Due to the latest technological advances in genetic engineering and space technology, scientists have developed strategies to engineer novel biological systems in laboratories, and to study through space telescopes the signs of possible life from other planets and solar systems. These newly discovered biological possibilities may turn out to be epoch-making.
Apart from challenging our notion of life, these emerging fields also have fundamental philosophical implications. So far, the characteristic problems discussed by philosophy of science have been, more often than not, framed in terms of actual entities, processes and systems. In contrast, the expanding horizon of various biological possibilities provides an appealing testing ground for metaphysical inquiry. The project aims to study the modal dimension of science by joining the forces of philosophy of science and naturalistic metaphysics – grounding this endeavour on a study of how scientists seek to construct and gain knowledge of possible life. In this sense, the project is a proof of principle project in philosophy of science about “modal science”, which has an impact beyond biology by researching how scientists investigate the possible.
Possible Life as Modal Biology
All life can be thought to reside within a space of possible life. This space has been explored on Earth for at least the last 3.5 billion years by natural evolution. Synthetic biologists aim to engineer living systems that push life in directions where evolution has not been heading. If there is actualized alien life, we cannot directly explore or manipulate it, apart from some planets in our own solar system. The scientific probing of these new possibilities is rich in its conceptually groundbreaking potential and challenges us to reorient philosophy of science towards biological possibilia and other modalities.
The project involves two levels of reflection. First, the project examines the emerging fields of synthetic biology and astrobiology. The key themes studied include unnatural biochemical bases and organizational principles of life, synthetic life, evolutionary possibilities and constraints, and the habitability of exoplanets. Empirical studies in six leading laboratories in Europe and the US are used to inform the study of these themes. Second, the research on possible life is employed as a resource for the development of philosophical theory. The three philosophical subprojects examine (i) modelling and simulating the possible, (ii) multiple realizability of biological kinds, and (iii) modal notions in biology.
Modeling is the scientific practice that is most intimately connected to the study of possibilities. The project examines how modelers examine various kinds of possibilities on the basis of scarce or even non-existent data. Another important aim is to formulate an account of modeling that would better address the modal dimension of modeling, given that the existing accounts mostly concentrate on representing and explaining actual systems.
Multiple realizability of cognitive and other biological functions has been a generally accepted thesis among philosophers. More recently, philosophers of science have questioned it on empirical grounds, arguing that the focus should be on actual instead of hypothetical realizations. The project answers this challenge by studying philosophically the empirical strategies through which synthetic biologists and astrobiologists study whether life could be multiply realizable.
Modalities subproject studies synthetic biology and astrobiology through the modal notions of possibility, contingency and necessity. What do synthetic biology and astrobiology tell us about universalism and constraints in biology? Should we expect certain designs to be universal or necessary to all life, or is life heavily contingent?
Philosophy of Science Meets Scientific Practice
The project will advance our understanding of the modal dimension of science by addressing a paramount case – life. The project draws together and develops diverse strands in theorizing of the possible within philosophy of science and metaphysics. Through an unconventional combination of philosophical and empirical analysis the project seeks to facilitate the application of metaphysical concepts to cutting-edge scientific research.