World's Fair

Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy Professor at Duke, argues so. John Dupre, Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Exeter, isn’t buying it. I’m not either, ever averse to such reductionisms.* Here is Dupre’s review of Rosenberg’s Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology (University of Chicago Press, 2006), from American Scientist on-line.


For your benefit, these are the first few paragraphs of the review:

Alex Rosenberg is unusual among philosophers of biology in adhering to the view that everything occurs in accordance with universal laws, and that adequate explanations must appeal to the laws that brought about the thing explained. He also believes that everything is ultimately determined by what happens at the physical level–and that this entails that the mind is “nothing but” the brain. For an adherent of this brand of physicalism, it is fairly evident that if there are laws at “higher” levels–laws of biology, psychology or social science–they are either deductive consequences of the laws of physics or they are not true. Hence Rosenberg is committed to the classical reductionism that aims to explain phenomena at all levels by appeal to the physical.

It is worth mentioning that, as Rosenberg explains, these views are generally assumed by contemporary philosophers of biology to be discredited. The reductionism that they reject, he says,

holds that there is a full and complete explanation of every biological fact, state, event, process, trend, or generalization, and that this explanation will cite only the interaction of macromolecules to provide this explanation.

Such views have been in decline since the 1970s, when David Hull (The Philosophy of Biological Science [1974]) pointed out that the relationship between genetic and phenotypic facts was, at best, “many/many”: Genes had effects on numerous phenotypic features, and phenotypic features were affected by many genes. A number of philosophers have elaborated on such difficulties in subsequent decades.

The question then is whether Rosenberg’s latest book, Darwinian Reductionism: Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology, constitutes a useful attack on a dogmatic orthodoxy or merely represents a failure to understand why the views of an earlier generation of philosophers of science have been abandoned. Unfortunately I fear the latter is the case.


*Granted, I’m not as credible in any such proclamations as an actual philosopher or historian of biology (especially about the field of molecular biology), so let’s leave it to Wilkins and Lynch for more. And Dave too!

Comments

  1. #1 Benjamin Franz
    April 10, 2007

    There is a misleading conflation here of animism (the belief that there is some kind of non-physical ‘ghost in the machine’ that animates living things – a belief that is clearly not mainstream with biological scientists) with the modern biological synthesis of environment and heredity.

    That genetics is not the sole determinate of biologic behavior is in no fashion support for the thoroughly discredited idea of animism. Biology is clearly reducible to physics. Just not to strawman versions of physics.

    Bad “Worlds Fair”. No biscuit.

  2. #2 jeffk
    April 10, 2007

    I’m sorry, am I missing something here? I wasn’t aware there was a serious scientist or philosopher who wasn’t a “reductionist”. Is anyone actually claiming that cells can violate the laws of physics?

  3. #3 BRC
    April 10, 2007

    Of course you mean to criticize either Rosenberg or Dupre, not us. But so it goes, and we here must take errant comments as they come.

  4. #4 Benjamin Franz
    April 10, 2007

    My apologies to you. You need to clarify your lead paragraph. I read it as you were supporting the ‘anti-reductionist’ program (IOW that you were supporting the position that biology cannot be reduced to physics).

  5. #5 Benjamin Franz
    April 10, 2007

    Sigh. Not my morning. Replace my use of ‘animism’ with ‘vitalism’.

  6. #6 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 10, 2007

    The entire universe is reducible to mathematical structure. At least according to:

    http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0704/0704.0646v1.pdf

    The Mathematical Universe
    Authors: Max Tegmark
    (Submitted on 5 Apr 2007)
    Abstract: I explore physics implications of the External Reality Hypothesis (ERH) that there exists an external physical reality completely independent of us humans. I argue that with a sufficiently broad definition of mathematics, it implies the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) that our physical world is an abstract mathematical structure. I discuss various implications of the ERH and MUH, ranging from standard physics topics like symmetries, irreducible representations, units, free parameters and initial conditions to broader issues like consciousness, parallel universes and Godel incompleteness. I hypothesize that only computable and decidable (in Godel’s sense) structures exist, which alleviates the cosmological measure problem and help explain why our physical laws appear so simple. I also comment on the intimate relation between mathematical structures, computations, simulations and physical systems. Comments:
    28 pages, 5 figs; more details at this http URL
    Subjects:
    General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology (gr-qc)
    Cite as:
    arXiv:0704.0646v1 [gr-qc]

  7. #7 Dr. Free-Ride
    April 10, 2007

    Before folks start claiming biology is reducible to physics, it might be nice to establish whether chemistry has been reduced to physics.

