October 22, 2020
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
These words, from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, are etched into his tombstone in Kaliningrad. During the pandemic, I’ve thought a good deal about them. They bring together two important ideas that relate—admittedly not straightforwardly—to how I think about our work at Stanford.
The first idea is that the universe is infinitely large, stretching in space and time, encompassing as Kant puts it “worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems”; by contrast our lives are finite, bounded, and brief. As parts of nature, we barely register, at least from the point of view of the universe, which is beautiful, full of mystery, and indifferent to human fate.
By contrast, the second idea, is that through what we can do with the short, bounded time we have, through the capacity we have to make meaningful choices in the midst of this indifferent universe, we have immeasurable worth.
A character in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen puts it this way: “A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.”
There are many ways to make meaningful and morally responsible choices within our finite time, but a life centered on the production and transmission of knowledge that enriches the human condition is one important way. (Note that by “enriches the human condition” I mean to encompass both knowledge that contributes to explaining and addressing social problems and work that adds to the great repository of human culture, ideas, and understanding.)
I have never felt as acutely as I do now, as the world is metaphorically and in some cases really on fire, that our work is important. To those who ask, “why bother?” we have a strong case to make. From diagnosing and explaining political polarization, to research on the underlying biological and chemical properties of COVID-19, to evidence-based efforts to make voting accessible during the pandemic, to understanding the roots of racial and ethnic inequalities, to efforts to direct technologies in a more human-centered way—what we do has public benefit.
And so too does our research that probes alternative pathways and possibilities, that transmits and remakes culture, and, yes, our research on the origins and paths of the starry heavens above.
We have not always made this case for public benefit as powerfully as we could across all of what we do, and we have sometimes let this role of research universities fall from our purview. The pandemic gives us the opportunity to recommit, as a school, to producing knowledge as a “public good.” A number of the long-range research initiatives put this mission front and center, such as the Stanford Impact Labs, the Changing Human Experience, and the Innovative Medicines Accelerator.
This newsletter calls out the individual work of some of our faculty—from the exploration of many-particle quantum systems to the study of US poverty and inequality—but I want to acknowledge the important work that you are all engaged in.
In the past three months alone, I have been delighted by reading recent books by our faculty in history and creative writing as well as in sociology and political science. I have even made my way through a classic work on black holes and string theory by one of our physicists. I have dropped in on webinars and heard inspiring talks by many of you. And I have met with some of your graduate students and been inspired by them, as well.
Although we face many challenges now, both within the university and without, our fundamental mission remains the same. I hope that you enjoy reading about some of the exciting work of your colleagues.
I’d like to remind everyone that we have an upcoming election in the United States, and it is important that everyone who is eligible—students, faculty, and staff—have the opportunity to vote.
The Faculty Senate has recommended that faculty be as accommodating as possible so that our students have the opportunity to vote and be engaged (e.g., taping lectures, not scheduling exams on election day, etc.), and I strongly support that advice. (I will be volunteering as an election poll worker.)
In addition, I have designated the week of the election as a “low-impact work week” for our school staff who really need time to regroup and have a break from endless Zoom meetings.
And don’t forget to tune in when you can to the school’s Democracy Matters series, which showcases the fantastic work of your colleagues on the issues our society confronts.
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science