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Readings on the Human Factor in Science: an approach to Scientific Humanism

G. Tanzella-Nitti


The texts gathered in this special issue offer insights for grasping the relevance of scientific humanism thanks to the interdisciplinary reflections of some authoritative 20thcentury scientists and philosophers.


A dilemma is frequently encountered in philosophical reflections on technological progress. It is often formulated in this way: “we have to choose between two poles: accepting the advances of technological progress or limiting the intrusions of technology, in order to preserve a more human society”. Those who want to defend the values of human dignity, its emergence or even its transcendence, use to claim the safeguard of the “human” against the uncontrolled developments of techno-science. This dilemma is implicitly proposed whenever matter and spirit, science and conscience, the world of machines and the world of the human beings, are presented as opposite poles. Ironically depicted for the first time by Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and then, in dramatic tones, by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001A Space Odyssey (1968), this dialectic is widely present in contemporary public opinion, however naive or simplistic it may seem. It can be found in authors who are strongly critical of technological society, as Martin Heidegger, and in those who have endorsed this conflicting logic though seek ways to solve it, such as Ellul or Jonas.

Other authors, instead, move along a different direction, proposing a philosophical perspective that we could call "scientific humanism". Related to some original intuitions suggested by Romano Guardini (Letters from the Como lake, 1925) and later developed by Gualberto Gismondi and Enrico Cantore, scientific humanism aims at esteeming the human in science and not against science. Although endorsable by many traditions of thought, there is a convergence between the proposal of scientific humanism and the vision of progress and human work presented by Biblical Revelation: God entrusts the earth to the human beings, asks them to cooperate wisely to its "humanization" through technical progress, the responsible custody of creation and the smart transformation of natural reality. The originality of “scientific humanism” looks even clearer when evaluated against the backdrop of other, nowadays widespread ,ways of relating scientific progress and humanism. Let us look at them briefly.

The most widespread model is probably that of a functional, and therefore neutral view of science: directions and goals of techno-scientific progress should be decided in an ethical-philosophical context, understanding them as essentially distinct from the activity of the sciences and of the scientist. Philosophy, sociology or politics should direct scientific practice in an instrumental and pragmatic way: science, per se, would not be a source of humanistic thought. The sphere of aims and purposes lays outside science. If the evaluation of aims and purposes is entrusted to a conventional, revisable and provisional ethics, it is not difficult to recognize that the philosophical guidance of science will mean to “use” science for political and economic purposes, often relying upon the building of a corresponding mass media consensus. In this model, the scientist, just because he knows more, can and must pragmatically produce more. According to another model today in vogue, the so-called "Third Culture", scientific knowledge would be the only knowledge capable of effectively guiding human society, because of both the strength of its method and the philosophical depth of the questions it raises (see J. Brockman, The Third Culture. Beyond the Scientific Revolution, 1995). Neither humanists nor scientists (traditionally understood) should guide society, but those men and women of science promoted to the role of moral guides. Scientists, then, should be proposed as politicians and governors of our society. From this viewpoint, the scientist, as he or she “knows more”, can judge anything and everything.

On the contrary, scientific humanism follows a quite different path. While for the functionalist model science is not a source of humanistic value, and according to the Third Culture model such value is assigned to science extrinsically as a result of a strategic decision, scientific humanism emphasizes that science and the progress it generates are a human value in themselves. They represent a great educational resource, reveal and increase the dignity of the human being and are a source of human freedom. Scientific knowledge, then, is an experience of service, naturally oriented towards helping humanity to overcome the limits of poverty, illness and underdevelopment, freeing it from ignorance and superstition. Researchers, as men and women of science, have a specific social responsibility that prompts them to commit themselves to cultural and human promotion. In essence, as once emphasized by John Paul II, precisely because he or she knows more, the scientist can and must serve more.

In tune with the insufficiency of the neutral vision of scientific progress, and related to the affirmation of a humanistic value intrinsic to science, there is the contemporary revaluation of the personalaspects of scientific activity. This revaluation operates both in the epistemological field, as Michael Polanyi has effectively shown by highlighting that there is no purely objective and impersonal knowledge, and in the anthropological field, as shown by many reflections of scientists on the existential dimension of scientific research (Poincaré, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Dobzhansky). Richard Rudner, among others, has underlined the intrinsic ethical dimension of all scientific activity, observing that every quantitative measure is associated with a choice, and that the scientist, as a scientist, cannot abstain from making value judgments. These are conclusions that meet what, from different perspectives, authors such as Charles Taylor or Hilary Putnam have also pointed out, and that still today can be inspired by a “philosophy of action” such as that developed by Maurice Blondel or, more recently, by Karol Wojtyla.

The existential experience of men and women of science emphasizes that their activity enable them to perceive a logos, recognized in the rationality of objective reality: we “receive” nature as something given and in its specific, formal properties. Scientific activity also involves an ethos and a pathos, because in their research path scientists proceed thanks to personal choices, trusting in others and feeling intellectual passions. Re-evaluating the person as the subject of the techno-scientific enterprise helps us to understand better why ethical responsibility is not a heteronomous guide to science and to the choices that progress implies. Ethical responsibility is in continuity with the very notion of research autonomy and freedom. Freedom, in fact, is never associated with an object, but with a person, just as “freedom of the press” or “freedom of religion” do not concern the prints or symbols of the divine, but people who write and pray. Thus, research freedom does not concern the material object of research, but the researcher as a person, and therefore can never be dissociated from the ensuing responsibility.

According to the perspective furthered by scientific humanism, the human person is considered both the subject and the goal of scientific culture; technological development is seen as part of the integral promotion of the human being, insofar as it makes a decisive contribution to the development of dignity and quality of life. A significant part of this dignity is the awareness of the human being’s place in the universe, the knowledge of all the natural phenomena that make our existence possible (astronomy, physics, geology, biology, neuroscience, psychology, etc.), a knowledge we owe to the sciences today. For its part, technological progress can foster the fullness of our personal existence, protecting and improving our living conditions on the planet, and developing the relational network of human relationships, with essential repercussions in the field of resource distribution and information dissemination. The promotion of education and culture is thus favored, but also the communitarian dimension of the human being, contributing to the decreasing of social and cultural inequalities, a necessary premise for the exercise of justice.

The affirmation of the “human”, then, is not to be sought by halting scientific and technological progress, but by understanding its internal dynamics in order to direct it in a virtuous way, taking seriously the Creator's commandment to humanize the earth. According to Christian religious tradition, this is a filial task, neither demiurgic nor despotic, because it is a participation in the kingship of the Son, Christ-Wisdom, over creation. Following the example of the Son made man, Jesus Christ, scientists are called in a special way to use their knowledge and applications to foster the fulfillment of the human, especially in favor of the neediest and weakest people: since they know more, they mustserve more. The encounter with the mystery of the Cross of Christ will show the extent of this service, and highlight what is the source capable of sustaining the commitment of charity and sacrifice in our historical condition, one that implies fatigue and struggle against one's own hubris and selfishness. The implementation of technological applications that can have degenerate fruits like abuse, violence, and death must be ascribed precisely to that hubris and selfishness, not to science or technology per se. Bad actions are not actions of technology, but actions of human persons: technology is else than the mind and hands that the Creator has given to man and woman in order to humanize the earth and bring to fruition the projects embraced by their own humanity. Charity is the true form of all authentic progress. Service to brothers and sisters is the only end capable of transforming scientific progress into human progress.