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. Massimo Post author

    groan, okay, one more comment. No, it can’t be supervenience physicalism. To begin with, of course, supervenience is a philosophical concept which finds no place at all in physical theorizing.

    But besides this, supervenience physicalism addresses ontological, not theoretical, reductionism. *Nobody* doubts that in order to change the higher-level phenomena something has to go on in the underlying components of the objects exhibiting those phenomena — which is all that supervenience physicalism says.

    But this says *nothing* about the reducibility of theories, and *nothing* about scientists from different fields having to use specialized language and concepts — which are irreducible to the language and concepts of physics — in order to make progress. And that is the topic of this discussion.

    In other words: yes, everything is made of quarks, or strings, or whatever. And yes, fundamental physics is the science that deals with quarks, strings, or whatever.

    But that ontological observation helps not at all with understanding the sort of complex phenomena that biology, the social sciences, etc. are concerned with. But I’m pretty sure the above will not make a dent, so, ’till next time!

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  2. Coel

    Another way of summarising the dispute is this:

    To a physicist, “reductionism” is purely an ontological doctrine, whereas “inter-theoretic reductionism” is an epistemological doctrine.

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  3. Coel

    Hi Massimo,
    Ah, my previous comment was made before seeing your latest reply. Well, surprisingly, we’re close to agreement here. Again, the dispute is largely miscommunication!

    … supervenience is a philosophical concept which finds no place at all in physical theorizing.

    It’s also a concept that physics uses all the time! (Though physicists use a different *word*; physicists use the word “reductionism” rather than “supervenience”.)

    But besides this, supervenience physicalism addresses ontological, not theoretical, reductionism.

    Exactly, agreed 100%.

    *Nobody* doubts that in order to change the higher-level phenomena something has to go on in the underlying components of the objects exhibiting those phenomena — which is all that supervenience physicalism says.

    Exactly! Which is why this dispute is rather frustrating! Because what the physicists are actually arguing for is quite limited, mundane and uncontroversial! (Yet, this is not realised, owing to miscommunication.)

    But this says *nothing* about the reducibility of theories, and *nothing* about scientists from different fields having to use specialized language and concepts — which are irreducible to the language and concepts of physics — in order to make progress.

    Exactly, agreed 100%. That’s more or less what I said in my first comment on this thread.

    But that ontological observation helps not at all with understanding the sort of complex phenomena that biology, the social sciences, etc. are concerned with.

    Exactly, agreed 100%. (Well, except it can help, in that the doctrine of supervenience physicalism allows a powerful tool of investigation — namely *simulate* a phenomenon, and by controlling the simulation, investigate the phenomenon.)

    To make progress, philosophers should now realise that inter-theoretic reduction is a dead dodo that should be abandoned along with phlogiston, epicycles and elan vital. It does not work even in particle physics, as the example of calculating the mass of a proton demonstrates.

    Once they’ve finally got bored of flogging that dead horse, they can join the physicists in actually understanding science!

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  4. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    “Once they’ve finally got bored of flogging that dead horse, they can join the physicists in actually understanding science!”

    It is precisely that sort of arrogant, and — forgive me — ignorant statement that frustrates me and others here.

    Other than that, yes, we agree once you moved the discussion away from the initial point of the article. i.e., you changed the subject.

    But I thank you for both your intelligent comments and the constant chance you give me to test my Stoicism… 😉

    Oh, and no way in hell Weinberg meant ontological reductionism when he was talking to me. He very explicitly was thinking about what you consider a dead horse that only philosophers concerns themselves with. (So is E.O. Wilson when he talks reductionism of the humanities and social sciences to biology, and plenty of others along the same lines.)

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  5. Robin Herbert

    “To make progress, philosophers should now realise that inter-theoretic reduction is a dead dodo…”

    And grandmothers should all be given egg sacking lessons.

    “Once they’ve finally got bored of flogging that dead horse, they can join the physicists in actually understanding science!”

    Yes, when.oh when will philosophers like Massimo finally understand science? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Weinberg’s simply wrong on his hyperreductionism, Coel, and so are you. Emergent properties in biology don’t “reduce” that way. For that matter, per Massimo earlier, neither do phase changes in physics, I think.

