POPULAR BELIEF

A frequently encountered pedestrian definition of a philosopher would be- “someone who worries about life”. Now, that is not only inadequate but also inaccurate. “Life” (Sigh) wouldn’t even qualify for a subcategory of philosophy, if one is to refer to the immediate scholastic demarcations. Especially because the word ‘philosopher’ has ubiquitously and effectively abridged the chronology of diverse thinkers who contributed to the origins of all modern intellectual endeavour. Including the life sciences, which despite its positive authority over the word ‘life’ has not really endangered philosophy, probably explaining, to popular alarm, how the very abstract territory has never been as exceptionally endeared by philosophers as one would like to believe.

Before I go on to simplifying and mending whatever notion you have of philosophy, partly to justify my unlikely claim to these pages, I would like to talk about some personalities, who are, by virtue of familiarity, better sources.

BIOPHILOSOPHY

Jonas Salk would need no introduction, at least for those whom I address here. Because introductions tend to be too condensed to do justice to genius. Apart from his trivia fame as a pioneer of vaccination, he is also known, to an esoteric academia, as the “Father of biophilosophy”. He has authored a book called The Survival of the Wisest, which does not exist in this world any more. He defines biophilosophy as the application of a “biological, evolutionary point of view to philosophical, cultural, social and psychological problems.” A biophilosopher is “someone who draws upon the scriptures of nature, recognizing that we are the product of the process of evolution, and understands that we have become the process itself, through the emergence and evolution of our consciousness, our awareness, our capacity to imagine and anticipate the future, and to choose from among alternatives.” This very sophisticated proposition didn’t endure, and has withered over time.

The ulterior marriage that had been his cause, however, has benefitted our studies significantly. He meant to have philosophers collaborating with biologists. And that helped, when it in fact, in future, did happen. For example- While for a long time the philosophy of the mind had been an area of complicated hypothetical contests, much was resolved when psychology and neurology arrived at their separate domains.

EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY IN SOCIAL SCIENCES- HERBERT SPENCER

The second figure would be Herbert Spencer, a biologist and philosopher who has displeased students of Humanities over recurrent misinterpretations. He is considered a source of Social Darwinism. He is known to have coarsely summarized Darwin’s Theory of Evolution with the immortal words- “Survival of the Fittest”, and led to its internalization as a slogan for the ruthless economic competitiveness in America. Utilitarianism, a hedonistic ethical philosophy founded by Bentham and JS Mill, can be explained inadequately in the words- “We must strive for the Greatest good for the greatest number”, which, for its statistical nature, resembles a natural design. Spencer advocated a “liberal” utilitarianism, with an emphasis on ethical checks.

It was all virtuous. But it had perilous results, widening social and economic gulfs, and suppressing morality- though neither was implied in his works.

Many harmless practical philosophers have been victims of erroneous readings and have, without intention of their own, brought damage to the society. Nazi Germany, for example, philosophically owed its existence to Plato and Nietzsche. Spencer probably did the same, according to many of his critics.

Spencer brought the positivism (the scientific method of deductive predictive Hypothesis concerning causality, and inductive experimentation through an external quantitative research) of a scientist to the social sciences, as opposed to phenomenology (the quasi-scientific method of inductive propositions forming principles through conscious first-person experiential interest in “meanings”). The latter (phenomenology), can be associated with Darwin himself, for rather journalistic first-person accounts aboard the HMS Beagle is what gave us evolutionary biology.

BIOETHICS

Bioethics has gained prominence as a field within ethical theory (a species of philosophy). It deals with how ethics are challenged by developments in Biology and Medicine. The urgency of bioethics was realized when the human experiments in Nazi Germany were first known. French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic, and its critique of the “medical gaze” is a particularly interesting study that demonstrates the natural progression of human interest that led to the practice of medicine. This explains the lack of ethical criticism it received in being the infallible noble profession. For anyone who would want to read extensively on the subject of Bioethics, Peter Singer would be the most accessible, exciting and relevant reading.

Other than the obvious areas, like reproductive ethics, medical ethics, animal ethics, etc- bioethics also was needed because discoveries in the life sciences were in conflict with many philosophical presuppositions. But just as evidence of how inescapable this confrontation is for philosophers, I would like to narrate the love story of determinism and neuroethics.

Determinism was an opposition to the philosophical school of “free will”, for it suggested that human beings are incapable of truly free action and thought, because nothing can really exist without a cause. Something our brain comes up with is not excused from chains of causality, and cannot emerge out of nowhere and give birth to such a chain. Neurosciences and its reduction of brain processes to describable empirical events proved to be the triumph of determinism over free will. At least the classical version of free will. This, however, was a threat to the ethical philosophies that had been enshrined in the human faith in free will (you can’t take moral decisions when your thoughts are not under your control). Now neuroethics emerged to defend the same ethics neurosciences encumbered. Neuroethics tries to prescribe moral codes for the practice of neurosciences, so that it does not harm human moral decisions. The scepticism and suspicion is not directed at the science, and is not dismissing the notion that our endeared “autonomous will” is, in fact, handcuffed by mechanistic sciences, but trying to ensure that the study of neurosciences is informed by the nature of human faith and human morality.

