Stem cell research: Limits and tensions of understanding and control of biological entities and processes and their possible relevance for science and society

Anja Pichl

My research hypothesis is that there is a tension between the aim of gaining knowledge about biological entities and processes and the aim to achieve control over them, e.g. in form of biomedical or biotechnological application. I will investigate this tension at the example of stem cell research engaging with both conceptual debates and scientific practice and reflecting on the possible relevance of the findings for science and society.
Drawing on Kant’s Critique of the Power of Teleological Judgement and recent debates in philosophy of biology I’ll argue that certain limitations of our capacity to explain biological phenomena are not just an issue of their great complexity similar to other complex phenomena, but the specific relationship between parts and the whole in organisms. Engaging with philosophy of science debates on stem cell concepts and further epistemological problems in stem cell research, the concrete manifestation of problems of methodological reductionism and their handling in scientific practice will be investigated. Certain features of stem cells such as their context dependence and plasticity can be shown to create specific hurdles for scientifically studying and clinically applying them. Aggravated seem these problems by the constitutive role clinical goals play in the field of stem cell research which shape and arguably narrow the scope and methods of scientific studies, e.g. via trying to understand and manipulate organism-level processes such as regeneration and development on the cell level mainly. Thus there seem to be limits of understanding organisms arising from limits of methodological reductionism in biology on the one hand. On the other hand, it seems that the striving for control forms and limits aspirations for knowledge, in some cases these limits might be narrower than the principle constraints. This tension is specifically interesting in the light of recent interventionist accounts of mechanistic causal explanations and its investigation might lead to questioning them. In any case, the afore mentioned issues are not only of genuine philosophical interest but might serve in questioning basic assumptions about identity and capacities of stem cells in ethical and societal debates. 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, but also other key issues in these debates, e.g. the attribution of moral or economic value to stem cells, often depend on questionable epistemological and ontological assumptions about the research objects in need of philosophical clarification.