Philosophy Of Life Sciences Research Paper

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A modern philosophy of life sciences differs in a number of ways from the original philosophy of biology. The links between biological, biotechnical, and biomedical disciplines lead to new epistemological questions. From the philosophical point of view, the potential for implementing the knowledge generated by these scientific disciplines provides an interface between the theoretical and epistemological perspectives of the philosophy of science on the one hand and anthropology with the practical perspective of ethics on the other.


Achievements and practical applications in biotechnology and biomedicine increased the significance of biology and other life sciences during the last decades. Concomitantly, these disciplines are being given correspondingly greater exposure within the debates of the philosophy of science. Due to this tendency, the philosophy of biology became established as an important epistemological subdiscipline. Hitherto, the classical theory of science had been largely devoted to physics and its methods; biology tended to be regarded merely as an adjunct thereto that was subject to the same laws and that could, in principle, be dealt with using similar procedures and techniques. As its overall relevance increased, so did that of the attendant philosophical issues.

The predominant philosophical questions that demanded specific attention within this context were related to the concepts of life and organism, the mechanisms of the evolution of species and habitats, and also the close links of biology to medicine – and therefore to human nature. At the same time, doubts were being raised as to whether wholesale adoption of the explanatory models current in physics was feasible for the discipline of biology. Then, the large-scale interconnection of methods, disciplines, and applications during the 1990s, especially within the scope of cell biology, molecular biology, and the neurosciences, gave rise to the need to coin an umbrella term: the life sciences. From the philosophical point of view, the potential for implementing the knowledge generated by these scientific disciplines provides an interface between the theoretical perspectives of the philosophy of science on the one hand and anthropology with the practical perspective of ethics on the other. Thus, in the ethical evaluation of abortion, human stem cell research, euthanasia, or the areas of biodiversity or synthetic biology, arguments on status play a significant role, and these cannot be addressed without thorough scientific understanding of the physiology and the development of an organism. As these practical issues become more pressing, so does the immediate relevance of a philosophy of life sciences (Ruse 2007).

The main contribution that a philosophy of life sciences can make concerns, essentially, the clarification of how terms are to be used and what criteria are to be used in the assessment of scientific findings and data, as well as considerations on their ontological preconditions (which tend, in the life sciences, to be taken intuitively for granted). Thus, the main focus is concentrated on ways of reflection on explanatory theories within the life sciences.

Concepts And Methods

A modern philosophy of life sciences differs in a number of ways from the original philosophy of biology. The latter was concerned mainly with the status of the evolution of organisms, the origin of species, and the associated terminology, as well as with the question as to how Mendelian inheritance and molecular genetics interrelate. The current philosophy of life sciences is based on this very classical, natural, and historical approach and its findings. However, the main thrust has shifted considerably both from the theoretical, conceptual point of view and in a practical sense.

More emphasis is laid on the demarcation between biology and the life sciences on the one hand and physics or chemistry on the other. The question is raised explicitly as to whether the classical concepts used in the theory of science – such as causality, explanation, representation, model, or simulation – need to be reviewed in the context of the life sciences. The fact that biological nature actually consists of individual organisms that cannot be exhaustively examined under standardized laboratory conditions plays a major role here. Further, description of the behavior of highly developed organisms requires more advanced modes of explication than can be delivered by the gamut of physical theories insofar as they refer to standardized, ideal situations. This notwithstanding the fact that biological investigation, too, must be standardized and abstracted as well in order to arrive at reproducible results. Nevertheless, there is a need for knowledge gathering procedures that can adequately take account of the conditions actually prevailing in nature. In view of the fact that all experimental interventions in nature necessarily change that nature, they cannot but be imbued with inherent methodological inconsistencies (Rosenberg 1985).

Beyond this, the recent proliferation of disciplines in biology and medicine plays a decisive role for a philosophy of life sciences from the point of view of promoting theoretical reflection on the epistemological fundamentals of the life sciences. This proliferation has been brought about by increasing specialization, more interdisciplinary cooperation across faculty boundaries, and not least through closer ties between research and application in, for instance, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and synthetic biology. As a result, the philosophy of life sciences is now no longer confined to the consideration of evolution and genetics, but also to research areas such as the neurosciences, psychiatry, ecology, and synthetic biology. In this respect, the practical aspect especially plays a prominent epistemological role. It is even becoming difficult to decide where the dividing line between basic and applied research is to be drawn. Therefore, the practical conditions surrounding, for instance, field research and clinical research in their relationship to laboratory work are of great relevance from the epistemological point of view. This entails clarification of the relationship between the technical part and the natural part of life science research.

