Looking at the same interactions in the gut but with a different set of glasses

By Tamar Schneider
University of California Davis, Philosophy

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a general term for a group of intestinal disorders. According to the National Institute of Health, there is no known cause for the syndrome. In IBS, inflammatory reaction occurs when the innate immune cells respond to a normal intestinal environment with commensal microorganisms. It is immunodeficiency-related and chronic but treated with antibiotics, which also indicates the role of bacteria. It is clear that in studying IBS, the interactions between bacteria and immune cells play an important part. It is also evident that there is a little understanding of these interactions. What is interesting is that there are different ways to interpret these interactions depending on the context we place them.

Last November (2016) I presented in a symposium at the Philosophy of Science Association (PSA) conference in Atlanta about values in science and their role in the study of symbiosis and the holobiont. My presentation was titled, “Feminist values in service of the Holobiont: How background beliefs and Epistemic values in science shape the production of knowledge in the case of the gut bacteria.” I discuss the background beliefs associated with two scientific objects: the Immune Self and the Holobiont in the study of a particular case of the interactions in the gut between the host’s innate immune cells and bacteria. The immune self is a basic concept in immunology that conceptualizes the role and function of the immune system. The holobiont is a new concept that captures the organism and its symbionts as a whole. I discuss the background beliefs associated with each scientific object and show the connection between these background beliefs and the epistemic values that govern research practices in the study of the condition of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Kuhn bookPhilosophy of science discusses questions such the connection between evidence and hypothesis and what should be the criteria or practices in science for getting closer to the truth. Thomas Kuhn, the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), suggested a set of epistemic or cognitive values that are prominent in the scientific practice and should be thought of as truth conducive. Therefore, these values function as tiebreakers between well-supported hypotheses (Kuhn, 1977). Kuhn gives five key features for what should count as a good scientific theory: accuracy, consistency, broad scope, simplicity and fruitfulness (ibid).

Helen Longino, a philosopher and feminist theorist, suggests an alternative way of looking at epistemic values as a heuristic rather than truth conductive and gives a list of alternative values presented in feminist scientific work (1996). The feminist values are empirical adequacy, novelty, ontological heterogeneity, mutuality of interaction, applicability to current human needs, and diffusion of power. Longino considers these values feminist, not because of their unique or intrinsic femininity, but simply because they “reveal asymmetric power relations that both conceal and suppress the independent activity of those gendered females” (Longino, 1983).

Longino bookFurthermore, Longino (1979) discusses the role of background assumptions and beliefs in shaping the relations between evidence and hypothesis. She challenges the ideal of value-free science by identifying the gap in which background beliefs play a role in determining which different observed states of affairs will receive the status of evidence. This under-determined gap undermines the possibility of establishing purely formal relations between empirical data and hypotheses and gives an additional layer of specificity to Thomas Kuhn’s notion of a scientific paradigm.

Thinking about IBS and the interactions in the gut, I show that the background beliefs are the conditions for choosing the appropriate set of values as well as evidence. I demonstrate the concordance between the immune self and the traditional values described by Kuhn and between the holobiont and the feminist values described by Longino. Discussing the immune self and holobiont from the perspective of their associated background beliefs and values demonstrated their differences. The study of symbiosis directs attention to different aspects or features of the same state of affairs from that of the study of the immune self, despite the fact that both are looking into the phenomena of the encounter between microorganisms and organisms’ cells. From the immunological view, this encounter is unidirectional between active immune cells that can discriminate between harmful and beneficial bacteria as well as passive bacteria. Alternatively, in the holobiont’s view of host-bacteria interaction, the notion of mutuality creates dynamic relations between two active agents. The particularity of each agent and its dependence on others makes it difficult to have clear inside-outside distinctions. In the symbiosis framework, the interactions are bi-directional, influencing and affecting both sides. This framework is inconsistent with traditional epistemic values such as simplicity in terms of one causal explanation. There is no simple one directional causal explanation because of the complex picture of both particularity and heterogeneity of the interactions.

Longino views the feminist cognitive values as methodological practices of revealing power relations related to gender. My discussion of these values refers to the power relations between individuals and their environment. The framework of host-bacteria interactions yielded new theories that undermined the traditional background beliefs giving rise to new background beliefs such as mutuality and interdependencies between organisms. These new understandings can diffuse binaries such as inside/outside, self/non-self, pathogenic/beneficial, organism/environment and human/nature. Each of these binaries consists of power relations such as centering the individual over the environment, centering the inside as active over the outside as passive, or in more general terms humans as separate from nature and dominating nature. Thus, Longino’s discussion about the role of feminist values in uncovering gender power relations in the scientific framework gives strong, valuable support in uncovering more asymmetric power relations in science.

Finally, I discuss the implications of revealing such power relations both epistemically and in health care practice. The epistemic advantage is by looking at the interactions between the immune cells and bacteria from both sides of the interacting parties and not just at the immune cells as active and responsive to passive bacteria. The practical advantage is by looking into the bacterial community as part of the study and not as a side effect which can help in finding solutions to the crisis of antibiotic resistance and other autoimmune disorders.  The search for mutuality of interactions and ontological heterogeneity can give a wider scope of understanding of the function of immune tolerance not only as a response to bacteria but as the result of interacting with bacteria. It has long been understood that there is a greater complexity to immune tolerance than the ability to discriminate self from non-self (Cohen, 2000; Pradeu, 2012). A wider scope of understanding of the interactions between the immune cells and bacteria can lead to a new path of inquiry of medical conditions such as allergies, autoimmune disorders, and even cancer.


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