciously apprehended and communicated nonsimultaneous and only partially overlapping experiences."
In[masked], he adds, "Aggregate means sum-totally but nonunitarily conceptual as of any one moment. Consciousness means an awareness of otherness. Apprehension means information furnished by those wave frequencies tunable within man's limited sensorial spectrum. Communicated means informing self or others. Nonsimultaneous means not occurring at the same time. Overlapping is used because every event has duration, and their initiatings and terminatings are most often of different duration. Neither the set of all experiences nor the set of all the words used to describe them are instantly reviewable nor are they of the same length. Experiences are either involuntary (subjective) or voluntary (objective), and all experiences, both physical and metaphysical, are finite because each begins and ends."

Bucky is using the word "Universe" in the sense of the universal set, the set that includes everything that might be considered. Cosmogonists who talk of multiple universes are using the term in the lowercase “u” sense as the speculation that there may be disconnected physical “universes”. We capitalize the “U” in “Universe” because, in the Bucky sense, there can only be one “biggest system”: it is unique; it is a proper noun.

In Synergetics[masked], Bucky writes, "Universe is, inferentially, the biggest system. By starting with Universe, we automatically avoid leaving out any strategically critical variables. In the Universe, everything is always in motion and everything is always moving in the directions of least resistance. When we are dealing always in terms of a finite Universe or totality of behavior, we are able to work from the generalized whole to the particular or special-case manifestation of the generalized accounting." http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/s03/p0000.html#305.02

The tradition which Bucky pioneered and called "Synergetics" begins all inquiry starting with Universe.

In Synergetics[masked], Bucky adds, 'Instead of starting with parts—points, straight lines, and planes and then attempting to develop these inadequately definable parts into omnidirectional experience identities, we start with the whole system in which the initial "point" turned out to be self, which inherently embraced all of its parameters wrapped tightly in that initial underdeveloped, self-focused aspect of self and went on to self-develop through successively discovered relative awarenesses whereby the proof of totality and omni-integrity is not only always inherent, but all the rules of operational procedure are always totally observed.' http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/s04/p7000.html#488.00

In Synergetics[masked], Bucky adds, "Problem solving starts with Universe and thereafter subdivides by progressively discarding irrelevancies thereby to identify the "critical path" priorities and order of overlapping developments that will most economically and efficiently and expeditiously realize the problem's solution by special local problem identification and location within the totality of the problem-solving scenario." http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/s05/p3700.html#537.31

In Synergetics[masked], Bucky says, "There is a corollary of synergy known as the Principle of the Whole System, which states that the known behaviors of the whole plus the known behaviors of some of the parts may make possible discovery of the presence of other parts and their behaviors, kinetics, structures, and relative dimensionalities." http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/s01/p4000.html#140.00

In Synergetics the whole is either Universe, where we start all problem-solving, or the whole of any given system. In the latter case, the Principle of the Whole System invites us to apply the principle of synergy to discover new aspects and relationships of the system. This makes the whole a significant focus for any problem-solving effort.

● My notes on "The Whole" (which is Chapter 4) in "The Design Way" (2012) by Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman

The book describes at least ten definitions / descriptions of different ways to think of the whole (I keep losing track when I try to count them). The chapter surveys many possible meanings of the whole, but it emphasizes the design oriented ones.

Here are many descriptions of the whole from Chapter 4 on "The Whole" (these alternative ways to think of the whole suggest the breadth of the concept):
* The whole can mean "the entirety of existence",
* "the complete or comprehensive collection of things",
* "the spiritual concept of oneness—that all things are merely glimpsed reflections of a unitary reality",
* "all things are connected or interconnected systemically",
* In "a systems science approach ... “wholes” are defined as the study of comprehensive systems"
* Another "perspective defines the whole as a comprehensive understanding of the world in metaphysical terms, such as spirituality and mysticism."
* "Sometimes, this is expanded to include the concept that each and every thing in the world is a holograph of the metaphysical whole, reflecting the whole at every resolution of detail."
* "Natural wholes can be defined as having attributes such as being comprehensive, necessary, emergent, and viable, plus they have a presence in the world and an influence on it. ... in the case of a designed whole, the attribute of being adequate replaces the attribute of being inclusive."

