Last November, the famous American daily paper, Wall Street Journal dedicated an article on the novel ‘That summer before the end of the world’, a work of the brilliant and creative lawyer of Bari Enzo Varicchio. This book is inspired by detective novels of the paranoid current à la Dan Brown, making a polite parody of it. But, actually, it speaks about many other things. Particularly, what struck the economic paper were lots of scenarios predicted for the future, and punctually come true after the book’s release, from the protests of the indignados in the streets, to the fall of Berlusconi government, up to the bipartisan election of a technical government. What would be best is if other anticipations by the author, even if more upsetting, will come true. Apart from this, Varicchio reminds us that the world, at least the one we knew, is finished by now. Whether we noticed or not, whether we like it or not, whether the break off point was in summer 2011, the year of the book’s release, or in summer 2012, the year of its setting, things really are like that indeed. Actually, in spite of what we think, the great epochs have never suddenly finished: often they begin quietly and, after an unpredictable lapse of time, little by little, we find ourselves in a completely different world. Sometimes there is a traumatic episode that marks a boundary, sometimes not. He who has eyes to see signs in the world, realizes this before the others. The fact that the economic, social, energetic, working world in where we were born is already finished and that we are in a long and unpredictable age of transition, is under everybody’s eyes by now. The end of science as we have intended it up to today is a less visible event, and maybe also less acceptable. But, also in this case, many of the dominant paradigms are failing and we are in an era of full transition. It has been many years by now, that a subtle and unavowed discomfort crawls among men of science, in culture, and above all in the people. In this historical moment, when scientific progress seems to have reached its climax, the mistrust in it is increasing. Sure thing, post-Galilean and post-Newtonian science is in crisis, maybe already dead. But, unlike economy, work, politics, energies, there is a censorship on this argument. Maybe different kinds of censorship, because the crisis of science is really frightening. The image of an always winning science and medicine, able to solve every problem – if not today, surely in the future – is an image that, when crumbling, terrifies patients, and stops public and private financing moving the biggest and most powerful industrial sectors of the world. But this crisis is not convenient neither to the information body, nor to press, to television, in other words to all those forms of the public opinion, to all who determine the current culture. The idea of a science discovering its weaknesses, analyses its limits, that examines itself on the reasons of its loss of credibility, is something that scares, but makes no news. Also the dominant culture does not like the idea that science is in crisis leaking out. Because, despite all, the image of the science that still circulates is the one that derived from the great positivist drunkenness between the XIX and XX century, the reassuring science of the “magnifiche sorti e progressive” (Leopardi in the poem “la ginestra” doubted with melancholic sarcasm of the human progress), that nobody could ever stop. But he who has eyes to see what others cannot, already realizes how science and medicine will be in the future. This is actually what we need today: new eyes to read the signs that this end of the world brings, to understand what will rise from the ruins of the past. Eyes able to read the events from different and unusual angles, eyes of men standing upside-down, in comparison to dominant culture, as the cover of the book suggests. What will the new world bring us? It is difficult to say now, but one thing is sure: the future will be built by those who have firm and deep roots in the past, those who will be able to read the history of our scientific evolution no more in black and white (as a negation of everything happened before Newton and Galilei and an exaltation of everything happened after); but as a story of one path, one holding dear everything it needs to go on, from any age or culture it comes.

