Cancer Modelling and the Advantages and Limitations of Multiple Perspectives
Cancer is a paradigmatic case of a complex causal process; causes of cancer operate at a variety of temporal and spatial scales, and the temporal order and interactive effects between cancers’ causes can have significant effects on how cancer progresses. Because of this complexity, models of cancer often involve deliberate choices to focus on one time scale, one causal pathway, or one aspect of cancer’s dynamics. Indeed, as in most of biology, modelling cancer involves simplification and idealization. Yet, for this very reason, critics of some models of cancer progression argue that these models and the theoretical framework associated with them are “degenerating research programs.” This paper will discuss when and why it is permissible to ignore some features of cancer’s causes in the context of modelling cancer’s dynamics. Part of this will involve explicating an account of modelling in the sciences; part of this will involve defending multiple perspectives on cancer causation. While there are certainly limitations to simple models, the seriousness of these limitations will depend upon our views of the aims and scope of theoretical modelling. I hope to bring this example to bear on debates among philosophers of science over perspectivism and realism, as well pluralism about the aims and scope of scientific theory. I take my view to be in the spirit of Massimi’s epistemic perspectivism, drawing in part also on Chang’s argument for the epistemic benefits of pluralism.