"My own feeling is that his work is of considerable philosophical significance and should not be excluded from the field of philosophy," says David Reeve, chair of Reed’s philosophy department. Reeve notes that some others in the field question Bedau's work, "although the questions are not hostile, but rather along the lines of is it philosophy or is it science?"
Bedau is not interested in scuttling traditional philosophy ("I don't want to do anything that would put philosophers out of work," he says) but rather in getting philosophers to see that computer experiments and simulations can aid their inquiries. He makes a parallel to the more traditional disciplines, such as formal logic, that are associated with philosophy. "It's not that philosophy is logic, it's that philosophers use logic. I think the same thing should happen with computational thought experiments—they're just another tool like logic."
Clearly, Bedau's computational thought experiments fall into a borderline area that bridges the conventional disciplines of philosophy and science. The interdisciplinary nature of his work is illustrated by his attempt to resurrect the age-old question of what is life by relying on both philosophic and scientific tools.
There are many different definitions of life, but Bedau portrays it as "a supple and flexible adaptation to unpredictable changes in the environment." In a chapter he contributed to the book The Philosophy of Artificial Life (Oxford University Press, 1996), he writes that "what is distinctive of life is the way in which adaptive evolution automatically fashions new and intelligent strategies for surviving and flourishing as local contexts change."
Bedau acknowledges that the task of creating models of artificial life that capture the elusive nature of living systems is enormously challenging. "It's amazing how much we don't know about life. For example, when you measure the way life has made adaptations over the eons and then compare this with present-day models of artificial life, they are qualitatively different. We are missing some fundamental insight into the way evolution creates adaptive structures. The $64,000 question is how can you model this unbounded creativity of the biosphere?"
This, and a quest to use computational philosophy to answer the question of "what it is to have a mind," occupy Bedau these days. In addition to teaching at Reed and at Portland State University (where he is an adjunct member of the systems science faculty), he is trying to finish a book on artificial life for MIT Press.
Bedau comes to philosophy more naturally than most. His father, Hugo, was a philosophy professor in the era of "academic mobility." The family led a peripatetic life as the elder Bedau was first at Dartmouth, then Princeton, Harvard, Reed, Princeton again, and finally Tufts.