PI-conference 2016

Limits of knowledge 10-13 june 2016

One of the most striking aspects of the success of 20th century science is that a number of important contributions have been limitative. Einstein’s relativity theories rely on the limit of the velocity of light and material objects, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle demonstrates the limit on the use of classical language in quantum mechanical situations and the work of Gödel and Turing showed that there are even limits to the truth-generating power of deductive logic itself.

Scientific laws are, in Bohr’s words, a way to reduce experience to order.  Hence regularities in our observations and the simplicity of theories puts a limit on what can be predicted and sets a limit to scientific knowledge. Is the real world too complex for us? Are there questions beyond the power of science to be answered? Gödelian incompleteness might have the scope of putting a restriction upon our physical understanding of the universe.

The pattern and structure of the universe are described in mathematical terms and computation is the key to our ability to predict. Phenomena which are easy to measure but difficult to compute are typical in many complex situations. Computational intractability presents difficulties which creep into very practical situations, such as routing problems, map coloring or protein folding. We are led to appreciate the gap between limitations on nature and the limitations of the mathematical machinery that we have chosen.

Is the quest for a Theory of Everything tenable? There are limitations imposed by our intellectual capabilities as well as by the scope of technology. In spite of increasing computer power and progress in experimental science limits in attainment of high energies and our abilities to detect faint objects much of the secrets of the universe are not yet within reach. Dark matter and energy and gravitational waves are examples where the role of limits, conceptual, fundamental or technological, is highly relevant.

The ultimate question about the origin of the universe would call for a theory which prescribes not only the dynamics but also specifies the initial conditions. Most of our scientific theories are viewed from an outside perspective. For cosmology we are all insiders. The dichotomy is crucial from a logical standpoint. As demonstrated by Gödel arguments from “inside” can be used to produce self- referential statements, which in turn lead to non-consistency or incompleteness.  Is the human mind constrained in its creative capacity to operate in a Turing machine fashion or is the mind capable to transcend these logical boundaries? Ultimately, we might find the limits to knowledge in their totality more informative in shaping our picture of the world than the catalogue of those things that we can know.

Friday June 10th

Hotel check in (Pop House Hotel, Djurgardsvagen 68, Stockholm)

19.00 Welcome dinner

Saturday June 11th

9.00-9.15 Christina Moberg, Anders Karlqvist & Christer Sturmark introduce the conference

9.15-10.00 Introduction: Science unlimited?

Introduction by Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics and Simony professor of the Public Understanding of Science.

10.00-10.30 Presentation participants

10.30-11.00 Coffee/Tea

11.00-12.30 Limits of logic – the Gödel legacy

Kurt Gödel showed that mathematical thinking cannot be captured in a formal axiomatic reasoning system.  What does this deep result mean in practice?  What are the limits of computer thinking?  Can beauty and creativity and a sense of humor be formalized? Introduction by Douglas Hofstadter, professor

12.30-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.30 Inside versus outside

Problems with self-referential systems. Rationality paradoxes in game theory and other lessons from game theory. Introduction by Karl Sigmund, professor of mathematics

15.30-16.00 Coffee/Tea

16.00-17.30 What cannot be understood – the example of quantum mechanics

Entanglement, realism versus non-realism, complementarity, how to incorporate into an intuitive understanding of reality. Introduction by Anton Zeilinger, professor of physics.

19.00 Dinner in Swedish archipelago

Sunday June 12th

9.00-10.30 Limits of computation

Is there a difference between being able to compute something and actually understanding it? What should one require of a satisfactory fundamental theory of physics? How important is simplicity? Introduction by Ulf Danielsson, professor of theoretical physics

10.30-11.00 Coffee/Tea

11.00-12.30 Cognitive limits

Language and consciousness. To what extent do the languages we speak shape the ways we think?  Do languages come with conceptual schemes that cannot be translated from one language to another? Or can the conceptual differences be overcome across languages? Do the problems of explaining consciousness merely reflect cognitive and conceptual limitations on our part, or do they suggest an ontological gap between mind and matter? Is there a principled reason to think that there can be no reductive explanation of consciousness? Introduction by Åsa Wikforss, professor of philosopy

12.30-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.30 Knowledge beyond science?

What can be known and how? Trends and pseudo-trends in epistemology. Introduction by Paul Boghossian, professor of philosophy

15.30-16.00 Coffee/Tea

17.00-19.00 Public lecture

(20 min presentations: Marcus du Sautoy, Lera Boroditsky, Anton Zeilinger, Armand Leroi, Douglas Hofstadter)

Monday June 13th

9.00-12.00 Media interviews and interviews for TV-documentary

12.00- 13.30 Lunch

End of conference

Presentation participants

Christina Moberg

Christina Moberg is the President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (KTH). She obtained her B.Sc. at the University of Stockholm and her PhD at KTH. She became full professor at KTH in 1997. She has held visiting professorships at Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, and at IRCOF, Rouen. She has served as vice President and vice Dean of KTH.

Karl Sigmund

Karl Sigmund is a professor of mathematics at the University of Vienna and one of the pioneers of evolutionary game theory. He is a member of the Austrian, the German, and the European Academy of Science. For his work on dynamical systems, biomathematics and game theory, he has received many awards, such as the Blaise Pascal medal in 2008, the honorary doctorate of the University of Helsinki, or the invitation to deliver a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians in 1998.

