International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M460
Organized session / standard talks
Life, the Universe and All That: Taking Astrobiology Seriously

Kelly Smith (Clemson University, United States)

It seems reasonable to suppose that finding extraterrestrial life would likely rank as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. Now that NASA has officially predicted that this will probably happen within the next 20 years, the time is ripe for serious researchers to turn their attentions to the unique problems and perspectives that would be presented by the discovery of extraterrestrial life. How would this cast old scientific and philosophical questions in a new light? What sorts of problems unique to astrobiology might benefit from the efforts of researchers in the humanities? This session will explore some of these issues with an eye to building an ongoing research community within ISHPSSB.

Astrobiology and the nature of the question about minimal chemical life

Mark Bedau (Reed College, United States)

I assume for the sake of argument that the expected results of astrobiology include convincing evidence for the existence of life forms (animate beings) that arose completely independently of all currently known life forms on Earth. These expected results raise anew and potentially illuminate the notoriously controversial question (Question #1): What is the nature of life (especially minimal chemical life)? The notoriety of Question #1 itself raises a further meta-question (Question #2): What is the nature of Question #1? We can distinguish two broad approaches to answering Question #2: a Cartesian approach that seeks something like necessary and sufficient conditions for being animate (being a life form), and an Aristotelian approach that seeks something like the best overall unified explanation of the full range of phenomena associated with life, including its typical hallmarks, its borderline cases, and any important philosophical and scientific questions it raises. The Cartesian and Aristotelian approaches tend to exclude each other, and most discussion of Questions #1 and #2 are explicitly or tacitly Cartesian. I argue that the expected results of astrobiology fits best with the Aristotelian approach to the question about the nature of life (Question #2).

Finding value outside Earth

David Suarez Pascal (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico)

Some researchers (McLaughlin, 2001, 2002; Bedau, 1992, 1993, 2003) have illustrated the axiological dimension of the biological concept of function and its employment seems to pervade life sciences, specially evolutionary biology (Suarez-Pascal, work in progress). This talk will focus on the perspectives of applying the same value-centered perspective to entities and processes beyond these which earthly biologist are used to, and on its implications for understanding ET-life.

Philosophy through an astrobiological lens

Kelly Smith (Clemson University, United States)

Astrobiology offers a new perspective through which to view a number of old problems in Philosophy and Theoretical Biology. I will outline a few of the ways adopting a thoroughly astrobiological perspective can enrich ongoing philosophical discussions. First and most obviously, the search for life on other planets elevates questions concerning the nature and extent of life to prominence and frames them in a new light. Second, there are deep epistemic questions about the scientific status of a discipline which, for all its promise, has only a single data point. Finally, there are a series of ethical questions, not merely about how we should treat extraterrestrial life should we find it, but potentially also the metaethical basis of moral value.