Funded Research Spotlight: From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics

The Funded Research Spotlight column serves to inform the APA membership of funded projects in the discipline and provide information on who is funding what philosophical projects. It also provides information about upcoming opportunities to present at conferences and apply for postdoctoral positions. Lastly, it creates a forum for readers interested in the project to ask questions and learn more about a project’s aims and goals. If you are working on a project funded by a source outside your home institution and would like to tell APA blog readers about it, please contact us using the submission form here.

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by Ken Waters

Alan Love, Marcel Weber, Bill Wimsatt, and I have received a 2.1-million-dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation to develop a distinctive approach for scientific metaphysics. As we see it, scientific metaphysics is based on the idea that metaphysics—the study of what the world is most generally like—should be informed by the remarkable success of science. Proponents typically view the success of science in terms of the success of its best theories, the theories that many philosophers assume guide inquiry in mature sciences. Our project is based on the idea that instead of drawing metaphysical conclusions by interpreting the most basic theories associated with scientific practices, we should draw conclusions by analyzing the practices themselves. This opens metaphysical inquiry to areas of science that are not organized around efforts to articulate, develop, or extend the explanatory scope of a central theory.

The title of our three-year project is “From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics.” This collaborative, international project will fund faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students at three universities: the Universities of Calgary (Canada), Geneva (Switzerland), and Minnesota (United States). Project participants will organize symposia at conferences, present and publish articles, and contribute chapters to a volume of Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science. We will also sponsor three summer institutes for graduate students and recent Ph.D.s: the first is in Basel, Switzerland (2016), the second in Banff, Canada (2017), and the third in Asia (2018, exact location TBA). Each summer institute will have approximately 25 participants. Nancy Nersessian and Alyssa Ney will participate in the 2016 Summer Institute as main speakers.

Scientific metaphysics is controversial. Opposition takes many forms. For example, some philosophers argue that “scientific metaphysics” involves a category mistake. Metaphysics, they insist, is about all possible ways the world could be, whereas science concerns only the way the world actually is. We are not moved by such arguments, but we have been influenced by a different objection to scientific metaphysics. This objection rests on the observation that the claims about the ultimate nature of the world based on the best scientific theories of the past turned out to be false according to today’s best scientific theories. It seems that the history of science reveals that scientific theories (including those of fundamental physics) have not been reliable sources of knowledge about the fundamentals. Although some philosophers claim that the best theories of science do not describe the ultimate nature of the world (or the relevant domains of the world), we take it that no one denies that these theories have been and continue to be reliable guides for making predictions, manipulating processes, and helping us understand aspects of phenomena.

The strategy of our project is to reconceive the success of science in terms of such scientific practices. Our idea is that metaphysics—our most general ideas about the world—should be informed by the remarkable success of scientific practices (not on the presumption that science’s current best theories grasp what the world is ultimately like). We will focus our attention on successful scientific practices that depend on modest theoretical claims but nevertheless undergird advances, across sciences, that deal with complexity, especially in biology. Project participants will probe the metaphysical implications of stable forms of successful practice in situations where local, partial theories of complex phenomena do not yield integrated, comprehensive outlooks across different scales. In doing this, we will draw upon and (we hope) contribute to several bodies of literature in philosophy of science, including the growing body of philosophical work on scientific practice, as well as work on experimentation, mechanism, causal reasoning and causality, scientific realism, and scientific pluralism.