This is precisely what is now at the focus of the epistemological investigation of the new research area of synthetic biology in which hybrid entities that display characteristics of both technical machines and living organisms are created through a combination of biological and engineering techniques. The specific challenge is to find models of interpretation to explain the specific status of entities between living beings and nonliving beings (Gramelsberger et al. 2013).

Finally, the digital revolution of recent years has given rise to new challenges in methodology and hence for the theoretical status of the life sciences. Increasingly, processes are simulated using computer models; huge amounts of data are being generated and stored for which no suitable interpretative models are available yet. Dealing with biobanks and bio databases constitutes its own epistemological issue.

Historical Developments

The central questions concerning a philosophy of life sciences such as the inquiry into the nature of living beings and their epistemological status, as well as how they develop, go back at least as far as the writings of Aristotle. He described the principles of what constitutes life that distinguishes it from artifacts and nonliving nature. His attention was directed toward the phenomenon by which organisms strive to achieve ends and to develop and toward the regulatory function of the soul (psyche).

These phenomena are associated with capacities such as metabolism, reproduction, and regeneration. Further, an organism can be considered as an entity that maintains and develops itself along a continuum of generations. It evolves the intrinsic capacity of self-generation and pursues its biological function according to species-related laws (teleology). An artifact is incapable of regenerating itself out of itself. It is generated and repaired through the actions of an external agent. In medieval science and philosophy, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas continued this pursuit of the principles of “the living.” Some aspects of such definitions can still be found in modern theories of self-organization, i.e., autopoiesis. However, the modern age ushered in through the work of Francis Bacon and René Descartes, for instance, brought with it a shift toward the investigation of mechanical principles, and with this, man’s urge to obtain sway over organic nature and its principles gathered new momentum. With the focus now placed on the mechanical, the view gained ground that organisms could be regarded as being nothing more than complex machines. This would remove the fundamental distinction between living beings and technical artifacts. In contrast, vitalists like Jan Baptist van Helmont assumed a special energy (vis vitalis) that exists within all organisms. In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant addressed teleology in a new way. He did not adopt Aristotle’s metaphysical approach toward obtaining teleological explanations; rather, he described them as regulative concepts to understand the subjects of biology. Living organisms acquire a certain status in comparison with the straightforward subjects of physics, but without needing to rely on a metaphysical teleology of nature (Laubichler and Wagner 2000).

The basic Aristotelian idea of self-organization persists in modern theories of the living beings as autopoietic systems (Maturana and Varela 1980). These, however, dispense with the immediate teleological and essentialist aspects of the Aristotelian interpretation, replacing them with teleonomic interpretations. As such, their proponents refer to the automotive and self-referencing character of what is alive in order to distinguish themselves from the techno morphological traditions of Cartesian substance dualism and materialist monism. Although modern theories of autopoiesis start with simple regulatory mechanisms reminiscent of art factual systems, they stress the aspects of self-preservation and self-generation common to living systems. Living systems are the product of their own organization; in contrast to artifacts, there is no separation between the producer and the product. Artifacts serve the ends accorded to them by their manufacturers and users. The being and the actions of autopoietic systems are inseparable. Such self-preferentiality accords to the inward perspective of that which is alive momenta of a “self” (Greek, autos) with the basal characteristics of a subject, without an organism necessarily having to have a consciousness of that self in any sophisticated sense (Matthews 1995).

The discussions current in the philosophy of life sciences continue to be determined by the question as to which peculiarities may pertain to the life sciences and biological perspectives in contrast to those of physics. For instance, it devotes particular attention to understanding the way a genome functions and expresses itself, as well as the interpretation of the results obtained in the neurosciences. From the philosophical point of view, the predominant issues concern the differences of opinion as to whether the explanations supplied by the science of physics can suffice for the science of biology. At their core, the debates revolve around naturalist or physicalist interpretations of what is life on the one hand and rather hermeneutic or holistic interpretations on the other. The questions associated with this also crop up repeatedly within more specific aspects of the philosophy of life sciences.

