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Student Account

Thomas A.C. Reydon
In our little get together with Arthur in Utrecht (May 18, 2003) the question came up what we, Kira alumni, got out of the Kira summer schools in which we participated. Here I (briefly) attempt to make explicit what it is that I got out of my participating twice in the Kira summer school. It is a personal account: it is both an attempt at casting things into words that are not easily made explicit and a retrospective account colored by the almost two years that passed since I last participated in Kira. My account centers around three keywords: exploration, interdisciplinarity, and openness.

This first keyword pertains to the motivation that induced me to apply for the 2000 Kira summer school in the first place - and that made me come back for more in the 2001 summer school. I applied to the summer schools not so much because of a pressing feeling of uneasiness in life in general, but rather out of curiosity. This, I think, is the same curiosity that induced my turn from physics to philosophy of science some years ago. It is best described as a feeling that the domains of knowledge that are familiar to me give an incomplete picture of the world and that other domains should be explored in order to gain a more complete picture.

One topic that I explored in Kira and that I continue to explore in my present work is the issue of holism. In particular, I attempt to develop a conceptualization of biological species as complex systems exhibiting emergent properties and emergent behavior. This is a holist view of species in which natural selection is understood as a consequence of downward causation (from the system - species - downward to its parts - organisms), as opposed to conventional reductionist views of species in which species are conceptualized as a consequence of natural selection (upward causation). Discussions during Kira on for example Maturana & Varela's views, and the work done in the context of the presentations by Lynn Margulis and Evan Thompson were particularly helpful in this (as yet largely unfinished) project.

What I perceived as one of the most important aspects of the Kira summer schools is the diversity of the participant's backgrounds and fields of work. Kira provided a wonderful opportunity to interact with people (students, faculty, conference participants and conference speakers alike) who studied issues far away from my own field, or studies issues close to my field but with a different approach from my own. These interactions helped me a lot in exploring other approaches to issues in my field of work and in clarifying my motivations for taking particular approaches rather than others.

To my knowledge there exist virtually no summer schools or like events that provide this opportunity for intensive interdisciplinary interaction to students at graduate/postdoc level. Most summer schools are after all focused on a single field of investigation or a single topic. It is one of the things that make Kira unique.

The third keyword that I want to discuss here pertains to a general attitude that Kira inspired me with. At many points in my academic career I found myself on a crossroads between skepticism regarding foreign domains of investigation and dissatisfaction with familiar domains. As a physics student, for example, I used to be very skeptical with respect to such things as philosophy of science, only to engage in an MA program in philosophy of science at a later stage of my studies. This switch toward philosophy was motivated (as I reconstruct it now) to a large extent by a feeling that the theories of physics and chemistry did not provide a complete and unequivocal understanding of the world and that essential parts of such an understanding were to be found elsewhere.

Exploration of other domains of knowing however requires an open attitude regarding these other domains. By putting the participants into contact with representatives of such other domains of knowing, the Kira summer schools stimulate to adopt such an attitude of openness and understanding of what these other domains are about. For example: although meditation still isn't my thing, I did gain a lot of appreciation for it and abandoned my initially skeptical attitude.
The above three keywords represent the most important (but certainly not the only) things that participation in two Kira summer schools had to offer me. In my view, they also represent (part of) what makes the Kira summer schools unique, since I know of no other summer school-type events that can offer the same to students at (advanced under-)graduate levels of study.

June 11, 2003.
Thomas A.C. Reydon
Philosophy of the Life Sciences group
Institute of Biology - Leiden University

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