Thinking about life in the universe…

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I’d like to share some thoughts from a new book by my colleague in astrobiology, Milan CirkovicThe Astrobiological Landscape: Philosophical Foundations of the Study of Cosmic Life. I’ve just begun to read it, and I already know it will be a pleasure.

In his introduction, Milan says his aim is to demonstrate that in a young field of research such as astrobiology, “foundational philosophical and methodological questions can play a very stimulating and inspirational role.” Thus he opens the doors of inquiry wide….

“But danger also lurks in bringing such philosophical perspectives to the fascinating issues of contemporary astrobiology,” he notes. “One should be wary of an almost reflexive tendency in works of philosophy to present them as though the authors believe them to be the final word on their subject. This comforting illusion would be self-indulgent, even in much better developed fields than astrobiology…. Sadly, this has not prevented some authors from writing in this way.” (Want examples? Read the book.)

His book, he says, “should be understood, in the literal sense, as a philosophical exploration [Milan’s emphasis] of perplexing issues arising from contemporary research on the origin, existence and future of life in its widest cosmological context.””

“Conceptual completeness is overrated, anyway” – amen! – “even in well-established realms of knowledge,” he says. “Half-baked ideas that cohere in tone and attitude have more often been fruitful seeds of novelty and sources of inspiration than volumes of well- developed ‘grand systems’…. Those who insist on completeness in the tangled reality of the history of ideas look,” he observes, “more often than not, akin to Shigalyev, a tragicomic character in Dostoevsky’s Demons: a disturbingly persuasive fool, who argues that if people do not devote exactly ten weeks to listening to his universal theory of society and liberty, they can go home and forget about political activism, since there can be no viable alternative to his programme.”

Thanks for that, Milan! (And I hope you’ll pardon me for quoting so heavily, as you say it so well.)

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