Biological Ethics

Table of contents

Chapter 9. knowledge scientific, II: Meaning and Limits

N. López Moratalla and A. Ruiz Retegui

a) Scientism

There is a widespread reticence in the scientific world that permeates our culture to a large extent: mistrust, insecurity in the face of all knowledge, all argumentation, in the face of everything that by its very nature is not susceptible to scientific-experimental treatment; in the face of what is not verifiable by "measuring or weighing it". It is a dazzle for science - scientism - which is a corruption of the true scientific spirit. We see, for example, relatively often that to give prestige to an idea, an opinion, consists simply of adding to it the qualifier "scientific", with its resonances of rigour, or of declaring that it is affirmed by Science, or by a certain scientist. What we are now considering is also reflected in the recent rise of "experimental" pedagogy, or "experimental" psychology...

Despite the obvious limitation of the scientific methodology initiated by Galileo - the testing of hypotheses by experimentation - this new way of knowing so influenced the mentality of men that Galileo's construction of the telescope is considered one of the fundamental events that mark the beginning of the Modern Age and determine its character. Hannah Arendt1 points out that the specific character that opens this epoch is a reversal of contemplation and action; that reversal was precisely the belief that man's thirst for knowledge could be quenched by relying on the inventiveness of his hands: "It was not that truth and knowledge were no longer important, but that they could only be attained by action and not by contemplation...". Only by experimenting could we become certain.

Scientism, for various reasons, is a danger for all of us. In large part, because of the rigour with which the sciences reach their conclusions; we are used, for example, to being told with great precision that such and such a comet will pass at such and such a time, in such and such a place in the sky, and that it will indeed pass. On the other hand, scientific knowledge has a great intersubjective validity: the knowledge of a living being, the concept of anabolism, can be statement without difficulty of time and mentality. On the other hand, there is, one might say, an intellectual pleasure in solving the subject of problems posed by the sciences. Schumacher speaks in his book "Small is beautiful"2 of open problems, which exhaust, and closed problems, which rest. The former correspond to man's desire to know, which affects human, fundamental questions; the latter involve the intelligence's desire to reason, a desire that is satisfied, for example, by solving a crossword puzzle, a logical problem, etc. By their very nature, they "entertain", and sometimes constitute a quiet refuge in the escape staff from the open problems that arise, even from these scientific questions. The human being's thirst for knowledge is not usually satisfied by the answers provided by empirical science; there is no doubt, to cite an example, that those who study theories about the origin of the universe or of living beings will at some point wonder about the origin in itself, about the "original" origin; but the attraction of scientific work itself causes such questions to be forgotten. Steve Weinberg expresses - on the last page of his book "The first three minutes of the universe" - this position, sometimes unconscious, sometimes premeditated, but frequent in the scientific world: "Some cosmologists are philosophically attracted to the model of oscillations, especially because, like the model of the steady state, it avoids the problem of Genesis. But it raises a serious theoretical difficulty....

Yet all these problems can be solved, and whatever the correct cosmological model may be, we can find little comfort in any of them. For human beings, it is almost irresistible to believe that we have some special relationship to the Universe, that human life is not just the more or less absurd result of a chain of accidents going back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow part of it from the beginning..... It is difficult to realise that all this is only a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile Universe. It is even more difficult to realise that this present Universe has evolved from an ineffably strange primitive condition, and faces future extinction in eternal cold or intolerable heat. The more comprehensible the Universe seems, the more meaningless it also seems.

But if there is no relief in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men are not content to console themselves with tales of gods and giants, or by confining their thoughts to the everyday affairs of life. They also build telescopes, satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours trying to discern the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the Universe is one of the few things that lifts human life above the level of farce and imbues it with something of the elevation of tragedy".