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  7. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    i.e., you changed the subject.

    Well, not really, it wasn’t me who steered the topic to inter-theoretic reduction. I was more interested in the distinction (or lack) between “appearance of purpose” and real “purpose”. (I still am, for anyone who wants to talk me through the development from one to another as a person grows.)

    Oh, and no way in hell Weinberg meant ontological reductionism when he was talking to me.

    I’d be interested if you can point me to anything he’s written. Obviously it’s rather hard for me to comment on a private conversation (and, as I’ve noted in other comments, the potential for miscommunication is there).

    Hi Robin,

    And grandmothers should all be given egg sacking lessons.

    Philosophers, with their distinction between “special sciences” and “fundamental physics” seem to think — and correct me if I’m wrong here — that “inter-theoretical reduction” is viable applied to “fundamental physics”. That is wrong. It does not work even there. The whole concept is not how the world works.

    Hi Socratic,

    Weinberg’s simply wrong on his hyperreductionism, Coel, and so are you. Emergent properties in biology don’t “reduce” that way.

    You, also, are welcome to point me to writings where Weinberg espouses “hyperreductionism” or any version of reductionism that is wrong.

    When you say that biological properties do not “reduce that way”, what do you mean by “reduce”? If you mean they violate supervenience physicalism, then I’m all ears, please expound on your claim.

    If you mean they do not reduce in a Nagel-style “inter-theoretic reduction” way, what on earth makes you think I am espousing that?? Have you really missed the thirty-odd times (on this thread and previous ones) where I have explicitly rejected inter-theoretic reduction and instead espoused supervenience physicalism?

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  8. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    “One does need that the mutations: (1) affect replication likelihood, and (2) are heritable. What else does one need?”

    (1) is not guaranteed by a set of competing, mutating replicators so straight away it is neither automatic, nor tautological, so you can’t just have any old mutating replicator.

    But even once you have (1) and (2) you are still not guaranteed anything.

    Say I have a set of noughts and crosses playing automatons, I could hand code them to be perfect players, or just slightly better than average players. But I generate them all with random strategies and put them in a tournament and then take the top n players and replicate them, and mutate some and then remove the bottom n players.

    Then repeat this as many times as you like. You would think that this would guarantee some improvement in the playing strategies. But this keeps ending up with automatons which perform, on average, no better than a randomly generated strategy. You have an automaton that, most of the time, won’t win even when you try to let it win.

    You can design such a system so that it will improve playing performance, but you have to be careful how you do it.

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  9. Robin Herbert

    Lets get one thing cleared up. Ernest Nagel was not claiming that all theories have inter-theoretic identities to a fundamental theory. He was not claiming that anyone else was saying that. Defining a framework does not constitute a claim that it holds in all cases.

    And let me again raise the question of what “supervene” means. When you say “X supervenes on Y”, do you mean (1) “X necessarily supervenes on Y” or (2) “X just happens to supervene on Y in this case but could, in principle, supervene on any number of other substrates with vastly different properties”.

    If the second is the meaning then Weinberg’s statement “But phenomena like mind and life do emerge. The rules they obey are not independent truths, but follow from scientific principles at a deeper level; apart from historical accidents that by definition cannot be explained, the nervous systems of George and his friends have evolved to what they are entirely because of the principles of macroscopic physics and chemistry, which in turn are what they are entirely because of principles of standard model of elementary particles.” is wrong.

    The second meaning would make them independent truths which can be understood independently of the substrate, even though some details might depend on a particular substrate.

    The principle of Darwinian evolution, for example, could be understood without resort to any particular substrate, the principle could operate on a number of very different substrates. So, yes, the rules that Darwinian evolution obeys are an independent truth.

    Could mind similarly operate on different ontologies? I don’t see why not. If so then mind could also be understood independently of the principles of the standard model of elementary particles, even though some aspects might be dependent on it.

    So, again, the rules that mind obeys (or some of them) are independent truths.

    So when you say “supervenience physicalism” do you mean (1) or (2) by “supervene”.

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  10. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    So when you say “supervenience physicalism” do you mean (1) or (2) by “supervene”.

    I mean (2). Or, put differently, if you were to completely duplicate the Y then it manifests X.

