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

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Remarks on the Foundations of Biology

Seán Ó Nualláin


This paper attempts, inevitably briefly, a re-categorization and partial resolution of some foundational issues in biology -clearing exercise extends the notion of causality in biology from merely the efficient cause to include also final and formal causality. The Human Genome Project (hpg) can be looked on as an attempt to ground explanation of the phenotype in terms of an efficient cause rooted in a gene. This notion gives rise to the first section discussing the computational metaphor and epigenesis and suggesting ways to extend this metaphor. The extended notion of causality alluded to above is necessary, but not sufficient, to demarcate a specific explanatory realm for the biological. While the universe can ultimately, perhaps, be explained by quantum fluctuations being computed through the laws of nature, the origin of life remains a mystery. The ground-clearing exercise refers to coincidences that motivate the cosmological anthropic principle, before raising an alert about the possibility of similar thermodynamic laws facilitating the emergence of life. "Life itself seems to involve symbolic operations that can be described by the grammatical rules within tightly-defined limits of complexity. The nascent field of biosemiotics has extended this argument, often in a Peircean direction. Yet, even here, the task involved needs to be specified. Is the organism creating proteins to launch an immune counter-attack ? Alternatively, is a pluripotent stem cell generating an entire organism? We consider what these separate tasks might look like computationally. The paper ends with further delimitation of the specifically biological. At what point in the infinitesimal does life refuse to reveal its secrets? Conversely, at what specific levels in increasing size and complexity do boundary conditions emerge with hierarchy becoming immanent?

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