Biology vs Physics: Two Ways of Doing Science?

human eyeI’ve recently written about philosophy of physics, because of a fascinating workshop I attended in Munich about the status of string theory and, more generally, the idea of non-empirical confirmation of scientific theories. (You can find my coverage here, here and here.) But of course I’m a philosopher of biology, and have mostly written professionally about evolutionary biology. Still, there is a way to connect the two, and it has to do with an analysis of the differences, if any, between physics and biology as examples of natural sciences. That happens to be the topic of an essay I wrote for The Philosophers’ Magazine Online, taking the inspiration from a well written paper by Marco Buzzoni, entitled Causality, Teleology, and Thought Experiments in Biology.

Buzzoni begins by quoting the venerable evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, one of the architects of the so-called “Modern Synthesis,” biology’s equivalent of the Standard Model in physics: “[the battle over the status of biology] has been waged between two distinct camps. One claims that biology does not differ in principles and methods from the physical sciences, and that further research, particularly in molecular biology, will in time lead to a reduction of all of biology to physics. […] The other camp claims that biology fully merits status as an autonomous science because it differs fundamentally in its subject matter, conceptual framework, and methodology from the physical sciences.”

There is no question in Mayr’s, Buzzoni’s and my own mind that the first option is simply not viable. Yes, of course biological organisms are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of subatomic particles, the behavior of which can be explained in physical terms. But it is equally obvious to any biologist that if you simply describe the physical-chemical behavior of living organisms and their parts without also asking why they are the way they are, you are missing the entire point of doing biology.

The way Buzzoni goes at it is by recasting biological hypotheses as thought experiments. In general, he follows Kant when he said that an experiment can be treated as a “question put to nature.” Obviously, experiments are teleological actions, they have a purpose (that of the scientist). And the fact that we can do experiments in physics and chemistry clearly shows that “teleology and efficient-mechanical causality are not only compatible but that final causes are actually the condition of the epistemic possibility of mechanical ones, since without our knowledge of final causes there would be no experiment and therefore no imputation of mechanical causes.”

The problem, as Buzzoni himself recognizes toward the end of his paper, is that we are still left with the unanswered question: why is it, exactly, that a teleological heuristic works so well for certain kinds of objects of study, but is entirely irrelevant for others? He says: “One might still ask the further question whether this depends upon an ontological difference [between the objects of study of physics and biology]. Philosophically speaking, I do not think that any sufficient reason has yet been given for answering this question affirmatively, even though there are some moral reasons for doing so. But this is not the interesting point.”

Well, here I beg to differ. That is an interesting point, and very much so. And that’s the point I focus on at the end of my TPM article, invoking a distinction between teleonomy and teleology, which Buzzoni does not make. Teleonomy is the appearance of purposefulness that results from some type of natural process, chiefly (exclusively, really) natural selection. That’s where the difference between physics and biology resides, as Darwin explained: physical systems are not teleonomic, while biological ones are. And then there are conscious agents like us, who are not just teleonomic, but capable of teleology: when we make an object, a machine, we do it with a purpose in mind, not just the appearance of a purpose. And that is what further separates biology from the social sciences (psychology, sociology, economics): in the latter one cannot make sense of things without invoking purpose.

112 thoughts on “Biology vs Physics: Two Ways of Doing Science?

  1. Robin Herbert

    Hi, davidlduffy,

    That looks interesting, but it doesn’t seem as surprising as the writer of the abstract finds it. Seems more or less what you would expect from that setup and the beads starting in that position.


  2. Coel

    Hi Mark,

    @Coel – to some extent this is semantics but I think the difference here is intentionality.

    Yes, agreed, the difference Massimo is making is about the presence of intentionality and consciousness. As I’ve argued, though, both of those are surely continua rather than being binary on/off.

    [That follows from the biological absurdity of a parent who is not capable of intentionality and consciousness giving birth to a child who is. It also follows from the absurdity of supposing that as a child develops they are not capable of intentionality and consciousness one day, but are the next.]

    Thus, Massimo is effectively using the label “purpose” for one end of a continuum, and using the label “appearance of purpose” lower down the continuum.

    Whereas, I’d readily use the word “purpose” much further down the continuum [e.g. in my example of a leaf-cutter ant going out to get a leaf “for the purpose” of growing fungus on it for food, despite the ant not (we presume) being conscious].

    This just makes the difference largely one of semantics. My only real dispute would be with someone who wanted a non-physical conception of “purpose” or a binary on/off concept of “consciousness” and thus of “purpose”.

    I do not think the chess computer in your example can be said to exhibit intentionality – it only blindly carries out the purpose it was programmed with.

    But what are we if not (effectively) souped-up chess computers? The information-processing going on in the chess-playing computer is certainly “about” the game of chess being played. If the difference is only one of degree, then fine.


