Knowledge and Information (2018)

The Engelsberg Seminar 2018

June 14th – 16th 2018 at Engelsberg Ironworks, Sweden

In  A  Program  of  Teaching  and  Learning  the  fifteenth-century  humanist  Battista  Guarino  writes:

Other  animate  creatures  have  powers  innate  to  them,  like  the  power  of  running  in  horses  and  flying  in  birds,  but  to  mankind  has  been  given  the  desire  to  know,  which  is  also  where  the  humanities  get  their  name.  For  what  the  Greeks  call  paideia  we  call  learning  and  instruction  in  the  liberal  arts.  The  ancients  also  called  this  huma-nitas,  since  devotion  to  knowledge  has  been  given  to  the  human  being  alone  out  of  all  living  creatures. 

Maybe  Guarino  is  right  in  that  the  ‘desire  to  know’  is  the  most  important  feature  of  what  makes  us  human.  The  idea  is  certainly  deeply  rooted  in  Western  tradition  and  reflected  in  the  Bible  story  of  Adam  and  Eve  as  well  as  in  the  attempt  by  Descartes  in  the  seventeenth  century  to  find  a  foundation  for  knowledge.  To  strive  to  understand  seems  to  be  our  painful  destiny,  and  the  only  proof  of  being  is  that  ‘we  cannot  doubt  our  existence  while  we  doubt’.

This  seminar  will  discuss  and  analyse  the  question  of  knowledge  and  information  and  its  role  in  creating  the  in-dividual,  cultures,  and  civilisations.  On  the  first  day  we  will  ask  ourselves  how  knowledge  and  information  is  pre-served  and  transferred  in  preliterate  societies,  and  what  we  can  learn  from  cultures  that  on  the  surface  seem  different  to  our  own.  We  will  examine  the  purpose  religious  myths  have  served  in  carrying  knowledge  over  time  and  space,  and  consider  what  is  lost  when  foundational  stories  fade  away.

We  will  continue  by  investigating  the  knowledge-culture  of  Western  civilisation.  How  was  knowledge  perceived  and  used  in  Roman  times?  And  what  role  did  non-authoritarian  teachers  and  teachings  play  in  creating  the  independent  in-dividual  during  the  early  modern  era  in  Europe?  What  hap-pened  to  the  people  who  knew  it  all,  the  ‘monsters  of  erudi-tion’,  the  polymaths?  And  can  their  modern-day  equivalents  survive  in  an  era  of  specialisation?  And  as  our  scientific  knowledge  has  advanced,  have  ethics  and  moral  integrity  progressed  with  it?

The  second  day  will  focus  on  our  ability  to  process,  use  and  communicate  information.  We  will  investigate  how  hu-man  cognition  works  and  how  our  brain’s  sixteen  billion  cortical  neurons  enable  us  to  create  language  and  abstract  thoughts.  Can  human  intelligence  be  replicated  artificially,  and  what  are  the  implications  for  humans  in  a  world  where  we  are  outsmarted  by  machines?  We  will  also  discuss  the  problem  of  decision  making  from  limited  information  when  outcomes  are  a  matter  of  life  and  death.  What  can  we  learn  about  the  nature  of  information  from  the  realm  of  intelli-gence  and  military  strategy?

In  the  afternoon  we  will  turn  our  attention  to  the  new  digital  world  we  inhabit  and  its  perils  and  possibilities.  Has  information  technology  delivered  on  its  promise  of  a  more  democratic  and  freer  society,  or  have  we  moved  into  an  ‘ugly  global  village’?  We  also  discuss  how  information  travels,  from  the  silk  roads  of  the  ancient  world  to  modern  information  highways.

The  conference  will  end  with  an  examination  of  the  sta-te  of  our  universities  and  the  public  debate.  Is  a  free  and  open  exchange  of  knowledge  and  opinions  still  possible  at  our  academic  institutions,  or  have  we  created  a  new  era  of  scholastic  dogma  and  doctrine?  How  do  we  handle  the  increasing  tension  between  a  ‘cognitive  elite’  and  people  who  feel  excluded  from  public  debate  and  decision  making?  And  are  we  paradoxically  entering  a  dark  age  of  information,  or  will  our  ‘desire  to  know’  once  again.


