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Biomedical humanities and epistemology

Giovanni Boniolo


Giovanni Boniolo
c/o IFOM-IEO Campus
Via Adamello, 16 - 20139 Milan, Italy
Tel. +39-02-94375103

Research projects

1. Biomedical Humanities

Recent advances in molecular biology are drastically changing our perceptions of disease, diagnosis, and therapy. This is possible thanks to progress in understanding the molecular basis of diseases, at the level of genetic predisposition as well as of its interaction with individual lifestyles and environments, which is enabling in turn the development of new diagnostic (e.g. through molecular markers) and therapeutic approaches.
One important point is that researchers and clinicians now have the conditions to work together in order to understand and manipulate causal pathological mechanisms in a way that was not possible in the past, when the clinicians could only rely on population averages or anecdotal evidence (e.g., to determine the effectiveness of a particular therapy). Given this new scientific framework, new historical, foundational, ethical, and sociological analyses are needed. In other words, it is time for Biomedical Humanities.
While Medical Humanities have focused on what happens at patients' bedside, in this way neglecting all the other important aspects that the new modern biomedicine has brought into light, Biomedical Humanities provide a humanistic perspective of the entire chain of events that goes from the lab bench to the bedside (through translational medicine).
This means considering from a humanistic point of view the entire iceberg whose tip is the care of individual patients, but whose basis is formed by the huge numbers of scientists working on the molecular basis of diseases, on how to detect them before they become lethal, on how to cure them by taking into account who the individual patient is, that is, by taking into account not only his/her individual physical and psychological pain, his/her individual socio-cultural context, as has been the case in medical humanities, but also his/her personal genome.
Inside the wide field of the Biomedical Humanities, Boniolo focuses on two aspects: the philosophical foundations of the life sciences and bioethics.

Philosophical foundations of the life sciences
There are at least two ways of working in the foundations of the life sciences: one more attentive to the philosophical side and the other one more attentive to the scientific side. Boniolo is pursuing both of them.
Regarding the first, he is particularly interested in the explication of philosophical concepts by means of empirical sciences, especially biomedicine. As known, 'explication' concerns that way of doing conceptual analysis by moving from the commonsensical, ambiguous and imprecise meaning of a concept to its technical, unambiguous and precise meaning by inserting it into a system of empirical (i.e. scientific) concepts. This has been done for concepts like 'explanation', 'identity', 'boundary', 'cluster', 'information' etc.
Regarding the second, he is involved in a project dealing with the formulation of a logical language for molecular biology. This language allows for transposing biological information precisely and rigorously into machine-readable information. It is called Zsyntax (where Z stands for the Greek word life, life) and it is grounded on a particular type of non-classical logic. It can be used to write algorithms and computer programs. By means of it we can represent biological processes as " logical deductions ". It seems a good and promising tool to be used both in the field of text mining and in that of biological prediction.

Giovanni Boniolo's researches on the ethical side follow two lines.
The first one concerns the proposal of a deliberative method to correctly debate the ethical evaluation of human actions regarding the production and use of biological and biomedical results. This approach does not start from a preconceived notion of what is morally good; rather, it offers a balanced methodology to structure the deliberative process on what should be permissible on the basis of its being morally sustainable, and on what should not be permissible, on the basis of its being morally unsustainable. Practically speaking it is based on the idea that the method concerning ethical decision-making is extremely important and that it has its own rules which, by the way, have been codified over the long history of western thought.
The second line of research concerns the application of a liberal approach to questions that daily arise from society and from the researches done at the IFOM-IEO Campus. For example, it could be recalled works on patients' consent and research biobanks; on the ethical sustainability of researches on cybrids, and on the definition of death and transplantation medicine.

2. Epistemology

Boniolo moves inside a Kantian mainstream. Therefore he starts from the idea that the knowing subject, by means of his/her conceptual apparatus, gives cognitive meaning to the world around him/her. From this starting point, he has proposed an innovative philosophy of science, which is contained in a book published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2007. Moreover, also a novel approach to the laws of nature has been presented. Always inside a Kantian perspective, Giovanni Boniolo is working in the field of the so-called 'formal epistemology' to construct a logical framework to successfully cope with notions such as 'vagueness' and 'object'.
update: April 2010
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