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  • Artificial Life and Philosophy
  • Alvaro Moreno (bio)

Artificial Life is developing into a new type of discipline, based on computational construction as its main tool for exploring and producing a science of life "as it could be." In this area of research, the generation of complex virtual systems, in place of the traditional empirical domain, has become the actual object of theory. This entails a profound change in the traditional relationship between ontological, epistemological and methodological levels of analysis, which forces us to reconsider the differences apparently firmly established between science and philosophy. Even if the frontiers between these two kinds of knowledge do not completely disappear, new, dynamic, complex, technologically mediated interactions are being developed between them.

Artificial Life (A-Life) has been defined as the study of all possible life through its artificial production. This definition raises three important issues: First is the very sense of the term "study," for A-Life is not only an epistemic or a purely theoretical process but also a technical activity, because in A-Life the objects of study are literally created through technological action. Second, the actual meaning of "lifelike systems" (or systems that show "lifelike" behavior) becomes much more complex (and controversial) than in traditional biology, since this concept has become understood in a much wider sense than that of empirically real biological systems. Thus, as C. Emmeche has pointed out, A-Life is founded as a modal discipline, establishing as its own objective the study of life "as it could be" and not simply "as we know it" (even if we include here any extraterrestrial forms of life that might be discovered in the future) [1]. Last, but not least, the idea of "artificiality" should also be subject to examination. In addition to its generic sense of human construction, the term artificial has a double-sided peculiarity in the context of A-Life. On the one hand, it has a paradoxical meaning, resulting from the idea that such humanly constructed systems should be capable—like natural living beings—of exhibiting creativity. So-called emergent behavior, capabilities, morphology, etc., sought by A-Life designers must be understood precisely as a form of indirect human creation [2], what Langton has described as "getting the humans out of the loop," designing artifacts able to perform nontrivial, unpredictable activities, so that the machine itself could appear as if it were endowed with creativity. That is to say, one of the essential features of A-Life is that the artificially created system should display some type of agency, which allows us to speak (without falling into contradiction, although somewhat paradoxically) of autonomy in such cases. And on the other hand, artificial has the peculiar meaning (not exclusive but prevailing), as in artificial intelligence (AI), of virtual "construction" as opposed to physical realization [3].

The complex combination of all these elements has provided A-Life with an identity as a separate discipline, distinct not only from traditional biology but also from the whole set of traditional empirical sciences. The idea that a living entity subject to study is to be generated by a human agent—and, furthermore, in a computational universe—is truly suggestive; nevertheless, it also brings up many novel issues and challenges.

A-Life as a Computational Research Project

Although A-Life is not necessarily to be understood as a computational science, its major research activity takes place in the computational domain. As mentioned above, the most prevalent meaning of the term artificial in A-Life research specifically refers to the generation of virtual systems in the computational universe. As a matter of fact, this feature is not original to A-Life. For the past 50 years there has been a strong tradition in the general study of different types of systems that makes a radical distinction between the informational-organizational aspects of a system and its energetic-material ones. This distinction already existed at the core of such disciplines as cybernetics, computer and systems sciences and AI. These disciplines share with A-Life a common approach based on the idea that the material or energetic aspects of an organization do not affect its logical essence. Hence, even the admitted necessity of...


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pp. 401-405
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