On the 7th of last January Oscar Pistorius danced in a famous tv program. As known, the athlete is affected of a congenital malformation of the lower limbs that required amputation at the age of 11 months. But this did not prevent him from becoming a sport champion, using prosthesis made of titanium foil in place of legs. These prosthesis even allowed him to go over the performances he would have accomplished with natural limbs. The fact that he can also dance with mastery is a reason of joy. Pistorius imposed himself on his destiny. And there is few to discuss about this man. But this piece of news also makes us think about differences between science and technique. Technique, technè for Greeks, was the ability to produce something, the realization of a work, of a ergon. It was a handcraft activity, even if in the noblest meaning of the term. In our culture, technique has more and more melted and confused with science. But, despite the fact that the two terms are often used as synonyms, the difference is remarkable because if technique is a constructive skill, science is knowledge instead. Sure the role of medicine is that of producing or reproducing health. And technique is often the only possible short cut when science-knowledge does not allow us to do it in a different way. If knowledge does not allow us to prevent, heal, nor cure a disease, then technique intervenes to help us, with a handcraft action to produce prosthesis and to simulate a state of normality, of original health. But let us not forget that behind whatever prosthesis, celebrated by science as a victory of knowledge, there is always a mutilated body, ill, suffering. Technè is almost never a victory of health. Knowledge is that almost always.

It is imminent the release of my last essay “Elogio dell’Induzione… e della Magia”, for the Mediterranee Editions types. The book will be in newsstand from January on, but it is already for sale on Internet (see the link on the right column).

In a little bit provocative manner I make cohabit in the title, the induction with Magic. What does induction (term coined by Aristotle to indicate the phase in which researcher, starting from dates of his observation, builds up an hypothesis) have to do with Magic (name that makes turn up the nose and make head turn with indignation to whoever is interested in science?

Actually, to the culture of Renaissance until Giordano Bruno, Magician was the “wise and virtuous man”, he who cultivated and bettered himself to be worthy and ready to investigate the secrets of universe and human body. This subjective dimension of knowledge was gradually lost in the following centuries: in a hard hunting for the objectivity of science, the subject – the man of science – was completely lost of sight. In short, with this book I want to explore not much science, but the man who does science, the subjective dimension of knowledge.

My research is based on an hypothesis: modern science is in crisis, especially the medical one, and it is difficult to deny this. And the official theories of philosophy of science cannot give satisfactory answers no more.

This book is a journey backward in time, in search of the forgotten thought of that Men that, from nothing, built pillars where the modern scientific culture is based on.

That Men bet on a great resource systematically ignored by the modern science: their own intellectual and humanistic abilities, studying and bettering them with mental paths that, with this book, I intend to discover again.

The bet 23rd august 2010

August 4, 2012

Verweile doch! Du bist so schön“

“Stop you! You are so nice”
(Faust – W. Goethe)

“What do I dislike of death? Maybe the hour”
(W. Allen)

 In an article published on “Espresso” on the 29th of last July, the politician-surgeon Ignazio Marino reminded us of a historical bet made about ten years ago. The “players” were two cell biologists: Steven Austrad, from San Antonio – Texas and S. Jay Olshansky, from Chicago. The subject of the bet between the two scientists was: is the woman who will live for 150 years already born or not? The bet dealt with a woman and not with a man, because as we know, the estimated  life of the so-called ‘weaker sex’ is slightly higher than that of man.

The bet was not particularly high at that time (300 dollars), but it will come to be, in 2151, of about half a million dollars, that will make happy some heir of Austrad if, as many think (among them also Marino), in that year, somewhere in the world, a woman will have blown out the fateful 150 candles.

It is curious, but is seems that the progressive lengthening of the average lifetime, that we have seen for some decades, is directly proportional to the fear we have to get old and die: the longer we live the less we are satisfied of our estimated life. In short, the awareness of the possibility to live longer, makes the idea of death no less acceptable. Indeed it is the contrary. The most paradoxical thing is finding a lot more serenity towards death in the writings of men who lived in times where a man of 40 years old could consider himself reasonably old. Knowing of being passing hosts on this planet, gave in the past the urgency to find a meaning to one’s own days. That finding one’s own role, the own eternity in life is an excellent antidote against the anguish of death, is wonderfully explained by Ernest Becker in another page of these ‘Dialogues’, and I will not come back on the argument.

The thing I wanted to think over is instead the fact that today we are concentrated on the aim of lengthening as much as possible our life expectancy, health and physical efficiency (a thing more than right in itself), and we lost sight of the fact that is our awareness of the brevity of our existence that pushes us to try to give it a sense and, at the same time, to accept the unavoidability of our earthly end.