Undoubtedly, another of the reasons that make scientism so close to the man of science, and to men in general, is the fact that the knowledge achieved with experimental sciences is a "useful" knowledge, full of practical possibilities. Curiously enough, it is precisely the practical applications that have caused the sciences to falter and even lose some of their prestige. To a certain extent, what happened to biology today is what happened to nuclear physics in the period 1930-1970: it opened up new fields of knowledge , promised new sources of energy, solutions to multiple problems, promised health, -cobalt bomb-; and the physicists achieved great prestige: Einstein, Dirac, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Planck, Hahn... were well-known figures and considered glories and benefactors of humanity. But in the 1960s and 1970s this prestige declined sharply and the systematic denial of the use of nuclear energy began.

Something similar is happening - and in a much shorter period - with biology. Biology has reached an astonishing development in recent years, and its capacity to transform reality is currently spectacular. In particular, Genetics - together with Biochemistry and Microbiology - has opened up fields of manipulation and intervention to unsuspected levels. And just as Nuclear Physics and the Engineering derived from it suffered the popular clamour that advocated the curbing of these techniques that introduced cosmic processes into the human world, and gave rise to the birth of Ecology and environmentalism and the corresponding extremist movements that fight against nuclear technology, so too Biology, with its own progress, has made Ethics fashionable. It can be said that bioethics is a fashionable science: congresses, committees, legislative commissions, declarations of scientific bodies; many universities are starting to offer courses in ethics at Schools .... There are calls for guidance for these activities; there are calls, on final, for the establishment of frontiers in this subject of research. We will deal with the nature of the frontiers later on topic . For the time being, we will only point out this question: the research and the field of discoveries and applications - which make science a useful knowledge - are inherently limitless.

Perhaps the most drastic consequence of scientism is that by giving prestige to the scientific method, to the point of affirming it as the only way to attain certain knowledge, man is profoundly disoriented: the scientistic mentality forgets the deep and proper meaning of reality.

Science, by its very nature, when confronted with a reality in order to know it, distances itself from it, and reduces the multiple facets that it presents, abstracting those that are susceptible to experimental treatment. If the results of this experimentation were to seek to know the other facets of this reality, we would be lost. Of a work of art, a painting, for example, science can give us the most sophisticated analysis of the composition and distribution of materials and colours, but it is not possible to find in that analysis the aesthetic sense, nor the topic, nor the reason for the topic or even the reason for those materials; it is not possible to find orientation to contemplate it and enjoy it. The scientific treatment, by putting so many facets in brackets and keeping only one aspect, can lead to a distancing from reality itself.

As long as science was not very developed, it was not very distant and was almost identified with the spontaneous knowledge ; it was like going in a small helicopter from which you can see more panoramic views because it is a little higher, but without ceasing to be part of the realm of man's world. Aeroplanes have been perfected, and they allow man to leave his place, and to be able to jump over natural barriers: mountains, oceans... Not because he destroys them, but simply because at that altitude the borders of the world disappear. Whoever is on land has clear orientations and natural borders; he realises that when he reaches the edge of the sea or the edge of the desert he cannot go on, because it is not a human environment: it is deadly, or inhospitable, and he realises that to cross it he must equip himself in some way: he is oriented.

But those who travel in a reactor are prepared to encounter no borders and may unexpectedly descend into a desert, or go to the moon, or end up in places that cannot support human life.

In the same way, Science -scientific progress- has risen with an increasingly radical distancing from the knowledge of the totality; it has enclosed itself in its own logic and when it lands, when it returns to reality, it ignores the proper meaning of things. It has become alienated from the quantitative, everything that is qualitative - meaning, value, sense, ... - is alien to it; it is lost. He does not know the way to reach another knowledge: he has only learnt to measure and weigh, or, even more, he only trusts in measuring and weighing.

It seems obvious that in order to know the truth of the physical world, empirical science alone is not enough; it is necessary to broaden and deepen the experience with the spontaneous knowledge and, above all, with meta-science. As a rule, the scientist does not question the world of evidence at all: that there is a world outside the self, that this world exists independently of one's own perception of it, that this basic evidence, which is absolutely unprovable, is the means by which everything else can be demonstrated, and so on. On the other hand, the question continues to be raised in relation to the Admissions Office of the goal-science, to the possibility of deepening or extending experience in this other direction. It is a misgiving, but a misgiving that in its own development distances the life sciences from the "world of life".