    So far, it has not.

  8. #8 Belathor
    April 10, 2007

    Before folks start claiming biology is reducible to physics, it might be nice to establish whether chemistry has been reduced to physics.

    So far, it has not.

    Would it be any less reductionist to say that biology is reducible to the laws of physics + chemistry?

  9. #9 BRC
    April 10, 2007

    jeffk — in fact, the dominant approach in philosophy is against the reductionism proposed by rosenberg, as dupre notes in the review linked above. that isn’t to say there are no reductionists, nor that one couldn’t make arguments for such (rosenberg does, and i know others who are respectable schoalrs who do too, and apparently you do too), but the weight of the matter leans the other way, and has for the pst few decades. the philosophical question is not whether or not cells can violate the laws of physics, but whether or not the laws of physics are a full explanation of the cell in the body.

    myself, to be clear for benjamin franz, i do in fact support the claim that biological laws are not reducible to physics alone, and i am more persuaded by the kinds of arguments put forth in volumes such as galison and stump, eds., (1996) the disunity of science. that doesn’t mean i conflate vitalism “with the modern biological synthesis of environment and heredity,” nor does it lead from such that the questions of how to explain biological entities are the same as the questions of how to explain non-living entities.

  10. #10 Alanas
    April 10, 2007

    Goedel’s double-inconsistency theorem states that any complex theory is either inconsistent or incomplete. Thus, the Entire Nature must also be either inconsistent or incomplete. I.e. there must be situations when Nature shows “free will” and “imagination”, ruining nearly everything what we understand about science and logical reasoning…

  11. #11 Benjamin Franz
    April 11, 2007

    Benjamin Cohen:

    nor does it lead from such that the questions of how to explain biological entities are the same as the questions of how to explain non-living entities.

    sounds an awful lot like you are circling around the long discredited pit of vitalism. Why isn’t it? How is it different?

    Nor do I understand the distinction being made in

    the philosophical question is not whether or not cells can violate the laws of physics, but whether or not the laws of physics are a full explanation of the cell in the body.

    Care to elaborate?

    Are you are in fact headed down the anti-scientific path of “magic stuff” or are you merely talking about emergent behavior? If the latter, we are not really in disagreement about reducibility, only about terminology. I don’t regard emergence as being in contradiction to reducibility.

    If the former, I will have to withdraw my apology: I will have no truck with ‘woo woo’ science.

  12. #12 Matthew
    April 11, 2007

    I will have no truck with ‘woo woo’ science.

    So if scientists investigate a taboo subject like telepathy, you aren’t interested in listening, unless the “investigation” is strictly a debunking based on a foregone conclusion.

    How is this any different from the way a religious person might mentally filter out all evidence that his belief system is incomplete or in error?

  13. #13 EJ
    April 11, 2007

    Fundamental to biology are principles of natural selection. Things like, “more efficient replicators will be more common.” (That’s a crude version, please substitute something more refined.) Are principles like that part of physics? Seems more like logic to me. And independent of particular laws of physics.

    See, imagine a universe with radically different laws of physics, but still complicated enough to support life in some form. Replicators that compete for resources. If we could get information about this universe and study it, conceivably population ecologists could use their concepts and tools to make some sense of the life-forms there, even if everything we know about chemistry, say, is irrelevant in this other universe.

    So that’s why I think biology is not reducible to physics.

