Science as we know it is a relatively recent human invention.
After the ‘scientific revolution’ of the seventeenth century, science and philosophy remained entangled as ‘natural philosophy’ until they started to separate in the nineteenth century (the very word ‘scientist’ was coined in 1834). Subsequently, science morphed from an activity carried out by wealthy people as a hobby (the ‘amateur,’ in the etymological sense of the word) into a paid job within an institutionalized system (the ‘professional’). Paradoxically or not, great ideas come more easily from people who are not paid to have them—it’s like forcing someone to be free, or compelling creativity by an act of will.
In the last decades, a series of technological and societal changes have further accelerated mutations of what it means to be a scientist; from the selection forces cast by neoliberalism on ‘scientific careers,’ to the kind of ‘science in the age of selfies’ that social media promotes. Scientists too are prey to the perverse dynamics of nowadays ‘attention economy.’ To understand what scientists do and why they do it, one must also understand the political and social contexts in which they live.
In addition, the rise of ‘big science’—initially in physics (particle physics and astronomy), and subsequently in life and mind sciences (genomics, and connectomics)—is reconfiguring the landscape typically inhabited by the romantic figure of the lone scientist receiving visions in dream-like states of consciousness and, eventually, advancing science in a stroke of genius. In turn, the idea of the scientist bred in the current academe is that of a diligent caffeinated deluxe technician as a part within the larger mechanism of research group army; a person trained exquisitely (and almost exclusively) on a research aspect, a specialist unable to keep track of what goes on beyond the narrow confines of his/her discipline. Young scientists are indeed trained to be good at following rules and procedures (explicit laboratory protocols, but also implicit codes of conduct and metaphysical commitments) but discouraged to learn to see when and how to transcend them.
In turn, the more recent promises of ‘big data’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ posit a near-future landscape where some of the core skills and tasks traditionally attributed to humans may be soon carried out by machines (or so the ‘scientific soteriologists’ claim). Algorithms are not just ingenious means to an end that require human intervention to imbue them with meaning, but are swiftly becoming ends in themselves, pretending they offer an automated unbiased interpretation of the data.
A re-appraisal of the habits of the modern scientist entails an ethical dimension as well: why do we treat animals as objects (as means, rather than ends in themselves), why do we study life in laboratories primarily by killing it, and why do we study life in laboratories in the first place? These questions also reflect on ecological considerations regarding our place in nature (humans in relationship with other animals, and other kingdoms of life) and our destruction of the planet. Francis Bacon’s prophetic vision of the Promethean scientist, so vividly captured in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, has become both a cautionary tale and an inspiration.
In addition, and despite the real ‘paradigm changes’ in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century, other branches of science such as biology and neuroscience remain under the spell of philosophical promissory materialism. Research facts are sold in tandem with covert metaphysical commitments. The objective-subjective divide still puzzles both scientists and the layperson. The mind-body problem remains to be solved (or dissolved).
In sum, the whole enterprise seems to be committed to suppressing broad thinkers, promoting academics that look more like corporate managers, PR mavericks and professional fund-raisers and less like scholars, who are asked to inhibit their interest in philosophy, and to cast suspicion on their fertile imagination. Dogma and habit are inhibiting free inquiry.
It is as if science as a whole is becoming less scientific.
In the face of this milieu of factors, in this series of online events we seek to reflect on what ‘the future scientist’ may look like. This is an ambitious exercise indeed, which goes beyond mere theoretical speculation. It is not unlikely that sooner than we think current science will be unrecognizable to most of us. The consequences for humanity writ large, not just for scientists themselves, are pressing.
The question at stake is whether by ‘future scientist’ we mean what scientists in the future are all likely to look like, or what a future better scientist might look like. In our conversations we will engage more in prescribing than in predicting, that is, we might begin by describing where science is going (prediction) to then describe where we hope science might go (prescription). Attempting the art of ‘dia-logos,’ we hope to express a creative voice that will enlighten the way of a new science in the twenty-first century.
The series will be direct conversations, that is, no formal presentation of the invited speaker but a kind of ‘thinking aloud’ in the mode of a dialogue between each guest and Àlex Gómez-Marín as the conversation host. The idea is to engage critically with various aspects of ‘the future scientist’ in a lively and spontaneous format for approximately 45 minutes to an hour, followed by comments and questions from the audience. Each conversation will take place virtually, on a Wednesday each month.
The invited speakers to The Future Scientist series are chosen not just as great interlocutors to discuss these issues, but also as exemplars and hints of what ‘the future scientist’ may actually look like here and now.
Some likely topics that may emerge in this first conversation involve (i) the need of synthesis in the face of piles of analytic studies, (ii) the pursuit of convergence from different lines of inquiry (such as neurology, philosophy, and physics), and (iii) the constraints, both challenges and opportunities, of doing research with and without current academia.
Dr Iain McGilchrist is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an Associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital, London. He has been a Research Fellow in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore and a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Stellenbosch. He has published original articles and research papers in a wide range of publications on topics in literature, philosophy, medicine and psychiatry. He is the author of a number of books, but is best-known for The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale 2009). A book on neuroscience, epistemology and ontology called The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, was published in November 2021.
Dr Alex Gomez-Marin is a theoretical physicist turned cognitive neuroscientist. He earned his PhD in Physics in 2008 from the University of Barcelona, where we studied the microscopic origins of the arrow of time. He also holds a Masters in Biophysics from the same university. He was a Juan de la Cierva Fellow at the EMBL-CRG Centre for Genomic Regulation where he investigated the neurobiology of action and perception in fruit flies, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal, where he deployed a computational ethology approach to establish neuro-ethological principles in worms, flies and mice. Since 2016 he is the head of the Behavior of Organisms Laboratory at the Instituto de Neurociencias in Alicante, Spain, where he has been a Ramón y Cajal Fellow, and where he currently is an Associate Professor of the Spanish Research Council. His latest research concentrates on consciousness and cognition in humans in real-world situations, combining high-resolution experiments with theoretical biology and continental philosophy. He is the author of a number of research articles, and he is shortly to publish his first book in Spanish on the ‘tales not told’ in current neuroscience. Born in Barcelona, he now lives in the Mediterranean coast of Alicante and has two daughters and a cat. You can follow him on social media at @behaviOrganisms and read his work here: https://behavior-of-organisms.org/read-us