    The fact that you could have many substrates, Y1, Y2, Y3 … that also manifest X doesn’t change that.

    The second meaning would make them independent truths which can be understood independently of the substrate, …

    Lots of things can be understood independently of the substrate. But the phenomena are still not independent of the substrate, it’s merely that there could be lots of different substrates that they could supervene on. It would still the the case that each particular instance of X depends on the particular substrate on which it supervenes.

    People always try to read too much into this. Reduction, as physicists use the word, and unity-of-science conceptions, depend only on the principle: if you completely duplicate the Y than it manifests the X.

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  11. brodix

    It seems the people who study this the most are the most in conflict about it, so I suppose I’m out of my depth.

    Not that that’s ever stopped me before.

    The real issue here is; Where does consciousness really fit in and why? It seems to manifest physically, but can’t be explained as a physical effect of some deep processes and seems far too complex and singular to this planet, to just accept as an essential property.

    So what does it do? Feel? Think? Act?

    As this is a thought based context, I’ll address it in that frame; We juggle conceptual forms, many of which are often in conflict, if not entirely divorced from one another. Ideas and their resulting structures and formulations seem to go through a dynamic cycle. First the innovators give birth to them, then they are mothered by managers and acolytes, eventually becoming ever more formulaic and bureaucratic, often staffed by the enforcers. While this mechanization and solidification is fundamentally useful for building ever grander structures on these ideas, necessarily the dynamic life and vitality is squeezed ever more to the margins. If the idea is effective, this life is the cutting edge that keeps generating the future uses, otherwise it is branching out into trial and error and often patches passing as progress.

    It would seem the mechanization stage of this process is simply the point of the wave where it has plateaued and seemingly stabilized.

    So what is the dynamic that coalesces intellectual energy into form, possibly then to break it down again? Yes, it might be analogized as thermodynamic feedback loops, but where do the grains of sand we build these pearls of wisdom around originate? Are they waiting to be plucked from some platonic realm, or do they emerge from needs and desires?

    Nature does abhor a vacuum and the biggest cracks in the frameworks of what we seemingly know do attract a lot of energy, but unless there is something for it to adhere to, it just passes through as a giant rushing wind. Think string theory and multiverses.

    Evidence is handy, but sometimes it could be just hiding in plain sight. Like a radio dish can only pick up wave lengths small enough to fit it, possibly our focus on detail and abstraction is blinding us to larger evidence.

    I will admit at this moment, that it has been a long day and my mind is starting to get too close to the edge of coherence, so I’lll leave it at that.

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  12. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    “Reduction, as physicists use the word, and unity-of-science conceptions, depend only on the principle: if you completely duplicate the Y than it manifests the X.”

    That is clearly not how Weinberg is using the word, he is not just saying that specific instantiations of mind and life are dependent upon their instantiation (which would be trivial). He is saying that the principles themselves follow from lower level principles of science.

    Here is what Weinberg said “The rules they obey are not independent truths, but follow from scientific principles at a deeper level;

    Now if the rules they obey could operate on something other that those “scientific principles at a deeper level” then they they are independent truths.

    The statements:

    “Rules X are not independent of principles Y and follow from principles Y”
    and
    “Rules X could, in principle be operate even if there were no principles Y”

    are obviously inconsistent. You must choose one, or the other. If you choose the second then Weinberg’s statement is clearly wrong.

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  13. brodix

    If I may, I’ll offer up my universal principle; Energy expands out, form coalesces in.

    Whether galaxies as cycles of energy radiating out and mass falling in, to a leaf on a tree, growing and pushing out its form, by soaking up energy.

    Even measures like time and temperature, frequency and amplitude are form describing energy.

    With subatomic processes, measuring the form becomes problematic, so it can only be described by statistics.

    If anyone can think of a situation where this relationship doesn’t hold, I’m all ears.

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  14. Robin Herbert

    Philosophers, with their distinction between “special sciences” and “fundamental physics” seem to think — and correct me if I’m wrong here — that “inter-theoretical reduction” is viable applied to “fundamental physics”.