Specification Of The Concepts

Functions And Systems

To understand organisms means to grasp the characteristics of complex systems. Such characteristics cannot be derived simply from those of the individual components of the systems. Many maintain that organisms give rise to emergent characteristics, i.e., ones that are the reserve of the higher level of the system. At the same time, these characteristics depend on the state of the system and cannot change without the system changing. Such a characteristic is referred to as supervening. In many cases, the concept of the function is introduced in order to facilitate the understanding of a system’s hierarchy of characteristics and their interrelationships.

The individual links of a causal chain may be identified. These single units may be regarded as representing the purpose of the next unit. Then, any part or characteristic of a complex system that contributes to a functioning system can be regarded as constituting a means to the achievements of the system. Given those units as being means to achieving an end, one assigns functions to them. Such a functional description is beyond question when it is associated with artificial systems. For instance, a hammer consists of parts that are put together for a given purpose, upon which the hammer has a corresponding function. Yet, functions are also assigned to natural objects and in particular to living organisms and their parts, for instance, the function of the heart, the courtship song of a bird, or a nucleic acid sequence of a gene. The end to which they are considered to be the means is generally tacitly taken to be survival, fitness, or reproductive success, whereas for artifacts, it is the intention behind their manufacture and usage. However, this argument is not valid for organisms, and therefore functional explanations are subject to specific difficulties in respect of their substantiation. Thus, organs or characteristics may, for instance, have several functions. In many cases, a certain normative element is part of the model, and this implies that an organism may also be subject to dysfunction. Distinctions are made between various kinds of function, i.e., design functions, use functions, and service functions. This normativity is also subject to corresponding difficulties of substantiation.

From the epistemological point of view, a distinction must be made between those descriptive and prescriptive questions. It is frequently maintained that there is no such thing as function in any absolute or natural sense, but only with reference to a certain aspect of system performance that was previously selected. This means that functions are tied to the investigative interests of the researcher, for both the capacity to pump blood and the fact that it generates sounds are characteristics of a heart, but one would not list the latter as a being one of its functions. Rather, the benefit of having blood circulate throughout an organism connects the function of the heart with that of the organism’s life.

The discussion illustrates that the concept of function is not only to explain what something that functions actually does, but why that function is extant. In the philosophy of biology, this has always led to difficult considerations that tend to be controversial (McLaughlin 2001).

Organisms And Life

The particular feature of living beings, their organic structure, is a central subject of the theories and models current in the philosophy of life sciences. Nevertheless, concepts like organism, living system, and living being are not used synonymously. Although their frame of reference might be the same, their meanings differ. The concept of a “living being” refers especially to an individual being. We ascribe certain capacities and activities to such an individual, whereas we generally reserve the term “organism” for a group of entities that share a specific set of structural characteristics. This is also the area in which the term “living system” can be applied. “Living system” describes a network of processes contributing toward the generation of the components of an organism as well as the manner in which they interact. One living system may be distinguished from another on the basis of its genealogy and processuality. The core premise of biology is that life phenomena exist and may be subjected to observation and study. It is based on a prior constitution of its subject. Therefore, a biological description of living beings as organisms or living systems sheds light only on individual aspects of their nature. The science of biology can only supply partial interpretations of the terms “life” and “organism” and only to some extent explain what it entails to be alive. This theoretical contribution is essentially provided by the philosophy of biology, whereby that discipline is now facing new challenges on account of the advances being made in synthetic biology.

Some of the actual or expected results of research in synthetic biology put the traditionally held distinctions between living systems and subjects on the one hand and artifacts and objects on the other hand into question, for entities are being produced that do not grow from “within” or engender themselves, but are primarily produced through technological means, and entirely on the basis of what their constructors intend. Albeit this distinction has long since been made less distinct through the agency of conventional animal and plant breeding, here, too, man “produces” and “makes” organisms according to his own functional requirements. On the basis of the natural and specific functional characteristics of an organism that have developed through the process of evolution, new features are derived according to the researcher’s will. Nevertheless, the original form supplied by nature and its autopoietic characteristics remain manifest. In a further step, gene transfer by means of genetic engineering techniques (including interspecies transfer) has considerably accelerated this process, allowing man to manipulate organisms to suit his ends to an even greater extent. Examples of this can be seen in bacteria that produce human insulin and crop plants that have been rendered resistant to pesticides through the incorporation of extraneous genes. Whereas traditional breeding techniques can only promote or suppress the genetic dispositions that are already present in a given species, genetic engineering allows for the transmission of a genetic disposition that originates in another species. Synthetic biological techniques, in which the emphasis is placed rather on the systematic conditions of the cell and the organism than on the purely genetic functional interrelationships, not only enable the confectioning and recombination of new DNA fragments: They are beginning to dismantle the barriers that have existed to date between the living world of organisms and the artificial world of the artifacts. As a result, these techniques lead to one of two conditions: Either an organism or part of an organism (such as tissue or a cell) becomes more artifactual, so that its core characteristic shifts noticeably from the autopoietic toward the poietic, or conversely the autopoietic characteristics of an organism are utilized in those parts of it that are integrated into an artifact (Schark 2012).

