Piet Hut: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars

Science & Spirit,  February 1998

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars:

Scholars form the Kira Institute to explore science and human experience: Summer School Planned in 1998

Piet Hut
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, NJ

[note: the original title, provided by the author, was 'An Exploration in Science and Human Experience'; the first part of the title, 'twinkle, twinkle, little stars', was provided by the magazine editor.]

The quest for a coherent worldview may strike many as outmoded and quaint: unnecessary from a modern and impossible from a post-modern point of view. Yet, the search for meaningful and integrated understanding of reality is as relevant today as ever; indeed maybe more so, given the weakening of traditional worldviews under the influence of rapid globalization. Our modest interdisciplinary inquiries into comprehensive coherence have led to the creation of the "Kira Institute".

We are a small group of scientists meeting regularly now for over a year to ponder the nature of science, the nature of human experience, and how the two are related. The name `kira' comes from the Japanese expression `kira kira' for the sound associated with a twinkling star. The five core participants are: 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. The idiosyncratic name of our group, a stellar half-twinkle if you will, helps keep us from being or becoming too narrowly compartmentalized in our inquiries.

With the support of the Fetzer Institute, we will launch our first public activity in 1998 with the Kira Summer School. This seminar for graduate students in the sciences will run for two weeks in August at Amherst College, Massachusetts,

The core idea of Kira is to combine the elements of universality and involvement. At present, science is basically universal in the way it is practiced, largely independently of nationality or personal belief system, but personal involvement is specifically discouraged. Systems aimed at developing and guiding personal aspirations, from religions to ideologies to humanistic programs, do encourage involvement, but at the cost of a lack of universality. Kira promotes the idea that a synthesis between involvement and universality holds the key for developing a framework within which to confront the huge problems facing our society in the 21st century.

``Is it possible to live without any fixed world views, in a freedom from identification, true to one's experience, and in accord with modern science?'' -- Piet Hut 

``What role can reason rightfully play in science and in the domain of values?'' -- Roger Shepard 

``Is there a non-sectarian way to locate the spiritual dimensions required to ground ethical conduct?'' -- Steven Tainer 

``Does a scientific theory have to be true to be good? How does a scientific theory represent nature, and to what extent does science involve interpretation?'' -- Bas van Fraassen 

``Can we arrive at an enriched conception of theory and a richer understanding of experience as the basis of science?'' -- Arthur Zajonc 


Intrinsic Limits

Kira originated from earlier discussions about intrinsic limits to scientific knowledge. Any body of knowledge is limited, of course, but in general, there is little we can say about the exact nature of those limits. A unique feature of natural science in the twentieth century is its ability to indicate in a very precise manner some of its intrinsic limitations.

For example, in mathematics, Goedel announced in 1931 a shocking and totally unexpected result: there are true statements that can neither be proved nor disproved, even in such a simple part of mathematics as arithmetic. In physics, a few years earlier, Heisenberg had shown an even more shocking result, namely that there are intrinsic limits to the accuracy with which one can make simultaneous measurements.

While Heisenberg's uncertainty relations and Goedel's incompleteness theorems seem to indicate something negative, in the form of a limit to what we may be able to know, they can also be considered in a very positive light. They reflect the considerable degree of maturity that mathematics and physics have reached each in extending its own body of knowledge to include even an understanding of the built-in limits to that discipline.

In 1994, a historic workshop was organized in Santa Fe, where for the first time scientists from a broad range of disciplines met to discuss the variety of intrinsic limits to knowledge that they knew, or suspected, to be present in their various fields. It was at that meeting that I met Roger Shepard, a cognitive psychologist with an interest in the use of thought experiments in physics. [See sidebar on seminars on the intrinsic limits of scientific knowledge.]

As an astrophysicist, I did not go to Santa Fe in the expectation of striking up a collaboration with a psychologist. However, we quickly discovered that we had independently come to a remarkably similar view of the need for a rapprochement between physical and cognitive science. Moreover, each of us had previously experienced the same frustration in seeking a deeply informed scientist from the other side of the disciplinary divide who shared our excitement about the possibilities for such a rapprochement.

From Limits to Experience

With a start-up grant from the Sloan Foundation, Roger Shepard and I were able to organize a series of small informal workshops at Stanford University from 1994 to 1996. We invited a half dozen scholars, to discuss various aspects of intrinsic limits. We had a series of fascinating explorations with mathematicians, physicists, chemists, biologists, computer scientists, and philosophers, from Europe, Japan, Canada, and the United States.