    Let me not only correct you, but point out that the one thing does not follow from the other and that it has been stated numerous times by the philosophers here that philosophers, in general, do not hold that view and have explicitly rejected it since, at the latest the early 1970’s

    I think the claim, at the moment is that certain physicists seem, by their words, to hold that view, not only about physics, but about all areas of knowledge.

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  15. Robin Herbert

    Here are Weinberg’s definitions of “grand” and “petty” reductionism.

    Grand reductionism is what I have been talking about so far – the view that all of nature is the way it is (with certain qualifications about initial conditions and historical accidents) because of simple universal laws, to which all other scientific laws may in some sense be reduced.

    Petty reductionism is the much less interesting doctrine that things behave the way they do because of the properties of their constituents: for instance, a diamond is hard because the carbon atoms of which it is composed can fit together neatly.

    And again:

    One can illustrate the reductionist world view by imagining all the principles of science as being dots on a huge chart, with arrows flowing into each principle from all the other principles by which it is explained. The lesson of history is that these arrows do not form separate disconnected clumps, representing science that are logically independent, and they do not wander aimlessly. Rather, they are all connected, and if followed backward they all seem to branch outward from a common source, an ultimate law of nature

    I don’t know about anyone else, but that sound like a definition of inter-theoretic reductionism.

    Here is his example of one of the great successes of grand reductionism:

    This is especially true, for example, of one of the great reductionist episodes in the history of science: first Darwin and Wallace explained the evolution of adaptation as a consequence of heredity and natural selection; then twentiethcentury biologists explained heredity as a result of genes and mutations; and then Crick and Watson explained the genetic mechanism as a consequence of the structure of the DNA molecule, which with a large enough computer could be explained as a solution of the Schroedinger equation.

    If that is not a claim about intertheoretic reduction then it will do until one comes along.

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  16. brodix

    Robin,

    “if followed backward they all seem to branch outward from a common source, an ultimate law of nature”

    It seems each layer of structure and form can be distilled back to a more fundamental layer(overlooking what has to be distilled away to reach the lower layer), yet what motivated those layers of complexity arising from the more basic elements? Form itself can be presumably further reduced to platonic ideals. According the reductionistic absolutists, it all really reduces to mathematical form.

    So what underlaying dynamic is constantly stirring the pot, giving rise to ever more complexity and often breaking it back down as well? Of which these forms are simply ever more precise distillations?

    These forms are description, but what do they describe, what is the territory they map?

    Reductionism is a primary sensory tool, but by its very definition, it does not give a complete picture and what it mostly misses is the pervasive dynamic bubbling through all these levels, which gives rise to form, but is not of itself form.

    For instance, energy is conserved, so it can only be dissipated, which is what we need to do, to extract signal from the noise. Yet it is this energy which is the physical present, while the forms it manifest come and go.

    So if we were to truly reduce reality to its essence, would it be point particles, statistically existing in 99% empty space, or would it be the white noise of energy we spend many billions of dollars trying to extract these infinitesimal signals from?

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  17. davidlduffy

    http://journals.aps.org/pre/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevE.91.050902

    Self-organization in a voltage-driven nonequilibrium system, consisting of conducting beads immersed in a viscous medium, gives rise to a dynamic tree structure that exhibits wormlike motion. The complex motion of the beads driven by the applied field, the dipole-dipole interaction between the beads and the hydrodynamic flow of the viscous medium, results in a time evolution of the tree structure towards states of lower resistance or higher dissipation and thus higher rates of entropy production. Thus emerges a remarkably organismlike energy-seeking behavior. The dynamic tree structure draws the energy needed to form and maintain its structure, moves to positions at which it receives more energy, and avoids conditions that lower available energy. It also is able to restore its structure when damaged, i.e., it is self-healing. The emergence of energy-seeking behavior in a nonliving complex system that is extremely simple in its construct is unexpected. Along with the property of self-healing, this system, in a rudimentary way, exhibits properties that are analogous to those we observe in living organisms. Thermodynamically, the observed diverse behavior can be characterized as end-directed evolution to states of higher rates of entropy production.

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  18. ejwinner

    Massimo,

    I was waiting for a certain thread within this thread to find its inevitable way into the swamp of incomplete arguments, ill-defined terms, and unadmitted missteps and backtracks, before commenting on the original post.

