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Mathematics, Narratives, & Life: Reconciling Science and the Humanities

March 4, 2023 @ 1:00 pm 2:30 pm PST

The triumph of scientific materialism in the Seventeenth Century not only bifurcated nature into matter and mind, as Whitehead pointed out. It divided science and the humanities. The core of science is the effort to comprehend the cosmos through mathematics. The core of the humanities is the effort to comprehend history through narratives. The life sciences can be seen as the zone in which the conflict between these two very different ways of comprehending the world collide. Evolutionary theory developed out of natural history as defended by Schelling, but efforts have been made to formulate neo-Darwinism through mathematical models. However, it is impossible to eliminate stories from biology. As Stuart Kauffman pointed out, mathematical models attempt to pre-state all possibilities, but in evolution there can be adjacent possibles that can be embraced by organisms but cannot be pre-stated. To account for these it is necessary to tell stories.

Yellow chamomile head showing the Fibonacci numbers in spirals consisting of 21 (blue) and 13 (aqua). Such arrangements have been noticed since the Middle Ages and can be used to make mathematical models of a wide variety of plants. [source]

Mathematics provides analytic precision allowing long chains of deduction, but tends to deny temporal becoming and cannot do justice to the openness of the future, while narratives focus on processes and events, but lack exactitude that would allow precise deductions. In advancing mathematics adequate to life, Robert Rosen argued that living beings as anticipatory systems must have models of themselves, and strove to develop a form of mathematics able to model this. It has been convincingly argued that narratives are central to human self-creation and they are lived out before being explicitly told. There models of themselves are first and foremost, narratives. If this is the case, might not living beings as biological entities be characterized by proto-narratives in their models of themselves? Biosemiotics, largely inspired by C.S. Peirce, provides a bridge between mathematical and narrative comprehension, conceiving them as different forms of semiosis. The study of life through biosemiotics should reveal how mathematics and narratives should be understood in relation to each other. This could have implications for how we understand mathematics and narratives and their relation both to each other and to reality, and thereby how we should understand science and the humanities and their relationship.

In this presentation and conversation, Dr. Arran Gare and Dr. Matthew Segall will examine work in theoretical biology that might advance these efforts.

Arran Gare is an Australian philosopher and Reader (Associate Professor) in Philosophy and Cultural Inquiry at Swinburne University. His main areas of research are environmental philosophy, history and philosophy of science, mathematics and metaphysics, the history and philosophy of culture, and Chinese philosophy. He is aligned with the tradition of process metaphysics, and has published widely on these topics and am the author of a number of books, including Postmodernism and the Environmental Crisis (London: Routledge, 1995), Nihilism Inc.: Environmental Destruction and the Metaphysics of Sustainability (Sydney: Eco-Logical Press, 1996). and The Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization: A manifesto for the future (London: Routledge, 2017). He also founded the Joseph Needham Center of Complex Processes Research and the online journal Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy. His current work is devoted to providing the philosophical foundations for a global ecological civilization.

Arran Gare

Matt Segall is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco where he teaches graduate level courses on process philosophy and German Idealism. His recent book, Physics of the World-Soul: Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology, put Whitehead’s process cosmology into conversation with various contemporary scientific theories, such as general relativity and quantum theory. This book is exemplary of much of Matt’s recent work, which puts ideas from process philosophy into conversation with the natural sciences.

Matt Segall

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This event is sponsored by the Science Advisory Committee of the Cobb Institute.