The Philosophy of Microbiology

I like to approach infectious disease and the related field of microbiological from a philosophical perspective by paying special attention to the guiding principles of the science, its axioms, and the standards of inference.  This may make me an odd type of physician, but, to me, it makes the field much more rewarding, fun, intellectually stimulating, and never boring.

Infectious disease and microbiology, like all fields of science and medicine, have an underlying philosophical approach. This approach, in many ways, is decidedly Aristotelian with the evidence of the senses, reason, logic, and valid inductive methodology at their centers. This philosophical framework is relied upon implicitly by practitioners  and seldom is made explicit or discussed in clinical settings.

In my own practice, I have thought a lot about the philosophy of infectious disease medicine and tried to be very mindful of the underlying rationale for the decisions I make when treating patients. When teaching students I overtly devote time to these topics. I was, therefore, excited to read a fascinating new paper from University of Bordeaux philosopher Maureen O'Malley entitled "Microbiology, philosophy and education."

This important paper explores the philosophical issues that are active in the field of microbiology. For example, O'Malley delves into such historical issues that arose with the first intimations of a microbial world such as whether, since dependent on microscopes, observations of microbes were just a technological artifact rather than the observation of actual entities. She also explores the  classification problems posed by the changing microbiological morphology of the same organism and how pure culture techniques helped solve that problem.

O'Malley also juxtaposes the Humean view of causality in which actual causes are discarded in favor of mere regular observances with the Aristotelian view of causes where the nature of entities that are 'difference makers' is responsible for the causal effect. This struggle between Humean correlation and Aristotelian causation is very active today in research involving the microbiome, for example. The transition the Zika virus made from association with microcephaly to definitive cause is another important example. 

O'Malley, who also wrote a book on this topic I am looking forward to reading, makes an argument in this paper that I agree with: that highlighting the philosophical aspects of microbiology works as, in her words, "glue to connect different aspects of microbiology."