    So, if I understand correctly, non-teleonomy/non-teleology; teleonomy; (self-generated) teleology – each effectively helps define entities both ontically (such that they can be studied by science) and ontologically (so they can be reflected on philosophically). In this regard, the issue helps to define distinct kinds of entities requiring differing forms of study. This seems about right to me.

    I am reaching further here than your post warrants, but it seems to me that it is in the nature of the universe, at least insofar as we tenants of this particular planet can know, that the indefinite number of combinatorial interactions of matter just will produce an indefinite number of differing kinds of entities, which must be addressed on their own terms, in their own domains.

    As side comment, it may even be the case that quantum physics and relativity can never be fully reconciled.

    In any event, I agree with the general implication of your post, and with previous comments by you and Dan Kaufman, suggesting that there may never be discovered a “unity of sciences,” and that we may need, at some point, admit this and develop an approach to science as a whole that is not about some reductive unity of subject matter, nor even about some unified methodology, but about shared concerns and attitudes about the world.

    “We are scientist because we like to measure things and classify them” – that may be as close to a unification of the sciences as we will be able to get.

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  19. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    Here is what Weinberg said “The rules they obey are not independent truths, but follow from scientific principles at a deeper level”;

    Yes. So, if you have a higher-level property X that could be instantiated in substrate A, or in substrate B, or in substrate C, then:

    The instantiation of X in substrate A is not independent of A, it arises from the deeper-level properties of A.

    The instantiation of X in substrate B is not independent of B, it arises from the deeper-level properties of B.

    The instantiation of X in substrate C is not independent of C, it arises from the deeper-level properties of C.

    That is what Weinberg is saying. You are over-interpreting him if you are reading anything more than that into it.

    For example, take the perfect gas law applied macroscopically to a gas. Perfect-gas-law behaviour arises from the lower-level behaviour of the individual gas particles. It matters not that this could be oxygen molecules, or nitrogen molecules, or whatever. This is all that Weinberg is saying, and it is essentially supervenience physicalism.

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  20. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    Let me not only correct you, but point out that the one thing does not follow from the other and that it has been stated numerous times by the philosophers here that philosophers, in general, do not hold that view and have explicitly rejected it since, at the latest the early 1970’s

    Well I may be misunderstanding what philosophers think (I readily accept that understanding philosophers is a weak point of mine, since their intuitions are generally rather weird), but:

    If philosophers in general have rejected the view that inter-theoretic reduction can work, even in the case of fundamental particle physics, and have done so since the 1970s, why do they still make a distinction between what they call “special science” and fundamental physics? And, further, why are they still discussing the issue? Every thread here even marginally relevant gets philosophers starting twittering on about inter-theoretic reduction. Why? Why can’t we move on?

    Hi Socratic,

    I note your complete lack of actual reply.

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  21. Robin Herbert

    Coel,

    The instantiation of X in substrate A is not independent of A, it arises from the deeper-level properties of A.

    The instantiation of X in substrate B is not independent of B, it arises from the deeper-level properties of B.

    The instantiation of X in substrate C is not independent of C, it arises from the deeper-level properties of C.

    And, therefore, the principle behind X is something that is completely independent of A,B and C, right? It is an independent truth.

    That is what Weinberg is saying. You are over-interpreting him if you are reading anything more than that into it.

    I didn’t, I quoted his words. I will leave others to judge who’s characterisation of his meaning was more accurate.

    I readily accept that understanding philosophers is a weak point of mine, since their intuitions are generally rather weird

    I am not sure what is so difficult to understand about the firm, clear and consistent rejection of intertheoretic reductionism by Daniel Kaufman, for example. At times it has seemed pretty hard to miss.

    I think it helps to read just what they say and not to put interpretations on it, like the claim that to speak of “special sciences” and “fundamental physics” somehow implies that they think that there is a unity of fundamental physics. I have no idea how you even made that leap.

    And yet, when Weinberg sets out what sounds exactly like a textbook definition of inter-theoretic reductionism, you tell me I am reading too much into it.

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  22. Philip Thrift

    Apart from debates of intertheoretic “reducibility” (cf. “Intertheory Relations in Physics”, “Reductionism in Biology”, in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), there are still scientists involved with the interplay (language games?) of physics and biology, like Jeremy England at MIT (englandlab.com). Perhaps that’s the new way of the future.

