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M. Ramirez: The Limits of Science and the Benefit of Unified Values

Address to World Summit 2017, Seoul, Korea, February 1 to 5, 2017

(Editor’s note: Professor Ramirez delivered a presentation based on the following outline at the 23rd International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences (ICUS). The opening plenary was attended by the entire general assembly of the World Summit 2017 on February 4 in Seoul, Korea.) 

I. My Personal Profile

Why has the UPF chosen me to give this talk?

I want to believe the main reason is because of my more than forty years of dedication to study the psychobiological processes in animal and human aggression, as well as for my long relationship to the ideals of ICUS, having participated in plenty of conferences since the middle 1970s.

My passion for conciliating the scientific and the humanistic cultures from an open, interdisciplinary and global prospective comes from my early university days, when, though I was trained as an MD specializing in neurosciences, I also earned a doctorate in philosophy (education) and a master’s degree in High Studies of Defense.

Then I moved into psychobiological research and teaching: integration of physiology and psychology; aggression and violence in different species; and cross-cultural conflicts in humans.

Psychobiology is a patent example of a unitarian perspective of the science. It is interested in the behavior (psychology) of the organism (biology) that has to be adapted to an environment (ecology), changing according to its relation with other living beings (sociology), whose features are variable and measured mainly quantitatively (biostatistics).

Being an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) Fellow, I try to apply Von Humboldt’s ideas to how we think nowadays about the natural world. Von Humboldt (1769-1859), who, in the 18th and 19th centuries was immersed in empiricism, considered that to really understand nature, it was not enough to use scientific tools, but we also should use our feelings and imagination. We may also find that he was already concerned with the effects of human intervention on climate change (Wulf, 2016).

Being a World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS) Fellow, I’ve learned promoting leadership in thought that leads to action, aware that multidimensional challenges are an opportunity for rapid and radical transformation founded on new ideas, values, centers of power, institutions and policies.

Being the chair of the Spanish Pugwash (Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs), one of my main aims is seeking a world free of weapons of mass destruction and focusing also on environmental problems. The Pugwash Conference shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for its efforts for nuclear disarmament. It is a model of nonpartisan scientific activism, a shining example of what scientists can accomplish if they work behind the scenes, without the constraints of formal politics, creating opportunities for dialogue on the steps needed to achieve that end. Moving beyond rhetoric, we foster creative discussions on ways to increase the security of all sides in the affected regions, in a DIALOGUE ACROSS DIVIDES, in the belief that “we have to learn to think in a new way.” As a personal example of this nonpartisan scientific approach, I’ve being researching in probably the two most important U.S. think-tanks, the Democratic Harvard Kennedy School and the Republican Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

One of my Harvard colleagues was John P. Holdren, the White House science advisor in the Obama administration; he knows better than anyone that science and technology are critical drivers both of the 21st century’s most important policy challenges—and of possible solutions. A chief authority on climate change, he has shown a deep commitment to building a more secure, more prosperous, and healthier planet. For instance, he forged a historic agreement with China to limit carbon emissions, which paved the way for the global climate agreement in Paris a year later; contributed to the rapidly declining cost of renewable-energy technologies; and issued new greenhouse-gas and fuel-economy standards.

Summary: I have to admit that my personal background, studying and living abroad in different cultures, for a third of my life–I feel myself a citizen of the world, and spending most of my working thinking within a transdisciplinary perspective certainly gives me an interdisciplinary approach toward some important problems of the universe, such as climate change as well as building a truly democratic institution for global governance.


II. Unity of Sciences

1. What do we understand as science?

  • Latin scientia: = learning, knowing (sciens = to learn, to know)
  • German: = Wissenchaft = Naturwissenchaft and Geisteswissenchaft
  • English: science = natural sciences
  • Hard vs. soft sciences

2. Unity vs. specialization of sciences: a historical approach

 2.1. Until the 19th century science was unified.

  1. The ancient Greeks are a good example of the unity of sciences! They talked about polímata, polymaths (wise men in multiple fields), because there was no sharp line of demarcation between the field of the philosopher and the scientist.
  2. The Romans achieved little in theoretical science, but they were very pragmatic.
  3. During the Medieval period, “Three Cultures” kept alive the unity of sciences.
  4. The Renaissance vitalized the ancient culture with a spirit of free inquiry, which encouraged scientific minds toward study of “all natural things.”

