Synthesizing insight: Artificial life as thought experimentation in biology

Biology and Philosophy 24 (5):687-701 (2009)
What is artificial life? Much has been said about this interesting collection of efforts to artificially simulate and synthesize lifelike behavior and processes, yet we are far from having a robust philosophical understanding of just what Alifers are doing and why it ought to interest philosophers of science, and philosophers of biology in particular. In this paper, I first provide three introductory examples from the particular subset of artificial life I focus on, known as ‘soft Alife’ (s-Alife), and follow up with a more in-depth review of the Avida program, which serves as my case study of s-Alife. Next, I review three well-known accounts of thought experiments, and then offer my own synthesized account, to make the argument that s-Alife functions as thought experimentation in biology. I draw a comparison between the methodology of the thought-experimental world that yields real-world results, and the s-Alife research that informs our understanding of natural life. I conclude that the insights provided by s-Alife research have the potential to fundamentally alter our understanding of the nature of organic life and thus deserve the attention of both philosophers and natural scientists.
Keywords Philosophy   Evolutionary Biology   Philosophy of Biology
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DOI 10.1007/s10539-009-9156-z
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