Speaking at the Royal Society in London during his historic state visit to the UK this week, Michael D. Higgins – who was elected in 2011 – also called for more integration between science and philosophy.
He said “leaping through the boundaries” that separate academic disciplines will help create better dialogue about the “complex challenges of the future”.
Mr Higgins, a former social science academic, said that Ireland’s contribution to the understanding of the natural world may have been “overshadowed” by its work in arts and literature. “That is not how it should be, we need to better understand the role of scientific knowledge in shaping our relationships with the world,” he added at the event on 9 April.
He said it would be a “mistake” to view science in Ireland as separate from the nation’s culture.
Mr Higgins, who became Ireland’s first minister for the arts in 1993, said this was the century of neuroscience with advances in this area giving cause for “optimism and excitement”.
“But the humanities have something essentially too to contribute to our comprehension of the nature of human consciousness or what it means to be human,” he added.
The rapid pace of scientific development is not yet matched by the “cultivation of critical and informed dialogue” within the “wider society” about the impact of these achievements, he said. This is all the more pressing because the ethical issues arising from “contemporary scientific and technological application have reached unprecedented levels of acuteness”.
He gave the example of the questions raised by climate change and said that the “total destruction of the planet was not a concern of enlightenment scholars”. It is essential to “instigate far reaching dialogue not only between the disciplines but also… in its application between Britain and Ireland”, he added.
“It requires the crafting of a wide range of ethical discourse in which a wide range of citizens, not just the most expert or scientifically literate, are invited to take part,” he said.
Before entering public life Mr Higgins lectured in political science and sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and in the US.