April 11, 2017

Spring 2017 Entrance Ceremony Address by the President 【April 11, 2017】

 “Ne plus ultra” / “Plus ultra”

To all our new students, welcome and congratulations on your admission to SOKENDAI today! As the new president at the start of this new year, it is truly wonderful to see everyone here.
At the time it was established in 1988 as a graduate university, SOKENDAI was Japan’s first national university without any undergraduate programs. In Japan, when undergraduates advance to graduate studies, there is a low degree of mobility relative to other countries; the majority of students pursue graduate studies at the same undergraduate institutions. Unlike such students, you have chosen to leave the nest to attend SOKENDAI and should be commended for the courage and initiative you have shown.

SOKENDAI is a graduate university consisting of centers of research located around Japan called Inter-University Research Institutes. These parent institutes are first-class research centers domestically and even internationally. While the School of Advanced Sciences has no such parent institute, it is unique even in Japan for the research it conducts on the evolution of life and “science and society.” As students pursuing graduate degree research in these places, you will experience a completely different environment from graduate students conducting research at graduate schools attached to ordinary universities. For starters, our research centers are spread throughout Japan; there are far more faculty members than students at each of these centers; and the faculty focus only on conducting world-class research, not teaching undergraduate students. In other words, each of you is about to land right in the middle of a community of scholars.

It is true that activities and leisure outside of research may not be as lively by comparison with graduate programs at other universities. That said, all departments care deeply for their students and work hard to create an enjoyable environment in various ways. Indeed, whenever you have ideas, I would encourage you to think about them, come up with proposals and make improvements that will produce a better research environment. After all, it won’t be long?just one year?before you, too, are all senpai.

Soon you will be pursuing dissertation research at SOKENDAI toward your doctoral degree with the hope of becoming researchers and scholars at the forefront of the academy in Japan and around the world. For that reason, I would like to talk with you a little about science research. Given that many of SOKENDAI’s departments are in the natural sciences, I will be speaking with the natural sciences in mind, but what I have to say is equally applicable to research in the human ity s tudies as well, so I hope you listen carefully.

In the time of ancient Greece and Rome, the growth of Western civilization was long centered on the Mediterranean Sea. Later, even as civilization spread to the European continent and the British Isles, the connection by land via the Middle East to Africa in the south and Asia in the east sustained forms of exchange and engaged the imaginations of Western peoples. But what about the area west of Europe? At the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea is the Strait of Gibraltar. Regarded as the edge of the world since the time of ancient Rome, it was marked by the so-called Pillars of Hercules, two massive stone pillars that are said to have been inscribed with the words ‘ne plus ultra’ as a warning to travelers to go no farther. The phrase ‘ne plus ultra’ means “nothing more beyond.”

During the Middle Ages, Spain controlled the Strait of Gibraltar. For Spain, guarding the Strait of Gibraltar meant guarding the very end of the world beyond which there was only the precipitous edge of the ocean over which one might fall. Reflecting the pride with which Spain viewed its position, the Spanish monarchy used ‘ne plus ultra’ (nothing more beyond) as its motto.
Then, in 1492, Columbus sailed west from Gibraltar with the support of the Spanish monarchy in the belief that the world might actually be round and, if so, one could reach Asia in the east by sailing continually west from Europe. And indeed, he eventually struck land, in the region later named the West Indies. Gibraltar was not, after all, the edge of the world. There was a world beyond.

And so the Spanish monarchy’s motto?‘ne plus ultra’ (nothing more beyond)?was wrong. Faced with this reality, Spain did something astounding. It made an ever so slight revision that reflected an enormous change in meaning. With the ‘ne’ simply removed, Spain’s motto became ‘plus ultra.’ From “nothing more beyond,” it became “ever further beyond,” the precise opposite meaning. It is hard to imagine an expression that could better capture the historical fortunes of Western Europe following its discovery of the Americas. Thereafter Spain and other nations of the Western world sent explorers throughout the world. Driven by an insatiable desire, they went “ever further beyond,” in the process colonizing many regions of the world. For the peoples in these colonized regions who were subjugated, it was of course a disaster.

As for the motto, the change was apparently made around 1500 by Charles V, the son of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the monarchs who had supported Columbus financially. Given that Charles V was also the Holy Roman Emperor, who did in fact rule throughout the world, the motto ‘plus ultra’ was a fitting one.

Now, let’s think about this in terms of the development of science. Will science research someday come to an end? Will science research ever face limits beyond which it can never provide answers? The first of these questions asks if we may someday reach a point beyond which we will have no further need of scientific inquiry; the second asks if there may be questions beyond the ability of science to answer, no matter how hard we try. Is there a ‘ne plus ultra’ to science research, or is science forever ‘plus ultra’? These questions apply not only to the natural sciences. They are equally valid of the human ity studies. Is there a limit to intellectual inquiry? It is well worth asking.

To be honest, these are not questions I came up with on my own. The Brazil-born British immunologist and 1960 Nobel Prize-winner in Physiology or Medicine, Peter Medawar, writes about them in his collection of essays titled The Limits of Science. But what do you think, I wonder. As you pursue your degree research and write your dissertations at SOKENDAI over the next several years, I truly hope you find the chance from time to time to debate important questions such as these late into the night with each other, and preferably with people from different departments.

About the first question: Toward the end of the 19th century, the Prussian government (modern-day Germany, that is) apparently sought to close its patents office in the belief that there would no longer be new inventions and discoveries. It seems absurd, doesn’t it? Of course, a skyrocketing number of inventions and discoveries continued to be made and the patents office never did close. It seems unlikely we will ever witness an end to new inventions and discoveries thanks to research generally in the natural sciences.

How about the second question, then? Are there limits to science in terms of the questions it may never be able to answer no matter how advanced science becomes? Surely yes. “Does my life have any meaning?” “Was my decision at that time the right decision?” “Is it truly important that we protect endangered species?” These and other such questions about value cannot be answered by science. There are elements to these questions that require more than just an understanding of facts and causal relationships and theoretical consistency if they are to be answered. They depend on our values, on our answer to the question “What is good?” While the results of scientific inquiry are powerless to answer such questions of value directly, this is not to say that science has no bearing whatsoever on our value judgments. Indeed, scientific facts and scientific predictions provide extremely useful information in making value judgments. Science may be independent of our values, but it is far from irrelevant to them.

Today is your first day as a researcher. For the next several years you will dedicate yourself to your research, face many hardships, and undoubtedly savor the joy of making a major discovery. I welcome you to our volatile world of ups and downs. May you truly enjoy your research and produce outstanding doctoral dissertations, but also take time to reflect on these fundamental questions about the essential nature of intellectual inquiry that I have talked about today.

I wish you all success. And, again, congratulations on your entry to graduate school!

April 11, 2017

Mariko Hasegawa, Ph.D., President