Henri Atlan: The Frontiers of Science

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The French biologist Henri Atlan, professor of biophysics at the University of Paris VI and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has won an international reputation for his research on the self-organization of cells and artificial intelligence. Notable among his published works are Entre le cristal et la fumee, Essai sur I'organisation du vivant (Seuil, Paris, 1979), A tort et a raison, Intercritique de la science et du mythe (Seuil, Paris, 1986), L'Organisation biologique et la theorie de l'information (Hermann, Paris, 1992) and Questions de vie, Entre le savoir et l'opinion (Seuil, Paris, 1994). Here he talks to Geraldine Schimmel about some topical matters arising from the relationship between science and society.

* Science was vested with an immense hope that it would explain everything, help people to live, and provide a basis for ethics. How do things stand today?

Henri Atlan: It is now clear to most scientists that this hope is groundless. Unlike the religions, ideologies and philosophies that claim to give meaning to the universe and to people's lives, science owes its successes to its method, which involves carefully circumscribing a subject for study and contenting itself with local explanations that hold good in a certain well defined field. Science and technology have been effective in dominating matter, but unable to give meaning to life or solve social, political or moral problems. There is still a nostalgic hope that science may provide us with Truth with a capital T, a single truth from which it will then deduce individual, social, political or some other form of Good; but this is simply nostalgia.

* An illusion?

H. A.: Of course. A piece of nostalgia based on the illusion of a universal theory that would explain everything, things as they are and as they ought to be. This is what is known in English as the naturalistic fallacy, deducing what "ought to be" from what "is". "What ought to be" is actually the product of our imagination and of our desires, and is not usually deducible from "what is". Knowledge of "what is" enables us to realize the constraints that impose limits on our imagination, limits which it is usually impossible to transgress.

* Are science on the one hand and myths and religions on the other based on the same rationality?

H. A.: Not at all. In my book A tort et a raison I tried to demonstrate that there are several sorts of rationality - something which is not self-evident. Many people still believe that only science is rational, and that what is not scientific is necessarily irrational. But every myth expresses, in its own way, a kind of rationality which is different - in terms of its method, its objectives and its means of verification - from that of scientific thought. It is wrong to get them mixed up. The same reason is involved, but the ways in which it is applied are different.

* You have said that the real generator of objective knowledge is mastery of nature and that ethics is the motor of mystical and religious traditions. What happens when ethics is required to deal with objective knowledge?

H. A.: That is a quite straightforward matter. It's the reverse situation that raises problems. It is indispensable that ethics should be concerned with the use made of science-based technology, insofar as technology raises moral questions that the sciences are unable to answer. Let's take an example from the field of biomedical ethics: is the real mother the woman who carries the child or the one who supplied the egg that is fertilized and then implanted? This question did not arise before technology made it possible to separate the uterine and ovarian aspects of maternity. In this field the progress of science and technology has created problems - of legitimacy, of good and evil, of what is permitted and what is not - that did not exist before and that neither biology nor medicine alone can solve.

* You have rejected the term 'bioethics'. …