After giving his presentation Bedau realized he had to couch his findings in the "protocol" of the group he was addressing. "In philosophy, the protocol is to describe theories with words and write a paper. In science, the protocol is to couch them in computer models and illustrate them with transparencies."
Bedau decided to try illustrating his theory with an old computer model his college roommate and subsequent collaborator, Norman Packard ’77 had developed. The pair worked feverishly on the model the night after the presentation to graph their results. "The result was an astonishing picture of what I call ‘telic waves’—patterns that were visible proof of the adaptations in evolving living systems.
"I learned how much insight I could gain into my philosophical theory through computer models. I'd been thinking about these questions for years, but there were still basic discoveries that I hadn't made. I didn't have any idea that these patterns were there waiting to be discovered."
Because the computer is an integral part of his work, it's not surprising that many of the students Bedau has worked with or who have taken his latest course are not philosophy majors at all, but rather math and science majors. (See story about Shareen Joshi, page X.) Bedau has also collaborated with a number of Reed students on other projects in this area and has published more than 20 papers on artificial life, many with former students as co-authors.
Interest in the field is clearly growing as is the sophistication of the computers and the computer models being harnessed to the task. However the problem remains intrinsically philosphophical. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have been asking fundamental questions about the nature of living things. In 300 B.C. Aristotle declared, "The actuality of thought is life." Today, Mark Bedau and powerful computers are embarking upon an exciting new field of discovery about what life and learning really mean.
Deborah Rankin is a financial writer whose work regularly appears in the New York Times.