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Why science needs philosophy: an essay by nine international scientists and a book about “truth”

Leveraging culture. Critical thinking. Philosophy and science. In other words: good books, constraint-free research, conversations “for the love of truth”. Rediscover a genuine culture of dialogue that formed the foundations of our liberal democracies and therefore of our development, health, well-being and a civil society. Regain a Europe worth defending, reforming and strengthening.

In this era of wicked obsessions and mediocre thinking, where rhetoric, propaganda, fake news, subcultures hostile towards science and the free exchange of views, political bullying, and verbal violence (often verging on physical violence) prevail in public debate, there is fortunately a renewed commitment towards dialogue and a defence of civil values.

The central themes include science and the quality of economic development. An important contribution has been released in recent days with the paper “Why science needs philosophy” published by Pnas, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, one of the most internationally renowned scientific magazines. Included amongst the contributors there are two remarkable Italian scientists, Alberto Mantovani, internationally renowned immunologist and scientific director of the Humanitas Research Hospital in Milan, and Carlo Rovelli, physicist currently at Marseille University, nominated by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the top 100 global thinkers. Other contributors include Lucie Laplane (philosopher at the Sorbonne in Paris), Paolo Mantovani (professor of humanistic culture at the University of Roehampton in London), Ralph Adolphs (Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech in Pasadena, California), Hasok Chang (History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge), Margaret McFall-Ngai (Pacific Biosciences Research Center at the University of Hawaii), Elliot Sober (philosopher at the University of Wisconsin) and Thomas Pradeu (History and Philosophy of Science at the Sorbonne). These are luminaries of science and of humanistic culture, women and men of international renown who are committed to reasoning with understanding and competence on the key drivers of contemporary thinking. They are genuine intellectuals: a term which needs re-evaluating, recalling the words of Tullio De Mauro: “It is a fine word, it is cultural progress and the possibility to face the world with greater awareness.” Devoted to building and innovating over time, a “polytechnic culture”is something Italy has excelled in (this has been brought up often recently in light of the initiatives and events to celebrate five hundred years of Leonardo da Vinci). Not only Italian culture, but also major Italian companies continue to provide significant evidence, with a foot in both the past and the future, skills with historical roots combined with high-tech innovation.

On the subject of the Pnas paper, Alberto Mantovani wrote the following on page 1 of Corriere della Sera on Sunday 24 March: “At a time when the distance between the two cultures is at risk of becoming ever wider, a group of philosophers and scientists have come together to publish a work in a renowned scientific magazine, underpinning with clear reasoning how it is that science needs philosophy. Is this a modern-day paradox, especially in a country like Italy, which is unfortunately scientifically illiterate? Not at all, just as it was no accident that the authors chose Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’ as an illustration for their article: a tribute to Italy’s classical and humanistic culture.”

A great Italian masterpiece. And, as an epigraph to the paper, they cite a 1944 letter from Albert Einstein to Robert Thornton: “A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” The need for research, independence from prejudice, the value of truth (we’ll come back to this in the following paragraphs regarding a new book entitled La verità al potere (The truth in power) by Franca d’Agostini and Maurizio Ferrera, recently published by Enaudi).

But coming back to Pnas. Mantovani claims that: “Science and philosophy share common historical roots. Indeed, we mustn’t forget that in ancient Greece, Aristotle was both a great philosopher and a great scientist. And 19th century Cambridge, where there was a high concentration of Nobel prize winners, saw the best of British science and its rebirth emanate from the so-called Philosophical Society. In the past, even the most recent past, the fusion between philosophy and science has led to scientific progress. For example in immunology, the recent general theory on the functioning of the immune system has philosophical roots: it recognises its discontinuity with the microbial world and in tissue damage. Furthermore, in the stem cell sector, the definition by Hans Clevers of the various classes of cells has philosophical roots. In the life sciences sector, the area in which philosophy has had the most direct impact is in the cognitive sciences, where the reflections of certain philosophers, like Jerry Fodor on the modularity of mind, hastened and drove psycho-neurological research on cognitive mechanisms.”

Comparing competences. These are strong values to be defended, reaffirmed and relaunched whilst keeping a close eye on sustainable development, the environment and on the future for new generations. The values of critical thinking.

Mantovani rightly states: “Beyond specific contributions, there is a fundamental and founding value of philosophical thinking which is at the root of scientific and medical research. It is the propensity for critical thinking, the vaccine we require to protect us from losing our bearings in the face of the barrage of so-called fake news. This is the humanistic culture that science cannot do without, and that it simply cannot ignore. Defending it does not mean remaining entrenched in obsolete or uncritical positions when, for example, talking about teaching scientific subjects in English. Instead it means promoting a critical thinking approach that reflects on the frontiers of science, on the challenges, including ethical ones, which lay ahead of us. I think of the recent cases of genetic modification of human embryos, which led to twins being born in China with modified DNA that made them resistant to the AIDS virus, without any medical justification.”

To conclude: “The meeting and merging of these two cultures is what the authors of the Pnas article desire for science and thinking to progress. Philosophy which understands science well and embraces its advancement can then be — perhaps even by actually being present in research centres, as is suggested by the article — an important instrument for building the bridges that can help society.”

Bridges between thinking and alternative viewpoints, between cultures. Bound by a great common need to go back to speaking about “truth”. Truth is an opponent to propaganda, to the rhetoric of disinformation, to the indifference of opinions.

Critical thinking and the search for truth are featured together in an excellent book by Franca D’Agostini and Maurizio Ferrera (whom we spoke about at the beginning of this blog). The authors write: “We need new rights and a new idea of democratic politics to protect our need for truth and to stop the uncontrolled circulation of nonsense and lies which are damaging to everyone,”. They remind us that the truth “is not a dogmatic notion which leads to unresolvable conflict” (which is actually generated by “the widespread tendency of considering to be true that which is not true at all”) but is the result of research in an “open society” which recognises “alethic rights” (from the Greek a-letheia, meaning “unconcealedness”), for example to receive an education “which enables us to discern, as far as is possible, between truth and falsehood”, and to “have a scientific system and, in general, epistemic authorities which alethically give credibility to individuals, theories and doctrines, or rather are oriented towards the truth, instead of interests that are exclusively financial or political”.  Indeed, truth is challenged in our system that loves prejudice, discrimination, “magical thoughts” unimpeded by science or fact, propaganda founded on fear and discomfort. It is challenge to “liberal thinking” which must be able to “draw on the abilities and critical skills it has historically developed”.