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  23. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    And, therefore, the principle behind X is something that is completely independent of A,B and C, right? It is an independent truth.

    Yes, in the sense that you can make true if-then statements about concepts. For example, *if* you have a Euclidean triangle, *then* the angles add up to 180 degrees. That is independent of instantiations of a triangle cut out of sheets of different substrates A, B and C (paper, metal foil, plywood).

    Similarly, *if* you have a substrate with certain properties (e.g. behaves as gas particles) then you get behaviour X (e.g. perfect gas law). And that is independent of whether you instantiate the gas using oxygen molecules or nitrogen or neon.

    So yes, you can make statements that are substrate independent.

    But, in every case, any *instantiation* of behaviour X is dependent on the substrate it is implemented in.

    The behaviour “angles add up to 180 degrees” is not independent of the axioms (Euclid’s axioms). The behaviour “perfect gas law” is not independent of the axioms (substrate must behave as gas particles). Thus, as stated by Weinberg: “The rules they obey are not independent truths, but follow from scientific principles at a deeper level”.

    A violation of Weinberg’s claim would be “the angles add up to 180 degrees regardless of whether Euclid’s axioms hold“, or “the perfect gas law applies regardless of the properties of the substrate”. Both are clearly false.

    I will leave others to judge who’s characterisation of his meaning was more accurate.

    This suits me! Having read quite a bit by Weinberg, I’m confident of my interpretation of what he is saying (I’d also point that, as the person here who thinks most like Weinberg, I’m likely to be most accurately interpreting his intent).

    And yet, when Weinberg sets out what sounds exactly like a textbook definition of inter-theoretic reductionism, you tell me I am reading too much into it.

    Have you ever read textbook definitions of inter-theoretic reductionism, as in Ernest Nagel’s book? They are different and vastly more restrictive than Weinberg’s account.

    … like the claim that to speak of “special sciences” and “fundamental physics” somehow implies that they think that there is a unity of fundamental physics.

    Then can you answer my question? If philosophers in general consider that fundamental particle physics is also a “special science” (in the sense of being dis-unified and inter-theoretic reductionism not always holding) then why do they make a distinction between “special sciences” and “fundamental physics”? What is “special” about a science if there are no non-special sciences?

    I am not sure what is so difficult to understand about the firm, clear and consistent rejection of intertheoretic reductionism by Daniel Kaufman, for example. At times it has seemed pretty hard to miss.

    Sure, and I have also given firm, clear and consistent rejections of intertheoretic reductionism time after time after time, on multiple different threads back to Scientia Salon, and yet people (e.g. Dan and Socratic) keep accusing me of wanting or defending intertheoretic reductionism. This is a touch tiresome.

    Indeed, I reject it more completely in the sense of rejecting it even for fundamental particle physics (cf. my example of calculating the mass of a proton, which cannot be done in an intertheoretic reductionist way).

    If philosophers *also* reject it, even for fundamental particle physics (which I’m currently unsure of? Cite anyone?) can we then (1) abandon intertheoretic reduction *entirely*, (2) abandon the supposed distinction between “special” sciences and fundamental physics, and (3) move on to the interesting questions, which are about epistemology in a world governed by the ontological doctrine of supervenience physicalism (rather that re-hash this tiresome debate endlessly)? How about that for a plan?

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  24. brodix

    “Thermodynamically, the observed diverse behavior can be characterized as end-directed evolution to states of higher rates of entropy production.”

    Ha. Otherwise known as Capitalism.

    Yet presumably economics is too complex to be inter-theoretically reduced to such mechanisms.

    Formalisms are rigid and math is a formalization of an underlaying insight, extracted from the bigger picture. Its function is to give form to the original idea, in order to be processed by the great mass of individual minds. It is a map and multiple maps will be used to describe the same territory, so while the territory is connected, the maps are related, only due to underlaying circumstance.

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  25. Philosopher Eric

    Massimo, this might have been the most compactly written blog post of substance which I’ve ever considered. It inspires me to get my own thoughts together here before reading the comments above, or even your associated TPM article. Though I am surely not as informed as I might be, I’d rather not get sidetracked for the moment.

