OLD QUESTIONS ON PHYSIS, CONTEMPORARY APPROACHES
- THE PROBLEM OF REALISM: STATE OF THE ART
- THE RISE OF THE HUMAN ANIMAL: STATE OF THE ART
Under the Honorary Presidency of Bas van Fraassen
San Sebastian October 1st -4th 2014 / Barcelona October 6th 7th 2014
In 1948, Nobel Prize winner Erwin Schrödinger interrupted a course in the Trinity College of Dublin arguing that, before continuing to work on physics, it was necessary for him to know the meaning of the word Physis. The result of his reflection was a small book, Nature and the Greeks. As he greatly admired the Greek invention of scientific view, Schrödinger seemed to think that returning to the roots was the best way of staying faithful to the spirit of science.
Since its first conference in 1993, the aim of the International Ontology Congress has been to breathe new life into the great topics of Greek philosophy, examining them from a contemporary perspective, namely using the tools provided by contemporary science. These problems keep being brought up constantly, either because of the emergence of new scientific data or because of attempts of new philosophic perspectives. Most of the conferences of the Congress have been held under the auspices of UNESCO.
It is obvious that the philosophical and ontological reflection about nature, what was in other times known as natural philosophy, cannot take place without the support of the “natural science of our times”, using Heisenberg's words. From quantum mechanics to linguistics, through paleontology and cognitive sciences, contemporary thought represents a dramatic challenge for philosophy, inasmuch as some scientific discoveries of the last century have mostly contributed to the subversion of the classical conception of nature. Thus, we may apply to quantum mechanics, genetics or paleontology what the mathematician Hilbert said about the Cantorian infinite, i.e., that the contemplation of the issues arising from it “far from concerning just the interests of a specialized discipline, affect the dignity of the human spirit”. In this edition, the International Ontology Congress will tackle two problems that have probably haunted the humanity from the beginning but did really became central for the Greek thinkers; the problem of Realism and the problem of the essence of the human being.
1) From Aristotle to Einstein the scientific representation of nature seems dominated by a small set of principles, among which the most important may be the principle of realism, which posits the existence of physical entities endowed with properties that forge their objectivity independently of the perception that a subject is likely to have of them. Well then: It is well known that quantum mechanics challenges our ideas about the mechanisms that govern the elementary nature, and namely the principle of realism. Nevertheless, the epistemological and ontological position according to which the elimination of this principle would make physics impossible, at least in the conventional sense of the term, has defenders both among scientists and philosophers, and this is why it is necessary to try to establish a state of the art.
2) Where, when and how has nature led to an animal endowed with the features of the human being? Old question, several plausible scenarios, no absolute certainties.
The elaboration of a philosophical anthropology in line with the demands of our time begins today with the understanding of the astonishing discoveries about the origin of humans resulting from contemporary paleontology, itself rooted in contemporary genetics. And if linguistics may also play a crucial role, it must be recalled that today's linguistics is also linked to genetics, as became clear some years ago with the enormous interest arisen by the discovery of a possible link between a mutation in gene foxp2 (short for forkheadbox p2) and the emergence of language. The discovery of the fact that the Man of Neanderthal also showed this specific mutation makes it more difficult to know where exactly to place the frontier between human beings and other hominids.
An unavoidable aspect linked to this problem is that of technique. Indeed, the anthropological relevance of the problem of technique (the Greek techne, that can also be translated as Art) achieves huge proportions in a moment when the alliance between technology and genetics make it possible for our species to exert a decisive influence on the traits that configure it. This perspective has profound ethical connotations and is disturbing for some, in spite of the recognition of the positive role of technique, e.g. through the advances made possible in the medical field thanks to virtual modeling.
3) The conference will try to establish the state of the art concerning the problems of Realism and Human Nature and this with the aid of the scientists themselves. But philosophy is a discipline that can never be dissociated from its own becoming. That is the reason why the congress expects a broad number of presentations with a historiographic and philological approach. Contributions emerging from the debate in the occidental Philosophy, but also from other cultural traditions will be highly welcomed and a special attention will also be paid to works on the evolution of the concepts of Reality and the concept of Human due to scientific findings as well as to the rise of new ideological or religious stances.
In short: following the example of Erwin Schrödinger, we try to join scientists of several disciplines, historians of Thought and linguists, with the aim of doing Philosophy together.
Precedents of the subject matter proposed in previous editions of the International Ontology Congress:
Out of the ten previous editions of the Congress, five of them are related to the subject matter of the current edition:
On the one hand, the third and fourth congresses, entitled Physis From Greek Thought to Quantum Mechanics and Meta tà Physika: A Tribute to John Bell. They were both organized under the auspices of UNESCO, and relevant personalities of philosophy and physics took part in them, among others the French Alain Aspect and the American Nobel Prize winner Willis Lamb (both members of the Permanent Scientific Committee).
On the other hand, the V International Ontology Congress, under the auspices of UNESCO and with the geneticist Francisco Ayala as an honorary president, was entitled Genetic Homology and Human Singularity. Outstanding philosophers and biologists participated, among which we can mention the Nobel Prize winner Christian de Duve. The reflections were extended, once language was explicitly considered as the core of the problem, in the sixth congress. The latter was also organized with the support of UNESCO; with Hilary Putnam as honorary president, and the presence of researchers in language formation like Steven Pinker.
The X edition (“Physis. From Elementary Particles to Human Nature”) focused on the Physis that Aristotle wondered so much about, using that single term to refer both to what explains the apparent behaviour of inanimate matter as well as to the traits that characterize living species. Men, that singular animal species are not an exception, having a nature, as Aristotle tells us, that makes them inclined toward knowledge. Problems keep being brought up constantly, either because of the appearance of new scientific data or because of attempts of new philosophic perspectives.
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