Ways of Knowing

A summer program offered by the Kira Institute

Piet Hut

School of Natural Sciences
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, NJ 08540, USA

Throughout human history, different ways of knowing have complemented each other. Different fields required different skills, from arts and crafts to medicine and law and other areas of expertise. Only recently have we seen a curious new phenomenon: one particular way of knowing is rapidly growing and threatening to overtake all other ways of knowing. This is the scientific way of knowing, especially the approach in which all sciences are seen as resting on, and even reducible to, the physical sciences. After its tremendous successes in physics and chemistry, this reductionistic approach is now making remarkable progress in biology and in the cognitive sciences. Having found convincing explanations for the microscopic behavior of dead matter, life and consciousness are the next targets.

The dramatic success of the scientific method raises the question whether ultimately every aspect of human life can be covered/described in a scientific way, either directly or indirectly. We don't know what the answer to this question is. More importantly, we don't even know what it would mean for science to address every aspect of human life in a scientific way. Whatever the answers are, we are still quite far removed from such a goal, and surely science itself will change a lot on its journey towards a more inclusive description of reality. For example, the whole notion of description and reduction may well take on quite different flavors, say a hundred years from now.

For the time being, it is interesting to ask the question: given that we have already learned so much from science, `what else is true?' What can we say about life, about direct human experience, beyond the typical scientific/academic tendency to stand away from the topic of consideration. Instead of remaining at arm's length removed, can we bring the scientist back into the scientific picture? More broadly, can we find a way of respecting and developing our full humanity, even in a world that is so strongly influenced by scientific (and often scientistic) ideas? The tendency to talk about our brains and our taste buds and our hormones and genes as constituting us is becoming so strongly engrained that we often don't notice anymore the fallacy of swapping material descriptions for authentic experience.

The question `what else is true' was taken up by the five of us when we founded the Kira Institute in 1997: Arthur Zajonc, a physicist working in quantum optics; Roger Shepard, a cognitive psychologist studying mental images; Bas van Fraassen, a philosopher looking into the interpretation of quantum mechanics; Steven Tainer, a teacher of contemplative traditions exploring connections with natural science; and myself, Piet Hut, an astrophysicist simulating galaxies on computers. Besides an active research program, involving bimonthly meetings, we also conduct an educational outreach program. Starting in 1998, we have conducted a yearly summer school, in which we accept twenty to twenty-five graduate students with a background in science or science-related studies. For two weeks, we work with the students through smaller and larger discussion groups and presentations, encouraging them to establish their own orientation to questions regarding `ways of knowing'. Questions that come up are along the lines of:

-- What is the scientific way of knowing?
-- Are there aesthetic and moral ways of knowing?
-- Can imagination and emotion be ways of knowing?
-- Are there intrinsic limits to particular ways of knowing?

The Kira Institute will hold its fourth Summer School at Amherst College, during July 30 -- Aug. 10, 2001. In addition, the Kira Institute will hold a conference, also at Amherst College, during Aug. 3-5, 2001, on the same topic: Ways of Knowing. The conference is open to anyone interested. There will be no registration fee. The speakers at this conference will be:

-- David Abram, author of "The Spell of the Sensuous"

-- Mary Campbell, Professor of English and American Literature, Brandeis University

-- Andy Clark, Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Sussex

-- Samuel Edgerton, Professor of Art History, Williams College

-- Lynn Margulis, Professor of Biology, Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts

-- Ed Turner, Professor of Astronomy, Princeton University

For more information about the Kira Institute, and about the conference, see the Kira web site.

Note: this is the original version, sollicited by the magazine; the version that appeared in print has been abbreviated without consultation with the writer.

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