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Astrobiology and Philosophy

Introduction: Astrobiology is a scientific discipline becoming better known and discussed in different spheres of knowledge. As a result of this, philosophy is also interested in astrobiology, and here I explain why. First of all, I will try to give a general definition of philosophy.

Secondly, I will explain why philosophy is related to science in general. Finally, I will show you certain problems of philosophical interest that arise from astrobiology: how do you differentiate between the living and the non-living? Join me on this adventure through philosophy to ask more questions like these.

Keywords: philosophy, astrobiology, science, Russell.

About Philosophy

astrobiologia filosofia 1

Image-1. Philosophers.

Philosophy consists of the “(…) always unsatisfied search for knowledge; pilgrimage without rest in pursuit of those horizons of knowledge, which are the truths, glimpsed in the distance (…)” (López de Ipiña, 1987, p. 9). Both López de Ipiña and Russell (an English philosopher) share the thesis that there are problems of a purely philosophical nature.

In this direction, what Russell (2021) shows as a true philosophical problem is the possibility of knowledge and the ways by which it is known. Similarly, for López de Ipiña (1987) philosophy approach begins with these types of questions;

  • “What are the things?
  • What are they for?
  • Why are they like that?
  • What would happen if they did not exist?
  • How did they start to be?
  • Or were they always?” (p. 18).

All these are questions that ask about existence and being, that is, questions about what things are: questions about the definition of things and, therefore, about the knowledge of them. In summary, it is clear that for both authors, philosophy consists, in a broad way, in venturing to answer for the way in which it is known and the validity of the knowledge that is obtained in this way.

Since philosophy, in general, deals with knowledge, it would be appropriate to differentiate it from other disciplines that produce knowledge and mention some relationships between philosophy and these disciplines. First, one must consider the type of knowledge that philosophy produces.

Based on what has been explained by Russell (2021), it can be verified that the knowledge to which philosophy is directed is of a fundamental nature; that is, it is geared toward knowing what is essential for something. Therefore, he is concerned with knowledge itself, that is, having knowledge.

Likewise, philosophy also deals with the foundations, including those of other disciplines. Thus, Russell (2021) reveals a link between philosophy and science in general: epistemology. In general terms, he studies scientific knowledge, which is why it is also called the philosophy of science. At this point, one might ask, what is the philosophy of science about?

Philosophy and Science

Given the above, Blanca Prada (2003) identifies some of the central themes in the philosophy of science. Among the different problems that Prada (2003) covers, such as those dedicated to the methods of knowledge and their validity, the ethical question also appears.

  • Have the sciences nothing to say in relation to values?
  • Can the sciences be totally neutral? (…)
  • Are there limits in science? (…)
  • Can ethical limits be placed on scientific research? (p. 24).

At this point, it becomes evident that ethics is a fundamental part of the philosophical aspects of science in general. In this order of ideas, for Russell (2021), “(…) ethics consists of general principles that help determine the rules of behavior” (p. 299).

Therefore, ethics is not a series of immovable rules of behavior that every human being must fully comply with but tries to establish the theoretical bases from which the rules are later deduced. Regarding this, several investigations that were previously accepted by the academic community are now judged cruel and inhumane. For these reasons, ethics is as important to the philosophy of science as is the study of how science knows things.

Philosophy and Astrobiology

astrobiologia filosofia 2

Image-2. DNA-Universe.

Now, I have already mentioned how philosophy and science, in general, are related, but the relationship between philosophy and astrobiology, in particular, remains to be addressed. First of all, it is necessary to clarify that astrobiology is understood as the study of the past, present, and future of life in the universe (Chon, 2015); therefore, it also contemplates its origin, evolution, and distribution (Aretxaga, 2015).

In addition, some precedents for astrobiology in the history of philosophy can be identified. In this way, the trail reaches Metrodorus, who considered it impossible that there was only one inhabited world in such a vast universe (Chon, 2015). Therefore, certain problems of astrobiology have been present since ancient philosophy.

Still, astrobiology offers a fertile ground for real philosophical questions to germinate. There are at least three problems that seem fundamental: one of an epistemological nature, another of an ethical nature, and the final one of an ontological nature.

The first problem, of a purely epistemological nature, consists of research methods in astrobiology and how it produces knowledge, so the first question that could be asked is whether or not astrobiology is a science.

Russell (2021) has already established that philosophy is in charge of everything that specialized sciences are not in charge of, so each specialized science should have a clear and distinct object of study.

At this point, astrobiology faces a questioning of its essence since its object of investigation does not seem to be proven; rather, it seeks to confirm its existence or not.

Seen in another way, how to study life in the universe if life other than that existing on Earth is not known? “Does Astrobiology really have an object of study?” (Aretxaga, 2015, p. 1086). Furthermore, if life is reduced to that which is present on Earth, wouldn’t terrestrial life be the object of study of biology rather than that of astrobiology?

The second problem is of the order of ethics because some research in astrobiology could imply interventions in life formation processes or could change the environmental conditions of the body being studied

As highlighted by Aretxaga (2015), the ethical aspects of astrobiology are closely related to environmental ethics.” Since the beginning of the space age (…), there has been a real risk of planetary contamination by microorganisms, both from our planet and from other environments” (Aretxaga, 2015, p. 1103).

At this point in the philosophical inquiry, questions arise as to whether there should be an exclusive ethic for astrobiology. Questions also arise regarding the application of an existing ethic in philosophy, such as the one derived from some environmental and animal rights movements.

The third problem is of an ontological order since it deals with the very definition of life and, therefore, inquires about living beings, non-living beings, and their essential differences. After all, if astrobiology studies life and its evolution in the universe, then it must be founded on a universal definition of life that satisfies the research objective.

However, the concept of life seems difficult to define unanimously. In this regard, try looking up the definition of “life” in a dictionary and see how wide and tangled the question is. For example, while some ancient thinkers said that life was a force that allowed movement, NASA Astrobiology (2022) defines it as a self-sufficient chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.

Ultimately, philosophy can help clarify the boundaries between the philosophical and astrobiological aspects of the issues and problems that arise from this discipline.

In conclusion, astrobiology holds many problems that are of interest to philosophers and philosophy, so I invite you to join this adventure of thought and try to propose more problems and some solutions to the questions that I have raised in this article.

In subsequent posts, I will go deeper into the questions that are left open here and, if applicable, the problems that you suggest.

References:

  • Aretxaga, R. (2015). Hacia una filosofía de la astrobiología. Pensamiento. Revista de investigación e información filosófica, 71 (269), 1083-1118.
  • Chon, O. (2015). Historia y naturaleza disciplinar de la astrobiología. Revista desafíos, 4(1), 29-35.
  • López de Ipiña, E. (1987). Historia de la filosofía. Síntesis didáctica. (1ra ed.). Editorial del Búho LTDA.
  • NASA Astrobiology. (2022). Nasa.gov 
  • Prada, B. (2003). Epistemología, universidad, ética y valores. (1ra ed.). División editorial y de publicaciones UIS.
  • Russell, B. (2021). Fundamentos de filosofía. (1ra ed.). (R. Crespo, trad.). Penguin Random House Grupo Editoral.

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Victor Hugo Mendoza Santos
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Student-Department of Philosophy. - Mars on Earth Project MoEP-Colombia Chapter - Volunteer and Author.

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