Knowledge, Science and Ethics

Plasma lamp © Luc Viatour

From the lives and work of Tagore, Neruda and Césaire emanates a vision that foresees relations between science, human beings and ethics. A vision that is especially valuable because they are not in any way practitioners of science and technology, disciplines that are today moving forward in giant steps.

The relations between human and science are a crucial ethical challenge for humanism in the third millennium, which is required to reconcile types of knowledge and rehabilitate the universality of the cognitive method in order to bring together, on the basis of the liabilities, achievements and immense potential of the scientific field and its technological applications, the thousand and one expectations of a common humanity. It is made even more crucial because of the radical changes that took place during the second half of the 20th century in relations between individual and society on one hand and between society and the rest of the biosphere on the other. The growth in the connections between science, technology and economics, are unavoidable challenges.

Fascinated by the rapid proliferation of scientific discoveries, Tagore invited a number of western scientists to visit the university he had set up in Santiniketan to share their knowledge of fundamental and applied sciences for the good of development in India, which was on the way to national independence. Thus, his intellectual exchanges of letters with Einstein were extremely rich.

Tagore believed in mankind’s diversity as a wealth, but did not support the tendency in modern civilization to make the world uniform through a colonized vision of sciences and techniques. Because of this he disagreed with any pretension to create a new universal human by a scientific order giving insufficient consideration to individual physiognomy, which needs to be acknowledged as intrinsically different and complementary. He did not agree that one human civilization can be created by the sciences on the basis of the individuality of peoples and civilizations. Individual civilizations cannot be merged into a universal whole, even if seems to be the natural destiny of mankind to pursue unity as a moral and philosophical aim.

In Neruda’s vision of technological progress and observation there is no gap between the sources of scientific knowledge and the subjects exploited and expressed by poetic inspiration: it is from them that the poet gets his power to transform the real.

Neruda’s work presents no break in the exploration of biodiversity. Inspired and rapt with admiration for nature’s generous gifts in Mexico, in Maya country, he observed the unfathomable mysteries of water, foreshadowing the quite recent experiments by organic chemistry and quantum physics, which are trying to discover the scientific key to living and mineral matter and advancing in the nano-sciences and nano-technologies towards the frontiers of the quantum universe.

Aimé Césaire deeply admired science, to which he expressed huge gratitude for the positive solutions brought about by scientific and technological progress when it alleviates the human suffering repeated through the ages. But that knowledge must be reconciled with the intelligence of all people in both north and south, for in his view ‘The mistake would be to think that knowledge waited for the methodical exercise of thought or experimental scruple to appear.’ He was a forerunner of the cross-disciplinarity that ushered in the contemporary movement of holistic thinking, Cross-disciplinarity, bringing together in a group poets, philosophers, anthropologists and ethnologists, and scientists from every field. Just like Tagore’s founding initiative in creating Visha Barati and the universities of Santiniketan and Sriniketan, the aim of the journal Tropiques, set up by Césaire, was to initiate a role for scientific method in rehabilitating the accumulation of objective knowledge about a local heritage through geography and botany, to explore ‘the vegetation of the West Indian environment’, get to know ‘generic and scientific names’, ‘the role of ecology’, give ‘importance to agronomists’, acquire information about ‘the properties of plants’, ‘the mangrove: that tropical phenomenon’, ‘the pre-Columbian fauna of the French West Indies’ or ‘the history of the West Indian context’.

Furthermore their geo-cultural origins fed into their interpretations of the amazing opportunity offered by scientific progress to the emancipated cohesive human community each of them wished for. It is ethics that is its first and ultimate affirmation, and it is through ethics that Science is behoved to show the effort of human intelligence so that methodical understanding of reality may also reconcile the members of the human race by expanding knowledge.

Because they asked the difficult question about the links between ethics, science and freedom, and because they made them inseparable from the foundations of intellectual and moral solidarity, Tagore, Neruda and Cesaire illuminate, in a pluridisciplinary approach, the action of UNESCO. The creation in 1988 of the Programme on the Ethics of Science and Technology, and the establishment of the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and of the Technologies (COMEST), have since 2002 pointed to the ethics of science and the technologies as a priority for UNESCO.

Given the upheavals caused by the impact of scientific advances and technology for human development, and that of society and the planet, here too the message of the three authors backs up the thinking around this international and cross-cultural problematic.

Tagore, Neruda and Césaire paid tribute to the evolution of scientific knowledge in the XIXth and XXth centuries, questioning the raising ethical stake occurring in Science and Technologies, which have become the major stakes of peace and development since Scientific knowledge has led to remarkable innovations of universal value.

Their different cultural and geographical background however joined in a shared and common philosophic conviction that the close links between Knowledge, Science and Ethics are inseparable foundations of intellectual and moral solidarity, as well as respect of life in all its diversity.

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