Shifting Attention From Theory to Practice in Philosophy of Biology

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Waters, C. Kenneth
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Traditional approaches in philosophy of biology focus attention on biological concepts, explanations, and theories, on evidential support and inter-theoretical relations. Newer approaches shift attention from concepts to conceptual practices, from theories to practices of theorizing, and from theoretical reduction to reductive retooling. In this article, I describe the shift from theory-focused to practice-centered philosophy of science and explain how it is leading philosophers to abandon fundamentalist assumptions associated with traditional approaches in philosophy of science and to embrace scientific pluralism. This article comes in three parts, each illustrating the shift from theory-focused to practice-centered epistemology. The first illustration shows how shifting philosophical attention to conceptual practice reveals how molecular biologists succeed in identifying coherent causal strands within systems of bewildering complexity. The second illustration suggests that analyzing how a multiplicity of alternative models function in practice provides an illuminating approach for understanding the nature of theoretical knowledge in evolutionary biology. The third illustration demonstrates how framing reductionism in terms of the reductive retooling of practice offers an informative perspective for understanding why putting DNA at the center of biological research has been incredibly productive throughout much of biology. Each illustration begins by describing how traditional theory-focused philosophical approaches are laden with fundamentalist assumptions and then proceeds to show that shifting attention to practice undermines these assumptions and motivates a philosophy of scientific pluralism.