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The Shapeshifters Symposium is a transdisciplinary two-day event that explores the concept of plasticity across academic domains and beyond. We, a group of interdisciplinary scholars, invite researchers, societal stakeholders and artists to come together and question what it means to be a shape within a shapeshifting society, a form within a form – adapting, evolving and mutating, along with its environment. And you are warmly invited to join us!

Plasticity, the ability to be molded in various forms while maintaining a core identity, is a term that is increasingly used within various fields of science, e.g. neuroscience, plant- and cell biology, and within the humanities. However, the meaning and use of plasticity varies between these fields. How are these different usages – from shapeshifting to adaptability, related between disciplines, and how can plasticity be developed into a threshold concept within fields where it is currently not in use?

To join, please register here, preferably before May 15.

Day One of the symposium, May 30, consists of four panel discussions, intermittent by coffee, tea and lunch breaks to mingle and connect. Two panel facilitators will frame the topic of each panel with a statement from the perspective of their background. After that, the conversation will be opened to all people present ‘fishbowl-style’, meaning everybody is invited to join (and leave) the available seats on stage and add to the discussion with questions and thoughts.

On Day Two, May 31, we will continue the discussions, and collectively work on a white paper and book with the working title ‘Plasticity, here, there, and everywhere’. You are welcome to join us and contribute to both. 

Two weeks before the symposium, a first draft of the white paper will be circulated amongst the participants.

Day One – Symposium Programme 

09:00 Registration & Coffee

09:30 – 11:00 Panel I – Plasticity, Complexity, and Circular Causality 
Moderator: Dr. Yaron Caspi
Panel facilitators: Prof. dr. Ray Noble & Prof. dr. Peter Sloot

The concept of Plasticity is intricately linked to complexity. It is hard to conceive a case where a system possesses a high level of plasticity, if it also has a low level of complexity. As an example, one can think about brain plasticity. Had the brain been a simple system, it could not have had the level of Plasticity observed. But the same applies to Plasticity in other fields, such as phenotypic plasticity, networks Plasticity, or political plasticity.

But complexity usually also depends on interactions between multiple levels. Many times in a multi-level system, both bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of causality operate. In such systems, one can speak of circular causality.

In this session, we will attempt to clarify the relation between complexity, mechanisms of top-down and bottom-up causality, and Plasticity. We will discuss how ideas from philosophy, natural science, social science, and beyond about top-down and bottom-up causation instruct the thinking about Plasticity.

11:30 – 13:00 Panel II – Plasticity from within and from without 
Moderators: Dr. Esmee Geerken & Dr. Yaron Caspi
Panel facilitators: Dr. Danqing Lui & Prof. dr. Frank Seebacher

Plasticity can only be defined for a particular system, organism, or item. Thus, there is no plasticity without identity maintenance. However, maintaining identity happens only in the context of an environment. I.e., a second system that operates outside the plastic system. Thus, there is also no plasticity without an (outside) environment.

For some biological systems, the relationship between the in and the out can be conceptualized as a flow of energy or information. For these systems, one can ask: Chemically, how are they moldable/adaptive across space and time within environments? And, biologically, how does the interaction with the biosphere or ecosystem support plasticity? Similarly, one can ask if the system’s resilience supports or opposes the system’s plasticity. Are these two things compatible with each other? Complementary? Or maybe opposing solutions to the same problem of interaction with the environment?

This panel focuses on understanding chemical and biological plasticity through its identity maintenance and environmental interactions projects to non-biological systems, such as synthetic systems, material systems, or human-made structures. Drawing examples from biology, material science, theoretical humanities, and beyond, this panel explores how interactions with the surroundings and information flow between the in and the out shape the system’s identity. Furthermore, we will explore the importance of different scales and levels to maintaining and diversifying the system’s identity. Consequently, we will try to understand how this discussion guides how plasticity can be developed into a threshold concept in fields where it is currently not being used.

14:00 – 15:30 Panel III – Time & Mind
Moderators: Tamalone van den Eijnden & Dr. Onur Basak
Panel facilitators: Dr. Kjetil Horn Hogstad & Dr. Joost de Jong

This panel delves into the intersections between the mind’s plasticity and experience of time across multiple disciplines and bodies. Our brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize itself not only affects our cognitive and emotional resilience but also shapes our temporal experiences, memory, anticipation, and the narrative construction of self in relation to the environment.  We will discuss the plasticity of mind, and how this relates to our society e.g. politics and the education system. The concept of time is an integral topic and can be perceived by molecules, organisms, individuals, earth and societies in overlapping and unique ways. Thus, we will examine the relationship between temporal plasticity at different scales.

16:00 – 17:30 Panel IV – Meaning making across epistemic cultures
Moderators: Dr. Jeff Diamanti & Dr. Abby Waysdorf
Panel facilitators: Alice Iacobone & Prof. Dr. Amanda Boetzkes

This panel invites discussion on the plasticity of meaning making practices across the faculties from a historical perspective as well as concerning some of the transformations unleashed by contemporary challenges to universal authority – such as the ambivalent ironies of digital culture, post-truth solipsism, and the recognition and study of anthropogenic climate change. How have the distinct epistemic cultures of the humanities and sciences, in particular, shifted in light of the orientation towards future ecologies and social sustainability that shapes much contemporary academic inquiry, even as, at the same time, societal pressures and discourses seek to discredit this line of thought? Or, what epistemic habits have proven impervious to the pressures of planetary life, on the one hand, and post-truth solipsism on the other? What role does digital culture, platform epistemologies, and information accessibility play in current conflicts over meaning and authority? Beyond interdisciplinarity, how have the categories and concepts of meaning adapted to the scales, objects, and normative horizons of a world no longer infinitely secured for human progress? And what lessons do we have from previous epistemic shifts to adequately account for the plasticity of observation, interpretation, and explanation? 

This panel invites a consideration of the place and prospect of plasticity in contemporary debates about the politics of vernacularity, facts and values, authority, and truth claims. Are the logics of nomothetic and ideographic meaning shifting amidst these epistemic pressures?