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On the Human Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge. Introduction to readings

There are three main areas where the personal and humanistic dimension of scientific activity is clearly perceived today. These areas may be called: a) the epistemological-gnoseological one; b) the ethical-moral one; and c) the aesthetic-existential one. We can also say that the humanistic dimension enters science as logos, as ethos and as pathos, respectively. The readings we propose in this Home-Page frame touch on all these aspects. 

Michael Polanyi speaks of them in his well-known essay On the Intellectual Passions in Scientific Research (1958); the author, more than others, had the merit of re-evaluating an epistemology shaped by the forma mentis of the researcher. Richard Rudner, in his article The Scientist qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments (1953), insists on the ethical dimension of all measurement, because each act of measure, within the confidence interval it displays, forces the researcher to make a choice: Is this measure – or its precision – sufficient or not? Is it adequate for the purposes of my research or not? Like Polanyi's text, Enrico Cantore's piece – taken from his work Scientific Man. The Humanistic Significance of Science (1977) – exposes the humanistic dimensions of science on the epistemic, ethical, and existential levels. The aesthetic and existential aspects are also addressed by the texts of Theodosius Dobzhansky and Joseph Zicinski, for the life sciences and the physical-mathematical ones, respectively.

These texts make us understand that there is no totally impersonal scientific activity or experience: the forma mentis, the remote context of one's knowledge, of one’s personal beliefs, creativity and existential experiences of the subject, represent a "tacit dimension" of knowledge, which becomes a determining factor for both the discovery and the formulation of scientific theories. Today, the use of analogy and imagination in science is revalued, and non-formal and open languages employed as well. We are also aware of the enormous value of tradition in science. Tradition is always associated with an auctoritas and with some form of “faith,” thus allowing scientific knowledge to accumulate and proceed by integrating the past.

It is worth noting that Thomas Kuhn also stressed this point in his famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) when he says that: “A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith.” (pp. 157-158).

The ethical-moral aspect is generally the first area that comes to mind when we talk about the humanistic dimension of science. However, it is necessary to think that ethical judgment is not something “external” to science, but rather an “intrinsic part” of its activity. When we think about freedom of research, or about the autonomy of science, we often forget that, strictly speaking, freedom and autonomy do not exist as separate, abstract concepts. Freedom is never impersonal. It does not refer to processes, protocols and experiments, but to the knowing subject. Freedom can only be attributed to a personal subject. It is in this sense, for example, that we speak of press freedom or religious freedom. As an act of the subject, freedom must be linked to a corresponding responsibility, perceived from within, as well. Like all other dimensions of human freedom, freedom of research implies a self-determination towards truth and goodness, without underestimating, of course, all the difficulties involved in the search for both.

Finally, aesthetic-existential experience of researchers is a third important area capable of revealing the profoundly personal dimension of the technical-scientific enterprise. In his or her research activity, the subject realizes that he or she is at the center of a web of profound existential experiences that arouse emotions of wonder, but also feelings of reverence, in front of nature and its laws. We are amazed by the language with which nature seems to speak to us, and by the tuning between the rationality of the subject that strives to understand physical reality and the rationality of reality itself, that progressively opens up, controls and corrects our quests. There is space here, for instance, for the metaphor of “nature as a book,” which originated in the patristic age and has survived until our days. This aesthetic-existential experience emerges in the testimonies of many men and women of science, when they use expressions such as: mystery, miracle, perception of the foundations, encounter with the Absolute. Not infrequently, thanks to this experience, the scientist finds the power to motivate and sustain his or her dedication and commitment, the pathos able to support the research when it becomes difficult or even burdensome. It is the human factor, again, which drives research to success.

Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti