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What biology could learn from physics

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But can’t, for psychological reasons. First, why the divorce? From Philip Ball at Nautilus:

[Ernst] Mayr made perhaps the most concerted attempt by any biologist to draw clear disciplinary boundaries around his subject, smartly isolating it from other fields of science. In doing so, he supplies one of the clearest demonstrations of the folly of that endeavor.

His characterization of physics as rigid, notes Ball, was “thoroughly flawed, as a passing familiarity with quantum theory, chaos, and complexity would reveal.”

Of course, that defect deepens the mystery of why his view dominated, largely unchallenged. Most people with even a passing interest in science are aware of quantum effects.

Again, from Ball,

But Mayr’s argument gets more interesting—if not actually more valid—when he claims that what makes biology truly unique is that it is concerned with purpose: with the designs ingeniously forged by blind mutation and selection during evolution. Particles bumping into one another on their random walks don’t have to do anything. But the genetic networks and protein molecules and complex architectures of cells are shaped by the exigencies of survival: they have a kind of goal. And physics doesn’t deal with goals, right? As Massimo Pigliucci of City University of New York, an evolutionary biologist turned philosopher, recently stated, “It makes no sense to ask what is the purpose or goal of an electron, a molecule, a planet or a mountain.”

Purpose or teleology are difficult words in biology: They all too readily suggest a deterministic goal for evolution’s “blind watchmaker,” and lend themselves to creationist abuse. But there’s no escaping the compunction to talk about function in biology: Its components and structures play a role in the survival of the organism and the propagation of genes. More.

If people are still worried about protecting their positions from “creationist abuse,” they are not yet focused enough on the problem and posible answrs from nature to get anywhere anytime soon. It won;t help matters that, these days, it’s hardly even clear what a creationist is.

A friend writes to comment that Philip Ball is an excellent science writer, well worth reading, and that this article is really about how biology needs design. But, friend thinks, “He isn’t allowed to use the word. So he calls it ‘physics.’”

Well, there is plenty of ferment in the air, what with the new rethinking evolution scene, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if cautious people start talking in code.

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2 Replies to “What biology could learn from physics

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Actually both physicists and biologists unavoidably sneak purpose/teleology into the language of their disciplines:

    “to say that a stone falls to earth because it’s obeying a law, makes it a man and even a citizen”
    – CS Lewis

    “In the whole history of the universe the laws of nature have never produced, (i.e. caused), a single event.”
    C.S. Lewis – doodle video

    A Professor’s Journey out of Nihilism: Why I am not an Atheist – University of Wyoming – J. Budziszewski
    Excerpt page12: “There were two great holes in the argument about the irrelevance of God. The first is that in order to attack free will, I supposed that I understood cause and effect; I supposed causation to be less mysterious than volition.
    If anything, it is the other way around. I can perceive a logical connection between premises and valid conclusions. I can perceive at least a rational connection between my willing to do something and my doing it. But between the apple and the earth, I can perceive no connection at all. Why does the apple fall? We don’t know. “But there is gravity,” you say. No, “gravity” is merely the name of the phenomenon, not its explanation. “But there are laws of gravity,” you say. No, the “laws” are not its explanation either; they are merely a more precise description of the thing to be explained, which remains as mysterious as before. For just this reason, philosophers of science are shy of the term “laws”; they prefer “lawlike regularities.” To call the equations of gravity “laws” and speak of the apple as “obeying” them is to speak as though, like the traffic laws, the “laws” of gravity are addressed to rational agents capable of conforming their wills to the command. This is cheating, because it makes mechanical causality (the more opaque of the two phenomena) seem like volition (the less). In my own way of thinking the cheating was even graver, because I attacked the less opaque in the name of the more.
    The other hole in my reasoning was cruder. If my imprisonment in a blind causality made my reasoning so unreliable that I couldn’t trust my beliefs, then by the same token I shouldn’t have trusted my beliefs about imprisonment in a blind causality. But in that case I had no business denying free will in the first place.”

    Denying the Signature: Functional Information Is the Fact to Be Explained – Stephen C. Meyer – November 19, 2015
    Excerpt: historian of biology Timothy Lenoir observes, “Teleological thinking has been steadfastly resisted by modern biology. And yet in nearly every area of research, biologists are hard pressed to find language that does not impute purposiveness to living forms .”2

    The ‘Mental Cell’: Let’s Loosen Up Biological Thinking! – Stephen L. Talbott – September 9, 2014
    Excerpt: Many biologists are content to dismiss the problem with hand-waving: “When we wield the language of agency, we are speaking metaphorically, and we could just as well, if less conveniently, abandon the metaphors”.
    Yet no scientist or philosopher has shown how this shift of language could be effected. And the fact of the matter is just obvious: the biologist who is not investigating how the organism achieves something in a well-directed way is not yet doing biology,
    as opposed to physics or chemistry. Is this in turn just hand-waving? Let the reader inclined to think so take up a challenge: pose a single topic for biological research, doing so in language that avoids all implication of agency, cognition, and purposiveness1.
    One reason this cannot be done is clear enough: molecular biology — the discipline that was finally going to reduce life unreservedly to mindless mechanism — is now posing its own severe challenges. In this era of Big Data, the message from every side concerns previously unimagined complexity, incessant cross-talk and intertwining pathways, wildly unexpected genomic performances, dynamic conformational changes involving proteins and their cooperative or antagonistic binding partners, pervasive multifunctionality, intricately directed behavior somehow arising from the interaction of countless players in interpenetrating networks, and opposite effects by the same molecules in slightly different contexts. The picture at the molecular level begins to look as lively and organic — and thoughtful — as life itself.

    Life, Purpose, Mind: Where the Machine Metaphor Fails – Ann Gauger – June 2011
    Excerpt: I’m a working biologist, on bacterial regulation (transcription and translation and protein stability) through signalling molecules, ,,, I can confirm the following points as realities: we lack adequate conceptual categories for what we are seeing in the biological world; with many additional genomes sequenced annually, we have much more data than we know what to do with (and making sense of it has become the current challenge); cells are staggeringly chock full of sophisticated technologies, which are exquisitely integrated; life is not dominated by a single technology, but rather a composite of many; and yet life is more than the sum of its parts; in our work, we biologists use words that imply intentionality, functionality, strategy, and design in biology–we simply cannot avoid them.
    Furthermore, I suggest that to maintain that all of biology is solely a product of selection and genetic decay and time requires a metaphysical conviction that isn’t troubled by the evidence. Alternatively, it could be the view of someone who is unfamiliar with the evidence, for one reason or another. But for those who will consider the evidence that is so obvious throughout biology, I suggest it’s high time we moved on. – Matthew

    The formal Darwinism project – June 2015
    Excerpt: Today, as molecular biologists choose to call some of their discoveries ‘mechanisms’, and ascribe ‘functions’ to enzymes, they use purposive language and so they also adopt the design approach. It is arguably impossible to undertake work in many areas of biology without doing so: purpose in explanations has great power, and attempts to do without it in ethology,,, have long ago been abandoned as unworkable.
    of note: *Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour

  2. 2
    Robert Byers says:

    Biology is unique. life is not like physics. Physics is just the scenery. biology is the play. its about the glory of the living being. in fact we and animals have souls unrelated to the physical world.

    The thing with evolutionism is that it isn’t based on biological investigation.
    They can’t investigate biology thats not here. No fossils is not doing that if you think carefully about it.

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