They also give several definitions of holism (which I sometimes spell as wholism):
* "the 1927 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica: “Holism shows these opposites as reconciled and harmonized in the whole. It shows whole and parts as aspects of each other.”"
* Holism is sometimes defined in "deep ecology", "Gaia theory", "the theory of implicate order", and "the New Age".

Here is the approach to the whole which they single out for design:
* "In design, when we say that something is a whole we mean that it is a complex ensemble of relations, connections, and an underlying unifying force or principle—that which causes things to stand together—that when taken together results in emergent qualities."
* "Although it’s true that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” we must also acknowledge that the whole is of those parts. ... The whole takes its emerging essence from the nature of its parts. There is an inseparable relationship between the parts and the whole. We also need to remember that any whole is always part of something more comprehensive—another whole."
* "This means that there are emergent qualities of a whole that can only be revealed as transcendent properties, different from those properties displayed by the individual and separate parts of the whole. These emergent qualities are the result of the relations and connections binding the elements together in unity."

* "Meaning, as form, is revealed to us through the ordering and organizing of elements into systemic relationships and connections that have been created intentionally, in response to purpose, in fulfillment of an end. With this we mean that those unifying forces that cause things to stand together, in unity, provide comprehensible emergent qualities of presence, significance, and value, thus forming meaning for individuals who are part of the whole or served by the whole. Presence is the emergent essence of the whole. This essence is brought into reality, conceptually or perceptually, through different levels of apprehension, including appearance, character, and soul. Significance is when the emergent whole pushes to the foreground of awareness and value can be placed on it. The value of the whole can be determined by examining if it augments or merely attaches itself to human nature."

* "The most elusive and unfamiliar concept in design—from a holistic perspective—may be the idea of the adequate. ... a definition of the adequate, seen from the perspective of the whole, states that the elements of a whole are formed with respect to the aim and purpose of the whole, meaning that components, relationships, and connections may be suboptimized in order to optimize the performance or behavior of the whole."

* "The notion of the whole is a foundational property of design that is realized through the careful and creative ordering and organizing of elements through intentional relations and connections."

"The Design Way" spends a lot of time discussing the whole in design. When we become intentional and try to create change in our lives and in the world, the whole as the new reality that we intend to create is both the objective and the resultant of the design effort. As such the whole is profoundly important as a focus for all our purposeful design efforts.

Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and the End of Slavery

Online event

We will base this discussion on CNN's six part Lincoln documentary that aired in February and March of 2021. You can listen to the audio here:


Each episode is between 40 and 45 minutes. I found the series to be interesting, engaging and well presented. It's also not very dense - it moves along nicely. It also works perfectly well without the visuals. If you don't have time to listen to or watch all of them, at least try to listen to episodes 3, 4 and 5.

If you have Xfinity/Comcast, you may be able to watch it online via your account. If not, the audio is more than sufficient to get it all.

Here are some questions we can discuss:

What do we make of Lincoln's principled opposition to slavery vs. the racist personal views he held early in his political career?

To what extent do we interpret Lincoln's actions (including the Emancipation Proclamation) as moral acts vs. political opportunism? Some of both?

How would American history have been different if Lincoln had lived and served out his second term and overseen reconstruction? Would African Americans have gotten a better deal?

How would American history have unfolded if Lincoln had not won the 1860 election? (He only got 39% of the popular vote). What if a more pro-slavery candidate had won? Or a more passive politician (like his predecessor James Buchanan) who didn't feel they could fight secession?

Lincoln is widely considered to be one of our greatest, if not our greatest President. There are good reasons for this. But how do we judge him in the context of history? By modern standards, he was, at least early on, a racist and believed in white superiority. He did not align himself with the abolitionists of his time even though he believed that slavery was immoral. But his views evolved (Frederick Douglass was probably a significant influence), and he fought hard to get the 13th amendment passed in the House.

Can you think of any similarities between the political situation in the country at that time and what we have today?

Here is a link to the notes I took from the CNN documentary. These may be helpful for review:


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