Research

Areas of Specialization

Philosophy of Biology:

reductive explanation, biological individuality, causal modeling, complexity, units of selection, evolutionary naturalism

Philosophy of Science:

causality, explanation, philosophical methodology, norms in science, reductionism, interdisciplinarity

Metaphysics of Science:

mechanisms, phenomena, biological part-whole relations, dispositions, parts of the human genome, ecological niches

Research Projects

The Ontological Status of Individualized Niches (Jan 2018 – Dec 2021)

Project in the Collaborative Research Center “A Novel Synthesis of Individualization across Behavior, Ecology and Evolution: Niche Choice, Niche Conformance, Niche Construction” (CRC 212)

This project explicates what individualized ecological niches are and how they relate to mechanisms of niche choice, conformance, and construction. My philosophical analysis focuses on three concepts that play a central role in the CRC: the concept of biological individuality, the concept of an (social) individualized niche, and the concept of an ecological or evolutionary mechanism. I specify the meaning of these concepts, their ontological presuppositions, and how they relate to each other.

The CRC draws attention to the fact that different individualized phenotypes have different effects on how organisms choose, conform to, or construct their individualized ecological niches. From a general perspective, however, it is far from clear whether the concepts of individuality employed in different research contexts are all the same, and whether the different ways in which individualization occurs can be conceptually unified. This project apply ideas from the philosophy of biology to develop an integrative concept of individuality, which accounts for the (pre)conceptions of individuality and animal personality that figure in the CRC and for the empirical findings about how individualization (e.g., of phenotypes or of niches) occurs. Another goal of this project is to make use of the integrated account of individuality to specify the concept of an individualized (social) niche, to clarify its ontological implications, and to relate it to traditional concepts of an ecological niche. My working hypothesis is that individualized niches are spatially and temporally dynamic entities, which are distinct from functional roles in communities and from static (micro) habitats. In addition, I analyze how the individualization of an ecological niche affects its ontology and I examine what makes an individualized niche to a social niche. Finally, this project directs philosophical attention to the concept of an ecological or evolutionary mechanism. The CRC projects study three types of mechanisms of how organisms relate to their individualized niches: mechanisms of niche choice, conformance, and construction. I analyze these paradigmatic examples of ecological or evolutionary mechanisms and reveal their similarities and differences to other kinds of biological mechanisms, such as molecular or cell mechanisms.

By explicating the concepts of individuality, niche, and mechanism, specifying their ontological implications, and showing how they relate to each other, this project provides conceptual clarity and unification to the CRC, and it contributes to establishing a solid theoretical fundament of the novel synthesis of individualization.

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Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics (Aug 2015 – July 2018)

I am a Co-investigator in this project, which is led by Alan Love (University of Minnesota), C. Kenneth Waters (University of Calgary), Marcel Weber (University of Geneva), and William C. Wimsatt (University of Minnesota)

Please visit the project website here.

Scientific metaphysics is based on the idea that metaphysics — the study of what the world is ultimately like — should be informed by the remarkable success of science. Opponents argue that the continuous rejection of fundamental scientific claims through history undermines the assumption that science can provide a reliable basis for drawing metaphysical conclusions. From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics is a three-year initiative involving a collaboration between the University of Calgary, University of Geneva, and University of Minnesota that advances a new approach for scientific metaphysics. The project analyzes successful scientific practices that depend on modest theoretical claims but nevertheless undergird advances across sciences that deal with complexity, especially in biology. This approach probes the metaphysical implications of stable forms of successful practice in situations where local, partial theories of complex phenomena do not yield integrated, comprehensive outlooks across different levels of organization.

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Funded by the John Templeton Foundation

Causation and Explanation of Complex Biological Systems (Sep 2013 – Aug 2016)

Project in the Research Group “Causality, Laws, Dispositions, and Explanation at the Intersection of Science and Metaphysics” (FOR 1063)

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 replaced by approaches that 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 project addresses the question of whether these developments in the life sciences call for a revision of our traditional philosophical theories about science and nature, such as our theories of explanation and causation. The project focuses on two sets of questions: First, do traditional accounts of explanation capture the peculiarities of explanations 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, for example, 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? 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?

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Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

The Concept of Mechanism in the Life Sciences (Nov 2009 – Oct 2012)

Project in the Research Group “Causality, Laws, Dispositions, and Explanation at the Intersection of Science and Metaphysics” (FOR 1063)

This project examines the concept of mechanism and accounts of mechanistic explanation that have played a prominent role in the philosophy of the life sciences in the past years. Even though the notion of a mechanism has been subject to considerable discussion, so far no consensus has been reached about what a mechanism is and how it relates to other concepts such as the concept of a law, of a cause, and of a disposition. The aim of this project is to analyze paradigmatic examples of mechanisms and mechanistic explanations from the practice of the life sciences to clarify these conceptual relations. The starting point of this project is the assumption that biological and medical mechanisms can be understood as underlying the behavior of a whole. This raises the question of whether mechanistic explanations can be understood as part-whole explanations with a temporal dimension (causal micro explanations).

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Funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

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