New CoE 2007: The Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature
A question of morality
What is morally right, and what motivates people to act morally? How can our desire to act in the morally right way override egotistically motivated actions? The Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature will examine our normative commitments, and try to understand the human mind with its normative concerns as a natural phenomenon.
"Our understanding of fairness is associated with the notion that all people are equal, and that there is one set of norms for what is right and wrong which applies to everyone", states CoE Director Christel Fricke. "But what does it mean that all people are equal, given the infinite differences between them? How is it possible to justify moral norms that are valid for everyone despite natural and cultural differences?" asks Fricke.
The Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN) is now a meeting place for philosophers, linguists, neurologists, psychologists, social scientists, sociologists and economists. They have one goal in mind: To understand the normative dimensions of the human mind in terms that allow us to see it as an integral part of the natural world.
"It is entirely unique by international standards to have so many researchers from so many different disciplines get together to research these issues", establishes Fricke.
Biology and norms
"On the one hand, people are natural biological creatures subject to the laws of nature. On the other, we are able to act rationally and morally, and to use language when we think and communicate", explains Fricke. "All three factors - rationality, ethics and communication - are activities governed by rules or so-called normative behaviour.
Norms differ from laws of nature in that they can be broken. Nonetheless, they imply a certain obligation, i.e. people should act in accordance with them. Inasmuch as science tells us more and more about our physical characteristics and about the way our brains function in particular, it is very important to try to understand these normative qualities as part of the natural world", states Fricke. Her particular field of research is the role of moral norms in intentional action.
"Moral philosophy raises questions about what is morally right, and about what motivates people to act in a morally right manner. Among other things, we will be examining in more detail what people understand by fairness, how their perception of fairness can influence individual decisions, and how our idea of fairness originates and develops over time.
There is considerable cultural consensus on a number of moral standards such as, for example, that it is 'wrong' to kill and steal. However, in a globalised world, we also take positions on complex new moral issues. The Centre will be studying the political consequences of this, not least in collaboration with Thomas Pogge (Columbia University and CAPPE, Canberra), one of the leading scholars in Ethics and Political Science.
We aspire to understand the social motive behind the fairness of some norms and how it affects political institutions.
Three dimensions - one goal
The Centre has agreed on three main fields of research: rational, linguistic and moral agency.
In cooperation with his colleague Jennifer Hornsby (Birkbeck, London), Professor of Philosophy Olav Gjelsvik will be coordinating the Centre's research on rational agency. They ask: To what extent are individuals rational and what does it mean that a rational agent responds to reasons? Along with a group of neurologists and psychologists, they will be examining, among other things, the standards and patterns of action of substance abusers and other types of addicts. "What is it that makes some people, despite the fact that they know what is rational, choose not to act rationally in some contexts?" The question is whether we can consider substance abusers to be responsible individuals in the light of this type of behaviour. The answer could have consequences for our system of law", Fricke points out.
As for the communication aspect, the linguist Deirdre Wilson (University College London) and Professor of Philosophy Herman Cappelen (Arche Centre at St. Andrews) will be cooperating with neurologists to determine linguistic significance.
"When a speaker utters a sentence, it is interpreted by the receiver. The interpretation depends on a number of factors. The speaker who codes the utterance cannot fully determine how the receiver will decode it. What is it that nevertheless makes communication and mutual understanding possible, and what role do norms per se play in the communication process?
"The third field involves moral agency and political norms, as well as the official pressure behind the norms", states Fricke.
"The special feature of this research is that we are working at the confluence of empirical and philosophical research, i.e. bringing them into close contact with each other", continues Fricke. The initiative to create a Centre of Excellence at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Oslo came from a group of philosophers at the Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas (IFIKK) that included Christel Fricke, Olav Gjelsvik, Herman Cappelen, Bjørn Ramberg and Carsten Hansen. Today the group also includes other Norwegian researchers in the fields of neurology, psychology, linguistics, political science, sociology and economics. The Centre also cooperates with a number of eminent international researchers from other European countries and the USA.
"We will try to provide accessible information about our research. The Centre's research has a wider embrace than the purely philosophical because we have such an interdisciplinary nature. Communication is therefore a challenge we take seriously. It is often difficult to convey information about the subject of philosophy in a way that is generally comprehensible without being simplistic", continues Fricke.
Christel Fricke is the only female director at the new CoEs. She feels it is important to have female leaders in the world of academia, and she has stated that, as CoE director, she plans to recruit many talented female researchers from Europe and the US.
"Having women professors or research managers can be inspiring for the female students. The power of having a role model is frequently underrated." She herself was head-hunted from Germany by the then Head of Department Camilla Serck-Hanssen to one of the University of Oslo's most male-dominated research groups: IFIKK.
"A group of colleagues consisting solely of men can easily adopt a tone and style that can leave women out on the sidelines - often unintentionally", observes Fricke.
Although she is aware of her task as a role model for other women, she is sceptical to employing an absolute gender quota system when selecting leaders for the most important research projects.
"I would contend that it is very important to encourage women to continue their academic careers. But this cannot be the main criterion for getting a research centre on its feet. Academic quality must come first. In any event, it is important that the gender balance on the Applications Committee is even, and that women are given preference where the candidates' qualifications are otherwise equal.
The Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN)
Objective: To understand the place of the human mind in nature by examining different kinds of normative behaviour.
Participants: The Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo, combined with the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, London University, Rutgers, St. Andrews (the Arche Centre) and Canberra (the CAPPE), as well as a number of other international universities and research institutions. There is also cooperation with the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration (Bergen), Department of Political Science, Department of Psychology, the Faculty of Law and the Department of Economics (all at the University of Oslo).
Annual allocation: MNOK 9.5 from the Research Council
Number of full-time positions: 15-20
Point of contact: Professor Christel Fricke
- Last updated: