Emory Report
September 20, 2004
Volume 57, Number 05


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September 20, 2004
An interdisciplinary feast

P. Venugopala (P.V.) Rao is associate professor of physics.

For those hungry to transcend academic boundaries, something remarkable took place on this campus almost 15 years ago. Starting in 1989, selected groups of faculty members began to participate in what were then known as Luce Seminars.

Conducted for eight years by retired Professor Jim Gustafson, those semester-long seminars became the focal point for interdisciplinary, scholarly discussions. They stimulated their participants to converse freely, crossing disciplinary lines, on subjects distant from their own professional interests.

After some initial hesitation, I signed up for one, and quickly a phone call came from Gustafson accepting my participation. While welcoming me to the group, he also said, “I have a hard time recruiting faculty from the sciences; I’m glad you’re going to be part of this group.” Thus began a long, delicious interdisciplinary buffet for me at Emory.

What the Luce Seminars achieved has already been researched, reported and analyzed. Pundits have pronounced how the “distance between disciplines” has shrunk and how the seminars stimulated the imaginations of their participants. From a personal perspective, the experience opened a new space on the campus for me wherein I began to encounter other minds. Suddenly I was sharing the excitements in my own field of specialty with faculty far removed from it. I must confess: These interdisciplinary conversations had an extremely healthy effect on me.

Take, for example, my first seminar. Each member of the group was expected to read a text on the subject of “understanding Nature” and report on it. I was assigned Erazim Kohak’s The Embers and The Stars.

Reading this book, and listening and contributing to the discussions that followed, had a deep impact. Kohak warned that the conceptualization of Nature within the symbolic system of natural sciences cannot and should not claim the privilege of completely representing Reality. He pleaded earnestly for us all to pay attention to the moral sense of Nature—and of being human within ourselves.

I cannot speak for other members of the discussion group, but for me it opened a new, more satisfying way of reading the text of Nature. I began to feel different, more appreciative, even as I walked through the garden in my backyard. Not only a sense of wonder but also a moral presence began to take hold of me. If indeed, as Kohak says (and as my own spiritual tradition based in Hindu scriptures would assert), there is a moral order immanent in Nature, why do humans sometimes—even often—behave unethically? Why don’t we behave morally all the time?

Kohak’s answer is that Nature’s manifestation is not automatic; it must be willfully apprehended. Humans are endowed with free will and freedom to make choices. At every moment of our existence, we must strive to become aware of this inherent moral order. That is a tall order for any being to put in practice. Are there short cuts?

The ethical dimension of our lives is of significant concern to any active, contributing member of a community. As my involvement in interdisciplinary conversations continued, thoughts like this continued to coalesce and evolve in my mind. In one of these structured discussions—now known as Gustafson seminars—I bumped into Gary Laderman from the Department of Religion. Our dialogue centered on health, spirituality, science and religion. Soon Arri Eisen from biology joined us. A creative and intellectual collaboration emerged that led to the formation of faculty discussion groups devoted largely to the relationship between science and religion. Indeed, we team-taught courses related to this interaction.

Four years ago, in May 2000, the Center for Ethics’ John Banja included me in a group of faculty confronted with issues related to the preparation of professionals. Dubbed as an ethics seminar, the principal question raised in this undertaking was the following: What is the source of universal values based on which the ethical principles that guide our conduct are formulated?

I was raised in a family steeped in a tradition and belief that we human beings are all made up of the effects of our own actions. This law of action is so universal and eternal that it operates not only in this life but in past and future lives, as well. Narrowed to the present context, the question that took shape in my mind appeared like this: In what way is my profession of physics molding my character and building up my moral self?
Almost 30 years ago I listened to a lecture given by renowned biologist Jacob Bronowski on science and human values. He took the position that what we do in our lives in a broad sense—the activity in which we immerse ourselves—has a determining effect in generating our values. He said “the practice of science compels the practitioner to form for him/herself a fundamental set of human values.”

Identifying the thread that holds a community of scientists together as the principle of truthfulness, Bronowski asked what other values grow from this principle. His answer? Independence in observation and in thought, love of originality, dissent, freedom of thought and speech, tolerance, justice, honor, human dignity and self-respect. I felt satisfied that my chosen profession, that of a working physicist, is not going to undermine the values I inherited from my family tradition; to the contrary, it will only enhance them.

Last spring, when Dr. Banja invited faculty to join in an ethics seminar on the moral self, I jumped at the chance. For me, it meant a continuation of my search for answers to questions like: Where do we find the source of our ethical principles? What constitutes the moral self?

The problem boiled down to the investigation of the nature of self. The participants from various disciplines have sliced the issue in several ways. A clue from the world of neuroscience came to me on reading Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

Our notion of our self is a continuously changing concept—even though attached to it is a sense of unchanging identity. We are in a perpetual process of construction; moment by moment, our brains reconstruct the sense of self.

Obviously, our actions and reactions contribute to this process. My moral self is constructed in a process that includes interaction with the rest of the universe, a world in which an immanent moral order prevails. Two weeks after the seminar began, I emerged with the feeling that I belonged to small, privileged group that knew the answers.

But it was, of course, an illusion. What really happened was my dear self had grown into a new, enlightened self that merely (or supremely) is equipped with more wisdom to grapple with such grand questions as “Who am I?”

Kohak’s postulate of immanent moral order; the cosmic order of Hindu scriptures; Buddhist insistence of permanent impermanence and change; the continuously constructed self of neuroscientists—all have become part of the portfolio of thoughts churning in my mind. This cocktail of intellectual spices, a mixture formed according to an interdisciplinary recipe, is worth savoring before any exercise of contemplation and meditation.

In sum, my point is this: When the Gustafsons and Banjas of the world offer up an intellectual repast that crosses scholarly boundaries, one should not hesitate. Swallow it whole.