Causation and Explanation of Complex Biological Systems

Project leader:
Prof. Dr. Andreas Hüttemann (Cologne)

Postdoctoral Fellow:
Dr. des. Marie I. Kaiser (Cologne)

In recent decades the focus of scientific research has shifted more and more to trying to understand and handle the complexity of nature. In biology, for instance, the reductionistic view that the behavior of a biological system can be understood by studying its parts in isolation has been rejected. Instead, contemporary biologists try to account for the “wholeness” of biological systems by paying attention to the organization of and interactions between the system’s parts (e.g., by studying the dynamics of entire gene regulatory networks).

This gives rise to the question of whether these new developments in the life sciences call for a revision of our traditional philosophical theories about science and nature, too. In this project I address this question by focusing primarily on two philosophical issues, namely on explanation and on causation. First, do traditional accounts (and typologies) of explanation capture the peculiarities of those explanations that are characteristic for the sciences of complex systems? Or do explanations of the behavior of complex systems constitute a unique kind of biological explanation that cannot be subsumed under traditional accounts (e.g., because they are non-mechanistic and non-reductive)? Second, do standard theories of causation fail to account for the causal structure of complex biological systems, for instance, for the multiplicity of causes, the context-dependency, and the putative “top-down character” of their causal relations? In other words, do the characteristics of the causal structure of complex biological systems give rise to any challenges or constraints for developing a philosophical theory of causation?.