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Generalizations for Cell Biological Explanations: Distinguishing between Principles and Laws

Ehsani, Sepehr (2023) Generalizations for Cell Biological Explanations: Distinguishing between Principles and Laws. [Preprint]

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Abstract

Laws have figured in the development of modern biology (e.g. Mendelian laws of inheritance), but there is a tacit assumption particularly in contemporary cell and molecular biology that laws are only of the 'strict' kind (e.g. the laws of motion or universal gravitation), which cell biology appears to lack. Moreover, the cell-biology-specific non-universal laws that do exist (e.g. scaling laws in biochemical networks within single cells) are few and far between. As discussed elsewhere (and not further argued for in this paper), mechanistic explanations, which are the dominant kind of explanation in cell biology, face significant challenges and their utility has been checkered in different biomedical areas. Just as laws and mechanisms figure in explanations in organic chemistry and ecology, fields that deal with lower- and higher-scale phenomena compared to cell biology, respectively, it should not be assumed that cell biology is somehow in a unique position where few or no laws could be discovered and used in its explanations. An impediment to discovering lawlike generalizations in cell biology is that the understanding of many cellular phenomena is still quite qualitative and imprecise. This paper is motivated by the premise that mechanisms and laws can both be in the foreground of explanations in cell biology and that a framework should be developed to encourage and facilitate the discovery of laws specific to and operative at the individual cell level. To that end, in the domain of scientifically-relevant non-universal (i.e. non-exceptionless) generalizations, which some philosophers equate with the notion of ceteris paribus laws (henceforth, 'cp-laws'), I propose that a cp-law might have one or more corresponding 'principles'. Using a running example of generalizations of oscillatory movements from physics with direct relevance to cell biology, I argue that while a cp-law and its paired principle(s) might have the same explanatory theme (e.g. explain the same phenomenon), a principle is broader in scope compared to its paired cp-law but less expectable or reliable in its predictions. This is because principles appear to be more qualitative and less numerically precise compared to cp-laws, reflective of our lack of precise understanding of the systems to which the generalizations apply. The principles–laws concept makes for a more lenient approach for what could count as a lawlike generalization and can encourage the discovery of novel generalizations in areas of cell biology where no specific generalizations typically figure in explanations. A principle could be thought of as providing a program for explanation, whereas its paired law provides explanations for specific instances. Newly posited principles could augment mechanistic explanations and also potentially lead to the discovery of corresponding cp-laws.


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Item Type: Preprint
Creators:
CreatorsEmailORCID
Ehsani, Sepehrehsani@uclmail.net0000-0002-9613-6898
Keywords: Biological Explanation; Biological Principles; Biology; Cell Biology; Ceteris Paribus Laws; Generalizations; Laws; Life Sciences; Mechanism; Mechanistic Explanation; Nomological Explanation; Philosophy of Biology; Philosophy of Cell Biology; Philosophy of Medicine; Philosophy of the Life Sciences; Principled Mechanism; Principled Mechanistic Explanation; Principles; Scientific Explanation; Scientific Generalizations; Scientific Laws; Theoretical Biology
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Laws of Nature
Depositing User: Dr. Sepehr Ehsani
Date Deposited: 05 May 2023 13:06
Last Modified: 05 May 2023 13:06
Item ID: 22039
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Biology
General Issues > Explanation
General Issues > Laws of Nature
Date: 4 May 2023
URI: https://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/id/eprint/22039

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