  3. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Mark,

    It sounds to me like you’ve got things about right in your engagement with Coel above (not that Coel’s doing too bad either). You said:

    What is interesting to speculate on is whether humans, being capable of forming intentions, might be capable of changing that evolutionary paradigm should we collectively decide to do so – now that would be an interestingtexperiment with teleological implications

    It sounds to me that you’re talking about a human selective breeding program. Of course we’ve done this with domesticated animals for millennia, so we could in principal do to it for us as well. Observe that a government could provide incentives for people that are genetically predisposed to diseases, to not use their own genes for procreation. Furthermore there would be quite a fight once it’s realized that in this manner we could become more beautiful, skinny, intelligent, and so on. This stuff doesn’t bother me, though I’m not sure that it’s even on the radar yet socially.


  4. Philosopher Eric

    I’m happy that I did decide to get my thoughts straight before reading the many existing comments here when I arrived. I don’t however mean to suggest anything negative about the people who have provided this commentary — and in fact I found greater reason to be proud of myself for associating with this particular community. The issue however, is one that I consider to be very standard and unfortunate in general academic pursuits. It’s that we do tend to use separate definitions in our discussions, sometimes mistakenly presuming that ours happen to be “real” or even “better” than those which others use. I mean to help the philosophy community straighten such nonsense out. It must formally become understood that the reader must always accept the writer’s definitions, whether implicitly or explicitly stated. Furthermore the profuse use of “Terms of Art,” as described recently by David Ottlinger over at the Electric Agora, should offer a horrible magnification of this problem. Yes modern physics may be hindered by it, though I suspect that psychology remains utterly primitive for this reason, or somewhat like physics before the rise of Newton.

    I believe that we must to learn to speak, not so that it’s possible for us to be understood, but rather so that it’s difficult to be misunderstood. But what if many academic professionals, decide that their “artistry” is needed in order to protect their jobs? Sadly, they might continue to hold their fields back.


  5. Daniel Kaufman

    Eric wrote:

    I mean to help the philosophy community straighten such nonsense out.


    With all due respect, unless you become an active participant in the professional, academic literature of the profession, you will have exactly zero chance of doing this — and even then it is unlikely, as only a handful of the most powerful philosophical minds have had that sort of effect on the discipline.

    And that’s all only if your worries about disunity among the sciences and philosophy are well-placed, which I don’t think they are.


  6. Massimo Post author

    I must second Dan’s comments about straightening out the “nonsense” afflicting the philosophical community. While it is certainly possible for outsiders to see things that insiders trained in a particular way don’t see, this is highly unlikely. And at any rate one has to master the arguments and the technical language of any academic field in which one hopes to have an impact.

    As for my part, I’m increasingly convinced that “science” is a Wittgensteinian family resemblance concept, and that therefore there is no such thing as the unity of science. So much for E.O. Wilson’s invocation of the “Ionian enchantment.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Philosopher Eric

    Daniel, you’re making my point for me — you happen to be a part of a “union” type of business. No I couldn’t do any of these things that I’d like to do, simply based upon my pedigree itself, though you potentially could do such things! Thus is it not convenient for me, that I happen to be talking to you right now? So please, let’s continue.

    I see that you have the intention of discrediting one of my two remaining philosophical theories. Excellent! Most just let me say what I say without offering such challenges, and thus I presume they never really get what it is that I’m saying. Anyway, if you can provide something which you’ve “figured out,” I believe that I will be able to relate it back to you as a process by which you took the associated model, and then it progressively became more valid to you as you tested it against what you thought you knew (evidence).


  8. Daniel Kaufman

    Eric: At this point, I don’t think I understand you. I have quite clearly expressed my views on this subject — the sciences are disunified, in that one cannot reduce any of the social sciences to any physical science and one may not even be able to completely reduce biology to chemistry and physics. I also see nothing wrong with this state of affairs — indeed, I think it is exactly what one would expect, if one has a proper understanding of what the various sciences *do* and is unaffected by any sort of overriding ideological commitment, such as logical positivism or, more recently, scientism.


  9. Philosopher Eric

    Massimo, I wasn’t criticising the philosophy community above, but rather all of academia in respect to its use of definition. But if philosophy is indeed to reside in a purely critical capacity, as the 2008 paper of yours that you recently had me read suggests, then I would think that the nature of definition would be well within its scope. So do you (or does anyone else) have a problem with my theory regarding the nature of definition?


  10. Philosopher Eric

    Daniel, I agree with you entirely about the disunity of our sciences. From beginning to end, I’m in your camp regarding Massimo’s post. But then one (and yes another) of my own theories have come up, and you’ve quickly dismissed it, I suspect, without understanding it. Now if you’re tired of this particular discussion, then by all means, I’ll move on to someone else (perhaps Coel). We can always talk about my two philosophical theories another time if you like.


  11. Philosopher Eric

    Okay, Daniel, I’ll be a bit more proactive. I believe that there is ultimately just one process by which the conscious entity, consciously figures things out. Thus for virtually anything which you consciously understand, I believe that I will be able to relate this back to you in terms of one fundamental process by which you gained that particular understanding.

