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February 26, 2011, 2:30 PM

The Limitations of Mental and Physical Reality

Participants: Gregory Chaitin, Joseph J. Kohn (moderator), Tim Maudlin, Edward Nelson, Carol Rovane

Scientists and scholars do not understand all the laws of nature, and have so far been unable to explain consciousness. Many problems remain in physics, and some mathematical assumptions are still open to debate. There are even questions about the accuracy of human perception. We no longer see the world as flat, but do we see it and understand it as it is? This roundtable asks whether limitations of understanding derive from inherent limitations of the human mind, or from a failure of our physics and mathematics. Will innovations in physics and mathematics reveal further mysteries? Can metaphysics, which accounts for the unseen and imperceptible, be incorporated into an empirical theory of knowledge?

Gregory Chaitin is the discoverer of the Omega number, which shows that God plays dice in pure mathematics, and is now trying to create a general mathematical theory of biological evolution. He worked for many years at the IBM Watson Research Center in New York, where he is currently emeritus. He is a member of the Academia Brasileira de Filoso?a, has an honorary doctorate from the University of Cordoba in Argentina, and is an honorary professor at the University of Buenos Aires.

Joseph J. Kohn is a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Princeton University. He is a winner of the Mathematical Society Steele Prize and the Bergman Prize, and is a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has also received the Bolzano Prize of the Czechoslovak Union of Mathematicians and Physicists and an honorary doctorate from the University of Bologna. He has written numerous research articles and has been involved in various mathematical projects in the Czech Republic, Italy, Mexico, and the United States.

Tim Maudlin is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. His work centers on the interpretation of physical theory: how the mathematical structures used in physics may be understood as presenting a physical account of the world. He is the author of Truth and Paradox, The Metaphysics Within Physics, and Quantum Non-Locality and Relativity, the third edition of which is about to appear. He is a Guggenheim fellow, and a member of the Academie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences.

Edward Nelson is Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. He is a winner of the American Mathematical Society Steele Prize for seminal contribution to research and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of Quantum Fluctuations, Predicative Arithmetic, as well as four other books and numerous articles, including "Warning signs of a possible collapse of contemporary mathematics" in New Frontiers of Research on Infinity.

Carol Rovane is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Her work focuses on several interrelated topics: the first person, personal identity, relativism, the foundations of value, and group vs. individual responsibility. She is the author of The Bounds of Agency: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics and For and Against Relativism.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.


Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Stuart Dambrot says:
As promised, here's the link to the Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory's Robotic Introspection Self-Modeling project:


Feel free to contact me regarding any of my post-panel comments.

Stuart Mason Dambrot
New York, NY
Julie Tarney says:
Thanks, Stuart. I'd been thinking about your comments when this article arrived via email and prompted me to look for your direct link.


I wonder if that Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots is perhaps not so far off!

Julie Tarney
New York, NY
Robert Martin says:
There is shockingly no discussion of the vagaries of language, none. "Truth" and "meaning" and "proof" are couched in human language. None of the limits of knowledge can be considered without the limitations of language in communication. There may well be no UR-truth or UR-meaning if language is included in the equation.

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