Where is Science Going? An Interview with Professor Giorgio Agamben
Andrea Pensotti«Organisms - Journal of Biological Sciences»
17 febbraio 2021
‘Agamben highlighted the risks linked to the emergence of the concept of “biosecurity”, i.e., the blocking of all social activities in order to preserve “biological life”. How far can a society go to defend biological life? How far can politics stretch to control both society and the biological life of citizens?’
Thanks to new diagnostic tools and big data, medicine claims to predict the individual risk of developing certain diseases in life. Once these risks are known, people can be directed towards appropriate lifestyles.
‘In the perspective that you have outlined, the critical moment is crossing the threshold beyond which personalization, prediction, and screening are no more lifestyle advice and suggestions, but become legal obligations. This threshold has now been crossed. What used to be presented as a health right has become an obligation to be fulfilled at any price.’
‘Cardiovascular diseases represent the most frequent cause of mortality in our country. We know they could decrease if we practice a healthier way of life and adhere to a particular diet. However, no doctor had even thought of their own lifestyle and dietary advice for patients to become the subject of a legal regulation, which decrees ex lege how to live and what to eat, transforming the whole of existence into a health obligation. Moreover, the Italian doctor’s professional oath prohibited this by mentioning, “respect for civil rights regarding the person’s autonomy” (see also WMA Declaration of Geneva: “I will respect the autonomy and dignity of my patient” and “I will not use my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat”—translator’s note).’
This is what has happened for COVID-19. At least for now, people have accepted not only to give up their constitutional freedoms, social relations, and political and religious beliefs—they have even let their loved ones die in solitude and without a funeral. In this sense, it can be said that human existence has been reduced to a biological fact, to a naked life to be saved at any cost. This happened despite the IFR, i.e. the real mortality rate of the disease, is less than 1% according to studies reported in your journal. A process of increasing medicalization of life has occurred. The unity of the vital experience of each individual, which is always both corporeally and spiritually inseparable, has split into a purely biological entity on one side and a social, cultural, and emotional existence on the other. Such a fracture is by all evidence an abstraction. This abstraction, though, is so powerful that people have sacrificed their normal conditions of life to it.
what happened with the pandemic is that this purely vegetative life, this body artificially suspended between life and death, has become the new political paradigm for citizens to regulate their behavior. What is most impressive in what we are experiencing is that—at any price— a naked life is kept separate in an abstract way from an intellectual and spiritual life. Then, it is imposed not as a criterion of life, but of mere survival.
Truth and Falsification
In 2016, Nature published the results of a survey revealing that over 1,500 scientists had failed to reproduce data obtained by colleagues. Dr. Glenn Bagley, the oncology director of the multinational corporation, Amgen, encountered the same problem in 2011. Before investing several million euros in a new drug research project, he had decided to replicate the 53 experiments on which their development strategy was based. He could only replicate 11% of them (Baker 2016; Begley 2012).
Paradoxically, science is facing an unprecedented, deep crisis of credibility when it comes to the reliability of the data it produces and the truthfulness of its statements.
As far as scientific truth is concerned, a famous book by Thomas Kuhn had already shown that the scientific community’s dominating paradigm is not necessarily the truest, but simply the one that is able to conquer the largest share of followers. This is also real, now, beyond scientific truth. Humanity is entering a phase of its history in which truth is reduced to a moment in the movement of the false.
True is that speech which is declared as such and which must be kept true, even if its untruth is proven.
The Disappearance of the Hypotheses
In one post, you pointed out that the concept of “news” often substitutes that of “idea”. Hence, the expression “fake news” was introduced as a weapon for silencing ideas or hypotheses. In your opinion, why do people—regardless of education—still believe the news whose falsehood has been well documented? What communication strategy should a scientist use if he or she has valid documentation proving the falsity of the official narratives?
In a society that is no longer able to distinguish true from false, news necessarily tends to replace reality. The media operate on this omnipervasive substitution of news for reality.
In notes taken during World War II, Heidegger defined the age in which he was living as “a machination of the nonsensical” where an absolute absence of meaning is algorithmically formulated and relentlessly calculated. What we have under our eyes today looks like that.