    For example, let’s consider a bird that is looking for a good place to build its nest. Even without the tool of language, I believe that it takes what it thinks it knows, and then uses this to assess theories that it’s not so sure about. A theory might be “Is that branch a good spot?” It then uses its evidence to assess this theory to make a decision. (Surely there are plenty of non-conscious factors as well, which also applies for us, though here we’re discussing the conscious.) My position is that there is nothing which you or any scientist understands, which does not occur through this process which the bird uses (beyond the opposite, or “faith,” though I’m also not denying that for the bird). We all take what we think we know, and then use this to assess ideas that we’re not so sure about.


  12. brodix


    ” I don’t find the proposal that we understand everything in one way to be remotely plausible, let alone true.”

    Other than as conscious perception of dynamic actions and the forms expressed therein, aka phenomenalism. No?


  13. brodix

    It seems that when one moves from there to say logical positivism, it does try to reduce it to a form of verification which is a bit too constrained. In that it is not that reality doesn’t exist separate from our perception of it, but that perception itself is inherently subjective. So it is not that perception is foundational to reality, only to our perception of it.

    And pretty much all we can know is what we perceive. Which means the act of understanding has to be the basis of understanding. The “one way.”

    Not trying to be smart alec, but that makes form secondary to action, since form is what we understand and so is the product of the act of understanding. Thus no logical proof of mathematical platonism.


  14. brodix

    From wikipedia,

    “Interpreting Ludwig Wittgenstein’s early philosophy of language, logical positivists identified a verifiability principle or criterion of cognitive meaningfulness. From Bertrand Russell’s logicism they sought reduction of mathematics to logic as well as Russell’s logical atomism, Ernst Mach’s phenomenalism—whereby the mind knows only actual or potential sensory experience, which is the content of all sciences, whether physics or psychology—and Percy Bridgman’s musings that others proclaimed as operationalism. Thereby, only the verifiable was scientific and cognitively meaningful, whereas the unverifiable was unscientific, cognitively meaningless “pseudostatements”—metaphysic, emotive, or such—not candidate to further review by philosophers, newly tasked to organize knowledge, not develop new knowledge.”

    To refer back to my dichotomy of expanding energy versus coalescing form, it would seem phenomenalism is the dynamic of perception, while logical positivism would be the definable form emerging from it.

    As analogy, the physical wave is the energy, while its amplitude and frequency would be the form.

    So perception is the dynamic and the perceived is the form.


  15. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Coel,

    Above I see that you’ve asked a rather meaty question a few times. I hope that you’ll consider my own such explanation.

    Your question concerns what I suspect to be an after note for Massimo’s present post. I saw the focus of his position to be that non biologic (and thus non evolved) phenomena can be classified differently from that which is biologic. So here the field of biology may be considered “emergent,” and I think quite usefully so. And then in a further note he suggested that “social sciences” can be considered “emergent” from biology, which I do of course agree with as well. So given this second emergence by which “consciousness” occurs, you then came on to ask about the particulars of it. Is there a continuum by which a progressively more complex machine should be considered progressively more conscious? Or is complexity not the issue, but instead does the consciousness dynamic concern something else? I personally identify a “something else,” so please do consider my own explanation.

    In my opinion the “intentionality” associated with consciousness exists through the experienced punishment/reward associated with it. Technically I call this stuff “sensations,” though “utility” is an appropriate term as well. (I did for a short time use the terms “qualia,” as well as “phenomenal experience,” though recently abandoned this, spurred by Massimo, since they commonly also refer to the non punishment/reward associated with senses like vision.)

    Thus my position is that we’re not just “souped up computers” — that is unless this “souping” is defined to go far enough to make existence feel good/bad. Still I do suspect that 95% of what’s between our ears, is funtionally just a standard computer. It is this vast supercomputer, I think, which also facilitates the consciousness dynamic by which we experience existence.

    In my opinion you’ve asked an utterly crucial question, though it’s also one that academia hasn’t yet worked out even slightly. I would of course love to go into the particulars of my own consciousness model, though with you I’ll remain just as patient as I’ve been with Daniel and Massimo.


  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Eric wrote:

    In my opinion the “intentionality” associated with consciousness exists through the experienced punishment/reward associated with it. Technically I call this stuff “sensations,” though “utility” is an appropriate term as well.


    This is not what ‘intentionality’ means.

    This may be useful.

    Glad to know that you’ve been “patient” with Massimo and I. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.


  17. Philosopher Eric

    Thanks for the lesson Daniel. “Intentionality” is kind of new to me, somewhat like the funky “qualia” term. But when in Rome… Still I’m not entirely sure that I was off too far. They are defining it as a purely mental concept, and of course it does concern “intentions.” And if nothing mattered to me given that I had no sensations, then I surely couldn’t have any intentions could I? I wouldn’t think so.

    Do you not consider me patient, even given my quite calm and polite demeanor? Maybe a few more years of my nonstandard (and yes hard to challenge) perspective would illustrate to you the true meaning of the patience which I have. I truly have been working with these ideas for over half my life.

    (Damn it Coel, wake up! Daniel Kaufman is working me over with technical definitions!)


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