Phronesis and Automated Science: The Case of Machine Learning and Biology

In Marta Bertolaso & Fabio Sterpetti (eds.), A Critical Reflection on Automated Science: Will Science Remain Human? Cham: Springer (2020)
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The applications of machine learning and deep learning to the natural sciences has fostered the idea that the automated nature of algorithmic analysis will gradually dispense human beings from scientific work. In this paper, I will show that this view is problematic, at least when ML is applied to biology. In particular, I will claim that ML is not independent of human beings and cannot form the basis of automated science. Computer scientists conceive their work as being a case of Aristotle’s poiesis perfected by techne, which can be reduced to a number of straightforward rules and technical knowledge. I will show a number of concrete cases where at each level of computational analysis, more is required to ML than just poiesis and techne, and that the work of ML practitioners in biology needs also the cultivation of something analogous to phronesis, which cannot be automated. But even if we knew how to frame phronesis into rules, still this virtue is deeply entrenched in our biological constitution, which computers lack. Whether computers can fully perform scientific practice independently of humans is an ill-posed question.



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