The Betrayed Oath
The first point from the modern Italian version of the Hippocratic Oath reads, “I swear to practice medicine in autonomy of judgment and responsibility of behavior, countering any undue conditioning that limits the freedom and independence of the profession.” How much autonomy do doctors still have?
In addition to the aforementioned points 4 and 5 about respecting the patient’s civil rights and autonomy, point 15 is also threatened. This requires the need “to respect professional secrecy and to protect the confidentiality of everything that was shared with me, that I am observing or have observed, understood, or intuited in my profession or by reason of my state or office.”
While this confidentiality was always observed in the past, anyone who is positive (even simply positive, not just sick) today is publicly denounced as such and isolated. Consequently, even point 6, which requires the need “to treat every patient with care and commitment, without any discrimination”, is transgressed. We have reached the point where the doctor does not visit positive patients.
It is difficult to maintain a relationship of individual trust with a doctor who also acts as a representative of a governmental system. Medicine and therapy must remain separate from power and legislation.
Medicine as a Religion
In several contributions, you have presented the idea that medicine and science have become today’s religion.
The medicalization of life had already been growing beyond all measure in recent decades, but it has become permanent and all-pervasive in the situation we are experiencing today. It is no longer a question of taking medicine or having a medical examination or surgery, if necessary: the whole life of human beings must become the place of an uninterrupted worship at every moment. The enemy, the virus, is invisible and always present and must be fought with no truce in every moment of one’s existence.
More and more funding for science comes from the IT industry. This has launched numerous researches on the merge of man and machine which, on the one hand, represents a new market. On the other is a new promise: potential human faculties and prolonged life. What do you think of this progressive digitization and robotization of life?
We owe the idea of pedomorphosis or constitutive immaturity of homo sapiens to a brilliant Dutch scientist, Ludwik Bolk. Almost a century has now passed since he had foreseen that the technical apparatuses humans increasingly rely on to survive as a species would have reached a point of extreme exasperation. There, these apparatuses would have reversed into their opposite and ended up causing the end of the species.
You pointed out that the very terminology seems selected to support a paradigm of society. For example, the term “social distancing” could have been different, e.g. “personal” or “physical” distancing. Do you think the language is somehow spun, or rather, are we already so immersed in a new governance paradigm that such a language emerges spontaneously at all levels of society?
Language was not a neutral tool, replaceable by figures and algorithms. Rather, it was the place where things first reveal themselves and communicate in their truth. Only the reduction of language to a neutral instrument, which took place with Ockham and the late nominalism, allowed the delinguisticization of knowledge which culminated in modern science. Truth moved from the realm of words and language to that of numbers and mathematics. Language became a system of pure conventional signs and looked, at least in appearance, as dominable and manipulable. Since then, it was no longer the place of a possible truth. Now, precisely a language that is no longer related to truth can turn into a prison—a sort of machine that seems to work autonomously and from which it seems we cannot get out. Perhaps human beings have never been so helpless and passive in the face of a language that increasingly determines them.
Philosophy of Nature
In the past, science used to be identified as the “Philosophy of Nature”. People like Goethe who were interested in science, philosophy, and literature were considered the most intelligent. Today, science has turned toward a constantly increasing specialization that has undoubtedly led to enormous technicalscientific advances.
The relationship between thought and science is not played on the level of knowledge. Philosophy is not a science— nor can it be resolved into a doctrine of knowledge. In fact, science has shown that it does not need it at all. Philosophy is always about ethics. It always implies a form of life. Now, this is true for every single human being and, therefore, also for every scientist who does not want to give up being human. Of course, scientists have shown that they are ready to unscrupulously sacrifice ethics for the interests of science. Otherwise we would not have seen illustrious scientists experimenting on Nazi camp deportees. I would remind a young person taking his first steps in science to never sacrifice an ethical principle to his own will to know.
You spoke of the need to develop new forms of resistance.
the clear awareness of one’s situation is the first condition for finding a way out.
There can be no good power—and, therefore, no good state either. We can only, in an unjust and false society, attest to the presence of the right and the true.
In light of the covid-19 mantra and obsession with saving lives.
A reminder that you cannot save lives, you can improve the quality of life via maintaining and improving health and delay death . Death is the inevitable part of the human condition.