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Dreaming off the World – From Cognitive Science  to a New Enlightenment   //  14.06.2006 – 18.06.2006 // Obergurgl // Tirol // Austria // Europe


On  the  day  of  his  death Robert  Musil  was still  working  on  the  chapter ”Breaths of  a  Summer‘s Day” for his  book ”The Man  Without Qualities” [famous for the idea: If there is such a thing as a sense of  reality, there  must  also be  a  sense of possibility].-  In the  last  words of this chapter (perhaps Musil‘s legacy),  Ulrich, the  main  character of  the  book, "the  man  in  whom all qualities merge  spectrally into  the  whiteness of  none, the  unbroken beam", muses:

”Of course it was clear to him that the two kinds of human being… could mean nothing else than a man ‘without qualities’ and, in contrast, the man with all the qualities that anyone could manage to display. And the one might be called a nihilist, dreaming of God’s dream – in contrast with the [fundamentalistic] activist, who is, however, with his impatient way of acting, a kind of God’s dreamer too, and anything but a realist, who goes about being worldly-clear and wordly-active. ‘And why aren‘t we realists?’ Ulrich wondered. Neither of them was, neither he nor she: their thoughts and actions had for long left no doubt of that. What they were was nihilists and activists, and now one, now the other, according as it came.”


So where should we  go? “From Nihilism to  a New Enlightenment” ?  - -  There  are  two conceptions  of  nihilism at  stake:

1) The  doctrine that   moral norms or  standards cannot  be  justified  by  rational argument  (scepticism in general).

2) A mood of  despair over the emptiness or triviality of human  existence.

But  there is still a chance for Anti-Nihilism: “the  realist who goes  about worldly clear and  worldly  active.”  (Instead of getting  lost in the "possible" -- the  not  yet manifested intentions of God.)


During  the  course of  the  20th  century the image of  the  nihilist  has  changed  from the  view  of the nihilist  as a cynical or despairing mindless atheist to a robot-like, conformist with  the  typical  consequence of  “indifference, ironical detachment or sheer bafflement”. -- The literary prototypes are now the more  “prosaic  and impersonal  heroes of Robert Musil’s "Man without Qualities" or  Franz Kafkas "The Trial"  [Robert G Olson].

What  is dominant  in  Musil  is  the  tension or contradiction between intellect and feeling "solved  by  the  realist (as the anti-nihilist‘s and  the  solution  to our  problems -- the “possible”  covers  the  not  yet manifested intentions of God.)

So which  kind  of  Anti-Nihilism is possible ? One  that overcomes the  aimlessness and hopelessness of people, who divert themselves  from  the  problems  of  this  world  and  dive into impatient  actions, superficial splendour and glitter within a rule-bounded un-reflected  and algorithmically determined and busy-bodily acting world?


Taking up some of these ideas we organise a small but hopefully very exquisite symposium with experienced, farsighted and maybe responsible people (scientists/artists/…) – so to speak an ”Hyper”-Alpbach because it is not unintentionally situated in an alpine research area (2500 m above see level / University of Innsbruck) close to the place where the famous iceman ”Ötzi” was found.


Our starting point is to reflect the ”instability of the current world order” and our apprehension that wars with new threats -- enabled by new technologies -- can endanger not only our lives, but also that of our descendants and our peaceful ”deliberative” democratic coexistence. Our technological ”digitally re-mastered” (! :)) world becomes more and more susceptible to malfunction but also to terrorist sabotage.

We suspect that one cause amongst many others concerning the lack of good working solutions are all kind of misunderstandings about the significance and the application of theories in the reception of the  so called Enlightenment.

What seems to be missing is a clear and thorough analysis of the situation which can aid us to find possible solutions which are not trivial and are flexible enough to analyse the complexity of our world. - What we find, however or instead, is an uncontrolled and blind trust in technology and in rationalism.

In a neo-liberalistic dominated world only what can be exploited rapidly and commercialised immediately and literally (c.f. tangible versus intangible values) seems to count. The only antagonistic reaction to this kind of rationalism, we are worried to say, is an extreme rejection of all kinds of reasoning, sometimes attendant with religious fundamentalism.

This is a big challenge (and not only) for philosophy -- today. One problem however is, how should we criticise blind and uncontrolled rationalism without falling into the trap of irrationalism? Taking up Musil´s parable once again the question is how it is possible to avoid an annihilation of the world (as a result of our confinement to our theoretical (re)cronstuctions of reality) on the one hand and an unrestrained activism (by rational standards) on the other hand. The problem is: How to find an appropriate way to deal with reasoning?

Since simple appliance of theories and models to our complex world are not working we appeal to both older as well as young scientists, artists and all kind of interested people to seek solutions. Science, as it is applied nowadays, seems to operate with much too simple parameters and model-theoretic constructions -- erroneously taking the  latter (the models) as literal descriptions of reality. In order to overcome this mistake a new comprehension of science seems to be needed – some kind of ”Gestalt”-switch from an algorithmic view of problem solving to a situational and perhaps more pragmatic or hermeneutic one.


