144 ELSI/Tokyo Tech opens a path for a philosopher

From April 2017 to March 2018, I had the privilege to spend one year at ELSI (Earth-Life Science Institute) as a postdoctoral research fellow for the EON (ELSI Origins Network) project. Launched in 2012, ELSI is one of the most successful interdisciplinary research institutes attracting some of the best scientists around the globe working on the origins and evolution of life. I was always fascinated with the mysteries of life and often pondered about the meaning of life, but I had never dreamt of working at a science institute surrounded by the best scientists in the world who are at the forefront of unlocking the fundamental questions concerning the origins of life. That is why it was really quite dreamlike when I was employed as the first philosopher at ELSI.

20170222_141531s.jpgDr. Yuko Ishihara

Questions concerning the origins of life can be distinguished into three levels. At the bottom level lies the historical inquiry of how life actually originated on earth -- from astrophysics, geophysics, geochemistry, biochemistry to biology. Researchers here deal with matters of fact. While most researchers at ELSI focus on this level of research, many are also interested in the second level, where one studies complex systems or ALife simulations. The main interest here is not so much on the facts per se, but on the patterns one can discern within and across disciplines. Instead of the question how did life originate on earth, the main question here is how can life originate at all? There is, however, a further level of research that essentially pertains to origin of life research. Here we ask: What is the nature of life, of self-organization and emergence? Abstracting from matters of fact and patterns, this is where we can take a further step back and question the underlying principles of life. It is here that philosophy finds its natural place in the inquiry into the origins of life.

My specific goal was to explore avenues in which two influential philosophical approaches from the last century (modern Japanese philosophy and phenomenology) could provide insights to the origins of life research. Both of these approaches from the east and west explore how humans interact with the world from the first-person lived perspective. By extrapolating various insights from the human-world interaction to living systems in general, I wanted to invite scientists to not only think about life from the outside, so to speak, but also to reflect on life from within our own human lives.

Through my employment at ELSI, I became more and more interested in the question of what constitutes a scientific attitude and more generally, how philosophy could contribute to the sciences. I am very grateful for the wonderful opportunity ELSI and Tokyo Tech has provided to join a community of international researchers with a diverse range of backgrounds at this early stage of my career. My network of researchers has enhanced significantly and it has opened up so many new perspectives for me. I look forward to following up on further research collaborations at Ritsumeikan University, where I will be starting an Assistant Professor position next April in their new department called the College of Global Liberal Arts. I hope to help build an equally stimulating environment there by applying my invaluable experience at Tokyo Tech.


Dr. Yuko Ishihara is currently a visiting scholar at Institute for Advanced Study and an ELSI affiliate.