This exemplifies the larger reciprocal relationship between the life sciences and ethical philosophy.

SOCIOBIOLOGY

Sociobiology is recent area of philosophical activity. Richard Dawkins marked the dawn of a new lens here with The Selfish Gene. Aristotle believed that some people are “natural slaves”, Confucius advocated a meritocracy that seemed to rely on the fact that cognitive capacities were not uniformly distributed. Social Darwinism was a more obvious evil. All these philosophers and philosophies strengthened our belief in hierarchies and inequality in society. And soon it became more necessary to find out why they exist. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” is example of literature that might point at the necessity for the rather hypothetically founded study of sociobiology. It treats anthropology through a biologist’s lens and makes sense of the history that led to such inequalities. Society and biology are inseparable. ‘

Sociobiology penetrated academic consciousness significantly with E.O Wilson’s book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Wilson described the study, with its immense belief in natural selection, as “The extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization”.

Social organization can both be studied and implemented through knowledge of biological design and systems.

CONCERNS IN THE PHILOSOPHY OF BIOLOGY

After you are Masters of a science, you unite with the rest of academia in trying to be philosophers. Philosophers of science have been long identified as armchair scientists. Though indeed their highbrow preoccupations are not athletic at all, associating habits of repose with them is really not even a right stereotype.

Biotechnology concerns itself with application of science. Technology found philosophical validity during the Enlightenment in the works of Francis Bacon, with his bitter demolition of Aristotelian natural sciences (which despite its volume and rigour, was incorrect largely). Bacon said that man beings can turn nature to his favour.

J. C Smart denied biology the status of an autonomous science. He claimed it was a technological application of more basic sciences. Like engineering, biology cannot expansively inspect laws of nature, but can only build with physics and chemistry. Whether we agree with him or not, nothing cements the urgency of biotechnology more.  David Hull’s Philosophy of Biological Science is where the philosophy of biology really begins, with epistemological (study of knowledge), metaphysical (investigating “fundamental” existence) and ethical inquiry.

The first debate in philosophy of biology was an extension of persisting concerns in the philosophy in general, particularly reductionism. Reductionism, as endorsed by Descartes, encompasses a web of philosophical thoughts connecting phenomena, and theories, by “reducing” the complex to the simpler. Kenneth F. Schaffner adhered to an empiricist model to claim a reductionist position. Empiricism is an active epistemological theory that maintains that knowledge can be attained only through conscious sensory experience, and has been championed over time by philosophers like John Locke, and David Hume. Schaffner explained the relationship between Mendelian genetics and molecular genetics with this reductionist approach, which was an empiricist model.

David Hull explained the eventual failure and the impossibility of such an effort at reduction. This led to energetic formulations to defend the reductionism in subsequent literature.

Neodarwinism, like discovery of the DNA structure and modern genetic engineering has been a popular territory in the philosophy of biology. Evolutionary biology posed the tautological problem in its dubious period, inviting philosophers, and JJ Smart explained their concerns- “Suppose we say that even in Andromeda ‘the fittest will survive’ we say nothing, for ‘fittest’ has to be defined in terms of ‘survival’”.

Many clarifications about the concept of fitness began to pour in, before it arrived at a contest between one school claiming that it is reproductive fitness and the other upholding of the irreducible quality of fitness that finds meaning when situated in axiomatic formulations. The former happened to be favoured over time.

Molecular biology has transcended the Reductionism vs Irreducibility debate, because classical reductionism fails to acknowledge and accommodate the complexity of the mechanisms. It cannot be established as simply as it established molecular kinematics from the gas laws. It is a much simpler area and that molecular kinematics is a reduction of gas laws is a glaring fact.

Lindley Darden made giant contributions to the more recent debate in this area. He said that the usually atomistically studied mechanisms are the fundamental units of scientific discovery and scientific explanation in a range of “special sciences” (which obviously includes molecular biology).

CONCLUSION

Molecular biology remains plagued by a vast army of provocative philosophical questions that describes not only its significance but also its infancy. Philosophers both dread and usher studies in genetics, time and again, making us realize the monolithic inadequacy of the very definition of a gene.

This entry, with its distant, almost trivializing statements would conclude on an apologetic note, because, despite popular neglect, philosophers of science have been too auspiciously active in the subject this modest journal investigates into. This is more an invitation, and a synopsis of the questions that await you, if you aspire to accompany your study to what it promises to be.

Author: Deepro Roy
Editor: Aastha Munjal
Date of Publishing: 24th Apr 2017
Artwork by Unknown
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