The research program at the Chair is articulated around two major axes: (1) philosophical research that concerns the epistemology of the origins of life and (2) computational approaches to textual analysis in philosophy. In addition, other extant or past research projects include work on the notion of scientific explanation, scientific pluralism, in particular in behavioral biology, or on the notion of biodiversity in functional ecology.
Axis 1. Epistemology of the origins of life
By mobilizing the methodologies of the history and philosophy of science, this research axis aims to shed new light on the very first evolutionary mechanisms at the centre of one of the most fascinating scientific problems: the origins of life. Chemical evolution is conceived as a set of evolutionary processes capable of explaining, in a naturalistic setting, the transition from non-living matter to living matter. For some, such chemical evolution is a simple transposition of Darwinian evolution by natural selection to the chemical world that preceded life. For others, chemical evolution is, above all, a matter of chemical reactions and self-organizing processes that do not hinge on Darwinian evolution. The research objectives are to explore, in particular, the following questions: Under which conditions can we legitimately transpose a Darwinian biological evolutionary process to chemical entities? Which specific modalities of Darwinian evolution does it make sense to envision in a chemical world? What would paradigmatically Darwinian chemical systems look like? How can we identify the presence of a Darwinian process at the chemical level, both in the laboratory and in fossil traces dating from the early Earth? Would chemical systems be capable of evolving according to processes that are only marginally Darwinian, if not Darwinian? Research at the Chair contributes to:
- A cartography of the different modalities of Darwinian evolution that is susceptible of playing a role in the transition towards life
- An analysis of non-Darwinian evolutionary processes that are equally plausible in a scenario of the origin of life, and likely to act in concert with or alternately to Darwinian processes
- The identification of prebiotically plausible chemical systems and the characterization of their evolutionary modalities, Darwinian or not
- An examination of the explanatory power of Darwinian evolution in the context of the origins of life
Complementary themes have also been explored, such as:
- The question of the definition of life, by defending a multidimensional gradualist conception of “lifeness”
- The articulation of the concept of tree of life with that of the origin of life, in particular by exploring the roots of the tree of life
- The question of the emergent or (on the opposite) explanatory reductive character of the transition from non-living matter to living matter
After being financed through the UQAM strategic research chair program in 2015-2016, the project is currently funded through the Canada Research Chair program (2016-2020) and by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2018-2021).
Axis 2. Philosophy and digital humanities
This axis includes research in the philosophy of science and in the history of the philosophy of science that makes use of computational text-mining methodologies (including topic-modeling, conceptual analysis, network analysis, argument-mining). Several projects are in progress:
- A characterization of the scientific field of origins of life research, in particular through topic-modeling analyses of the main journals in the field (Origins of Life and Evolution of Biosphere, Astrobiology and Life).
- Conceptual analyses of the notions of “chemical evolution” and “scientific plausibility” (which seems to play a significant epistemic role in astrobiology and, increasingly, in other scientific fields as well).
- Conceptual analyses on the notions of “explanation”, “model”, “simulation”, “causality” and “understanding” in biology (in particular on the BioMed corpus).
- Studies that fall within the field of the history of the philosophy of science, in particular a cartography of research themes in the philosophy of science from the 1930s until today (based on the full text corpus of Philosophy of Science, the British Journal of Philosophy of Science, Synthese, Erkenntnis, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, International Studies in Philosophy of Science, Journal for General Philosophy of Science, European Journal of Philosophy of Science) as well as analyzes of author networks on the basis of the thematic content of their publications.
Among the studies realized so far:
- An overview of 80 years of philosophy of science research through computational textual analyses of the full-text content of 8 major journals of the field (project page).
- A topical analysis of 30 years of the journal Biology and Philosophy that reveals the major research trends in the philosophy of biology since the 1980s (project page).
- A characterization of the semantic content of the journal Philosophy of Science with topic associative rules (project page).
Projects funded by a grant from Fonds Canadiens pour l’Innovation (FCI) (2019-2021). Work in collaboration with the Bureau des Initiatives Numériques du CIRST.
Other interests and research projects
Explanation, complexity, epistemic opacity. A first area of research concerns scientific explanation in the biological sciences. The objective is to analyze the limits of the mechanistic model of explanation when it is applied to complex biological systems (e.g. in molecular biology, ecology or behavioral biology). A second area concerns the epistemic opacity of AI models (e.g. machine learning). The objective is to analyze the explainability of such models, especially when they are used in science, not only as tools for discovery, but as new theoretical formalizations. In collaboration with HumanIA. Among the outcomes:
- Collective volume Explanation in Biology. An Enquiry into the Diversity of Explanatory Patterns in the Life Sciences (2015)
- The Biology of Behavior. Explanatory Pluralism Across the Life Sciences Conference (Mai 10-11, 2018)
Epistemology of biodiversity concepts. In collaboration with Frédéric Bouchard (University of Montreal), the project sought to characterize the notion of “biodiversity”, particularly in functional ecology, by mobilizing philosophical work on the notion of “function”. This project was funded by a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2014-2018).
- Functional Diversity. Epistemic Issues Conference (Nov, 9-10, 2016).