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Les Causeries du Jeudi
Science is a social activity. It cannot be singled out from other human activities, although it has its own rationality. The aim of the Causeries du Jeudi (Thursday's chats) is to bring together scientists, laymen, artists, lawyers, poets, philosophers, who feel concerned by problems raised by biological knowledge (and in general human knowledge) for discussions on the chief concepts that make Biology as we now know it. This seminar runs under the collective name Stanislas Noria. In the mid-1980s, when whole genome sequencing programs were implemented, Artificial Intelligence research (popularized by Douglas Hofstadter in his Gödel, Escher, Bach, published in 1979) was in full swing. We chose the name Stanislas Noria, the acronym for Total Nucleic Acid Sequencing (STAN in french) New Orientation of Research in Artificial Intelligence (NORIA in french), to illustrate our participation in this effort in the domain of biology.
Because language becomes critical when one departs strictly from the most esoteric science, our discussions use several tongues. Started in French in the early nineties, they are now held mostly in English (sometimes in Cantonese!, when held in Hong Kong), but some discussions still go on in French. It should be remembered here that, in contrast to Anglo-American cultures, Latin civilisations (especially in Italy and Portugal, but in France also) do not split between Science, Arts and Literature (see CP Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution). It is therefore natural that any ongoing reflection of the very basis of Science (which is deeply rooted in language, and therefore in semantics, see Keith Chen for a fairly extreme but documented view) is pursued not only in English, but in other languages as well. It should be remembered that the 2000 Nobel Prize winner in Literature Gao Xingjian 高行健, writes not only in Chinese, but also in French... Whereas radical empiricism fits well with English (facts first, demonstration later), the basis of what makes Science (a kind of rational thinking build on hypotheses and deductions) is hypothesis-driven, and in this endeavour languages such as French, Greek or Italian (and in its own special way, German) may appear to be much more appropriate. The case of Chinese is very original there, and has to be entirely re-constructed, from the holistic point of view which is its own native feature. This is one of the endeavours of the Causeries.
These causeries are a revival of the discussions of the Centre Royaumont pour une Science de l'Homme, initiated in the early seventies mostly by Jacques Monod. This Centre unfortunately disappeared after Monod's untimely death. This took place at the time of the destruction, in most Western countries where it still existed, of an education system based on Humanities. For this reason it became incongruous, if not plainly obscene, to speak of philosophy (or poetry) inside a "hard-science" laboratory. However, in the early nineties, there was a first hint that young scientists became interested again in the reasons underlying their own endeavours. This is what prompted the organisation of a weekly meeting in the Regulation of Gene Expression Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where people interested in the nature of Science would come and discuss general issues. This was at a time when a programme with Chinese Universities, as well as the University of Bologna in Italy, were experimenting an unorthodox exploration of anthropological studies of the West by Non-Westerners. For two years, the discussion was centered on a presentation of the Presocratic Philosophers, starting with the observation that the quotation of Democritus which made the title of the famous book of Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, was apocryphous, and entirely foreign to the Greek spirit. Subsequently, the major theme of the Causeries was the concept of function. The discussion was initiated by Yves Brette, a former manager of the Bull Company, who spoke about the nature of the functions of human artefacts. From then on the discussion focused on many topics, ranging from Aristotelian philosophy, Cassirer, Leibniz, to concrete issues in functional genomics, and genome annotation. At the onset of the founding of the HKU-Pasteur Centre the discussion was moved to Hong Kong, where it began with a discussion about the nature of Science and knowledge in Europe and in Eastern countries.
During years 2001-2002 and until march 2003, the causeries were held at the Department of Mathematics of the University of Hong Kong, as Working Seminar - Conceptualized Biology: first steps to define what life is (2nd Series - 2002-2003). They started again at the Institut Pasteur in october 2003. In Paris, this working seminar was temporarily interrupted. Several ongoing efforts were nevertheless developing in parallel: the conference Le Logique et le Biologique held at the University Paris I on april 22nd 2005 is an illustration (summarized in our presentation). Since 2006 the discussions have resumed a more regular course, with conferences, seminars and discussions in Paris and in Hong Kong. A central focus at the time is Symplectic (Synthetic) Biology. This work was followed up by the creation of an open access journal, Symplectic Biology. This journal failed to develop in a context where Open Access publication has suddenly become extremely lucrative (authors pay for being published, in a move not different from advertisement), so that hundreds of new journals have been created, and keep being created (as of march 2013).
Hence this E-seminar is the only ongoing outcome of our effort to promote Symplectic Biology. After each discussion a summary is written, sent by E-mail to former participants as well as to persons interested in the discussion, all over the world, who wish to participate.
The "causeries" are meant to be an open forum, but not a chat room or a general unregulated forum where anybody can attend. In fact, it is expected that there is some participation of everybody in the discussion - more like mediaeval disputatii - and we assume that there is some progress made in the definition of "prospective" notions (to take the word of John Myhill), coming out from our common work. For this reason, we must be sure that people connected are really interested, and that they have a constructive approach to the discussion. This is why we ask everybody to register, and we discuss whether we accept any newcomer in the discussion group. It is also admitted that not all summaries, contents etc will be in English: multilingual discussions are encouraged... It must also be understood that, because some may be interested for a while, then no longer interested, we shall from time to time ask whether participants are still interested and unregister those who do not answer positively.
Note that a public (copyright) summary of the causeries is regularly publishes as articles in peer-reviewed journals. These summaries began with the text of the comments on the Presocratic philosophers discussed in the early nineties (in French), as well as a summary of the discussion on the scientific method (in English, and hopefully, in Chinese when the text will be available).
Science has to be placed in a moral context. It cannot
escape ethical choices.
qui rend Auguste Comte si étrange et si "chinois"
A Danchin, PM Binder, S Noria
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