A framework for philosophical biology

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Advances in biology, at least over the past two centuries, have mostly relied on theories that were subsequently revised, expanded or eventually refuted using experimental and other means. The field of theoretical biology used to primarily provide a basis, similar to theoretical physics in the physical sciences, to rationally examine the frameworks within which biological experiments were carried out and to shed light on overlooked gaps in understanding. Today, however, theoretical biology has generally become synonymous with computational and mathematical biology. This could in part be explained by a relatively recent tendency in which a "data first", rather than a "theory first", approach is preferred. Moreover, generating hypotheses has at times become procedural rather than theoretical, therefore perhaps inadvertently leading some hypotheses to become perfunctory in nature. This situation leaves our understanding enmeshed in data, which should be disentangled from much noise. Given the many unresolved questions in biology and medicine, big and small, ranging from the problem of protein folding to unifying causative frameworks of complex non-Mendelian human diseases, it seems apt to revive the role of pure theory in the biological sciences. This paper, using the current biomedical literature and historical precedents, makes the case for a "philosophical biology" (philbiology), distinct from but quite complementary to philosophy of biology (philobiology), which would entail biological investigation through philosophical approaches. Philbiology would thus be a reincarnation of theoretical biology, adopting the true sense of the word "theory" and making use of a rich tradition of serious philosophical approaches in the natural sciences. A philbiological investigation, after clearly defining a given biological problem, would aim to propose a set of empirical questions, along with a class of possible solutions, about that problem. Importantly, whether or not the questions can be tested using current experimental paradigms would be secondary to whether the questions are inherently empirical or not. These issues will be illustrated using a range of specific examples. The final goal of a philbiological investigation would be to develop a theoretical framework that can lead observational and/or interventional experimental studies of the defined problem, a framework that is structured, generative and expandable, and, crucially, one that simplifies some aspect(s) of the said problem.
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Archival date: 2016-05-23
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