Causality, randomness, intelligibility, and the epistemology of the cell

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Type: Journal Publication


Abstract: Because the basic unit of biology is the cell, biological knowledge is rooted in the epistemology of the cell, and because life is the salient characteristic of the cell, its epistemology must be centered on its livingness, not its constituent components. The organization and regulation of these components in the pursuit of life constitute the fundamental nature of the cell. Thus, regulation sits at the heart of biological knowledge of the cell and the extraordinary complexity of this regulation conditions the kind of knowledge that can be obtained, in particular, the representation and intelligibility of that knowledge. This paper is essentially split into two parts. The first part discusses the inadequacy of everyday intelligibility and intuition in science and the consequent need for scientific theories to be expressed mathematically without appeal to commonsense categories of understanding, such as causality. Having set the backdrop, the second part addresses biological knowledge. It briefly reviews modern scientific epistemology from a general perspective and then turns to the epistemology of the cell. In analogy with a multi-faceted factory, the cell utilizes a highly parallel distributed control system to maintain its organization and regulate its dynamical operation in the face of both internal and external changes. Hence, scientific knowledge is constituted by the mathematics of stochastic dynamical systems, which model the overall relational structure of the cell and how these structures evolve over time, stochasticity being a consequence of the need to ignore a large number of factors while modeling relatively few in an extremely complex environment.

Cited as: Dougherty ER, Bittner ML., "Causality, randomness, intelligibility, and the epistemology of the cell", Curr Genomics. 2010 Jun;11(4):221-37

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