Philosophy vs. Biology? (was Re: The real role of the immune system)

Ken Frauwirth BioKen frauwirt at notmendel.Berkeley.EDU
Mon May 15 21:28:49 EST 1995

In article <3p8uso$bhp at>,
Christopher Thoburn  <cthoburn at> wrote:
>In <3oumuk$4ff at> frauwirt at notmendel.Berkeley.EDU 
>(Ken Frauwirth (BioKen) writes: 
>>An interesting rejoinder, when you state "I don't believe that the
>immune system 'uses' any principles... I think that perhaps it simply
>exists, time passes, and things are different than they were before." 
>That is (to me) a very un-Scientific approach.  Biology is a very
>deterministic science - >everything has a molecular mechanism.  Things
>don't "just happen", but there is some logic: stimulus/response.  If
>the immune system simply "changes" with no rhyme or reason, than to
>study it is an exercise in futility.
>Well, here I think I must disagree with you.  One way of looking at
>biology is deterministic, but it is not the only way.  Things do indeed
>'just happen' (unless you chose to mix science with religion...). 

By saying that things do not 'just happen', I meant that biological (indeed,
all) systems obey rules that several thousand years of science have tried to 
approximate.  "Why" those rules exist, at the most basic level, is a problem 
for Philosophy (i.e. Why do like charges repel, why does entropy increase),
but it is very clear that rules *do* exist.  And while it is very difficult
to directly apply calculations of quantum physics to problems in biology, that
does not mean that the rules described by those calculations do not apply.
I agree that a strictly reductionist approach does not always give an
accurate view of the world, but it is the approach for which Science is best
suited, at least for initial experiments.  The systems studied by scientists
are far too complex to approach without reducing the nunber of variables
involved.  An idea of how the pieces work separately is the first step to 
understanding how a system works, but I agree that it is important to put the 
pieces back together and study how the interactions between pieces change 

>did not mean to imply that a system changes without 'rhyme or reason'
>but rather that it changes (acting/acted upon> by possibilitys in what
>can happen.

Perhaps I am being completely dense, but I really do not understand what this
statement means.  Are you saying that the immune system acts by probabilities,
and that over time the probabilities of various responses changes?  If so,
there must still be a consistent mechanism by which those changes are induced.
I am not arguing that biological systems respond in absolutes, only that
Science still attempts to make predictions about those responses.  A truly
unpredictable system cannot be studied by the Scientific Method.

>>> 'What' and 'How' are merely observation...'Why' is philospohy. 
>>That is exactly my point - it is not Science.  Science can only answer
>"what" and "how" ("How did the immune system evolve" is not the same
>connotation as "Why did the immune system evolve").  I love to discuss
>philosophy, but please do not disguise it as science.
>>As I stated above, I find it difficult to reconcile these views with a
>>Scientific approach.  The study of biology (or any science) has the
>underlying assumption that life (or physical) processes follow rules,
>and that we can work out at least some approximation of those rules,
>and that we can then apply those rules to predict phenomena.  While I
>realize that chaos theoy and particle physics have a degree of
>"unpredictability" to them, people who study those fields realize that
>the question of "Where exactly is the "electron" is not worth pursuing.
>If there is no consistent mechanism by which the immune system is
>induced to change (i.e things "just happen"), then its 
>>study *is* "worthless", at least to Biology (with a capital B).
>I think that perhaps you have confused science with technology. 
>Science is a philosophy (or a way of thinking).  It has no concern in
>the practicality, marketability, or worth of its acomplishments. 
>Technology however, is the practical use of laws, rules, widgets and so
>forth.  A true scientist would never even consider when to stop asking
>a question, or how far one should delve into the quest for knowledge,
>in much the same way a true technician would never stop to consider a
>theory without an obvious practical value.  Neither is better or worse
>than the other, they are just different.  Indeed there are very few who
>are merely one of the other. Science seeks to answer 'why' by guiding
>technology that answers 'what' and 'how'.
>                               Chris Thoburn

Here I must disagree with you - I am fully aware of the difference between
"science" and "technology".  Tehcnology is only concerned with the practical
and marketable, while science is more encompassing.  But that does not make
science an all-inclusive "philosophy" either.  Science is a method by which
we can (hopefully) learn more about the universe in which we live.  The 
Scientific Method has four steps:

1) Observe
2) Hypothesize
3) Test hypothesis
4) Correct hypothesis

with steps 3) and 4) repeated indefinitely.

The difference between Science and Philosophy is in these last 2 steps - 
Science requires that one be able to test a hypothesis, and to be able to
disprove it.  If that is not (at least theoretically) possible, then the 
hypothesis has no place in the Scientific Method.  Philosophy has no such 
requirement - in fact, Philosophy is best applied to concepts which cannot be 
disproved - the existence of the supernatural, ethical considerations, and 
questions of "why".  I disagree with your last statement; Science seeks to
answer "what" and "how" by using technology, which can be improved by 
knowing more "what's" and "how's".  That is, Science uses "what" and "how" 
to learn more "what" and "how", while technology uses "what" and "how" to 
solve practical problems. 

I think perhaps the center of our disagreement is in the way that we define
"why?"  In my mind, this is different from the definition of "how?"  If you
do not find a difference in the questions "What is the reason that something
happens" and "What is the mechanism by which something happens", then we are
discussing different things.

Ken Frauwirth (MiSTie #33025)       _           _
frauwirt at       |_) *    |/ (_ |\ |
Dept. of Molec. & Cell Bio.        |_) | () |\ (_ | \|  
Univ. of Cal., Berkeley      "Yes, we have second bananas" - Torgo the White

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