We began by scrutinizing specific disciplines, but were soon led to consider limits in the overall approach to scientific research. Any type of research takes place against a backdrop of a whole world: the human society set within a natural environment. Moreover, any type of research outcome is reported and shared by individual minds. In other words, a study of limits to scientific knowledge cannot be effective if we only study limits to objective knowledge; we necessarily have to extend our investigations to scrutinize the character of subjective knowledge, and to the process of distillation and transformation, that has been developed in order to generate inter-subjectively valid knowledge.

After two years of enormously stimulating meetings, we all felt that we had learned a lot, but we still had little to show for our efforts. We had not even been able to formulate a shared problem statement. With only a few days to interact, most of our time was spent on building a shared vocabulary and shared framework in which to approach and define the problems. This did not leave us much room for doing anything more than putting the questions on the table -- questions like how can we define an object within a stream of experience, what is the role of context in selecting elements from which to build a world, and can we identify intrinsic limits in the structure of mind and world, given their mutually defining character.

The Kira Institute

In order to make substantial progress, we decided to focus our goals and procedures. This was accomplished initially by limiting ourselves to just five people. In the spring of 1997, the five of us began to hold bi-monthly meetings in our studies of the relationship between science and experience. So as to sustain our inquiries and attract other participants, we decided to officially form the Kira institute in December 1997.

A wide spectrum of activities is planned around continued research and advanced education. Besides organizing specific Kira Institute programs, we look forward to participating in a broader interdisciplinary dialogue with other groups. For example, Arthur Zajonc and I took part in a five-day meeting between a group of physicists and the Dalai Lama in October 1997 in Dharamsala, India. This meeting was the sixth in the Mind/Life series of dialogues between scientists and the Dalai Lama.

The Kira Summer School Initiative

With a generous grant from the Fetzer Institute, Kira will host a summer school from August 2-15, 1998 on the campus of Amherst College in Massachusetts. The summer school is designed for graduate students in science and related fields. The participation in our first School will be limited to roughly 20 students, a number that we hope to enlarge in future years.

By bringing together students from different disciplines, it will become immediately clear that there is no such thing as a standard "scientific world view". The methodology of putting forward, analyzing, and verifying a hypothesis differs greatly in biology and physics, for instance. Sharing an environment of intense discourse with peers in different disciplines will help to highlight many area-specific distinctions.

The meeting will have an international character. Students from foreign countries are strongly encouraged to apply, as long as they have a good working knowledge of the English language. Applicants will be asked to write a brief essay, describing their specific interests in the topics that will be covered in the summer school.

Participants will be provided with food and lodging, but will have to pay their own travel. There will also be a number of fellowships to help defray travel expenses especially for international participants. For detailed information about the summer school, as well as the application process, see the Kira web site,

Intrinsic Limits to Scientific Knowledge

In May 1994, a workshop on `Limits to Scientific Knowledge' was held at the Santa Fe Institute, organized by John Casti and Joe Traub, and sponsored by the Sloan Foundation. For three days, a group of twenty scientists from different disciplines talked in a round-table setting about various types of limits, internal to their own discipline. The results of that meeting were made available in an internal report of the Santa Fe Institute, 94-10-056. 

In May 1995, a follow-up workshop on the same topic was held in Abisko, Sweden, organized by John Casti and Anders Karlqvist, and sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. For one week, a group of twenty scientists, some of who had attended the Santa Fe meeting as well, gathered in the snow-covered Lapland Tundra, as a counter point to the New Mexico desert. Addison-Wesley has published the proceedings of this meeting, under the title Boundaries and Barriers (eds.: J.L. Casti and A. Karlqvist). 

In 1996 and 1997, several more specialized workshops were held, this time again at the Santa Fe Institute, and sponsored by the Sloan Foundation. Each workshop focused on a study of limits in a particular area of science. For example, in March 1996, a workshop was held on `Fundamental Sources of Unpredictability', addressing mostly problems in physics and mathematics. This workshop was organized by James Hartle, Piet Hut, and Joseph Traub. The proceedings appeared in a special issue of Complexity, Vol. 3, No. 1, Sept./Oct. 1997. 

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