2.2. Segregation of science in sciences (19th century)
In modern ages, science and philosophy led to a separation:

  1. Biology and physics have deepened scientific thought, finding that the fundamental concepts of reality cannot be explained by mere mechanical models of the phenomena observed, because they certainly are not mechanical, analytic, but abstractions. They are continually widening our knowledge of the phenomena of the nature and the relation between the concepts used to interpret them.
  2. Philosophy is forced to take account of science as something with meaning the best available evidence.

2.3. Nowadays: Superspecialization vs. Interdisciplinarity

  1. Superspecialization

    The growth of knowledge is too fast for people to keep track of it all; the science of the 21st century is in most areas far too complex to be understood, let alone experimentally verified, by any one person. Given the necessity of knowing a thing in depth, the different specialties of knowledge become continuously more specialized, erecting barriers between disciplines.

  2. Interdisciplinarity

    In the end, these barriers between disciplines block the possibility of judging and of doing better. This is why an interdisciplinary approach is needed, a cooperative integration between different specialties, each one competent in a restricted field but in contact with the rest. Moreover, since scientific inquiry is about a single common universe, conclusions from different disciplines cannot contradict one another.

 3. Unity of all sciences

3.1. Special consideration of the unity in biology

  • Philosophical structuralism > biological organicism
    “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
  1. The entities of the world are complete whole organisms. 
    The living organisms, which must be treated as a whole, showing a coordination and integration of their parts

  2. Compartmentalization
    1. Multicellular organisms show a division of the tasks: integration of their different parts in order to achieve a dynamic stability or homeostasis.
      1. Different proteins are specialized for particular functions within organelles.
      2. Different organelles are specialized for particular functions within cells.
      3. Different cells are specialized for particular functions within tissues; each tissue is responsible for specific functions.
      4. Different tissues do different jobs within organs.
      5. Different organs do different jobs coordinated in different systems dedicated to the main corporal functions:
        1. Some systems show a physical continuity: AD, AC, AGU
        2. Other systems, between them: SE, SInmune…
      6. Life is essentially self-regulation, in continuous interchange with the environment, searching for a functional equilibrium, a dynamic balance of the vital conditions.
        1. Milieu interieur (Bernard)
        2. Homeostasis (Cannon): physical, mental, and social

  3. Unicity
    1. Unity of the living beings > E.coli = E.lefante
    2. Unity of the species
    3. Anatomical and functional unity of each being
      1. Organic integration in space: MUTUAL INTERACTION MIND-BODY
      2. Organic integration in time: continuity of life
        1. Somatic and physical development depends on maturation.
        2. Cultural development depends on social peculiarities.
        3. Development is continuous throughout life.
    4. Nature-versus-nature > nature-via-nurture
      2. ACCEPT a CONTINUOUS INTERACTION BETWEEN BOTH. Genes are designed to take their cues from nurture
    5. Epigenetics: Context can change the way genes work
      1. Acting both as an on or off switch and a dial of genes, but without altering the DNA sequence
      2. Lasting influence may persist over several generations.

Summary: Biology shows an interdependence of all living things, with interconnections between all the branches of natural sciences, keeping all these subjects in permeating touch with each other


3.2. A transdisciplinary approach in natural and social sciences
We need an interdisciplinary collaboration across areas, because no single discipline can capture reality fully.