Ancient thinkers claimed that, if we knew to be eternal, probably we would not feel the need to fight for an aim, to ask ourselves on the sense of life. We would turn into a raft in drift, without any work.

Time is that subtle boundary line between matter and spirit. Accepting the comparison to death means maturing the awareness of this boundary line and starting from here to ask ourselves those questions which make noble and meaningful our existence. The biggest freedom that can be acquired is freedom from the fear of death. Science in general, and medicine in particular, beyond continuing to fight this rightful battle to lengthen the estimated life and health, should start thinking on the meaning to give to these years that many of us prepare to spend on Earth.

With some difficulty, on 23rd of April, also on italian screens the movie “Agorà”was released: the story of Hypatia, astronomer, neoplatonic philosopher and Alexandrian mathematician, sentenced to death in AD 415 for heresy and sorcery by the bishop Cirillo (then made a saint and a doctor of Church). Just for the record, we have to precise that the philosopher was flayed with fragment of shells.

The movie was rightly defined an indictment against intolerances of all times. Actually, its values is  another one, too: between the lines it documents the intellectual vivacity of ancient science in an age generally considered of obscurantism and ignorance. Hypatia probably had guessed, much before Kepler, the elliptic motion of celestial bodies. We cannot be sure of this, but the movie reminds us also of many daring and amply unrecognized scientific intuition of ancient thinkers.

For example, Parmenides claimed that Earth, Moon and Sun are spheres, that moon turns around Earth even if it always anxiously searches for sunrays, from which it borrows the light that illuminates our nights.

But also Plato and Aristarchus thought more or less the same, and said that Earth turns around itself and around the sun. In ancient times was a common concept that of the Earth being not flat but spherical. More than 2000 years ago, with a small pole and a lot of genius Eratosthenes managed to calculate the diameter of Earth, mistaking only of a hundred of kilometers. Many other examples of great discoveries of ancient science (especially in medical field) can be found, if you are interested in them, in the chapter “The Legacy of Sapiental Schools” in this blog.

Obscurantism of that time was not due to the absence of ideas and discoveries, but to censorship was against them. And if it has been spoken for much time about the misadventures of Giordano Bruno and Galilei, many of you have just now discovered the story of Hypatia.

If we had to answer to this question, searching something that remembers this argument in programs of university studies of future doctors, we would find absolutely nothing.

If we had to answer to this question, searching themes of medical methodology in the doctors’ updating, we would not find a line dedicated to this argument.

If we had to answer to this question, searching in libraries books dedicated to philosophy of medicine or to medical method, we would find very little, and that little is usually written by non-doctors and  in an elaborate or even incomprehensible language.

If we had to answer to this question, asking straightly to doctors, we would discover that many of them daily ask themselves about their method. Many of them, ask themselves everyday if they work well or badly. But these questions do not find any answer, because there are no points of reference at all, there is no cultural tradition on this theme, there are no physical or virtual places in which to debate on this argument. Except from a bioethics often monopolized from a few groups of thought, of political  thematic, there is nothing.

Many doctors will live their entire professional life without having the possibility to stop a moment to think on their method.

So does it exist a ‘philosophy of medicine’? The answer is no. But we feel so much the necessity…

Modern science is in crisis, even if many people try to hide this to us or to themselves.

This is what the subtle uneasiness that has twisted for years among men of science says. This is what the strident contrast between the thousands of scientific works brought out daily, and the few true great discoveries of the last years say. This is what also the increasing mistrust of patients towards official medicine says. And the theories of great philosophers of science, like Karl Popper, cannot give satisfactory answers anymore.

Maybe we can find solutions to problems of nowadays by going backward in time, to the discovery of the forgotten thought of those Men that, from scratches, built up the pillars on which modern scientific culture is based.