Molecules, Cells and Minds: Aspects of Bioscientific Explanation

Dissertation, University of Exeter (2009)
In this thesis I examine a number of topics that bear on explanation and understanding in molecular and cell biology, in order to shed new light on explanatory practice in those areas and to find novel angles from which to approach relevant philosophical debates. The topics I look at include mechanism, emergence, cellular complexity, and the informational role of the genome. I develop a perspective that stresses the intimacy of the relations between ontology and epistemology. Whether a phenomenon looks mechanistic, or complex, or indeed emergent, is largely an epistemic matter, yet has an objective basis in features of the world. After reviewing several concepts of mechanism I consider the influential recent account of Machamer, Darden and Craver (MDC). That account makes interesting proposals concerning the relationship between mechanistic explanation and intelligibility, which are consistent with the results of the investigation I undertake into the science surrounding protein folding. In relation to a number of other issues pertaining to biological systems I conclude that the MDC account is insufficiently nuanced, however, leading me to outline an alternative approach to mechanism. This emphasizes the importance of structure—function relations and addresses issues raised by reflection on the nature of cellular complexity. These include the distinction between structure and process and the different possible bases on which system organization may be maintained. The account I give of emergence construes the phenomenon in terms of psychological deficit: phenomena are emergent when we lack the capacity to trace through and model their causal structures using our cognitive schemas. I conclude by developing these ideas into a preliminary and partial account of explanation and understanding. This aspires to cover the significant fraction of work in molecular and cell biology that correlates biological structures, processes and functions by visualizing phenomena and making them imaginable.
Keywords molecular biology  cell biology  explanation  understanding  mechanism  complexity  emergence  function  information  cognitive psychology
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