Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 4, No 1-2 (2008)

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Approaches to the Question, ‘What is Life?’: Reconciling Theoretical Biology with Philosophical Biology

Arran Gare


Philosophical biologists have attempted to define the distinction between life and non-life to more adequately define what it is to be human. They are reacting against idealism, but idealism is their point of departure, and they have embraced the reaction by idealists against the mechanistic notion of humans developed by the scientific materialists. Theoretical biologists also have attempted to develop a more adequate conception of life, but their point of departure has been within science itself. In their case, it has involved efforts to overcome the reductionism of scientific materialism to develop a form of science able to identify and explain the distinctive characteristics of living beings. So, while both philosophical biologists and theoretical biologists are struggling to overcome scientific materialism, they are approaching the question: What is Life? from different directions. Focussing on the work of Robert Rosen, I will try to show what revisions in our understanding of science theoretical biologists need to accept in order to do justice to the insights of the philosophical biologists. I will suggest that not only will this involve major revisions in what we understand science to be, but that scientists must accept that science is indissociable from natural philosophy, and that to properly comprehend life mathematics must ultimately be subordinated to stories.

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