Starting from the assumption that scientific knowledge production is a complex process that can be subject to explanations and modelling, the talk introduces a semiotic approach to modelling experimental practices. The aim is to show how in experimental systems phenomena are produced as signs and how these signs are weaved in a web of other semiotic entities, such as instruments, images and the words in which the knowledge gained about these phenomena is expressed. The semiotic reconstruction will mainly draw on Nelson Goodman´s theory of symbols as developed in his Languages of Art. A hallmark of Goodmans theory is that it understands labels (words, images or objects when they denotate) as referring to objects, which is essential for understanding the way symbols function in science, without taking referents as given. In fact labels and objects are delineated within a system of alternative labels and objects (just as signs and content in structuralist semiotics, which however avoids to include objects and a reference relation). Furthermore, reference is not limited to the relation of labels to objects (denotation), but includes the possible relation of objects to labels (exemplification), which seems particularly important in science. In this way many referential relations among the components of an experimental system - the objects or processes studied, manipulatory tools, measuring instruments, images and words -, can be identified. The result is a view of scientific knowledge as forming locally coherent semiotic networks. However, such a network is introduced through the action of scientists. To connect the actions that bring about and are at the same time enabled by the experimental system in the semiotic nexus of the system, James Gibson´s notion of affordance will be employed. Actions that are afforded by objects are organized in systems of alternatives, just as the labels exemplified by these objects. Some actions that are afforded by given objects introduce differences, that is, they introduce new symbols systems in which alternative objects, labels and follow-up actions are delineated and coordinated.
Apart from answering philosophical questions about the meaning of scientific terms or the way epistemic objects appear in experimental systems, the approach allows to address historiographic questions. In particular through comparing experimental practices described in the same semiotic language, we can detect fundamental differences, which can explain specific historical constellations. For example, in the first decades of the 20th century, the new discipline of genetics and the not much older strands of experimental developmental biology were not well integrated, despite the fact that they seemed to address the same phenomenon - the reproduction of the form of organisms. Comparing their experimental practices, however, reveals that the terms they used to refer to aspects of form (as grown or as inherited respectively), gained their meaning in very different material semiotic systems and networks. In this talk I will sketch semiotic reconstructions of typical experiments in both disciplines to illustrate the approach and show how it can be employed in historiographic studies.
Philosophical analyses of individuals in biology have focused on theories of individuality that either account for what a biological individual is (Clarke 2013) or provide different dimensions of biological individuality (Godfrey-Smith 2009). The primary considerations in these discussions derive from evolutionary theory, understood as a fundamental framework that governs all of biology, where the capacity of an object to undergo selection is paramount. Less attention has been paid to how individuals are determined in practice, rather than in theory, and what those individuation practices look like in different investigative contexts, especially experimental contexts. I argue that individuation in biological science is governed by specific scientific problems that differ across biology (Love 2008, 2014, forthcoming). These problems lead to variable and divergent conceptualizations of what qualifies as an individual. The result is a pluralist perspective on individuality in the life sciences where different kinds of individuals are tracked in experimental practices (Griesemer 2007). I use the problem agenda of growth in developmental biology to illustrate this situation in the context of an experimental inquiry into the coordination of relative sizes between the whole organism and its constituent parts (Oliveria et al. 2014). Molecular and morphological practices used for tracking individuals and their components through ontogeny are not dependent on evolutionary theorizing. The problem-relative nature of biological individuation dissolves the so-called “problem of biological individuality” (Clarke 2010), which is an artifact of monist philosophical assumptions about scientific knowledge, and captures more accurately how biologists engage in successful practices that contribute to the manipulation, prediction, and explanation of biological individuals.
Reflections on how different explanatory enterprises and projects emerge and characterize scientific practice have been developed. Quite recently, various cases of multilevel research in molecular life sciences have been reviewed (O’Malley et al 2014) and it has been shown how diverse multilevel systems raise significant philosophical questions about explanation, modelling and representation, especially the demand for integrative methods to produce new knowledge. However, an analysis of the structure of biological explanation has been often overlooked. In particular, the strict relationship between the structure of biological explanations and their context dependencies has been difficult to capture or has been considered as a methodological recommendation (Darden and Craver 2009).
The strategy I adopt in order to disentangle different kinds of context dependencies in biological explanations, is to analyse the explanatory import of the context argument when the question is on biological behaviours, understood as dynamic processes, which imply an organizational and adaptive dimension characterized by an inter-level regulatory phenomenology. Examples are taken from cancer research. Firstly, I analyse how the context issue emerges and is accounted for, within a debate on the possibility of reducing biological explanations (Fox Keller 2010; Dupré 2010). Secondly, I clarify how such conceptual and empirical context dependencies integrate the explanatory accounts in biological sciences. The focus of the analysis shifts on the structure of the biological explanations instead of on the way reductions are performed, that is on what kinds of relata fulfil the requirements for these explanations and on the nature of their relationship.
My final thesis is that different epistemological approaches, which are always multi-level in nature, are possible when dealing with organizational and adaptive processes. I will also show how a satisfactory local explanatory model always has two main substantive components –a conceptual and an explanatory one- with each component having a closely related logical/epistemological aspect. Which of them is more relevant depends on the epistemological perspective that is adopted. This kind of relevance is always relative and well explains why mechanistic and systemic perspectives in biological sciences are not only complementary but often imply each other.