State of the World Forum 1998

Report on the Roundtable on ``The Role of the Subject in Science'', held at the State of the World Forum, on Friday, Oct. 30, 1998.

Panel Members:


For the last four hundred years, natural science has studied the object pole of experience in ever increasing detail. While this has been a sensible approach, so far, we are now reaching the limits of a purely objective treatment. In various areas of science, from quantum mechanics to neuroscience and robotics, the subject pole of experience can no longer be neglected. Most likely, science will change qualitatively, with this required extension of its methodology. We will discuss the implications of this change for the future of science.


Piet Hut sketched how we have painted ourselves in a corner, scientifically, by describing the whole world in objective terms, and finding less and less room for ourselves to stand on. The challenge we now face is not to reduce ourselves also to objects, but to explore ways to let science naturally widen its area of investigation, while staying true to its methodology of peer review, based on an interplay between theory and experiment, with experiment having the last word.

Diedel Kornet then showed how a human being arrives at scientific theories through the various levels of sense impressions leading to patterns being recognized which in turn are related to each other in theories. She stressed the importance of feedback loops, through which theoretical preferences in turn influence the patterns that we are able to discern, and even the way in which our senses report what we find in the world.

Anne Harrington emphasized the importance of the full embodiment of a human being. The subject of scientific experience is not only a human mind. Her central question was `where is the body?' She mentioned the placebo effect as one example of an important effect that has long been thrown out in the trash cans of medicine, even though everyone agreed on its efficacy, simply because it did not fit in the objectivistic paradigm of science.

Arthur Zajonc extended the thread of the previous two speakers, from mind and body to nature. Science intends to study nature, but often winds up reducing it to an abstract shadow of itself. Nature is given through and as phenomena. Good science focuses first and foremost on these phenomena, without relegating them to secondary status. And at bottom, phenomena are given in an often unacknowledged subjectivity underlying the inter-subjective objectivity of science.

During the following discussion between the participants and the panel members, two topics took center stage. The first one was the notion of relativism, a specter that tends to force scientists to the safety of a purely objective world view. The question arose `what are we afraid of?' The answer, a loss of certainty about our knowledge of the world, then led to a discussion of possible ways to counter this anxiety. The main challenge was identified as the task to find a middle way between naive objectivity and extreme social constructivism.

The second topic that received much attention was the question of the `cash value' of a future form of science, in which the role of the subject would be fleshed out. In medicine, the placebo affect, already mentioned by Anne Harrington, was seen as a prime candidate for productive further research. In ecology, acknowledging the role of the subject can carry the discussions beyond an over-objectivized utilitarian approach. In education, an honest appeal to the role of the subject can lead to emotionally more balanced ways of viewing the world, lowering barriers to new initiatives.

Each of the panel members, and many of the participants, expressed their desire to act as catalysts towards a heightened appreciation of the role of the subject in science. For a concerted effort in this direction, see the web site of the Kira Institute, dedicated to an investigation of the role of experience in a scientific view of the world, a newly founded non-profit organization of which Piet Hut and Arthur Zajonc are founding members.

Also see the State of the World Forum homepage.

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