The Explanatory Role of Machine Learning in Molecular Biology

Erkenntnis:1-21 (forthcoming)
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The philosophical debate around the impact of machine learning in science is often framed in terms of a choice between AI and classical methods as mutually exclusive alternatives involving difficult epistemological trade-offs. A common worry regarding machine learning methods specifically is that they lead to opaque models that make predictions but do not lead to explanation or understanding. Focusing on the field of molecular biology, I argue that in practice machine learning is often used with explanatory aims. More specifically, I argue that machine learning can be tightly integrated with other, more traditional, research methods and in a clear sense can contribute to insight into the causal processes underlying phenomena of interest to biologists. One could even say that machine learning is not the end of theory in important areas of biology, as has been argued, but rather a new beginning. I support these claims with a detailed discussion of a case study involving gene regulation by microRNAs.

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Fridolin Gross
Université de Bordeaux

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References found in this work

Thinking about mechanisms.Peter Machamer, Lindley Darden & Carl F. Craver - 2000 - Philosophy of Science 67 (1):1-25.
Understanding from Machine Learning Models.Emily Sullivan - 2022 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 73 (1):109-133.
Transparency in Complex Computational Systems.Kathleen A. Creel - 2020 - Philosophy of Science 87 (4):568-589.
What Makes a Scientific Explanation Distinctively Mathematical?Marc Lange - 2013 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64 (3):485-511.

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