    EJ

  14. #14 Matthew
    April 11, 2007

    Benjamin, as I reread your post I noticed something rather striking:


    sounds an awful lot like you are circling around the long discredited pit of vitalism. . . . Care to elaborate? . . . Are you are in fact headed down the anti-scientific path of magic stuff . . . If the former, I will have to withdraw my apology: I will have no truck with ‘woo woo’ science

    Just about everything you wrote there is all about social control and the threat of ostracism and ridicule to ward off certain taboo ideas. Sociologists could have a field-day analyzing this type of behavior from the self-appointed guardians of scientific orthodoxy (a term which ought not have any currency, since science is a method of investigation and not a particular set of beliefs). Unfortunately for the progress of human knowledge, witch-hunts in the name of orthodoxy (although perennially popular) are not very compatible with an impartial inquiry into the truth, and ultimately not fruitful for expanding our understanding of the universe. . .

  15. #15 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    April 11, 2007

    I will have no truck with ‘woo woo’ science.
    .
    So if scientists investigate a taboo subject like telepathy, you aren’t interested in listening, unless the “investigation” is strictly a debunking based on a foregone conclusion.

    That’s quite a job of over-extrapolation. Telepathy and other “paranormal” subjects have a history: Initial experiments with weak controls show positive results. The effects diminish as controls are tightened. Over and over again, weaknesses are found in experimental design. Over and over again, results cannot be replicated in other labs with tight controls. Over and over again, experimenters or subjects have been caught unconsciously cueing or even consciously cheating. Over and over again, investigators claim that their positive results should not be dismissed, even if problems with methods or integrity have been exposed.

    Countless experiments in ESP have been run for over a century now, and not a single paranormal effect is readily reproducible. You want Benjamin Franz to ignore all this and greet each new claim with a fresh and happy face?

  16. #16 Benjamin Franz
    April 11, 2007

    EJ: You are describing emergence. It is not in conflict with reducibility because it is a matter of ‘top down’ vs ‘bottom up’. My view of reducibility is “given just the basic laws, could you derive the abstract behavior?”. The answer in your above cases is “yes”. That is not the same thing as saying “given just the abstract behavior, could you derive the basic laws?” Top down vs bottom up.

    Matthew: I require telepathy to meet the same criteria as any other claim. I have no ‘per se’ prejudice against it, I merely require it meet the standard of scientific evidence. To date, it has not. If you feel it has, I strongly suggest you contact James Randi. He has a million US dollars waiting just for you.

    As to your attempt to deconstruct my posting: Grow up. There is a tiny grain of validity in deconstructionism. Examining foundations is a good thing. But there is also a whole lot of “it must be true because I said it/want it to be true” hiding under that banner. This is a chronic human failing that philosophy has had to contend in many guises since before the days of Aristotle and Plato.

    I also suggest you might want to read The Woo-Woo Credo. And think about your posting.

  17. #17 Matthew
    April 11, 2007

    Over and over again, results cannot be replicated in other labs with tight controls.

    Do you have any hard scientific evidence to back up this assertion that psi research is sloppier than other science, or that only sloppy laps with poor controls show effects? Dean Radin has presented multiple meta-analyses of psi experimental results versus the level of experimental control, and the data he cites shows no such associations. Do you have another meta-analysis that shows otherwise?
    Or is this just a rhetorical bullet-item from SCI(COP) propaganda material?

    Matthew: I require telepathy to meet the same criteria as any other claim. I have no ‘per se’ prejudice against it, I merely require it meet the standard of scientific evidence.

    It does meet the criteria of scientific evidence, and is as reproducible as many other results in social science and medicine. That is, experimenter effects are very important. If you were well-informed of the topic you would know this already.

    As to your attempt to deconstruct my posting: Grow up.

    Read your comment that I was critiquing again. It’s exactly what I described. A textbook case. Your mocking cite to the “woo-woo” credo link is yet another data point.

  18. #18 Matthew
    April 11, 2007

    That should read: CSI(COP) propaganda

  19. #19 EJ
    April 13, 2007

    Benjamin: I think the answer in my story is “maybe,” not “yes.” But thanks, the top-down/bottom-up distinction is useful.

  20. #20 EJ
    April 13, 2007

    Should have been more specific – my last comment was a reply to the comment above by Benjamin *Franz*.

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