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PERSPECTIVES IN BIOLOGY AND MEDICINE Volume 29 ¦ Number 1 ¦ Autumn 1 985 ON PHYSICS AND BIOLOGY: GETTING OUR ACT TOGETHER ALEX COMFORT* Science, if we consider it as the experimental study of the objective world, has a reasonable distrust of philosophy. Formal philosophy has, for biologists, a record of having contributed nonreductive and unhelpful ideas like Bergson's vital force and Schopenhauer's "will," which evolutionary genetics has been able to circumvent by far "harder" formulations . That issues we would traditionally have classed as philosophical now stand solidly in the path of natural science is the work of science itself, through the development of modern physics. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was an easy positivist consensus. The physical and biological sciences were effortlessly continuous and without systems breaks: they studied an "objective reality" that was definite, and they dovetailed. This seamless garment was no sooner almost complete than it unravelled, or rather tore, so that an enormous preconceptive chasm exists today between the life sciences, which remain Cartesian and Newtonian in their orientation, and postHeisenberg physics. The reason for the chasm is not that physics has become arbitrarily philosophical. Its results are based on canonical "hard" experiment, and its hypotheses are based on the search for an algebra that describes those results. The main reason is rather that its world model, unlike that of any life science, is not only presented in difficult mathematics, but also, when presented, is unvisualizable. *Address: The Windmill House, The Hill, Cranbrook, Kent, England TN 17 3 AH.© 1985 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 0031-5982/86/2901-0457101 .00 Perspectives in Biology andMedicine, 29, 1 ¦ Autumn 1985 \ 1 Philosophy becomes a great deal more palatable to the life scientist if we recognize it not as speculation but as the search for the algorithm most adequate to describing "everything which is the case"—Wittgenstein 's simple definition of reality. One normally assumes that "reality" is what science studies. However, what it in fact studies are phenomena, ta fa???µe?a, "appearings." The substance of all human investigation is a perceived world, whether seen directly or inferred by means of prostheses . Every observation is therefore qualified by "as it appears to, or is inferred by, a human brain." This is equally true of an electron or of a fossil, and the continuum of phenomena dealt with in this way constitutes "middle-order reality." The term "middle-order reality" describes what was in fact the topic of all prequantum science—the world of objects, extending from the atom to the galaxy, which could be treated in Democritean terms. It contains the assumptions of ordinary experience: sequentiality in time, causality, and so on. A more subjective description would be that it is the world of human experience, extended by the microscope, the telescope, and a certain amount of inference: Joe Blow's world, Joe Blow being for this purpose both the common man and the prequantum scientist. It is worth setting forth the experiential basis ofJoe Blow's experience, because, as Joe Blows ourselves, we take them for granted. Joe Blow experiences himself as a point of observation that is situated at a particular coordinate position in three linear dimensions and in a fourth, virtual , dimension in which he appears to be moving, because his experience unfolds in time. The persons of his drama of reality are two: "I," the self-experiencing Cartesian observer, and "That," namely, everything which that observer observes. The catastrophic feature of modern physical theory is that, although it is based on observations made within this frame, by an observer of this kind, the models it uses cannot be inserted into the frame. The "lapse of time," for example, has no place in the concept of space-time except as an observer artifact of the Joe Blow display system. Many of the entities it observes—entities that are the fine-structure building blocks of the "objects" that peopled Democritean reality, are not objects. Causality (which is a spin-off from the lapseof -time assumption) is not invariably to be taken as given: quantum mechanics replace it with a probability function, a change that led Einstein to reject quantum...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 1-9
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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