Last year Bedau, associate professor of philosophy and humanities, taught a class at Reed on the philosophical relevance of artificial life, the first time such a course was ever offered on an American campus. "The field is new enough for students at the undergraduate level to see what the forefront of knowledge is," he says. "In purely scientific fields such as physics, math, and biology, you might need to be a post-doc before you get that opportunity."
Artificial life tries to capture the essential processes common to broad classes of lifelike systems by building computer models that reduce these systems to their most basic elements. Then, by designing and running thousands of computer behavior simulations, artificial life tries to understand how and under what conditions "lifelike" behavior emerges. Examples include a model called "Boids," in which flocks of bird-like agents emerge from a collection of individual flight patterns, and a model called "Tierra," in which complex ecologies emerge when Tierran "creatures" compete for space and mutate over time.
Bedau thinks of these computer simulations as "computational thought experiments" and compares them to the hypothetical "what if" questions posed by traditional armchair philosophers. The difference is that while traditional philosophers answer their "what if" questions by their cerebral exertions alone, these thought experiments rely on computers to calculate what will occur in a complex network of interactions. "Unaided human reasoning is at a loss to tell what will happen" in these philosophical inquiries, he says. "Yet these are precisely the kind of experiments we must perform to investigate long-standing philosophical puzzles."
Artificial life is analogous to its precursor, artificial intelligence—perhaps best personified by the IBM computer model called "Big Blue," which defeated Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov in a celebrated series of matches. But while both artificial intelligence and artificial life have scientific and philosophical implications, artificial intelligence is concerned with cognitive processes such as reasoning and memory; artificial life, on the other hand, is concerned with processes that characterize living systems, such as learning, adaptation, and self-reproduction.
This is definitely an unconventional approach to philosophy, and it has its critics as well as its supporters. Young people, says Bedau, usually have no misgivings about his work and can see the potential. On the other hand, older and more traditional observers can be skeptical.