    My interpretation is that you believe that you’re able to go beyond Marco Buzzoni’s stated uncertainty, by asserting that biology is indeed ontologically separate from physics. To do so you’ve observed the teleonomic element found in biological processes, which apparently do not exist in non biologic dynamics (like stars and atoms). Here the biologic can be said to have “purpose” given its evolution, while the rest can be said to not. Yes I do agree. Then to top things off you went further to our teleology, thus founding a jump from biology to “social science.” Once again I do agree. (Though if you hadn’t begun by noting that all of reality is physically/causally connected, implying that everything does nevertheless reduce in the end, then I probably wouldn’t have been open minded enough to comprehend.)

    Just as you’ve added to the ideas of Buzzoni however, I hope you’ll permit me to try my own hand at this as well? Buzzoni was handcuffed, I think, because the ultimate reducibility of nature left him uncertain about how biology could be categorically different from physics. You were able to go beyond this issue by defining ways in which differences can be said to exist, and namely that there is a teleonomic dynamic to the biologic which provides a clear separation from the rest. I would then go further still by suggesting that you’ve identified just one of countless such differences which might be noted between what we call “biology” and what we call “physics.” The point here is that all of our terms may potentially have only “useful” rather than “true” definitions. As long as we’re naturalistically noting that all things do ultimately reduce in the end, can it be useful to define biology such that it’s emergent for the relatively stupid human being? Yes of course such definitions can be useful!

    Then I would emphasize one thing more. The methodology behind our science is by no means just a human tool, but rather exists as the exclusive means by which the conscious entity is able to figure things out. Like the human scientist, for example, the squirrel takes what it thinks it knows (evidence), and then checks this against notions that it’s not so sure about (theory). Presumably even without language, it uses evidence to figure out, for example, whether or not it’s raining. No non-conscious entities, such as our most advance computers, should be able to manage such a feat. Why? Because existence remains utterly irrelevant to them. Like the tree, they have no personal purpose from which to make such assessments. The conscious entity, conversely, has a punishment/reward dynamic from which personal purpose does exist.

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  26. Daniel Kaufman

    Eric wrote:

    The methodology behind our science is by no means just a human tool, but rather exists as the exclusive means by which the conscious entity is able to figure things out

    ——————————————————————————-

    Funny, I’m able to “figure out” all sorts of things, without employing the scientific method, not just in ordinary life, but in my professional work. I guess all those editors of all those philosophy journals must have been confused. Wonder why all those great universities pay them to work there? Their administrators must be confused too.

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  27. Philosopher Eric

    Daniel, do I detect a touch of sarcasm from you regarding one of my own positions? Regardless, I do always appreciate engagement from you. But do you truly have a problem with my theory that everything which is conscious (not just scientists and philosophers, or even just humans), figure things out through one basic process? My theory is that we take what we think we know (or “evidence”), and then check to see how consistent this seems against an idea that we’re not so sure about (or “theory”). As a given idea continues to stay consistent with what we think we know, I believe that they tend to become accepted for practical use. (There is also the opposite to this as well, or “faith.” Here we instead accept theory which lacks evidence, and thus the more improbable which something may seem, the more faith which will be required to achieve acceptance.)

    I currently have just two remaining philosophical theories, given that I’ve publicly adopted what I believe to be the “critical” definition for philosophy which you use. Thus most of my theories may now be classified under the headings of “psychology” and “cognitive science.”

    Regardless, conceptually it should be quite simple to now challenge me. If you have ever figured anything out in a way other than checking to see if a given model remains consistent with what you think you know, then this would be a method beyond the one that I’ve described. So then if you have, how does this work?

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  28. Mark Harrigan (@Oz_Mark)

    @Coel – to some extent this is semantics but I think the difference here is intentionality. When Massimo talks about the teleology of a physics experiment I interpret his definition to also encompase the notion of the intention of the experimenter. 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.

    To this extent you can also argue that Biology is teleological (in part) – there is a purpose in the sense that evolution is directed toward maximising the survival of the section of the randomly arising mutations that are best adapted to the conditions in which they arise. But I appreciate Massimo’s use of the descriptor Teleonomic as there is no “intentionality” present.

    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 :

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