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Penn Humanities Forum on Belief

Topic Director: Carol Muller
Associate Professor of Music, Penn

"Seeing is Believing" is the phrase that perhaps best sums up twentieth century scientific rationalism. Materiality has formed the basis of much scientific and, indeed, humanist analysis. The binaries of twentieth century modernity such as science versus art, rationality vs. irrationality, truth versus belief, objectivity versus subjectivity, materiality vs. non-materiality, masculinity vs. femininity have shaped regimes of value inside and outside of the academy. The visual has been privileged over the aural, writing over sound, logic over the seemingly inexplicable.

In considering Belief, The Penn Humanities Forum seeks to probe the non-material dimensions of human existence, and the places where the physical and metaphysical intersect. This 2003-2004 Forum provides a contrasting topic for humanistic exploration to its forerunner: the Penn Humanities Forum on The Book, the fully material, omnipresent objective form.

Belief is most conventionally examined within the realm of religion, theology, or anthropology, where the sacred remains separate from the "secular." In the academy, belief as a cultural practice has been construed as the leap of faith individuals make to join religious communities. So defined it has remained marginal, or feminized, in humanistic and scientific examination. Despite this position, recent post-colonial scholarship has begun to examine ways in which colonized peoples have incorporated the world of the spirits in battles against colonial powers and industrial regimes. Similarly, subaltern studies remind us that in communities in India, Malaysia, and Africa and elsewhere, large sectors of urban and rural communities, peasant and elite, continue to assume that gods and spirits are coeval and co-present with human beings. In these contexts, being human is inextricably tied to the question of being with gods/God and spirits, indeed to the matter of belief.

Furthermore, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States has shaken a core belief in mainstream America: that US citizenship provided a space of sanctuary from war and international terrorism. The attack has been constructed by the media as a jihad or holy war of Muslim fundamentalists against American belief in capitalism and the superpower force of the US in the global economy.

In contrast to the terror instigated by the beliefs of some, religious belief has performed a more positive, though certainly contested, function in the nation-building project of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) led by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the mid-1990s. Some might argue that in cultures where belief in individual rights supercedes belief in the collective good, in places where retributive justice is privileged over restorative/ rehabilitative justice, the process of national and individual healing desired by the TRC might not have been attainable. Rather, in the South African context, a juridical and political process was shaped out of the core of a locally embodied but globally present belief system that translated into a moral guide in the TRC context.

These three examples suggest that however much we would like to assume that believing is a cultural practice peculiar to religion, or that belief is the residual practice of pre-modern peoples, it is nonetheless ever present as a force that has to be considered and reckoned with in contemporary global politics and struggle.

In this Forum we hope to create a conversation about the nature of belief as it shapes, and is integral to, both humanistic and scientific research and investigation. This inevitably raises the question of how we define "belief." What is the relation between belief and truth, between belief and experience, belief and history, between belief and theory, or beliefs and hypotheses? Science may have traditionally been uncomfortable with the non-material dimensions of human existence, dismissing the realm of spiritual belief for its lack of "objective evidence." Without doubt all scientific engagement clearly operates on a set of beliefs or hypotheses verified through experimentation, and through "seeing" the results. Moreover, those who are members of religious communities may well posit that their belief system is indeed systematic; that belief is based on what they have experienced, on their own empirical evidence, individually and collectively witnessed.

We might then ask quite simply, what are the beliefs, the core assumptions that constitute the epistemological foundations of our disciplines, and how have we come to these beliefs? The philosophical critique of belief has played a major role in examining the objective underpinnings of logic, and of the sciences more generally. Natural scientists believe for example, that all natural laws/assertions/beliefs can only be explained by testing hypotheses through controlled experimentation: that scientific knowledge is the result of the interplay between ideas and observation. Statisticians believe that the natural world can never be fully known, that one can only know the world in all probability. Geneticists believe that the cell is the basic unit of life; astronomers that the earth revolves around the sun; economists that the capitalist market operates on the humanly driven principles of supply and demand. Some linguists insist on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that language shapes reality. Geologists believe in the idea of continental drift; cultural anthropologists in cultural relativism; archeologists and historians of the ancient world in the uninterrupted continuity of cultural forms and practices through time; ethnomusicologists that all musics have equal value; political scientists in the essential goodness of democratic government, in "one person one vote"; and cognitive psychologists that the human mind operates most efficiently in known systems. Central to modern physics is belief in the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.

Finally, we might consider the relation between histories of belief and developments in new technologies. New technologies have tended to distance the role of the human body and the senses in understanding the natural world by privileging more object-ive mechanisms of discovery: ever more powerful microscopes, telescopes, and high performance computers. How are these new technologies reshaping belief in human inquiry? How might they be used to bridge the divide between science and humanity? Pioneering work in neuroscience on religious experience and the brain is one way. There may be others.

Clearly, belief can no longer be sidelined as irrelevant to the humanistic agenda of the academy. We are hoping that by unraveling discourses on the subject of belief in the sciences and humanities we might present a new possibility for creating intellectual links between these two sectors in the academy, and indeed the communities within which we live. This Forum on Belief is thus both timely and extremely relevant both to humanists in the academy and to the world at large.