Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities

Small change vs big challenges - The end of the Cartesian dream

On 5 and 6 September 2013, the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT) organized a two-day seminar about the position of modern science and technology today.

Sky and sea
Tone Lund-Olsen

Main content


The process of transformation from modern science and technology to “innovation” occurs in parallel to the growing crisis of credibility and legitimacy of a knowledge system grounded on the Cartesian ideal of prediction and control. During 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster was added to the on-going financial and economic problems, illustrating the vulnerability to corruption of complex technological systems and the hubris of quantitative-based experts who ignored what they chose to ignore. The modern state has co-evolved with modern science and the development of democratic societies. Karl Popper and Robert K. Merton among others, after World War II, identified science with liberal democracy, and Vannevar Bush provided the political vision establishing science-based technology as the cornerstone of progress and economic growth.

Already in 1961, during his Farewell Address to the country, US President Eisenhower hinted the pathologies of such development and warned about the profound implications for science and democracy of the intimate relation between the knowledge system (including Academia), the industrial establishment and power. Fifty years later, we have to cope with the consequences of this trajectory, which is still given little recognition by the established authorities of science. The intellectual and practical challenge today is what to do to with a system of governance of science and society that resembles more and more an Ancien Regime, and also how to act in a growing societal culture of effrontery that knows neither guilt nor shame. The process of change has to include a new commitment to knowledge creation and transmission and its role in a plural and hybrid society. The slogan “Occupy Science” may be difficult to understand, but that could be a sign of its relevance today.

Invited guest speakers:

- Prof. David Waltner-Toews, CAN

- Prof. Erik S. Reinert, EST

- Prof. Martin Carrier, DE

- Prof. James Le Fanu, UK

Opening speech: Prof. Silvio Funtowicz, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen

Moderators: Matthias Kaiser & Ragnar Fjelland, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen


Thursday 5 September 

Welcome by Prof. Matthias Kaiser Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen
Opening speech by Prof. Silvio Funtowicz, SVT, University of Bergen

The Tower of Babel, Pentecostal Science, and the Language of Epidemics
David Waltner-Toews
Descartes’ dream was to provide a defensible, clear, philosophical basis for all of our knowledge about ourselves and the world we inhabit. For several centuries, a great tower of scientific knowledge was built on this foundation. In time, we were able to understand and eradicate or control some of the great disease scourges of humanity, to produce more food, and to wage wars more devastating, than anyone could have imagined, to see the gates of both heaven and hell. Some time in the twentieth century, in the midst of our greatest successes, the bricks began to crumble beneath us. The common language through which the great builders argued and inspired each other was thrown into confusion. Scientists and knowledge seekers each went their own way, to their own journals, their own countries, retreating into their own obtuse dialects. At the brink of the new millennium, a new science, post-normal, contingent, came upon us, like pentecostal tongues of fire, thrilling us with the possibility that we could be one people again, that we could find a common language, that we could understand each other, and care for each other. Is this just a fantasy?  The study of epidemics provides some intriguing possibilities, for although they can spread globally and can sometimes be explained using Cartesian science,  their emergence and ability to cause devastation is always embedded in local ecological and cultural histories and dialects. Effective and sustainable responses – those that do not require a restructuring of nature to fit the laboratory - depend on different kinds of (non-Cartesian) knowledge. From wiretaps at the front lines of eco-epidemiological shifts engulfing the planet, I shall explore what this language, if it does exist, might sound like.

Questions and Comments

Moderator: Matthias Kaiser, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen

Coffee break

Scientific Expertise: Epistemic and Social Conditions of its Trustworthiness

Martin Carrier
Expertise is often passed off as the mere tapping of the repository of knowledge or of simply applying scientific knowledge to experience. Experts deal with problems that are relevant from an extra-scientific point of view. Such problems are usually concrete and practical. As a result, scientific experts are required to come up, on the basis of general principles, laws of nature and generalizations, with specific, tailor-made proposals for solving such problems. Accordingly, there is a conceptual tension involved in using scientific knowledge for developing recommendations for handling particular or even singular cases. I explore conditions for the relevance of scientific knowledge for such tasks. The question of relevance comes down to the issue whether laws of nature or universal regularities offer the right approach for dealing with unique cases.

Another condition for the trustworthiness of expertise concerns trust in the social processes involved in producing science-based recommendations. Critical factors are which kinds of considerations are included in the deliberation process and whether stakeholders and experience-based experts are integrated. Trust is created by social robustness, expert legitimacy, social participation, and value-considerations. A recurrent example in my argument will be the German radiation protection commission.