  • Interconnections and comprehensive approaches are becoming more and more apparent at different levels:
  1. Within a discipline
    1. Dialogue between theory and experiment
    2. Examples in medicine
  2. Between different disciplines, transferring knowledge gained in one discipline to others
    1. Translational approach
    2. Integration of the human sciences
    3. The historical example of the Viennese School
  3. Between all of them, between sciences and humanities
    1. Need for a unifying vision of Subjectivity and Objectivity

In sum, we need:

  1. A translational interdisciplinary approach
  2. In an open-minded, transdisciplinary human-centered approach


III. Limits of Sciences

  1. Science without secrets and borders
  2. Science is not synonymous with truth
    1. Tentative nature of science: There are no scientific dogmas
      1. Scientific concepts are not realities but just models.
      2. Scientific self-limitation to only what is empirically verifiable
    2. Subjectivity of the perception
      1. What is perceived cannot be separated from the perceiver.
      2. Each scientist has his own priorities and biases.
    3. Many scientific studies are subject to error.
  3. Reality > science
    • Science has nothing to say about many aspects of the world.
    • The enormous complexity of the reality is unintelligible by the uniqueness of a human mind.
  4. Science is not the only test of validity; there are other ways of knowledge.
    1. The desire to know the unknown transcends science.
      1. Limits of natural sciences
      2. This limit is also applicable to social sciences (ethics, philosophy, art … and theology).
    2. Transcendent vision of the human being
      1. Faith (“believe in what we don't know”) is a normal part of human cognition.
        1. Believers may feel religious needs.
        2. Non-believers use faith in acceptance of science.
      2. Bridge between science and religion (they should not be seen as conflicting)

Summary: Recognizing the limits of scientific knowledge—science does not have the last word—includes an explicit recognition of the tentative nature of science, combined with the fact that some things are, theoretically, unknowable scientifically. Universal truth is beyond the scope of the scientific enterprise. At the end, we seem to be brought to the theologian dictum of Tertullian, Credo quia impossible. (I believe it because it is impossible.)

IV: Values of Science

  1. Traditional divide between:
    1. Basic science: search of pure knowledge
    2. Applied science: pursuing useful purposes
      1. Special consideration of IT
  2. Artificial choice of basic vs. applied research
    1. The traditional divide assumes a linear relationship, but science is highly nonlinear: a cycle that moves from discovery to invention and back again. Global problems and discovery go both ways, in a cross and interdisciplinary work.
  3. Master plan for improving the quality of science, increasing the speed at which researchers get closer to the truth
    Who is responsible? All stakeholders: scientists, but also research institutions, scientific journals, funders and regulatory agencies
  4. Role of scientific cooperation in easing relations between governments
  5. How can we improve the public's understanding of science? Providing accurate information
  6. Ethical values of science: Science in se is neither good nor bad

Final message: Importance of investment in science, providing funds focused not only on real-life problems but also on the fundamental tenets of biology that will underpin the future of humanity.


V. Benefit of Unified Values

I hope that my previous considerations may help to accomplish the message handed to me by the ICUS organizers:

  1. Importance of investing in research for awakening about the potential of science for today’s world;
  2. Stressing that scientists are better qualified than non-scientists to defend the public interest and, consequently, to solve political and social problems;
  3. Fostering a strategy for promoting science diplomacy that focuses on ways to leverage political and financial backing for science's more humanitarian goals, such as tackling climate change or reducing world poverty.

Finally, all my above assertions are based on something which seems to me essential:

  4. Consequently, FUNDAMENTAL UNITY OF SCIENCES, as a base for the development of a transdisciplinary, human-centered perspective of society
  • The Unification Movement is a good example of this.

Thank you very much. Kamsa haeyo.


Professor J. Martin Ramirez, Psychobiology Department & Institute for Biofunctional Studies, Universidad Complutense Madrid, Spain 

Prof. J. Martin Ramirez served as an International Security Research Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University. He worked at the UCM Institute for Biomedical Studies as head of the Complutense Research Group on Sociopsychobiology of Aggression. He presently acts as Chairman of the International Colloquia on Conflict and Aggression (CICA).

To go to the 2017 World Summit Conference Schedule, click here.