Kira Conference 2001
August 3-5

Location and Registration

Date: August 3-5, 2001
Fee: none
Where: All Kira conference presentations are made at Amherst College, Merrill Science Center, lecture room 4.

The conference is held during the Kira Summer School 2001. Attendance for the Kira Conference is open and free to the public. There is no need to register in advance.


See the conference schedule page.

Presentation Abstracts

[Note: Evan Thompson replaces Andy Clark, who was originally scheduled to talk, but could not attend the conference due to circumstances beyond his control.]

Navigating Between Worlds

David Abram is an ecologist, anthropologist, and philosopher whose writings have deepened the environmental movement in North America and abroad, and have helped catalyze the emerging discipline of ecopsychology. He is the author of The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, for which he was awarded the 1996 Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. David is the co-founder with his wife -- nature educator Grietje Laga -- of the "Alliance for Wild Ethics"(A.W.E.). An ardent spokesperson for nightherons, cedar trees, and stormclouds, he lectures widely on several continents. David maintains a passionate interest in interspecies communication, and in the rejuvenation of oral culture.

The twentieth century has seen a remarkable multiplication of experiential domains, a rapid increase in the number of cognitive realms with which we are forced to familiarize ourselves. There has been an astonishing proliferation of worlds, a diversification of separable realities, many of them mutually exclusive, that contemporary persons are increasingly compelled to engage in, or at least to frequent and familiarize ourselves with. Our desire may be stirred, today, not only by the religious heavens that many believe will supersede this world, or by the mathematical heaven of pure number and proportion toward which so many reasoning intellects aspire (to say nothing of the supersmall realms engaged by quantum physicists, or the supervast dimensions disclosed by our newest high-powered telescopes), but also by the digital heaven of cyberspace -- that ever-ramifying labyrinth wherein we may daily divest ourselves of our bodies in order to dialog with other disembodied persons who've logged on in other places, or to explore an ever-expanding array of virtual spaces. The accelerating pace of technological development seems to ensure that the proliferation of experiential worlds will continue to snowball in the coming era. What IS unclear, however, is whether the human mind can maintain its coherence while engaged in such a plural and discontinuous array, or disarray, of cognitive worlds. And if so, how? How can we find a way to move, to navigate between all these worlds without increasingly forfeiting our integrity, without consigning our minds and our lives ever more deeply to a kind of discombobulant confusion?

This talk will attempt an answer to this question, while exploring the epistemological, and the ethical, ramifications of this curious situation.

Alternative Planet: Kepler's Somnium and the New World

Mary Baine Campbell is Professor of English and American Literature at Brandeis University. She is a literary scholar and poet whose scholarly specialties include what might be called the literary history of science, particularly medieval and early modern science or disciplines of knowledge. She is the author of The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing, 400-1600, The World, the Flesh, and Angels (poems) , and Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe ; also coeditor, with Mark Rollins, of Begetting Images: The Art and Science of Symbol Production. She is currently writing the libretto for an opera based on a 12th-century poem about a werewolf by Marie de France.

This talk, based on a section of Chapter 4 in Wonder and Science, examines Johannes Kepler's delightful and serious posthumous account of lunar cosmography and the solar system as seen from the moon's surface. Kepler's Somnium (The Dream, or Lunar Astronomy) is what seems to us now in its afterlife as an odd amalgam of astronomy, allegory, and early science fiction, a road not travelled by subsequent scientific discourse but one which this talk will attempt to see as a way the mathematized sciences could have gone. The work manages to inform and to "mean" at once. It is, without sacrificing astronomical interest or rigor, a work so poetically ambiguous as to have endangered Kepler's cantankerous mother's life in the interpretations of enemies in her hometown, who got their hands on a manuscript copy and accused Frau Kepler of witchcraft. After this traumatic event (the trial processes lasted several years, seriously interrupting Kepler's scientific work), Kepler greatly augmented the text with a set of exegetical Notes explaining both mathematical and philosophical ideas bound up in his narrative and description. The chapter from which I draw the talk places this scientific allegory in the context of several more and less "hard" seventeenth-century fictional or fictionalistic works that examine concrete ramifications of the newly circulating--and technically heretical--concept of the plurality of worlds. The book in which the chapter has its place is an account of many kinds or representation between the late sixteenth-century and the early eighteenth which take as their project the partly speculative delineation of worlds other than the social and planetary worlds to which epistemologically normative concepts of the real could easily apply.

The Ideological Roots of 'Optical Realism' in Western Renaissance Art 
Why Leon Battista Alberti Invented 'Windows 1435'

Samuel Edgerton is Amos Lawrence Professor of Art History, at the Art Department, Williams College, Williamstown, MA 01267. He is the author of The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective, Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution During the Florentine Renaissance, The Heritage of Giotto's Geometry: Art and Science on the Eve Of the Scientific Revolution, and Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artisans in Colonial Mexico.

