Philosophers of science examine the nature of scientific phenomena and practices, as well as the social and ethical implications of science. With respect to astrobiology, there are three broad areas of interest to philosophers.
First, philosophers are interested in certain metaphysical questions about life and origins of life research. What are the defining characteristics of life? If we were to search for “alternative” life forms, what exactly would we look for? What is “intelligence” and how would we know when we had found it on another planet?
Second, philosophers of science examine epistemological questions about scientific knowledge and evidence in origins of life research. This includes questions such as: how do we choose between competing scientific theories about the origins of life? Are theories about the origins of life empirically testable? What would count as evidence for or against a particular hypothesis? Are emerging sciences, such as astrobiology, different than other more mature sciences and, if so, how?
Finally, philosophers are also concerned with the social and ethical implications of astrobiology research. Does some research (such as attempts to create artificial life or protocells) pose risks to human health or the environment? If risky consequences are possible, how should we assess those risks in pursing such research, particularly if there are significant uncertainties? If life is discovered on another planet, will it be the sort of thing that deserves moral consideration? That is, will be have to worry about how we treat alternative life forms and/or their habitat?
Philosophers at MSU’s ARBC work on exactly these questions. Sara Waller specializes in metaphysics and philosophy of mind, especially questions related to intelligence. Prasanta Bandyophadyay’s work focuses on epistemological questions related to evidence for origins of life theories. Kristen Intemann examines ethical and social implications of origins of life research.
The Philosophy & Astrobiology Focus Group, comprised of faculty, graduate students, and some exceptional post-baccalaureate students in the disciplines of philosophy and chemistry, began in 2006. The mission of its weekly meetings is to address the philosophical implications of the origin of life issues and to do collaborative, interdisciplinary research that results in papers and presentations with transdisciplinary relevance. This interface between these two disciples helped students like Shawn McGlynn (Chemistry & Bio-Chemistry), Olin Robus (Philosophy major), and Nathan Heydan (Philosophy & Physics major) to publish several collaborative papers and give joint poster presentations. At Ab-Sci-Con 2010, Prasanta Bandyopadhyay, Gordon Brittan, Trevor Beard and Shawn McGlynn presented a successful paper on the emerging nature of astrobiogy as a new discipline focusing on the RNA world and Metabolism first theories. Sara Waller presented a poster on the controversial nature of intelligence and our search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Kristen Intemann is currently researching the social and ethical implications of artificial life. Bandyopadhyay and Beard have also been working on some of the bearings of the “Simpson’s Paradox” on synthetic biology and the origin of life issues. In the future, the group plans to increase its collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts beyond the MSU campus, videoconferencing with the Astrobiology focus group at the University of Washington, inviting speakers and panelists to converse on a variety of topics, and providing a venue for interdisciplinary graduate students and post-doctoral students (as well as current members) to expand their knowledge of the points of intersection between these disciplines, and publish work that benefits this and many related fields.