One might wonder what metaphysical conclusions could be drawn by analyzing successful scientific practices without assuming that these practices are based on a comprehensive theory that grasps the ultimate reality of the world (or the part of the world with which the practice engages). I will explain by briefly describing ideas I have developed in a forthcoming paper (preprint) that I will present in a symposium at the upcoming 2016 APA Pacific Division Meeting, in a joint symposium at the upcoming 2016 CPA Annual Congress, and in the CSHPS Annual Meeting 2016. This paper draws upon my earlier research on scientific practice in genetics—both classical genetics (starting in the late 1910s) and contemporary genetics. The paper focuses on conceptual practice. I argue that if one examined the central concepts of genetics from an abstract, decontextualized point of view, one might think that the concepts grasp the ultimate reality of heredity, and perhaps of development and evolution as well. I illustrate this point by showing how imaginary scientific metaphysicians of the 1930s might have argued that the concept of the gene cut the processes of heredity, development, and evolution at their fundamental joints. Drawing upon theory-focused methods of contemporary scientific metaphysicians, these hypothetical metaphysicians of the past might have concluded that the gene is a fundamental unit of heredity, development, and evolution. But, of course, the classical gene concept referred to no such thing. And we don’t need to appeal to today’s best theories to see this. To see that the gene concept couldn’t possibly cut nature at its joints, we can investigate how it was employed in the experimental practices of genetics. Classical geneticists did not know what genes were, what their functions were, or how they brought about effects. But geneticists’ modest understanding of genes did enable them to manipulate, predict, and explain aspects of phenomena in limited—usually artificial—contexts. A lesson to draw is that scientific practice is often designed to help scientists navigate complexities of the world (or part of the world) without having a comprehensive theory about these complexities.

I offer a similar interpretation of contemporary genetics. Despite the press, contemporary biologists do not have a comprehensive, abstract understanding of life in terms of DNA. They have powerful knowledge that enables them to collect and organize an incredible amount of data, manipulate life in astonishing ways, and predict and explain aspects of what happens in restricted contexts. Contemporary genetics is remarkably successful. But this success is not based on cutting DNA or developmental processes at their fundamental joints. In fact, I argue, DNA has so many joints that there is no canonical parsing of DNA that neatly lines up the molecular-scale processes of life. The web of causal processes around DNA are, like the street layout of Arles (in France), a mess. Once again, scientific practice is designed to help scientists navigate the world (or part of the world) without having a comprehensive theory of what the world (or that part of the world) is ultimately like. Why would scientific practices designed to investigate, manipulate, and explain phenomena in the world within organisms take this form? I argue it is because organisms do not have a comprehensive, general structure that transcends scales. I call this the “no general structure thesis” and argue that this is a significant, metaphysical conclusion.

The no general structure thesis is contentious. Much, if not most, work in philosophy of science assumes there is a “the structure of the world” (or parts of the world) that science engages. W. C. Salmon referred to “the causal structure of the world,” and his explanation involves fitting phenomena into that structure. Stathis Psillos suggests that a central tenet of realism is that the best theories of science describe “the definite and mind independent structure” of the world. Scientific anti-realists have not denied that the world has such a structure, only that there is no compelling evidence that scientific theories describe it. My metaphysical claim is that the world does not have such a structure. My argument is that sciences that best succeed with complexity, such as biology, are designed to function in a world (or part of the world) that lacks such a structure. I advance the idea that the lack of structure on the scale at which biologists engage the world is a general feature of all, or nearly all, scales. It may be true that Newtonian mechanics applies to the descent of elephants being dropped out of airplanes, but in an important sense, it does not structure the complex webs of ecological phenomena in which elephants live and interact.

Although it may appear that the no general structure thesis is trivial, I think it is an extremely important metaphysical claim. With respect to philosophy, this thesis can inform our epistemology of science. Consider philosophy of biology. This thesis implies that questions such as “What is a gene?,” “What is an individual (organism)?,” and “What is a process of natural selection?,” should not be interpreted as fundamental questions. Instead, we should ask, “How do biologists conceive of genes, and what purposes can these conceptions serve (or fail to serve)?”

The no general structure thesis can inform scientists as well. The quest for a comprehensive and unified explanatory account can be a useful heuristic, but it should be viewed as a heuristic, not as the aim of science. Practicing biologists were right not to follow philosophers when we obsessed about questions such as “What is fitness?” or “What is a gene?” It might be heuristically useful to ask such questions, but when it is not useful, such questions should be set aside, and the project of investigating and manipulating nature can resume. A philosophy of biology that asked, “What ways of conceiving biological individuals could be useful?” and, “In what contexts and for what purposes would these conceptions be useful?” could be much more informative to biologists than one that asked, “What is a biological individual?”

