Join the ISN at MIT from June 9th-13th, 2008

This summer the ISN will hold its second annual tutorial for students called the “Summer Seminar,” followed by a small conference for students and scholars. In addition to reviewing this overview page, click here for the tentative Plan and Schedule for the Summer Seminar, and click here for logistical and enrollment information. Click here for information on the Summer Conference. All this information (overview, schedule, and logistics) as well as an application form is also available for download as a PDF file or zipped PDF.


ISN Summer Seminar 2008: "Who Won the Scientific Revolution?”

I have been saying that modern science broke down the barriers that separated the heavens and the earth, and that it united and unified the universe. And that is true. But, as I have said, too, it did this by substituting for our world of quality and sense perception, the world in which we live, and love, and die, another world—the world of quantity, of reified geometry, a world in which, though there is place for everything, there is no place for man.

— Alexandre Koyré, Newtonian Studies

The Scientific Revolution marks a watershed in the history of human thought and action. It divided knowledge from common sense and severed practice from received mores. This transition has led to tremendous progress in our understanding and control of the natural world as manifested through technology. But in every struggle there are losers as well as winners. Humanity has gained enormous benefits by means of modern science, but has it lost something in the process? Far less obvious than the victories are the real losses—losses that reveal themselves when one contrasts natural science’s brilliance at manipulating nature with its inability to speak to the questions that should be central to any study of the material world: What exactly is nature? And what is the place of humankind within it?

The Revolution swept away the vibrant world of form and meaning and replaced it with a plastic but desiccated world of mathematical abstractions. Value and meaning were banished from the material, “real” world of “extended things” to the shadowy world of “thinking things.” Soon enough the ephemeral world of res cogitans was put under interdict, since it was in principle inaccessible to the power of the method. Now modern neuroscience is making the final assault on the “ghost in the machine,” hoping at last to retire our final questions by a fully adequate mechanistic explanation of self-awareness in us “meat machines.”

But can our fundamental questions truly be answered by reducing everything—including the questioner—to particles and proteins, efficient causes and mathematical laws? Or are the principles and methods of the Revolution such that the knowledge they provide always falls short of knowledge of the full truth of things? Predicting and manipulating is not the same as understanding, no matter how convenient it may be to believe so. The problem is not so much the hostility of the Revolution and resulting scientific worldview to traditional conceptions of the cosmos and of human nature, but rather the possibility that the scientific worldview has produced a radical misunderstanding of the very thing it seeks to explain: the material world and what it contains, including in the end the act of human understanding itself. In every struggle there are winners and losers, but when humanity itself is absorbed into the reductive and closed causal system of modern science, who is left to win?

We must begin to ask the fundamental questions again. Does the knowledge we have gained by modern science truly exclude qualities, forms, ends, and meaning from the natural world? Or have we allowed a set of useful methodological choices artificially to restrict our range of reasoning about nature? Might it be possible to recover a rational grasp of the qualitative depth and beauty in nature while retaining the manifold achievements of the Revolution? Are we willing to open ourselves to the risk of discovering that the pre-modern understanding of nature is not only reasonable and defensible, but consistent with the best scientific evidence? Above all: regardless of its convenience or inconvenience to humans, what is the full truth about the natural world?

The Institute for the Study of Nature invites you to join us in a Summer Seminar the week of June 9th-13th, 2008, on the campus of MIT to begin considering these questions with the care they deserve. An initial Plan and Schedule has been posted. Follow this link for logistical information and directions on how to confirm your place. (We will soon be posting more detailed information about the related academic Summer Conference that will begin at the end of the seminar on Friday, June 13th and continue through Saturday the 14th. We encourage students to plan to stay for that conference.)


This page last updated on July 2, 2008