Conference Report – Scimat 2017

06 Nov


The sixth biennial Science Matters (Scimat) conference “Bettering Humanity: Secular Historic Movements” Cascais, Portugal, October 25-27, 2017.

This conference is the sixth in the biennial series of Scimat conferences held in Portugal under the Scimat (Science Matters) programme, which was started ten years ago.

Scimat is a new term coined by Lui Lam from San Jose State University, California in 2007/2008. Conceptually, Scimat treats all human-dependent matters as part of science, wherein, humans (the material system of Homo sapiens) are studied scientifically from the perspective of complex systems.

The conference was attended by academics from across the sciences and the humanities and addressed the issue of bettering humanity, with an emphasis on education. The conference was co-chaired by Maria Burguete (Bento da Rocha Cabral, Portugal), Jean-Patrick Connerade (Imperial College, London) and Lui Lam (San Jose State University, California).

John Christie from the History Faculty, University of Oxford, surveyed the historiography of the Enlightenment. Rather than being thought of as one entity, the enlightenment, though broadly anti-clerical, split into varying degrees of secularism, through national and philosophical movements. He further analysed the relative degrees of success and failure of Enlightenment scientific secularism and its current relevance to the betterment of humanity.

The historical theme of the improvement of humanity was picked up by Claudine Cohen from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. She focused on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau was an important influence on the French revolution, but started life as a musician and copyist of musical scores. Claudine Cohen followed three strands of Rousseau’s thought on the betterment of humanity, via the social and political, education and music.

Atheist poets and thinkers in XIXth century Britain have made an important, though not always properly acknowledged, contribution to our political, social and cultural life. Jean-Patrick Connerade from Imperial College, London, spoke about a number of these luminaries. He particularly singled out Jeremy Bentham who founded University College, London.

Continuing the historical and philosophical themes, Annette Vogt, from the Max Planck Institute, Berlin, discussed the history of positivism and the wide group of academics, which made up and were associated with the Vienna Circle.

One of the main areas involved in the betterment of humanity is the contribution of biology. In his talk, Manuel Mota, a biologist from the University of Évora, Portugal, discussed three domains to which the Biological sciences have made and will continue to make significant contributions: Agriculture, Environment and Medicine.

Lui Lam (San Jose State University, California) gave two contributions: the first was a survey of the Humanism Movement in the USA and UK and the second was on Bettering Humanity: The Scimat Approach. He focused on human-made as opposed to natural disasters that have affected the world and looked at secular movements of the past and their success and failures. For Lui Lam the Scimat approach is to emphasize education.

Miguel Pais (University of Lisbon) highlighted the influence of curiosity and creativity in the human and exact sciences.

Florentin Bosse’s talk was on the therapeutic benefits of reading. He was an investment banker and entrepreneur and founded a book lovers’ shop in Lisbon called Letters Matters.

The conference also heard talks from Cristina Jimenez (Seville University, Spain) on the Bilderberg Club from 1954 to 2017, and from this author on Culture, Curiosity and Communication in Scientific Discovery.

Nigel Sanitt