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Call for participants – Symposium: the cultural meaning of the life-sciences

Symposium: the cultural meaning of the life-sciences

Date: Tuesday 13 November 2012
Venue: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen – Tinbergenzaal, Kloveniersburgwal 29, Amsterdam
Moderator: Prof. dr. Floris Cohen

A discussion meeting of PhD researchers from Dutch universities with Daniel Dennett, recipient of the 2012 Erasmus Prize.

Organized by the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation and the Huizinga Research Institute and Graduate School for Cultural History.

American philosopher Daniel Dennett (Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University) has addressed two of the major cultural questions of our time, questions that have defined our self-image: Where do we come from and What is consciousness? He has shown that through the power of thinking combined with sheer hard work one can add new insights to the fields of study that these questions traditionally have belonged to, in this case evolutionary biology, neurobiology and psychology. Dennett addresses philosophical questions with tools derived from the Life Sciences. The new insights that he has developed are challenging and considered groundbreaking among the experts. However, they are also highly accessible to a wider academic readership.

This symposium offers a select group of PhD students an opportunity to enter into discussion with Daniel Dennett on a range of philosophical topics. The idea is that questions to Dennett should be inspired by on-going PhD work of the students.

Participants in this symposium consist of two groups: an inner circle of the selected PhD students clustered in thematic/disciplinary groups, and an outer circle of PhD students and scholars/scientists who form the audience. The selected students of the inner circle prepare questions among themselves, arising from their work, in relation to the work of Dennett. These questions are forwarded to Dennett, who will prepare a response to these questions and enter into debate with the PhD students during the symposium. 

Selection of participants
PhD students will be approached through the secretariats of the Dutch research schools (onderzoekscholen), via their promotores or directly. PhD students from all Dutch universities who wish to take an active part in the symposium are invited to apply for in writing, stating their motivation and providing a 1-page description of their research topic to

Huizinga Research Institute and Graduate School for Cultural History
c/o Drs. Paul J. Koopman
Spuistraat 210, 1012 VT Amsterdam, tel. 020-5254433

Extended deadline 15 June 2012; selection end June.

All applicants will be informed about the selection by the end of June 2012. The PhD students who have been selected will be asked (i) to read parts of Daniel Dennett’s work, (ii) to take part in one thematic group, and (iii) jointly to formulate the questions they wish to address to Daniel Dennett. In September the questions will be forwarded to Dennett.

The thematic groups are organized round four major themes of Dennett’s work:

In an attempt to understand the mind, Daniel Dennett takes position in a debate with neurobiologists, cognitive psychologists and artificial-intelligence experts. In his work Consciousness Explained (1991), he investigated the nature and meaning of consciousness, in connection with the physical and chemical processes in the human brain.

Free Will
In his work Freedom Evolves (2003), Dennett explores the question whether there really is such a thing as free will in a world determined by scientific laws. Dennett brings the discussion into the realm of Darwinian theory.

Darwin did not yet know about genes. After Darwin, few scholars have endeavored to reinvestigate the evolution theory with the knowledge of today. This is what Dennett did in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995).

Dennett has investigated the nature and origin of religion as a natural phenomenon, using methods from the life sciences. Ultimately he faces the question of whether god exists. His book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) is probably one of his most influential works.