Emergence and reduction in morphogenetic theories

Emergence and reduction in morphogenetic theories

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Texto inédito
Date of publication: Lima, 1989

The origin of the universe and of man are the limit cases of the evolutionary worldview, whose main task is the formulation of morphogenetic theories explaining how new levels emerge from more basic ones. In this context, the problems of emergence and reduction occupy a central place.

The following reflections allude, firstly, to the difficulties of classical analyses of reductionism and suggest that the problem of reduction finds its proper place within the analysis of relations between levels. These considerations are applied, secondly, to the examination of certain morphogenetic theories. And they also apply, finally, to the problem of ontological emergence, including the evaluation of some proposals about the origin of the universe and of man.

1. The possibilities of reduction

It is now generally accepted that classical analyses of theory reduction are of limited value. This is due, on the one hand, to their dependence on the deductive model of scientific explanation, which has been corrected by images of science that emphasise the importance of conceptual aspects, and, on the other hand, to their lack of adequacy with the development of actual scientific activity.

Reductionism was central to the neo-positivist programme, which proposed to unify science by reducing its different branches to a physicalist language. Although this ideal was abandoned, reduction continued to be treated as the logical deduction of laws or theories belonging to the reduced or secondary science from those of the reducing or primary science. In this line, two types of reduction were distinguished: homogeneous or unproblematic reduction, when all the terms of the secondary science are also found in the primary science, and discontinuous or problematic reduction, in the opposite case; in the latter case, the link between the two sciences could be established by a logical connection between meanings, by postulating definitions of coordination, or by formulating factual hypotheses (Nagel [1961], pp. 336-397).

In subsequent discussions, nuances were introduced that signified a growing scepticism towards the possibilities of deductive reduction. With respect to homogeneous theories, it was stated as a matter of fact that reductions by strict logical derivation are very few, and even practically impossible, because when one or more laws are subsumed in a new theory, there is usually a change of meaning in the basic terms. The possibility of a weak or instrumentalist reduction, consisting of a mere partial and approximate coincidence of results, was recognised. Between heterogeneous theories there could also be a strong reduction in which the reduced theory is preserved and even better corroborated; this would happen when correlational laws are empirically discovered, or when two classes of entities of the two theories are identified. It was concluded that it would be preferable to replace the term reduction by quasi-reduction or partial explanation, in order to highlight the difficulties of total reductionism. (Sklar [1967]; Friedman [1982]).

That these conclusions are generally accepted today was confirmed at the 13th International lecture on the Unity of the Sciences, which was devoted to the problems of reduction and emergence in the main scientific disciplines. There it was emphasised that, if one takes due account of actual scientific activity, reduction is limited to the attempt to establish partial links between different epistemological levels, while at the same time realising that these links can take on very different forms (Radnitzky [1988]).

In final, it can be stated that derivational reductionism responded to a philosophical ideal that was not in line with the real development of the sciences and practically unrealisable. Theoretical constructions are formulated to solve specific problems in specific areas of science, and are built from agreement with the conceptual and instrumental resources available at each moment; therefore, it seems convenient to replace the traditional problem of reduction between theories with the problem of establishing relations between fields or areas of research. The epistemological analysis will focus on the very varied concrete relations between problems and solutions that overlap in the course of the research (Darden - Maull [1977]; Artigas [1989], pp. 5-110).

2. Morphogenetic theories

If it is accepted that a morphogenetic theory relates different levels, its possibility rests on the existence of ordered levels. Globally and almost intuitively, these levels are represented by physics, Chemistry, biology and the human sciences, and the problem that arises is that of establishing relations between the higher and lower levels. These relations can be considered from a dynamic or a static point of view, depending on whether or not the source relations between the levels are considered; both perspectives illuminate and complement each other.

Difficulties arise already when one tries to establish hierarchical relations on the first two levels, those of physics and Chemistry. This task requires, as a starting point, defining how the structure of the theories and the relationships between them are conceived. Moreover, each discipline and even each theory focuses on specific types of problems and uses its own resources, both intellectual and instrumental. Progress along the lines of unification does not totally suppress diversity, which is conditioned by the limitation of knowledge and by the consequent need to adopt partial perspectives according to cognitive possibilities. This status is expressed by saying that there are different epistemological levels (Kanitscheider [1988]), and even a plurality of deontologies, implied by the different theories, which are generally not totally replaced when deeper theories are achieved (Rohrlich [1988]). These considerations, which are applicable to the analysis of the unity of the theories of physics, are also, a fortiori, applicable to the study of the possible reduction of Chemistry to physics (Primas [1988]).

The difficulties increase considerably when considering the relationship between the physico-chemical and biological domains. Results of great interest have been achieved, such as the determination of the structure of DNA and its connections with Genetics, the explanation of some of the functions of haemoglobin on the basis of the amino acid sequence that determines the Structures of the molecule, and the possibilities that recombinant DNA techniques have opened up for deciphering the composition of genes and the Structures of proteins.

These achievements seem to support the reduction of biology to physicsChemistry. Indeed, what they show is the wide application of physical and chemical laws in the realm of living beings. Just as mechanics showed that stars follow the same physical laws as terrestrial bodies, so Biochemistry and molecular biology show that living things are immersed in the same physics and Chemistry as other bodies. However, this does not mean that biology has been reduced to the physical sciences. It studies problems that require the use of specific concepts and techniques. Explanations obtained through the physical sciences do not eliminate or render superfluous the epistemological levels of biology (Kitcher [1982] and [1984]; Rosenberg [1985], pp. 69-120).

