Grounding knowledge and normative valuation in agent-based action and scientific commitment

In Hauke Riesch, Nathan Emmerich & Steven Wainwright (eds.), Philosophies and Sociologies of Bioethics: Crossing the Divides. Cham, Switzerland: pp. 41-64 (2018)
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Philosophical investigation in synthetic biology has focused on the knowledge-seeking questions pursued, the kind of engineering techniques used, and on the ethical impact of the products produced. However, little work has been done to investigate the processes by which these epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical forms of inquiry arise in the course of synthetic biology research. An attempt at this work relying on a particular area of synthetic biology will be the aim of this chapter. I focus on the reengineering of metabolic pathways through the manipulation and construction of small DNA-based devices and systems synthetic biology. Rather than focusing on the engineered products or ethical principles that result, I will investigate the processes by which these arise. As such, the attention will be directed to the activities of practitioners, their manipulation of tools, and the use they make of techniques to construct new metabolic devices. Using a science-in-practice approach, I investigate problems at the intersection of science, philosophy of science, and sociology of science. I consider how practitioners within this area of synthetic biology reconfigure biological understanding and ethical categories through active modelling and manipulation of known functional parts, biological pathways for use in the design of microbial machines to solve problems in medicine, technology, and the environment. We might describe this kind of problem-solving as relying on what Helen Longino referred to as “social cognition” or the type of scientific work done within what Hasok Chang calls “systems of practice”. My aim in this chapter will be to investigate the relationship that holds between systems of practice within metabolic engineering research and social cognition. I will attempt to show how knowledge and normative valuation are generated from this particular network of practitioners. In doing so, I suggest that the social nature of scientific inquiry is ineliminable to both knowledge acquisition and ethical evaluations.
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