Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer Cosmologies and World Views


Cosmologies-World Views
Limits of Performance
Special Effects
FEBRUARY 19-20, 1999

[Detailed Schedule of Events] [Topic Description]
[Participant Biographies] [Related News Report]

Organizing Committee:

John Bender

(Comparative Literature, Stanford)
Steve Chu
(Physics, Stanford)
Hans Gumbrecht
(ex officio, Comparative Lit., French/Italian, Stanford)
Mike Keller
(University Librarian, Stanford)
Roger Romani
(Astrophysics, Stanford)
Patrick Suppes
(Philosophy, Stanford)
Sabine Wolters (ex officio)


Alain Aspect

(Laboratorie de Physique des Solides
Université de Paris-Sud)
Peter Galison
(History of Science, Harvard)
Dudley Herschbach
(Chemistry, Harvard)
Andreas Kablitz
(Romance Literature, Koeln)
Andrei Linde
(Physics, Stanford)
Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer
(Philosophy, Berlin)
Joel Primack
(Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz)
Thomas Sheehan
(Philosophy, Loyola University Chicago)
Noel M. Swerdlow
(Astronomy and Astrophysics, Chicago)
Miguel Tamen
(Romance Literature, University of Lisbon)

Topic Description:

Scientist's version:

Since the beginning of this century with its rapid growth of modern technology, there have been been many authors highlighting a division between the cultures in the sciences and humanities. Looking towards the new millennium, Stanford University is seeking to re-examine this departure from a common scholarly origin. From its separately strong bases in the liberal arts, engineering and sciences, Stanford is well placed to examine the current status of this question.

As part of this effort, we are assembling several symposia of distinguished guests to help us re-examine some of the relationships between these scholarly disciplines. One key focus has led to the definition of a Symposium on "COSMOLOGIES and WORLDVIEWS." We hope that you will be interested in joining us to explore this topic.

The Symposium is to be organized around three central themes. First, what is the role of KNOWLEDGE and UNCERTAINTY in the two cultures? Aspects that can be examined could include epistemological questions, the levels of confidence associated with "facts," and how the humanities and sciences deal with uncertainties and interpretations towards establishing conclusions and paradigms.

Related to this topic is the PERMANENCE OF KNOWLEDGE in the two arenas. Do we have to consider that humanistic truths are always mutable and the deep questions they pose never answered? Are scientific models repeatedly refined and checked by experiments to the point that they eventually become "truths" within their defined domain, or does scientific knowledge also have a decay time?

Finally, we wish to examine the MUTUAL IMPACT of science and the humanities. In the last century, scientific investigation was influenced by philosophy and its practitioners were often active in literature and the arts. In the early 20th century, the new physics, especially relativity and quantum mechanics, generated deep resonances in the literary world. Do these connections exist today or have scientists and humanists become less aware of the "revolutionary" results of each others fields? What canon of knowledge comprises the basic "literacy" needed to appreciate such results? Are there opportunities for a renewed convergence between the Sciences and the Humanities?

The Symposium will be planned to spur some lively and thoughtful debate between practitioners and critics of each culture. While rapprochement may not be likely, we strive for a fresh look at the differing worldviews in the sciences and humanities and hope to learn from each other. We hope that you will be able to join us in this exploration.

Humanist's version:

Ever since the definitive institutional divide between the Sciences and the Humanities -- which is quite a recent development -- it has been much easier to describe their differences than to identify possible perspectives of convergence and, therefore, of fruitful discussion. The solution to this problem -- if there is any -- might be simply to say that, in the present day, the Sciences and the Humanities complement each other in the attempt to provide both a total and an integrative account of society -- indeed of Life itself in its multiple contexts and conditions.

Proposing Cosmologies and Worldviews (the concepts of which we want to characterize as different "tonalities" of the accounts provided to us by both the Humanities and the Sciences) is an activity that has to rely on certain recurrent implications (which we should try to trace). One of the implications is the impossibility of producing such integrative descriptions without having to find a position beyond the worlds of life (this testifies to the fact that, especially during the past two centuries, multiple observer-positions have been employed in both the Sciences and Humanities).

But the production of Cosmologies and Worldviews is also the level on which the present state of the epistemological differences between the Sciences and the Humanities can be observed, and through which their current intellectual frictions can be exploited to considerable intellectual profit. Thus for our symposium we propose to approach both convergences and differences from three different angles (corresponding to the three different sections into which our meeting will be divided).

What is the epistemological place of UNCERTAINTIES in the Sciences and the Humanities? What can be accepted as a certainty or a fact? What is the type of certainty required, in the Sciences and in the Humanities for publication, professional promotion, or international success? Do UNCERTAINTIES perturb us or are they regarded, at least under specific circumstances, as intellectually productive? When do we want to eliminate UNCERTAINTIES? Underlying these questions is the idea, recently propagated by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo in Beyond Interpretation that the Sciences have become as interpretative as the Humanities, and therefore the knowledge which they produce cannot claim a superior epistemological status. On the other hand, one could ask, even in the Humanities, whether there are certain areas where results are expected to be more "resistant" and less "relative" than interpretations?

This section will provide an opening for historical perspectives. It is inspired by the impression that a long tradition of fruitful mutual provocation between the Sciences and the Humanities is no longer taking place. While it was not unusual, up until the late 19th century, for the Sciences to be inspired by novels, poetry, or the arts, this kind of influence has become exceedingly rare. On the other hand, Scientific Cosmologies (or fragments thereof) no longer find resonance among humanists, literary authors, and artists. Why has this tradition faded? Is it important to change this situation? Are there signs for a renewed convergence between the Sciences and the Humanities?

It is obvious that, at least since the early 20th century, the decay-time of knowledge produced in the Sciences has become radically different from that of the Humanities. While humanists continue to have no doubt that certain questions (and answers!) proposed for example, by the Pre-Socratics are still (and will always?) worth being debated, it has become the norm among scientists to completely supersede the competence of the previous generation, to the point of rendering the latter's discoveries worthy of only historical interest. This has produced a dramatic divergence in the forms of publication required by the Sciences and by the Humanities. At the same time - and the question is whether this constitutes a paradox - the temporality of the phenomena with which the Sciences are dealing comes close to what was traditionally labled as "eternal." The Humanities, in contrast, have preferred the claims of radical historicity. But should the fields not be brought back to greater degrees of temporal convergence?

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