skip to navigation
skip to content

The Athens Dialogues - An International Conference on Culture and Civilization

Academic Events

Science & Ethics

Chairs: Professor Athanassios S. Fokas, Chair in Nonlinear Mathematical Science at the University of Cambridge, UK and Professor Jacques Jouanna, Member of the Institut de France, Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres

Main Speakers: Sir Michael Francis Atiyah, John D. Barrow, Siddharthan Chandran, Anne Fagot-Largeault, Baroness Susan Greenfield, Metropolitan of Pergamon John [Zizioulas], Jacques Jouanna (co-chair), Erling Norrby, Theodosios Tassios

Respondents: Said Esteban Belmehdi, Felix Hasler, Anna Marmodoro, Konstantinos Moutoussis

Remarkable discoveries in Science and in particular physics, astronomy, biology, biochemistry and molecular biology, as well as the impact of some of these discoveries on technology, have had a tremendous impact on all aspects of life. Several of the genetic and molecular mechanisms underlying life have been deciphered and significant progress has been made towards comprehending the complexity of the human brain. We are reaching closer to the profound goal of understanding the origin of our world, as well as our position relative to the universe.

The progress of science is inevitable, since it expresses the innate search of humans for understanding. At the same time, it is vital for our existence. For example, important discoveries in medicine, ranging from vaccinations and antibiotics to great advances in cardiology, contributed crucially in raising life expectancy in the last century by thirty years. Mathematics, as the universal language of science, has played a significant role in some of the above developments. Indeed, in addition to providing the foundation of several scientific disciplines including Physics, it has also contributed enormously to medicine, particularly by providing mathematical tools such as statistics, as well as the mathematics needed for several imaging techniques.

It is difficult to find a scientific field in which the Hellenic thought did not have a decisive impact. For instance, the materialism of Democritus and of the Epicureans, as well as the position of Heraclitus that “everything is in a state of flux” (τὰ πάντα ρεῖ) constitute the basic elements of dialectic materialism. The assertion of Epictitus that “sadness is caused not by the facts themselves, but by our opinion about them” was the motivation for the development of the field of cognitive psychology. Hippocrates and other ancient Greek physicians begun to approach medicine as an experimental science. Aristotle’s extensive and meticulous studies led him to formulate certain ideas which can be considered as prodromal to those of Darwin. The great achievements in astronomy are illustrated by the recent decoding of the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism. Perhaps the greatest scientific achievement of antiquity is Euclid’s Elements. Indeed, it is difficult to find another work that has had a stronger impact than this monumental work, on the development of modern physics and mathematics. Kepler, Descartes, Newton and many other scientists studied them in detail. The great ancient thinkers, like Plato and Aristotle, were true intellectuals in the style which reappeared later in Renaissance, who thought deeply about the interaction of scientific thought, culture, philosophy and ethics. For example, according to Proclus, Euclid’s Elements can be considered as an application of the Platonic philosophy to geometry: in the same way that dialectics is based on metaphysical axioms, Euclid’s Elements are based on mathematical axioms.

Recently, the “holistic approach” of the ancient Greeks has returned to the forefront of the modern scientific thought. For example, it has become clear that fundamental questions, such as the understanding of the process of acquisition of knowledge, as well as the genesis of ethical principles, can be answered only within an interdisciplinary framework. For example, Aristotle and later Locke postulated that we learn by associating ideas as a result of our experience (for them the brain is tabula rasa). Later on, Pavlov and Thorndike provided experimental proof that we indeed learn by associating different stimuli. Recently, Kandel was able to elucidate the underlying mechanisms at the cellular level. At the same time, the intricate cerebral neuronal architecture provides the physiological basis of the existence of Plato’s “tabula inscripta.”

The section Science and Ethics attempted to highlight some of the above developments, emphasizing that it is absolutely vital to enhance and facilitate the public engagement with science. The enormous achievements of science and technology provide both huge promises but also highly dangerous threats. Ethical questions have moved from the realm of philosophy to the practicalities of medical treatments. For example, stem cells could be used in the future for the treatment of debilitating degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. On the other hand, genetic manipulation at the level of human reproduction could have a dramatic impact on our existence. At a more subtle level, the emergence of new technologies, including nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology, could have an unprecedented effect on the brains of future generations. The relevant threats and opportunities open to our children and grandchildren as the 21st century unfolds require serious exploration.

On a more optimistic note, the recent developments in science in general and in neuroscience in particular, bring us closer to addressing perhaps the most profound remaining open question of the human endeavor: is it possible for the human brain to understand itself, or as the ancient Greeks would say “to know thyself” (γνῶθι σαὐτὸν)?