We propose that what mankind actually needs is a (sort of) ”new enlightenment” – a possible correction of that what is known in history as the ”Enlightenment”. (taking up ideas of  both  Hilary  Putnam  as  well as Jeremy Rifkin to quote  but  two). The phenomenon which historians labelled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the ”Enlightenment” might be best described taking up Kant qua Cassirer: ”Enlightenment is man‘s release from his  self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man‘s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is  this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of  resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude ! Have the  courage to use your own reason ! – that is  the motto of enlightenment.” This once new idea is characterized by the double autonomy of human beings: reasoning and morality. In questions concerning ethics we don’t base our decisions on some divine law, but instead we take over responsibility by our own.

But  for  some  reason  or  other  this  approach  was  corrupted !!! People  thought  that to   use  ones  own  reasoning  powers  does  not  really  include  working  on  oneself  or  learning to see  things  differently.

There are  essentially  two  forces  characteristic of  the  Enlightenment:

i) the  conception  of  society as a  social contract & ij) the new  science (Newtonian physics etc).


But in that way we lost some of our ground: Atomistic individualism nourished the illusion of a self-contained ego prior to entering into a shared inter-subjective world. And in the new sciences in getting used to follow the rules of explanations, our constructions of reality became autonomous and independent of our interventions. Thus we got caught in the inherent dynamism of our computational constructions of reality.


An illuminating yet rather extreme example is provided in the ”block buster” Matrix: Caught in the virtual constructions of reality the protagonists are not aware of the real origin from where those constructions derived. But we need not look to science fiction. Put in a nutshell, there are small ”Matrices” everywhere around us in our daily life. Sometimes it seems that humans have to adapt to technical constructions and not, as it ought to be, vice versa. In centre parks we get in touch with a kind of nature which is just a stipulation. Contents are oriented by software, software, however, is not oriented by contents.

A comparison of the causes for that undesirable development of the classical enlightenment with the Cognitive Science shows remarkable parallels. As some kind of reaction to the situation created by Behaviorism, Cognitive Science can be considered as an at least "explanatory" reintroduction and rehabilitation of the ”mental” in the language of science. But because of its inner dependency on basic assumptions of rationalism, going back in its roots to Descartes, the Cognitive Sciences took over the same mistakes as the classical Computational models based on misconceptions in the  reception of the Enlightenment. Instead of being treated as more or pure explanations of mental processes with hindsight, mistakenly these models have been used as more or less literal causal descriptions of the (working of the) mind. Rules for explanation of knowledge, however, are something quite different then the actual production of knowledge. The fault of this approach was nonetheless not useless. It enforced the demand for a reassessment of the (cognitive revolution) of the ”science” of the mind. Jerome Bruners ”Acts of Meaning”, Hubert Dreyfus critics on de-contextualized knowledge as it is applied in expert systems, Hilary Putnam‘s critics on methodological individualism directed the attention from formal algorithms to content.
All those critics together paved the way to a new cognitive revolution which picks up again what "algorithmic" cognitivism seems to  have  neglected: Content, Context and the situatedness of our knowledge. This new cognitive revolution, however, goes far beyond the limits of its own research field. It can become a driving force for a reassessment of philosophy, perhaps for a new kind of Enlightenment which might help us to deal with our complex problems in a far better way.

But there is still a parallel from further interest. The "culture" (of the new capitalism) [cf Richard Sennett]  created by electronic information and communication technologies and the Internet are sometimes characterised as a juxtaposition of elements of orality and literacy. Whereas oral cultures are guided by a narrative, performative style, by situated and context-dependent knowledge, our literal (hyperrealistic) culture is said to have a more descriptive and abstract language and its knowledge to be more atomistic and de-contextualized. Communication in the net, however, combines both distinctive marks together. It is a kind of reflective immediacy. So our own temporary culture bears in itself the challenge to deal with a knowledge which is situated but nevertheless warranted. What we propose  to  be needed is a reasoning without reference to ultimate reasons, a contingent, yet grounded reasoning far beyond cultural relativism and metaphysical realism.

One of  our  favourites  however are artists‘ approaches  as in Anne  Michaels‘  ”Fugitive Pieces” or Jeanette Winterson‘s ”Art and  Lies” and  more  recently ”Lighthouse-Keeping”.


Invited speakers:

Barbara Becker (Universität Paderborn), Harry Collins (Cardiff University), Hubert Dreyfus (University of Berkeley), James Ferguson Conant (University of Chicago), Eugene T.Gendlin (University of Chicago), Sean Dorrance Kelly (Princeton University), Karin Knorr Cetina (University of Chicago), Hans Lenk (Universität Karlsruhe), Stuart Shanker  (York University, Toronto), Giuseppe Trautteur (University of Napoli)



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