Monday, August 23, 2010

Astrobiology - A Natural Philosophy?

In his book, Lonely Planets, David Grinspoon states "The odd status of astrobiology in the suite of sciences can, I think, be understood by realizing that it is not yet science, exactly, but still natural philosophy."

I think I felt a little opposed to this statement at first, as it seemed at first sight to debase astrobiology in the eyes of a young scientist.  Then, after thinking about the true nature of my interests in astrobiology, I realized I agree with Dr. Grinspoon.  A natural philosophy of astrobiology, as opposed to a natural science in the common connotation, may not only consider the scientific approach to the study of life in the universe, but may lead us to ask some much larger (or at least, much different) questions than objective science and modern scientific methodology can answer.  Taking a natural philosophy approach to the study of life means blending the science of astrobiology with the philosophy of astrobiology.  How can we come to know about life?  What questions must we ask to learn more?  Is the scientific method of modern times the best approach to learning about the unknown?  As a trained young scientist, I love the scientific method and the rigors of experimentation, but it may be that, for the time being, we need to take a step back and get to know ourselves while we try to learn about something else.  Galileo Galilei really upturned the age-old Aristotelian approach to the study of the natural world.  Galileo utilized experimentation to investigate prior speculations.  He was conducting science.  The natural philosophy of the past began to fade not too long after and modern science was born.  But perhaps we need a broader approach to the study of life.  Back to Dr. Grinspoon:

"During the Enlightenment, science grew out of natural philosophy and took on a life of its own.  In an unconstrained field like astrobiology, where our ignorance so outweighs our knowledge that we are not even sure how to ask the right questions, we can benefit from hearkening back to the earlier approach.  Our innocence in the ways of the universe demands that we be natural philosophers again."
-David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets 

Cosmobiology may be gaining some steam in regards to acceptance by the scientific body at large, but there is much about our integrative approach to the study of life that takes it beyond the scientific realm.
In some ways our past defaults to anthropocentrism show us that we may be too ignorant about some deeper truths in the vast universal ocean to really understand all that lies beyond our cosmic shores.  I'm in no way inciting the supernatural here, but it may be that we need to really open up the boundaries of modern science when it comes to exploring life beyond Earth because, otherwise, we may be blinding ourselves with our own forced ideologies and objections.

The question "Are we alone in the universe?" seems like it would warrant a simple 'yes or no' answer (and perhaps someday it will), but in the modern time our ability to begin elucidating an answer relies heavily on whether or not we can blend what we know with what we think we know and what we really don't know.  It's that last bit that gives us trouble.  How can we blend what we don't know into what we do know?  And how can we determine if what we think we know is true or false or something in between?  This is where the natural philosophy side of cosmobiology comes into play.  We can use the objective inquiry and rigorous experimentation and examination of science to chip away at little bits of knowledge and continue to feed our cumulative understanding, but, by taking a step back and examining the character of our study and how we've come to know what we know, we may find there is more to the question of the study of life beyond Earth than simply, "Are we alone?"

"An awareness of the limits of science is especially important when we skirt close to its edge." 
- David Grinspoon, Lonely Planets

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