Philosophy

Ethical and Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology

Supervisor

Prof Tim Mulgan
Dr Emily Parke

Discipline

Philosophy

Project code: ART020

Astrobiologists study the nature, origin, and distribution of life in the universe. This project’s supervisors have overlapping research interests in astrobiology, especially regarding the search for extra-terrestrial life. Tim Mulgan’s interest extends his work on obligations to future people and environmental ethics. His project asks whether obligations to extra-terrestrial life might constrain human attempts to colonise the galaxy. Can we balance risks of destroying extra-terrestrial life against costs of foregoing vital extra-terrestrial resources? Can we adapt existing theories in environmental philosophy (designed exclusively for terrestrial life) to cover extra-terrestrial life? Emily Parke’s interest in astrobiology regards conceptual issues spanning philosophy and science. In particular, she is investigating the theoretical and empirical roles the concept of ‘life’ plays in astrobiology, and how analogue models on earth (both biological and geological) inform the search for life in the universe. How do assumptions about life as we know it, on earth, drive (and bias) the search for extra-terrestrial life?

These two threads are unified by a common foundational question: How do we even know what counts as extra-terrestrial life in the first place? Our joint astrobiological interests may lead to future joint publications and projects, with this summer project as a starting point. 

Scholar’s Work


Astrobiology is a highly interdisciplinary field, so the literature relevant to our projects comes from a range of disciplines and forums. Some debates occur in mainstream academic journals and monographs, but there is also a lot of high quality debate online. Our summer scholar will undertake a comprehensive literature review – tracking down and summarising articles, books, and online discussions that are relevant to our two projects. We will meet with the summer scholar at the outset to explain our interests and provide a comprehensive list of starting points (relevant journals, databases, blogs etc.), and then meet regularly to discuss her/his progress.

The scholar will produce a resource that can be circulated to other interested scholars (for which the scholar would be given full credit), as well as feeding into our own future (singular or joint) publications.

It makes sense to have a single summer scholar doing this work for both of us. Although our projects have different emphases, the same materials will often be relevant for both. Also, this combined project will give the scholar a broader expertise, covering both scientific and ethical issues relating to astrobiology.

Required Skills/Pre-requisites

The main skills required are (a) the ability to pursue independent research using academic databases and the internet, (b) a good undergraduate training in philosophy, preferably including philosophy of science and/or ethics (so that the scholar will know what kind of material is likely to be of interest to us), (c) the ability to synthesise material and provide clear summaries. Some background in one or more scientific disciplines related to astrobiology (such as earth sciences, astronomy, microbiology, evolutionary biology, or chemistry) would be an advantage, but is not a requirement. A prior interest in astrobiology or future ethics would also be an advantage, but is not a requirement.

Applicants should address these required skills in their application and indicate if they have been in touch with the proposed supervisor.

 

Contesting credibility: social epistemology and political discourse

Supervisor

Matheson Russell

Discipline

Philosophy

Project code: ART021

Have political discourse and rational argumentation parted ways? It is common today for commentators to assert that political discourse has descended into name-calling, point-scoring, and virtue-signalling. The lack of ability shown by political leaders to engage in constructive dialogue is lamented. No doubt these trends are real to some extent, and they are lamentable. However, my current research explores the hypothesis that political discourse specialises in processing conflicts of a different kind than those processed in ordinary arguments—namely, conflicts over who is credible as a source of knowledge and practical insight—and that this explains in part why political discourse takes the form that it does. The research is interdisciplinary, spanning political philosophy (esp. deliberative democracy), political science, social epistemology, philosophy of language, argumentation theory, communication theory, and social psychology.

Scholar’s Work

The Summer Scholar will contribute to the development of the research in two ways. First, the Scholar will examine source materials (in print and other media) to analyse real political communication and consider its nature and functions. Second, the Scholar will undertake literature reviews in academic fields relevant to specific aspects the research project. (These will be decided in dialogue with the Scholar and tailored to suit the Scholar’s background and interests.)

Required Skills/Pre-requisites

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Ability to analyse and summarize scholarly articles
  • An interest in political philosophy and/or social epistemology and/or philosophy of language
  • Competence in bibliographic searching and the use of research tools such as Google Scholar, PhilPapers, Philosopher’s Index.
  • Ability to organise workflow and work to deadlines.

Applicants should address these required skills in their application and indicate if they have been in touch with the proposed supervisor.