Nature is no longer an easy concept, shared both by the everyday and the scientific understanding. Initially just that part of the world that Man has not made, Nature now includes some of the artificial world built by science and technology. What is the meaning of the concept of Nature at the turn of the millennium for the particle physicist who 'creates' his objects in big machines, or the molecular biologist who rearranges genomes? Is it still Nature that scientists investigate and humanists think of when they speak about Nature and culture and the cultural impact on Nature? Has Nature vanished from our scientific textbooks and understanding? And if so, can we really get along without the concept of Nature in science?
In October 1998 the Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a conference on the “changing concepts of Nature at the turn of the millennium”. It brought together scientists and humanists from different fields to discuss knowledge and Nature and epistemological questions relating to scientific knowledge and Nature. The topics included changing concepts of Nature (1) in physics, particularly cosmology, particle physics, thermodynamics and complexity theory, (2) in biology, particularly molecular biology, evolutionary biology and the neural sciences (including the nature-nurture distinction and the mind-body problem) and (3) in the humanities in the framework of anthropology (including scientific aspects), linguistics (language as nature and art), ethnology, ethics, and theology. Epistemological questions are raised, for example, by the concepts of complexity, selforganisation, stability/instability and (from a methodological point of view) reductionism versus enmergentism involved in modern research on nature.
We are unable to give full details of all the presentations and the discussions they provoked, but this compilation of written accounts by some of the contributors provides a partial record of the proceedings of a most lively and interesting meeting.
Wolf J. Singer