Giovanni Boniolo
Giovanni Boniolo
affiliation: IFOM-IEO Campus-Universita' di Milano
research area(s): Bioethics
Course: Foundations of Life Sciences and Their Ethical Consequences
University/Istitution: Università di Milano, UNIMI-SEMM
GIOVANNI BONIOLO, born in Padova in 1956.
• Due to his initial training as theoretical physicist and then as philosopher, he began working
in the fields of general philosophy of science and philosophy of physics.
• Since 2000, he become interested in the philosophical aspects of the life sciences and
decided to study molecular biology. Thus he left the community of the philosophers of
physics to move to the community of the philosophers of the life sciences and bioethicists.
• Soon he focused his work on the philosophical foundations of the life sciences and on the
ethical implications of the biomedical results, while maintaining his interest in
• Now he is Full Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the Dipartimento di
Medicina, Chirurgia e Odontoiatria, Faculty of Medicine (University of Milan).
• He is team leader at the Istituto Firc di Oncologia Molecolare (IFOM) – Milano - and directs
the PhD program in “Foundations of the life sciences and their ethical consequences”
(FOLSATEC) at the European School of Molecular Medicine (SEMM) - Milano.
• He teaches ‘Critical thinking’ and ‘Clinical ethics’ at the interfaculty Laurea Magistrale in
medical decision-making; ‘Medical Humanities’ at the School of Medicine, and ‘Rhetoric’
and ‘Bioethics’ at his PhD program in FOLSATEC.
• He is member of the Ethical Committee of the University of Milano; he chairs two
Independent Ethical Committees (“Eurocancercoms. Establishing an efficient network for
cancer communication in Europe”, and “p-medicine - From data sharing and integration via
VPH models to personalized medicine”) linked to European projects, and the Institutional
Animal Care and Use Committee at the IFOM.
• His work is broadly recognized, as witnessed by his 13 books (plus 12 books edited) and
about 140 papers, most of them published in international peer reviewed journals such as
Axiomathes, Biology and Philosophy, Foundations of Physics, Foundations of Science,
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, International Philosophical Quarterly,
International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, The British Journal for the Philosophy of
Science, Philosophy, Bioethics, Journal of Philosophical Logic, Philosophical Explorations,
Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Journal of
Medical Ethics, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, PLOsONE.
• His last book in Italian: Il pulpito e la piazza. Democrazia, deliberazione e scienze della
vita, Raffaello Cortina, Milano 2011.
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.
General Philosophy of Science and Epistemology
(with P. Vidali) Filosofia della scienza (Philosophy of Science), B. Mondadori, Milano 1999.
(with P. Vidali) Introduzione alla filosofia della scienza (Introduction to the Philosophy of Science), B. Mondadori, Milano 2003.
On Scientific Representations From Kant to a New Philosophy of Science, Palgrave MacMillan, 2007.
(with S. Valentini) Vaguennes, Kant, and Topology. A Study of Formal Epistemology, Journal of Philosophical Logic, 37 (2008), pp.141-168.
(with R. Faraldo, A. Saggion) On Spatial and Temporal ex mensura Boundaries, Foundations of Science, 14(2009), pp.181-193.
(with R. Faraldo, A. Saggion) Explicating the notion of 'Causation': The Role of the Extensive Quantitites, in P. McKay Illari, F. Russo, J. Williamson (eds.), Mechanisms and Causality in the Sciences, Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Che cos'è il caso in biologia? (What is chance in biology?), Atti dei Convegni Lincei, 185(2003), pp. 25-44.
Biology without Information, History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 25(2003), 257-275.
(with M. Carrara) On Biological Identity, Biology and Philosophy, 19(2004), pp. 443-457.
The Ontogenesis of Human Identity, in A. O'Hear (ed.) Biology, Philosophy and Life, Supplement to Philosophy, n. 56, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005, pp. 49-82.
A Contextualized Approach To Biological Explanation, Philosophy, 80(2005), pp. 219-247.
(with A. Aprile, M. Libero), Causality And Methodology. Notes on Thanatochronological Estimations, History and Philosophy of The Life Sciences, 27 (2005), pp. 381-393.
(ed. with G. De Anna) Evolutionary Ethics and Contemporary Biology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006; it contains also: G. Boniolo, The Descent of Instinct and the Ascent of Ethics ; G. Boniolo, P. Vezzoni, Genetic Influences on Moral Capacity. What Genetics Mutants Teach Us.
(with L. Lorusso), 'Clustering Humans. On Biological Boundaries', Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 39 (2008), pp. 163-170.
(ed. with S. Giaimo) Filosofia e scienze della vita. Un'analisi dei fondamenti della biologia e della biomedicina. (Philosophy and the Life Sciences. An Analysis of the Foundations of Biology and Biomedicine), Bruno Mondadoori, Milano 2008
(with P.P. Di Fiore, M. D’Agostino), 'Zsyntax: a formal language for molecular biology with projected applications in text mining and biological prediction', PLOsONE, 5(3): e9511; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009511.

Ethics & Bioethics
(with P.P. Di Fiore, S. Pece) Trusted Consent and Research Biobanks. Towards a "new alliance" between researchers and donors, Bioethics, forthcoming.
(with P.P. Di Fiore) Deliberative Ethics in a Biomedical Institution. An Example of Integration Between Science and Ethics, Journal of Medical Ethics, 36(2010), pp. 407-408.
Death and Transplantation: Let's Try To Get Things Methodologically Straight, Bioethics, 21 (2007), pp. 32-40.
Il limite e il ribelle. Etica, naturalismo, darwinismo (The Limit and the Rebel. Ethics, Naturalism, Darwinism), Raffaello Cortina, Milano 2003.
(con G. De Anna, U. Vincenti), Individuo e persona. Tre saggi su chi siamo (Individual and Person. Three essays on who we are), Bompiani Milano 2007
(with G. De Anna) The Four Faces of Omission. Ontology, Terminology, Epistemology, and Ethics, Philosophical Explorations, 9 (2006), pp. 276-293.
(with S. Camporesi) Fearing a Non Existing Minotaur? The Ethical Challenges of Research on Cytoplasmic Hybrid Embryos, Journal of Medical Ethics, 34 (2008), pp. 821-825.
(with P.P Di Fiore) A Defining Analysis of the Life and Death Dyad: Paving the Way for an Ethical Debate, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy,37 (2008), pp. 609-634
Methodological Considerations About The Ethical And Social Implications Of Protocells, in M.A. Bedau, E. Parke (eds.), The Ethics of Protocells: Moral and Social Implications of Creating Life in the Laboratory, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2009, pp. 333-347.
Il pulpito e la piazza. Democrazia, deliberazione e scienze della vita (The pulpit and the market. Democracy, deliberation and the life sciences), Raffaello Cortina, Milano 2011.

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