The Origins of Knowledge

Mark Pagel
FRS, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Uniersity of Reading
Lecture: The Origins of Knowledge and Innovation – You Are Not As Clever As You Think

Mark Plotkin
PhD, President, Amazon Conservation Team
Lecture: Information and Uncontacted Tribes of the Amazon: How We Know What We Do Not Know

John Hemming
PhD, Independent Historian
Lecture: Is Modern Information Better Than Pre-Literate Knowledge?

Jessica Frazier
PhD, Univrsity of Oxford
Lecture: Mythic Headlines, Epic Wikipedia: Spreading the News (and How to Use It) in Global Cultures


Collecting Knowledge

Richard Miles
Pro-Vice Chancellor and Professor of Roman History and Archaeology, University of Sidney
Lecture: Measuring Knowledge and Fashioning the Past: The Roman Re-creation of Ancient Carthage

Erica Benner
Former Fellow in Political Philosophy
Lecture: Knowledge Without Authority

Peter Burke
Emeritus Professor of Cultural History, Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge
Lecture: ‘An Endangered Species’? The Polymath in the Age of Specialization

Nathan Shachar
Journalist and Author
Lecture: Is there Ethical Progress in Science?



Suzana Herculano-Houzel
Associate Professor, Vanderbilt University
Lecture: The Human Advantage of Having Sixteen Billion Cortical Neurons – and How That is Still Not Enough

Mariano Sigman
Director of Neuroscience Laboratory, Di Tella University
Lecture: Language: A Privileged Window into the Mind

Martin Ingvar
MD, PhD, Barbro and Bernard Osher Professor of Integrative Medicine, Osher Center, Karolinska Institute
Lecture: Digital Information: From Words to Semantics


Knowing Your Enemy

Michael Goodman
Professor of Intelligence and International Affairs, Department of War Studies, King’s College London
Lecture: Reading the Russian Mindset: Lessons from the Cold War

Gill Bennett
Historian, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Lecture: Disinformation in the Information Age

Simon Mayall
General Sir
Lecture: The Other Side of the Hill

Karl Engelbrektsson
Chief of Army Staff, Swedish Armed Forces
Lecture: Knowing Your Enemy: Leadership and Decision-Making on Different Levels (A Practitioners View)


Addicted to Information

Nicklas Berild Lundblad
Dr., VP Public Policy and Government Relations EMEA, Google
Lecture: A Wealth of Information, Poverty of Attention and Organized Complexity

Maria Borelius
Science Journalist, Author and Entrepreneur
Lecture: Time to Regulate the Development of AI

Andrew Keen
Lecture: How to Fix the Future

Nicholas Carr
Lecture: The Ugly Global Village: Human Nature and Social Media


Information Roads

Peter Frankopan
Professor of Global History, University of Oxford
Lecture: When Information Travels – The Global Impact of Knowledge Exchange

Antoni Ucerler
S.J. Director and Associate Professor of East Asian Studies, Ricci Institute, University of San Francisco
Lecture: The Society of Jesus and its Eraly Modern Global Networks of Knowledge

Christopher Coker
Professor, London School of Economics
Lecture: Information Highways and Information Start ups

Elisabeth Kendall
PhD, Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Oxford
Lecture: Jihadist Media Strategies


The State of the University

Janne Haaland Matláry
Professor, University of Oslo and the Norwegian Command of War Studies, King’s College London
Lecture: When Two and Two make Five – The Vocation of the University in the Age of Subjectivism

Claire Lehmann
Editor-in-Chief, Quillette
Lecture: Academic Cultures and Explanatory Conflict

David Goodhart
Writer, Policy Exchange
Lecture: The Overmighty Cognitive Elite and The Three Hs

Brendan O’Neill
Editor and Columnist, Spiked Magazine
Lecture: The Crisis of Enlightened Thought


The State of the Debate?

Fraser Nelson
Editor, The Spectator
Lecture: Going Underground: The Intellectual Dark Web

Iain Martin
Columnist, The Times, London
Lecture: Market Complexity and Making the Moral Case for Capitalism

Adrian Wooldrige
Political Editor, The Economist
Lecture: The People Versus the Knowledge Elite