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Metaphysics through a biological lens

Philosophers receive $2.1 million international research grant


Professor Kenneth Waters is a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Logic and the Philosophy of Science. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

By Heath McCoy 

As a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Logic and the Philosophy of Science, professor Kenneth Waters is unabashed about his ambitions for the University of Calgary’s Department of Philosophy.

“The aim is to make this university the best place in the world for research and training in the practice-centered philosophy of biology,” Waters says.

To be sure, the department has recently made great strides towards achieving that goal thanks to a $2.1 million USD grant from the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization that encourages dialogue between philosophers, scientists and theologians in order to study the “big questions” about the universe.

The project, entitled From Biological Practice to Scientific Metaphysics, will fund four principal investigators from four universities, with Waters and the University of Calgary among them.  The other researchers include Alan Love from the University of Minnesota, Marcel Weber from the University of Geneva, and William Wimsatt from the universities of Minnesota and Chicago.

The core team will lead three summer institutes, including one at the University of Calgary in 2017, devoted to examining practices in the biological sciences with an eye towards metaphysical questions – including the question of whether the living world is ultimately based on a simple overall structure.

“We are going to investigate how biological science is practiced,” Waters explains. “We’re taking a critical look at science in action, rather than just analyzing the explanations and products of science.”

“Consider genetics, for example. In that practice, scientists use sophisticated techniques to manipulate and investigate, but they don’t have that grand theory as to how it all fits together. And it’s important to understand that. The ultimate nature of organisms is not to be these perfect, simple machines. Indeed, organisms have a bewildering complexity.”  

“Society looks to science to help solve complex problems,” Waters adds.  “If we think the world has a simple structure, we’re going to think there are simple solutions, and that’s not the way the world works. Having the right metaphysics is important.”

Over the course of the three-year project, the total grant amount of $2,102,390 USD will fund the summer institutes, public lectures, and peer reviewed articles, as well as the hiring of post doctoral Fellows and graduate students. The Calgary research team will include professor Marc Ereshefsky, who is also a philosopher of biology at the University of Calgary.

“We are putting our graduate students and post doctoral Fellows into science labs as philosophical investigators,” Waters says. “They’re not going to be doing experiments but rather trying to understand how these biological practices really work.”

Waters is keenly aware that in today’s technological world, the importance of philosophy is often undervalued. He makes a strong case for the continued relevance of the discipline.

“Every great university in the world has had a spectacular philosophy department,” he notes. “For example, Oxford, MIT and Stanford. We want the University of Calgary to be a great university, and philosophy needs to be a part of that. We have philosophers here who work in medical ethics, math and logic, philosophy of money, and, of course, science. An excellent philosophy department will have its fingers out across the university and direct attention towards big issues that should be driving research. Philosophers can also offer illuminating perspectives for societies that are looking to universities to help solve complex problems.”

“Philosophy is right in the heart of things.”