I think metaphysics should also inform society about its affairs. The no general structure thesis can do this as well. It suggests that society should admire science for its secure knowledge about the world, but that it should not interpret that knowledge as if it depended upon or provided an understanding of the fundamentals. Research in genetics should be supported and funded because it can help us manipulate, investigate, and explain aspects of living systems, not because it will “decode life” or reveal magic keys for solving complex problems societies face.

I should make it clear that my colleagues in the project do not necessarily accept the no general structure thesis. I anticipate that graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty joining the project will disagree. They might see more explanatory integration in stable forms of practice than I do and argue for different metaphysical theses. I describe my paper just to illustrate how focusing on scientific practice, rather than on decontextualized concepts and theories, can provide an illuminating strategy for metaphysics.

I will close by saying something about how this philosophical project relates to metaphysics more generally. (I should emphasize that I am not speaking for my collaborators here, but I have been informed by our discussions and think they probably agree.) Our aim is to develop a distinctive form of metaphysics building on important trends in philosophy of science, including the trends to analyze scientific practices from a pluralistic stance. Although much work in scientific metaphysics seems aimed at criticizing other approaches to metaphysics, and especially analytic metaphysics, this is not part of our agenda. To use Mark Wilson’s metaphor, we don’t need to sink every ship before sailing our own into the harbor. In fact, I anticipate that some of those joining our project will draw upon traditional and analytic work in metaphysics. Some participants might try to connect their accounts of scientific practices to metaphysical ideas developed in the traditional or analytic literatures. Others might draw upon these literatures to expropriate ideas and concepts to develop their metaphysical analyses. For example, I intend to draw upon analytical literature as I work to get clearer about what it means for the world to lack a “the structure” that transcends scales, and to articulate and analyze different senses in which fundamental physics might structure or fail to structure the universe across scales. Participants less inclined to draw upon traditional and analytic metaphysics could also benefit from learning about such work to gain an understanding of how their research might relate (or not) to philosophical literature more broadly.

I encourage those interested in learning more about our project, participating in a summer institute, or applying for a postdoctoral or graduate position to visit our project’s website.

Ken Waters is the Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) in Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Calgary.

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Please use the comment thread to share questions and thoughts, whether about the philosophical claims made in this post or about the funded project more generally. This series will spotlight a wide array of funded research. If you are aware of funded projects that we should spotlight, please let us know through our submission form here.

1 thought on “Funded Research Spotlight: From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics

  1. It is refreshing to see work being undertaken in this area, but I would like to play the role of devil’s advocate in response to the above-outlined project. I have also been working on an approach to metaphysics that will take seriously the complexity of biological organisms and systems, but I think to make the assumption that there is a “lack of structure on the scale at which biologists engage the world” is wrongheaded and counterproductive with respect to what needs to be developed by biologically informed philosophers. There is in fact a great deal of structure that living organisms have in common and that is not displayed by the nonliving world–a highly conserved set of biochemical processes that power metabolism, an energetic organization that maintains their functionality as systems against entropic forces over their lifetimes, a purposive orientation of what they do in order to stay alive and reproduce, a way of sensing what lies outside their own boundaries and responding to environmental changes, and so on. That we are only quite recently becoming aware of the immense complexity of all living organisms and the living systems that emerge from their interactions attests to the paucity of our human knowledge with regard to their complex structure, not to their lacking “structure” altogether. Moreover, to encourage “manipulation” of living processes on the basis of such incomplete knowledge, or, worse, on the assumption that there is no structure at all, is to skirt with disaster. An increasing number of scientists are becoming aware that this is the case with respect to bioengineering, a “practice” that has largely approached genetic manipulation with an “A causes B causes C” understanding of causality, a completely inappropriate way of thinking about complex systems, with their nonlinear, feedback-regulated processes encompassing the whole organism. I believe the way forward will be to encourage philosophers as well as “engineering” biologists to familiarize themselves with systems thinking, and to acknowledge the very rudimentary state of our current understanding of the living systems that our own lives depend upon.

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