SHS spotlight: Philosophy of Life Sciences

Famous extract from Charles Darwin’s Notebook B showing the idea of a branching tree of life/species.

Famous extract from Charles Darwin’s Notebook B showing the idea of a branching tree of life/species.

For the past 13 years, University of Lausanne lecturer Christian Sachse has taught two courses on philosophy of life sciences as part of the College of Humanities Social and Human Sciences (SHS) program. Sachse talks about what makes the courses unique at EPFL, and how the themes discussed spark debates from all areas of science.

The SHS program’s two courses on philosophy of life sciences – one in French for bachelor students, and one in English for master students – both focus on key debates in the philosophy of biology, such as free will, reductionism, biological function versus dysfunction, and evolutionary theory versus creationism.

However, while students in the bachelor-level course are primarily introduced to major concepts and debates in the field, notably relating to evolutionary theory, students in the master-level course are able to choose a problem in an area that interests them – often relating to their own field of study – and to pursue it in more depth for a term project. In addition to a written research paper, master’s students also must present their findings – as well as unanswered questions – to their fellow students in the form of a formal lecture.

“One thing I really like about the SHS program is that students can reflect critically on what they are doing in their main EPFL study field, and how it can be connected to other sciences,” says Sachse, whose academic background is in both philosophy and biology.

“I also like my course to be an opportunity for students to address questions about their fields of science that they may not have time to ask during their other courses. For example, if a student studies mathematics, he or she may be interested in the concept of abstraction. This could be a chance to discuss the fairly recent debate on non-causal, structural mathematical explanations for biological phenomena, like the shape of a honeycomb. The argument goes that if mathematics provides its own kinds of scientific explanations, then it’s not only an abstract tool.”

Abstract image for illustrating two kinds of self-organizing, complex systems, which have inspired a new approach in the debate on biological functions generally defined in terms of evolutionary theory. © 2020 Christian Sachse

Asking questions and shaping debates

Sachse says that regardless of students’ scientific backgrounds, both courses present them with opportunities to reconsider their perceptions about human behaviors and social structures in terms of evolutionary biology, and to use what they have learned to have debates on other topics that interest them.

“I really like metaphysical questions about the world and its fundamental laws. However, my goal is not just to have philosophical debate, but to introduce tools and ways of thinking to address issues on which most people already have an intuitive opinion,” Sachse explains.

“For example, if I ask if free will exists, everyone usually has an opinion, and with basic life sciences principles established, you can have a much more interesting and sophisticated debate on the challenges and possible solutions.”

Due to this flexible approach, at the master level, many of the course debates and project topics are proposed by the students themselves. Sachse strongly encourages such proposals, not only to enrich the quality of the educational experience for the students, but also to inspire and challenge himself as an educator.

“EPFL students ask very good questions, and I learn so much from them,” he says. “At the bachelor level, I also try to bring the discussion to a level where the debate becomes really interesting, and to where the students ask questions that I cannot necessarily answer directly.”

Going forward, Sachse is planning a manuscript of course modules in which students can participate even more in the direction of class debates, by having them choose which subject to pursue next within a given course framework depending on their interest and preparedness for the material.

“This could make courses even more flexible and dynamic, and students even more motivated,” he says.

Author: Celia Luterbacher