The aim of my talk is to argue that geometric linear perspective and chiaroscuro (light/shade/shadow rendering), unique to the art of Western civilization (first is classical antiquity, then again with a vengeance during the Italian Renaissance), and which so defines what we still mean today by "photographic realism," not only the visual arts but in the phenomenal world itself, did not originate from any precocious secular awakening from the overly-spiritual, superstitious Middle Ages. Rather, the ancient Greek science of optics (perspectiva) by which both medieval Moslems and Christian monks tried to explain the geometry of natural vision was re-emphasized during the Middle Ages in Christian Europe to prove just the opposite, to a demoralized population beset by inexplicable plagues and disillusionment over the failing crusades that God, the Holy Family, and all the saints were still imminent in this world, and still willing to redeem the repentant faithful. God's physical likeness and even the mechanics of his divine master plan could now be explained geometrically, and be readily comprehended through the visual medium of staged miracle plays with live actors - which in turn, I summarize, was a major inspiration for Renaissance painting and sculpture.

Evolution by Symbiosis

Lynn Margulis is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the recipient of the 1999 National Medal of Science.  She is the author of ten books, including Symbiosis and Cell Evolution (second edition 1993), and What is Life?, co-authored with Dorion Sagan.

Symbiosis is a general term for the living together of "unlike beings" (usually different species), whereas endosymbiosis is a topological condition:  one organism lives inside of a "differently named" other. Endosymbioses, which may be intra- or extracellular, have been of extraordinary importance in evolution of cells and organisms, especially protoctists.   Ironically, although most disease conditions are variations on the general theme of cyclical symbioses, few experimental biologists and even fewer ecologists are familiar with the insightful, burgeoning literature that demonstrates nearly ubiquitous associations. Symbioses usually, if not always, have environmentally contingent outcomes.

Symbiosis, not an evolutionary process per se, refers to physiological, temporal or topological associations with environmentally determined fates.  Symbiogenesis, however, that refers to the appearance of new tissues, new organs, physiologies or other new features resulting from protracted symbiotic association, is a type of evolutionary innovation.  No one any longer doubts that nucleated cells evolved by symbiogenesis.

The prokaryote vs. eukaryote taxonomic dichotomy is unambiguous. Classification schemes need to be based on this fundamental discontinuity of life: nonsymbiogenetic vs. symbiogenetic cell origins.  The archea/eubacteria/eukarya phylogeny, currently popular among most microbiologists, obscures the fact that origin by integration of prokaryotic symbionts makes all members of "Eukarya" (whether "domain", "kingdom", "empire" or simply "highest taxon") homologues to communities.  The eukaryotic cell is a co-evolved microbial community and therefore more similar to an ecological unit than to an individual bacterial cell. Biologically-based taxonomy mandates two great groups (highest taxa): prokarya and eukarya.. The eukarya are then divided into four major groups that reflect their evolutionary history and hence their developmental patterns (protoctists, fungi, plants or animals).

Empathy as a Way of Knowing: Views from Phenomenology and Cognitive Science

Evan Thompson received his A.B. in Asian Studies from Amherst College, with an emphasis on East Asian philosophy, especially Buddhism.  He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 1990 from the University of Toronto.  Since 1996 he has taught at York University.  He is the co-author, with Francisco J. Varela and Eleanor Rosch, of The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991); and the author of Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception (Routledge Press, 1995).  Currently he is finishing a book co-authored with Francisco Varela, entitled Why the Mind Isn't in the Head (Harvard Univ. Press).  He has a longstanding interest in the practice of meditation and Tai Ji Quan.
My talk comprises main five main points: (1) Individual human consciousness is formed in the dynamic interrelation of self and other, and therefore is inherently intersubjective. (2) The concrete encounter of self and other fundamentally involves empathy, understood as a unique and irreducible kind of intentionality. (3) Empathy is the precondition (the condition of possibility) of the science of consciousness. (4) Human empathy is inherently developmental: open to it are pathways to non-egocentric or self-transcendent modes of intersubjectivity. (5) Real progress in the understanding of intersubjectivity requires integrating the methods and findings of cognitive science, phenomenology, and contemplative and meditative psychologies of human transformation.

The Child and the Chess Masters

Edwin L. Turner is Professor of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University and Director of the Apache Point Observatory 3.5-Meter Telescope. Educated at MIT and Caltech, he spent brief periods at the Institute for Advanced Study and Harvard University before joining the Princeton faculty in 1978. His sabbatical leaves have taken him to Caltech, Harvard, MIT, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, the University of Melbourne and the University of Tokyo. Working extensively in both theoretical and observational astrophysics, he has published more than 135 research papers, primarily on topics related to cosmology. Recently his research interests have expanded to include the rapidly expanding field of extrasolar planets.

When asked questions of a philosophical bent, the famous physicist Richard Feynman frequently replied with a parable concerning an observant and intelligent child watching two chess masters play their game. He used this story, usually, to justify his inability or unwillingness to give an answer to the question. This talk will examine and expand Feynman's metaphor with the goal of more precisely defining the limits of scientific knowledge and perhaps even of rational insights. Specific possible examples of such boundaries will be drawn from various branches of science, including cosmology, physics, computer science (artificial intelligence) and psychology. Currently popular strategies for expanding or otherwise dealing with these borders will also be examined and evaluated. Finally I will point out a potentially effective, but inherently unscientific, strategy open to the child in Feynman's parable.

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