Genetic Knowledge And Predictions

In the interpretation of biological knowledge, the part played by genetic data and genetic knowledge has acquired a special status in recent years, for such data not only provides insights into the structure and origin of an organism, it can also be used to make probabilistic predictions regarding one’s future development. A comprehensive understanding of the implications for man and his social surroundings contained within the full body of genetic knowledge that is being gathered in the various disciplines cannot be obtained merely from an interpretation of DNA sequences with respect to purely biological, functional interrelationships. Thus, if one interprets genes or nucleotide sequences not just on the basis of their chemical composition but also in respect of their overall functionality, of their potential regarding a certain form of life, such an interpretation is subject to certain premises that are set by the interpretive framework of the functional units. Only when these conditions are taken into account it does make any sense to use terms such as “mutation,” “variation,” “standard genome,” “code for something,” and then “fitness,” “dysfunction,” or indeed “disease.” A functional description can only be carried out within the purview of a previously assigned value system, i.e., ends, teleological assumptions, or other functions. In a language based discussion, the conceptualizations of genome researchers will come up against those of others – of patients, of consumers, of conservationists, for instance – that may have originated in completely different ways, by means of different institutions and rituals. Therefore, there is no guarantee that common ground for successful practical implementation can be found.

If significant hermeneutical framework conditions for the conceptualization of knowledge gained through genome research depend on the way knowledge is transformed from the scientific sphere to the realm of everyday life, then the question as to how this type of knowledge can be integrated into a life plan is of critical importance. The interpretation of genetic knowledge may lead to misunderstandings where a scientifically trained doctor or researcher attempts communication with a patient or test person who only has recourse to “normal” everyday experience. This is not only of importance in diagnostic genetic counseling but also in the context of counseling connected with human genome research, where the aim is to obtain informed consent and the possibility of incidental or secondary findings needs to be discussed. Exact, clinical assertions issued by theoretical science are far removed from the case-by-case findings that must be supplied in the world of actual clinical practice (Kay 2000; Lanzerath 2014).

Neuroscience And Neurophilosophy

In the neurosciences especially, the questions relating to epistemological, practical, and ethical dealings with the results that are obtained play a very important role. A key issue in experimental studies in the neurosciences concerns the question as to how the structure and function of the brain as a “neuronal object” can be investigated via the third-person perspective in view of the fact that it simultaneously provides the biological substrate on which the human first-person perspective and self-awareness are rooted. Therefore, the brain is also placed into a context with a “mental subject.” From the philosophical point of view, the questions as to “What?” (i.e., the ontological status of the brain as a neuronal object and a mental subject) and as to “Why?” (i.e., its epistemological makeup or design) predominate. Interventions in the brain can lead to altered states of consciousness, to a changed personal identity (the “I” of a person), to changes in a person’s perception of his or her body, and the first-person and third-person perspectives (for instance, by means of psych pharmaceuticals or deep brain stimulation). Correspondingly, a neurophilosophical study of these factors presupposes a discussion of the ontological state and the epistemological design of the brain, and it provides a basic starting point for more advanced neurophilosophical studies of higher cognitive (e.g., autobiographical recollection) and mental (e.g., consciousness) states.

In addition to the study of the brain, neurophilosophy deals with anthropological subjects such as consciousness, perception, behavior, personal identity, “I”, the body, free will, and action. Going beyond the anthropological issues, it also investigates epistemological problems, neuropsychological functions (such as the capacity to memorize and the development of dementia), neuropsychiatric diseases, and neuroethical questions (such as brain tissue transplantation and brain pacemakers). The “explicit” neuroscientific study of the associated issues of this interdisciplinary complex necessarily goes hand in hand with “implicit” philosophical assumptions, just as philosophical theories are connected with implicit neuroscientific presuppositions concerning the way the brain functions. The interpretation of data from studies involving imaging techniques always gives rise to questions regarding its epistemological validity. It is a challenge to adequately describe the correlations between thoughts, sensations, or perceptions on the phenomenological level and neural events on the physiological level. The difficulty in establishing such correlations in both directions can, to some extent, be attributed to the complexity of the events being studied and the high degree of sophistication that the necessary models and experiments require. However, there are also problems of a more fundamental nature: As objects of study, subjective experience and perceived self-awareness probably exceed the capacity of conventional representational models (Bickle 2009).

