Bridging the gap between life sciences and ethics with a philosophy of science approach to key concepts of stem cell research and synthetic biology

Anja Pichl

Ethical and societal debates on current life science research are to a great extend based on hopes and promises which are also driving forces for life scientists themselves. These promises often depend on implicit epistemological and ontological assumptions about the objects of life science research. They usually envisage a level of controllability of biological entities not easily compatible with their plasticity and context dependence as well as certain limits of scientists’ capacities to causally explain and fully understand biological processes and entities and to foresee future consequences of technological interventions into living systems.
The central epistemological question of this project is whether there are specific conditions and limits of causal explanations within life science research, especially stem cell research. Is there a gap between the means and scope of scientific explanation of and technological intervention into living systems and our abilities to fully understand and control the underlying processes and foresee their consequences? The hypothesis is that certain limitations of our explanatory powers are not just an issue of the great complexity of biological entities similar to other complex phenomena, but that certain features of organisms such as the special relationship between the whole and its parts, their context dependence and the plasticity of biological development make a fundamental difference. Philosophers of biology are intensively working on pertinent themes such as causal explanations, evidence and reductionism within biology and medicine, our understanding of biological organization and complexity, emergence and downward causation and the concept of a stem cell, to name just a few. I will engage with thematically relevant results of these ongoing controversies and reflect on their epistemological preconditions and implications for the scope and limits of causal explanations within biology.
The sought understanding of what and how we know (and especially what we don’t know, e.g. due to methodologically necessary abstractions or principle constraints arising from the inner form of the objects) about living systems will be further reflected with regard to its ethical or societal relevance, concerning especially technology assessment and policy decisions: If there are specific forms and limits of biological knowledge (and biotechnological controllability) of living entities, should this affect our ways of acting upon this knowledge? Do we need specific forms of risk assessment of biotechnological and biomedical interventions different from those already developed for other complex phenomena such as climate change which also necessitate decision making under conditions of uncertainty? How to weigh the risks of an accelerated clinical translation of stem cell therapies in the light of the outlined epistemological uncertainties? The epistemological inquiry should also throw a new light on the scientific basis of the hopes and promises fueling current life science research and the related ethical and societal debates.