As an example, four types of relationships between the level of biology and that of the physical sciences can be listed at degree scroll : the part-whole relationship, such as the test that genetic units are a part of chromosomes; the explanation of the physical nature of an entity or process, e.g. the explanation of the repressor postulated in operon theory; the relationship between the structure of entities or processes and the functions they perform: for example, the explanation Biochemistry of the repressor postulated in operon theory; the relationship between the structure of entities or processes and the functions they perform: thus, the knowledge provided by the physical Chemistry about the structure of molecules allows us to understand their biochemical functions; and the cause-effect relationship found, for example, in the explanations provided by the theory of allosteric regulation (Darden - Maull [1977]). None of these relationships amounts to a reduction in the strict sense.

The above reflections refer to relationships between theories at the same or adjacent levels. The difficulties are even greater when the results of one level are used to explain problems at other, distant levels. Some theories can be mentioned in this context that are often described as morphogenetic in a special sense: the thermodynamics of irreversible processes, synergetics, catastrophe theory and chaos theories.

The thermodynamics of irreversible processes sample that, in principle, biological processes are compatible with the second law of thermodynamics: in open systems, far from equilibrium, biological Structures could develop through the amplification of fluctuations leading to a new state in which dissipative Structures is maintained. The interest of the theory in the morphogenetic field is undoubted, since it suggests that a state characterised by a certain Degree of organisation can be generated from a less structured state. However, it is clear that neither in this case does a logical reduction take place, nor are the levels of biology eliminated (Friedman [1982], pp. 28-39).

Synergetics, catastrophe theory and chaos theories can also be considered as morphogenetic theories, since they provide explanations about the genesis of new Structures; moreover, they propose to relate levels that are not only different but sometimes far apart. For this reason, it is very difficult to rigorously establish the general validity of the models they propose. The main interest of these theories, under the morphogenetic perspective, is heuristic, in that they provide analogies that suggest the existence of patterns or modes of behaviour that have certain similarities and are carried out at different levels.

Finally, the morphogenetic theories par excellence are those that refer to evolutionary processes. These theories have a peculiar epistemological status. On the one hand, there are arguments in favour of the reality of evolutionary transformations. But on the other hand, it is difficult to establish with certainty their concrete mechanisms. This is due not only to the limitations of knowledge, but also to the uniqueness of the processes they are trying to describe. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are differences, even profound ones, between the proposed explanations. In this context, awareness of the difficulties becomes a guarantee of progress; indeed, if partial explanations are presented as if they were complete, the finding of better explanations is hindered.

3. Ontological emergence

The partial character of epistemological reductions sets limits to ontological reductionism. The complete explanation of ontological levels on the sole basis of the lower levels cannot be justified from the scientific perspective. However, the search for the unity of science is a stimulus for the study of the relations between different levels and, in this sense, a partial methodological reductionism finds its justification. In the same vein is the conviction about the unity of nature, which can be considered as one of the assumptions of scientific activity.

Of course, the first condition for morphogenetic theories to be formulated is that the levels they are intended to relate exist. In this context one can point to the basic flaw that physical explanations of an alleged self-creation of the universe suffer from (Atkins [1981]; Davies [1983]; Smith [1988]). The fundamental problem, in this case, is not that the theory of quantum gravity still awaits a rigorous formulation, or that it is difficult to admit the uncaused character of quantum fluctuations, but that physical concepts are attributed a scope that transcends what is allowed by experimental method. In the realm of such explanations, scientific concepts would not relate two epistemological or ontological levels: they would have to connect a single level with a non-existent one (Craig [1986]; Artigas [1987]; Carroll [1988]). Moreover, the method of physics does not allow to establish that a certain event was the absolute beginning of the universe, even supposing that it really was [Jaki [1982], p. 260). The problem of the absolute origin of the universe has to be formulated in a metaphysical context.

If the absolute origin of the universe exceeds the possibilities of the experimental method because the basic level on which that method has to rely is missing, the complete explanation of man also exceeds it because, in this case, the specifically human level is an indispensable condition for the very existence of science. In other words: experimental science cannot deny the peculiarity of man without denying itself. The ability to raise questions about the validity of knowledge is indispensable for critical argumentation to make sense, and this ability is only given in the context of a subjectivity which, although it is realised through physical conditions, is not reduced to them.

Ontological reductionism, when it takes the form of scientistic naturalism or materialistic monism, has to resort to the argument of nothing but. But this argumentation subject leads to dead ends. If one asserts that the universe or man is nothing but subject, one has to determine what is meant by subject, which is a difficult task. In reality, pure materiality does not exist, since everything material is organised and informed. And naturalism finds no basis in science and epistemology, unless one denies the reality of everything that cannot be studied by the methods of experimental science; but such a denial, besides being contradictory, blocks the study of the epistemological and ontological assumptions that are indispensable to explain the possibility and validity of experimental science.

Sometimes the evolutionary worldview is used to support the thesis of a substantive monism, according to which all objects are in the last analysis different forms and manifestations of the originally present entities (Rohrlich [1988], pp. 297-299). But this thesis is properly philosophical and cannot be justified by scientific or epistemological arguments.

The evolutionary worldview poses problems that can be grouped under the problem of emergence. Novelty is real. Of course, it is partly explained by the mechanisms that underlie it. But its understanding transcends the explanations of the experimental method. To realise this, it is enough to consider that any scientific explanation ultimately refers to the existence of laws that permeate nature at all its levels. Nature, considered in its classical sense as an internal principle of activity, is a basic assumption of science. Experimental science achieves an ever deeper knowledge and control of its Structures and processes; however, the existence of the activity of nature constitutes a problem whose philosophical dimensions are not exhausted in scientific explanations.


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