What is the CST?

The Center for Science and Thought (CST) is a radically interdisciplinary platform designed to address urgent questions that arise at the intersection of philosophy and various natural sciences. The CST is based on the notion of a bottom-up-epistemology or theory of scientific knowledge. Due to the typical division of labor, philosophy of science and science are separated and often even out of touch. The CST bridges this gap by asking the philosophical questions on the very basis of first-rate scientific research. Our center is based on the notion of a bottom-up epistemology: questions emerging at the frontiers of interdisciplinary research in the special sciences often lead into a territory that can currently only be further explored by figuring out which theoretical options are feasible in principle. In order to assess the actual prospects of proposals at the frontiers of theoretical physics, for example, we have to take into account the fact that there are shifting limits of physical knowledge discovered by physics itself. The same is true for neuroscience – but with the distinctive feature that it is the brain with its highly complex organization, which sets constraints for comprehension through its internal structure and function. Yet, the borders of physics, biology, neuro- and computer science and the other special sciences have always been changing in the wake of technological progress. Simulation as knowledge tools now play a crucial role in science. The computational means available for the production of simulations with which properties of models can be tested even in cases where no measurement is currently in sight, once again move the limits of physical knowledge into hitherto uncharted territory. Increasing complexity and scientific awareness of the phenomenon underlies the problem how to conceive of structures and their emergence in nature. Currently, in wake of the computational turn, we are in a position to run simulations of models and test their theoretical adequacy even in domains where empirical testing is out of reach for the time being. This raises the central question of how we conceptualize the boundaries of scientific knowledge and extend them into regions presently only accessible to metaphysics. Metaphysics is the discipline which deals with problems that are only accessible for theoretical evaluations. It overlaps with science at its frontiers. The CST brings science and philosophy together in order to achieve a better understanding of the current limits of scientific knowledge.

At the frontiers of science thought-experiments play an important role. Thanks to the enhancement of simulations and the rapid acquisition of new data, we are in a position to test hypotheses that come up in thought-experiments in a new way, even where they go beyond what can be tested by current experimental means. In this context, the CST deals with the epistemology of thought-experiments. How is it possible to ask empirically contentful questions about the universe on the basis of conceptually driven investigations? What is the role of imagination and intuition in thought-experiments? Do they only provide knowledge for experts with the right kind of conceptual skills or can we simulate the consequences of various imagined hypothesis? The notion that simulations serve as a bridge between measurement and (thought) experiment, predicting the behaviour of a system over time, serves as a framework assumption, tested by the CST.

The life sciences, in turn, raise similar fundamental issues. How can we conceive of the relation between the notion of causality operative in the life sciences and our assumptions about human behavior? We have a well-entrenched system of folk psychological and scientific concepts describing and explaining human and animal behavior. At the same time, we know that there are various constitutive relationships between events at the molecular level and high-level behavioral phenomena. What is the right way to think of the relationships between these very different scales of complexity? Within neuroscience, the philosophical topic of scales of complexity is at the center of attention precisely because the human brain is one of the most complex systems in the known universe. Hence, in order to study it, it has to be broken down into sub-systems. Yet, how exactly should we understand the relationships running across the different scales of complexity? The CST will seek answers to these questions through its “Kinds of Intelligence” project, in cooperation with the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at the University of Cambridge.

In general, all these issues to be explored at the CST turn around the limits of naturalism. On the one hand, we assume that all scientific knowledge of the universe rests on a causal interaction with its manifold parts. On the other hand, this assumption itself goes beyond anything we could ever actually know by means of our best-established scientific practices. How can we be sure that the material-energetic universe is all there is to be studied by the natural sciences? The CST provides this large-scale philosophical question with an actual empirical grounding in the various fields. In this way, the integration of an explorative platform at the cross-section of the various sub-disciplines assembled in the research projects will lead to progress in central areas of theoretical philosophy that intersect with the state of the art in science (epistemology, logic, philosophy of mind). The CST harbors projects with developmental prospects with a radically interdisciplinary lens. At the same time, it also serves as a foundation for original research led by the newly hired specialists in philosophy who specifically work on the topics of the CST. They will contribute their expertise in philosophy in an interdisciplinary setting which constantly feeds conceptual questions stemming from within the fields involved back into the explorative CST-structure. This is a unique chance of building new structures and testing new career paths.

University of Bonn

The CST belongs to the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bonn.

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