Species, Natural Kinds, And Biodiversity

The ability to distinguish between natural objects is an elementary precondition for the operationalization of the way we deal with nature both in research and in everyday life. In the field of life sciences, this means not only distinguishing between what is living and what is not, but also between different living units. For the purpose of categorizing living beings into species, classification principles have been developed whose origins go back to ancient times. One of the main foci of the theory of biology can be seen in the evaluation of these principles. The question as to which criteria for the determination of and differentiation between species may be relevant (such as common ancestry, genetic similarities, type specimens, and so forth) is the subject of controversial debate. Another important field of study in theoretical biology revolves around the question as to what kind of object a species is: abstract or concrete? Are species classes of the same organisms (natural kinds) or of actual individuals (concrete entities)? It also remains to be clarified as to whether there is just one actual order of living things or several natural ordering types (evolutional, ecological, genetic, etc.) or whether they are simply given on the basis of life experience and biological research practice. What is the status of taxonomy in this respect? Or could it be that the classification is nothing more than a practical system for biological research and our everyday lives and the idea of a natural order of organisms no more than an illusion (Gutmann et al. 1998; LaPorte 2004; Bird and Tobin 2012)?

These questions are highly relevant from the bioethical point of view where human nature and the nature of animals and plants are compared, for the question arises in ethical issues as to whether different treatments of the respective life forms can be justified on the basis of their differing natures and whether human rights or animal rights can be accorded to certain “natures.”

The problems surrounding classification extend to the question of diversity in nature. In the discussion within the life sciences, diversity is regarded as being a property of living beings or entities formed by them, whereby the specific determination is to be made in accordance with the respective level of organization involved. The levels range from cell organelles to cells, to organisms, and finally to whole communities of organisms (such as ant colonies), for which the term “superorganism” appears fitting. For the determination of diversity, this then yields various possible measures, either within an organization’s form itself or referring to biodiversity, habitat diversity, and ecological diversity.

In the philosophical consideration of research in the area of the natural environment and biodiversity, it rapidly becomes clear how closely natural philosophical and ethical questions are linked. The frequency with which the term “biodiversity” is used in current debate on the ethics of nature and the environment suggests that a clearly defined empirical and practical notion of biodiversity exists within the fields of biology and ethics and in society, one that not only describes what it is but also has something to convey about its value. However, closer examination reveals that not only the questions as to how biodiversity is to be understood on a practical level and what criteria and principles are available for its evaluation are often unclear, but also that the term is used in different ways in various scientific disciplines (diversity of genes, species, habitats, crops, etc.). And not only is the evaluation of biodiversity performed in different ways within the scientific and academic disciplines, but such evaluations also differ from the interpretation of biodiversity in society, politics, and the media.

Clearly, the concept of biodiversity has referred both to scientific facts and to normative demands in the form of values for environmental and nature protection politics since it was first introduced. Correspondingly, the term is becoming an “epistemological and moral hybrid,” creating a close link between the philosophy of life sciences and bioethics (Lanzerath and Friele 2014).


The theoretical aspects of the philosophy of life sciences are related to essential ethical questions. Treatment of the entities produced by synthetic biology and also the issue of justifying research on human embryos do often depend on ontological and epistemological clarifications. The interconnections between physical and mathematical data and our understanding of organisms are also always tantamount to a very fundamental questioning of our treatment of organisms and data concerning them. In addition, the debate about the protection of biodiversity and its constituents shows clearly how closely ethical and epistemological issues are bound up with each other. The epistemological evaluation of the techniques, findings, and data arising in genetics and the neurosciences fulfills a special function at the interface. It is of essential relevance concerning the interdependencies of the human person and the human organism. In the interpretation of genetic knowledge or neuroscientific knowledge, the central points are not merely a measure of disease from a medical scientific point of view or a physical or cognitive capacity, but rather aspects of life planning, inclusion in or exclusion from social security frameworks, and so forth up to and including societal mechanisms of stigmatization. For this reason, epistemological and moral perspectives on the life sciences complement each other in the contemplation of research practice and the “practice of life”.

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