Questions and Comments

Moderator: Matthias Kaiser, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen

Big Science in Big Trouble

James Le Fanu
For science , this is both the best and worst of times. The best because its research institutions have never been so lavish, its  funding never more generous. This is the age of Big Science whose projects routinely run to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. But also the worst of times because the results  of the scientific endeavours of the recent past are surprisingly modest- certainly compared to 100 years ago when funding was an infinitesimal fraction of what it has become

This is most apparent in the biological sciences of neuroscience and genetics where it is now clear that it is simply not possible to ‘get’ from  the material brain to  the richness of the human mind nor  from the genetic instructions strung out along the Double Helix to  the near infinite variety of form and attributes of the living world. The implications will be discussed.

Questions and Comments

Moderator: Ragnar Fjelland, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen

Friday 6 September

Capitalism from Leonardo da Vinci to Gordon Gekko: Why we Need a Post-Cartesian Economics.
Erik S. Reinert

The Renaissance, originating in the Italian city-states, marks the start of what became Western capitalism.  When capitalism presently finds itself in a deep economic and increasingly social crisis, it is partly because present-day economics is unable to formalize the key success factors of both Renaissance and Enlightenment societies. Economic theory fails to distinguish qualitatively between the activities of Leonardo da Vinci and of Gordon Gekko, of “greed is good” fame. On the profession’s path towards higher levels of abstraction, its “physics envy”, key elements of the Renaissance – among them the process of creativity and invention, i.e. Nietzsche’s Geist- und Willenskapital – and also of the Enlightenment – as the ordering of knowledge in taxonomies (as that of Linnaeus) – were left out.    

Increasingly mechanical and self-referential, leaning on an essentially pre-scientific metaphor of an invisible hand, economics has abdicated from studying an array of economic problems which presently haunt us. Just as it is claimed that Angela Merkel gets political strength from her Werte-Abstinenz – from a conscious absence of values – it can be argued that the same Werte-Abstinenz makes modern-day economics strong, but at the same time it makes our societies increasingly vulnerable. In both cases an appearance of freedom from ideology conceals what is in effect a strong ideological bias.   

There are many historical examples of Non-Cartesian and holistic economics. It will be discussed how these approaches can be brought back.     

Questions and Comments

Moderator: Ragnar Fjelland, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen

Coffee Break

Panel Discussion
Moderators: Matthias Kaiser and Ragnar Fjelland, Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities (SVT), University of Bergen

About the speakers

James Le Fanu
James Le Fanu is a General Practitioner in South London and writes a regular column on medicine and science for The Daily Telegraph and on natural history for The Oldie. He has contributed article and reviews to The Spectator, New Statesman ,Literary Review, British Medical Journal and the Journal Of the Royal Society of Medicine. His several books include ‘The Rise & Fall of Modern Medicine’ that won The Los Angeles Times book prize in 2001 and most recently ‘Why Us: how Science rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves’.

David Waltner-Toews
David Waltner-Toews was founding president of Veterinarians without Borders/ Vétérinaires sans Frontières – Canada (www.vwb-vsf.ca). A University Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph, he is also a founding member of Communities of Practice for Ecosystem Approaches to Health in Canada (www.copeh-canada.org) and internationally. He has worked on every continent except Antarctica on ecosystem approaches to health. In 2010, in London, England, the International Association for Ecology and Health presented him with the inaugural award for contributions to ecosystem approaches to health, and was a speaker in the “Speakers of Renown” series that celebrated the 40th anniversary of Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

Dr. Waltner-Toews is the author or coauthor of more than 100 peer-reviewed papers, as well as 17 books of poetry, fiction (including a murder mystery – Fear of Landing - set in Indonesia and starring a veterinarian), textbooks on health, ecosystems and sustainability, and popular science. His most recent book of popular nonfiction is The Origin of Feces: what excrement tells us about evolution, ecology and a sustainable society. Previous books include The Chickens Fight Back: Pandemic Panics and Deadly Diseases that Jump from Animals to People, which is a natural and cultural history of zoonoses, and Food, Sex and Salmonella: Why our Food is Making us Sick, which explores the ecological and cultural context for foodborne diseases.

Martin Carrier
Martin Carrier earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Münster in 1984 and spent his post-doctoral period at the University of Konstanz. He received his habilitation at the University of Konstanz in 1989. After a brief interlude at the University of Heidelberg he is professor of philosophy at Bielefeld University since 1998. His chief area of work is the philosophy of science, in particular, historical changes in science and scientific method, theory-ladenness and empirical testability, intertheoretic relations and reductionism, and, more recently, the methodology of research in the context of application. Carrier is a member of the “German Academy of Science Leopoldina,” the “Mainz Academy of Sciences, Humanities and Literature,” the “Academia Europaea,” and the “Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science.” He was awarded the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Association (DFG) for 2008.