Biological sciences, after a stage of predominantly describing the observable characteristics of living beings and arranging them according to their similarities, have moved on to an attempt to explain - logically according to models - the nature of vital phenomena. In order to achieve these explanations, they mainly assumed concepts from physics and Chemistry. From this perspective, the unitary character of the living being is lost, as only processes occurring under certain conditions can be explained.

This undoubtedly distances them from living beings taken as a whole, it distances them from the real world. In this respect, the words of Professor Sermonti3 are very expressive: "A stranger to scientific programs of study cannot imagine what profound contempt objects such as the mane of the lion, the flowers of spring, the waves of the sea, the pink of the sunset find in the mind of the avant-garde scientist; in other words, all those realities which, because they belong to common experience, have become useless as objects of the aseptic world of science. On the other hand, the fibres of the tail of phages, the movement of electrons and the atmosphere of the planet Uranus enjoy a special dignity. In other words, the realities that common experience has never encountered, and whose existence is guaranteed and verified only in the world of specialists".

But this is not just a diversion of the field of interest; if this were the case, the very desire to know the beings that make up the rich realm of the living would keep the scientist's gaze above the level of molecules and organelles. The problem arises - and the estrangement from reality occurs - when vital phenomena are reduced to physico-chemical phenomena, deterministic in nature, and the behaviour of any complex system is explained as an additive result of the behaviour of its parts. All vital phenomena not explained today will be explained in a more or less distant future, without the need to leave these categories, it is affirmed from this perspective.

For the study of vital phenomena, the biological sciences require categories such as purpose, evolution, specialization, information, etc. that cannot be covered by physics or Chemistry. The living being is a unit of Structures and intimately related functions that manifest a project: to maintain life. In living beings all the properties of their Structures always have a useful function. Núñez de Castro4 points out how it is necessary to take into account the category of purpose, teleology, in order to construct any biological science, including Biochemistry , which is the closest field to Chemistry within these sciences: "Martius and Knoop had studied the degradation of citrate to oxaloacetate and knew that the intermediates were isocitrate, succinate and malate. So why didn't these researchers come up with the formulation of the tricarboxylic acid cycle, asks A.H. Krebs, talking about the finding citric acid cycle. According to Krebs, it was not a matter of luck or chance. Martius and Knoop's view was that of organic chemists and not that of a physiologist. Krebs concludes that until the right question was asked, "What is the physiological role of this metabolic step, the known fact could not be integrated into a consistent theory". The attempt to reconstruct a Biology with an express rejection of all subject of the explanation of vital forms in terms of final causes - which Monod led and some biologists follow - supposes a philosophical stance that is not at all imposed by Science. The claim to avoid the use of metaphysical categories in biological explanations closes the field of life sciences to such an extent that the living being cannot be known.

From the perspective of the Ethics of knowledge, from which we are making these reflections, it is necessary to highlight the need for the scientific knowledge to be broadened and deepened by looking at the world of evidence, of everyday life, and eliminating its suspicion towards Metaphysics. And it is especially important to take this into account in the transmission of biological science, at teaching, which is for many of us a professional task. Attentive, passionate observation, committed to the reality of life, leads many people to become interested in - and even to study with the dedication of all their time - the processes that take place in the rich world of life. So, even if one is observing a more mechanical or physico-chemical process, one does not equate - one does not homogenise - any reality. When the scientist has this attention to the reality of life, when he is a "whole" person and not a "one-way" man (to use Marcuse's expression) who embeds all his desire to know in the world of formulas, then he distinguishes and maintains this distinction throughout his activity. His "sympathy" for all forms of life does not prevent him from noticing the real difference B between a grass and an animal, between a sponge and a horse, or between an ovule and a neuron. He does not make a false comparison because he would have to take a step that he resists, since he would have to dispense with the very observation that first moved him to the desire to know them better. The vision of the world, in these cases, does not start from laboratory, but takes to laboratory the knowledge it receives in what Mussel called "the world of life".

