Shifting to structures in physics and biology: A prophylactic for promiscuous realism

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2):164-173 (2011)
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Within the philosophy of science, the realism debate has been revitalised by the development of forms of structural realism. These urge a shift in focus from the object oriented ontologies that come and go through the history of science to the structures that remain through theory change. Such views have typically been elaborated in the context of theories of physics and are motivated by, first of all, the presence within such theories of mathematical equations that allow straightforward representation of the relevant structures; and secondly, the implications of such theories for the individuality and identity of putative objects. My aim in this talk is to explore the possibility of extending such views to biological theories. An obvious concern is that within the context of the latter it is typically insisted that we cannot find the kinds of highly mathematised structures that structural realism can point to in physics. I shall indicate how the model-theoretic approach to theories might help allay such concerns. Furthermore, issues of identity and individuality also arise within biology. Thus Dupre has recently noted that there exists a ‘General Problem of Biological Individuality’ which relates to the issue of how one divides ‘massively integrated and interconnected’ systems into discrete components. In response Dupre advocates a form of ‘Promiscuous Realism’ that holds, for example, that there is no unique way of dividing the phylogenetic tree into kinds. Instead I shall urge serious consideration of those aspects of the work of Dupre and others that lean towards a structuralist interpretation. By doing so I hope to suggest possible ways in which a structuralist stance might be extended to biology



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Steven French
University of Leeds

References found in this work

What is structural realism?James Ladyman - 1998 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 29 (3):409-424.

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