Douglas Hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, where he also directs the Fluid Analogies Research Group, nicknamed “FARG”, at the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition. For roughly 25 years, the FARGonauts have been making computational models of our human concepts and categories, the premise being that if and when these mini-concepts achieve the holy grail of “fluidity”, creative analogy-making will be an outcome.

Anton Zeilinger

Anton Zeilinger is president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Professor at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information, Austrian Academy of Sciences , Vienna, Austria.

Marcus du Sautoy

Marcus du Sautoy is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford where he holds the prestigious Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science and is a Fellow of New College. Du Sautoy is a fellow of the American Mathematical Society and has previously served as president of the Mathematical Association.

Paul Boghossian

Paul Boghossian is Silver Professor of Philosophy at New York University.  He is also Director of NYU’s Global Institute for Advanced Study: gias.nyu.edu.  Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012, he works primarily in epistemology, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language and aesthetics.

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She previously served on the faculty at MIT and at Stanford. Her research is on the relationships between mind, world, and language (or how humans get so smart). She has been named one of 25 Visionaries changing the world by the Utne Reader, and is also a Searle Scholar, a McDonnell scholar, recipient of an NSF Career award, and an APA Distinguished Scientist lecturer.

Helene Andersson Svahn

Professor Helene Andersson Svahn is heading the Nanobiotechnology department at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. Dr. Andersson Svahn received her Ph. D. in Electrical Engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology in 2001 and holds a M. Sc. in Molecular Biotechnology from Uppsala University. Her main research focus is micro- and nano-fluidic devices for biotech and medical applications.

Åsa Wikforss

Åsa Wikforss is professor in theoretical philosophy at Stockholm University. She received her Ph. D from Columbia University, New York, in 1996 and was Visiting Professor at Oxford University, Christ Church College, 1997-1999. Her principal interest is in philosophy of language, especially in its intersection with philosophy of mind.

Ulf Danielsson

Ulf Danielsson has been professor of theoretical physics at Uppsala university since 2000. He was dean of the Physics Section from 2005 to 2011 and has held a large number of other positions of trust within and outside the University. His research deals with string theory with a special focus on applications in cosmology.  He was awarded the 2008 Göran Gustafsson Prize in physics and the 2009 Thuréus Prize. He has devoted a great deal of his time to popularizing activities and is the author of award-winning books that have been translated into several languages.

Bengt Gustafsson

Bengt Gustafsson is an astronomer and emeritus professor in theoretical astrophysics at Uppsala University. He is known for his work in uniting cosmic science with culture and theology, and questioning space science from a humanistic point of view. In 2002. At one point during his career, he was a counsellor working for the government of Sweden.

Anders Karlqvist

Anders Karlqvist has a background in physics and mathematics from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, has been professor in systems analysis at several Swedish universities and guest scientist at MIT, Stanford, IIASA and Santa Fe Institute. He was the executive director of the Swedish Polar Research Institute for 25 years until retirement. Anders Karlqvist is also scientific advisor to the King of Sweden.

Christer Sturmark

Christer Sturmark is a Swedish author, publisher and former IT-entrepreneur. He has a BA in computer sciences from Uppsala university. In the 1990’s he founded Internet companies Cell Network and Cell Ventures. Christer was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Commission on IT between 1996 and 1998 and in 2003-2004, he headed the Swedish government’s strategic IT group. Christer is currently CEO of the publishing company Fri Tanke.

Armand Marie Leroi is an author, broadcaster, and professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College in London. Leroi was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree by Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada in 1989, and a Ph.D. by the University of California, Irvine in 1993. This was followed by postdoctoral work at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York using the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as an experimental organism.

Russell Weinberger

Russell Weinberger is a writer, editor, designer, and Associate Publisher of Edge. He is Vice-President and Rights Director of Brockman, Inc., a New York literary agency.

Gustaf Arrhenius

Gustaf Arrhenius is the Director of the Institute for Future Studies. He is also Professor of Practical Philosophy. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from University of Toronto and his FD in practical philosophy from Uppsala University. His research interests are primarily in moral and political philosophy, and he is especially interested in issues in the intersection between moral and political philosophy and the medical and social sciences (e.g., economics, law, and political science).

Torbjörn Elensky

Torbjörn Elensky is an author, essayist and literary critic. He has published five volumes of fiction, as well as a book on Cuba and an introductory essay to the works of Italian author Italo Calvino. He has a keen interest in political and current affairs, as well as epistemological and philosophical problems. All the different spheres are interconnected to him, and he often uses the experiences in one field to widen his understanding of another. A regular contributor to Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, as well as several Swedish magazines, like Axess, Respons, and Sans.

Stefan Buijsman

Stefan Buijsman is a post-doc in philosophy at Stockholm University. He received his PhD in 2016, also from Stockholm University. His principal interest is in the philosophy of mathematics, with a particular focus on the mathematical practices of non-experts. As a result of this focus, his research also involves discussions of empirical literature on mathematical abilities, from psychology and pedagogy.


Anthony Grayling

Anthony Grayling is Master of the New College of the Humanities, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. Until 2011 he was Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has written and edited over thirty books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are ”The Good Book”, ”Ideas That Matter”, ”Liberty in the Age of Terror” and ”To Set Prometheus Free”. He sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British philosophical association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and is a representative to the UN Human Rights Council for the International Humanist and Ethical Union.