b) Philosophism

Scientism, the attempt to explain all reality only by the scientific method, is in itself as false and ridiculous as the attempt to understand and explain material phenomena by philosophical reasoning; an amusing example is given by Manzoni in his novel "The Betrothed" when Don Ferrante reasons philosophically that there can be no contagion in the plague. The paragraph is long, but worth transcribing. "He says, then, that, when the first rumours of the plague spread, Don Ferrante was one of the most resolute in denying it, and that he constantly maintained, to the end, that opinion; no longer with uproar, like the vulgar, but with reasoning, of which at least no one will say that they lacked concatenation. In rerum natura," he said, "there are but two kinds of things: substances and accidents; if I prove that contagion can be neither the one nor the other, I shall have proved that it does not exist, that it is a chimera. Let us see then: substances are either spiritual or material. That contagion is a spiritual substance is a nonsense which no one would wish to maintain; so that it is useless to speak of it. Material substances are either simple or compound. Now, contagion is not a simple substance; and it is proved by four words. It is not an aerial substance, because, if it were such, instead of passing from one body to another, it would fly to the point of its sphere. It is not aqueous, because it would wet, and be dried up by the winds. It is not igneous, for it would burn. It is not earthy, for it would be visible. Nor is it a compound substance, because it would be sensitive to sight and touch; and this contagion, who has seen it, who has touched it? It remains to be seen whether it can be an accident. But, what is more, these doctors tell us that it is communicated from one body to another; for this is their Aguiles, this is the pretext for making so many useless prescriptions. Now, supposing it to be an accident, it would be an accident transported: two words that slap each other in the face, there being nothing clearer, more crystalline than this in the whole of the Philosophy, that an accident cannot pass from one subject to another".

"His fretus, that is, on such good grounds, took no precaution against the plague, he went to bed, to die, like a hero of Metastasius, taking it up with the stars. And that famous Library Services of his? It may be scattered among the old man's stalls"...

In reality this is not just a matter of fiction: it presented itself in a very acute manner in the discussions between Galileo and the Aristotelians and it presents itself now in an equally acute manner. Even if the danger of scientism is close at hand, we are by no means exempt from the danger of philosophism. Logically, it no longer has the comic side of Don Ferrante's reasoning, but it does present itself in the terrible form of the empire of ideologies. It happens when an attempt is made to force the interpretation of some data to pass them off as support for certain ideas, or to attack others.

Very briefly, two examples - of opposite sign - of the attempt to give scientific basis with biological theorisations to ideological postulates about the old topic on the possibility or impossibility of equality between men. The demand for absolute equality - even in material or biological terms - led Lisenko, a young Russian agronomist, to defend without proof an evolutionary theory "as the only one compatible with dialectical materialism", as opposed to Mendel's laws, which would be false as metaphysical; the Academy of Agricultural Sciences decided to follow the "proletarian science" as opposed to the "bourgeois science" which knows the biological instructions of the individual differences of the members of a species and together with withdrawal of the research Genetics leads to the disaster of the harvests. On the contrary, for the members of the French "New Right", the inequalities produced by biological diversity would be a good thing, while anything that would lead to homogenisation would be an evil. If biological difference were to be combined with social inequality, all aggression, abuse of power, etc., would be justified: it is the "pecking order" of the animal.


(1) ARENDT, M. "La condición humana". Seix Barral. Barcelona, 1974.

(2) SCHUMACHER, E.F. "Small is beautiful" H. Blume Ediciones. Madrid, 1982.

(3) SERMONTI, G. "Il crepuscolo dello scientismo". In "Influjo educational ambivalente de la Biología: el nuevo status de la Biología". Victoria, M.A. Revista Española de Pedagogía, 163, 137-147, 1984.

(4) NUÑEZ DE CASTRO, I. "Epistemología de la Biochemistry y Biología Molecular". Pensamiento, 36, 425-435, 1980.