Postdoc Perspectives: Q&A with Christopher Austin

Bernie Cook

POSTED 31/01/2023

What is your area of expertise?
I often consider myself to work in the field of the metaphysics of science, which is to say that I work on fundamental issues, like causation and modality with respect to scientific disciplines. Although I'm interested in different disciplines, I primarily work in philosophy of biology, and more specifically, evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo.


Let’s talk ontology – what made you a philosopher of science?
I've always been interested in philosophy and what I would call the fundamental issues – what things are, how they came to be, causation. That led me towards the ancients, where I found myself enthralled with the writings of Aristotle. I started going through Aristotle's philosophy about metaphysics, and eventually, I got into his biological treaties. Though some people see him as the “boogey man” of evolution, what they don't realize is that Aristotle was highly accomplished, highly precise and highly interested in the study of the natural world. Some of his biggest books were on the history of animals or on how things live and die.

When I finally started to read Aristotle’s biological works, I started to see how much his understanding of metaphysics was fundamentally grounded in what he learned about the natural world. He demonstrated that the essence of a thing is about how it lives in and moves around the world. When you bring this principle back into metaphysics in general, you get this rich structure from which to examine fundamental metaphysical features of just about anything. So, my foray into philosophy of science was really birthed by reading Aristotle's investigation of the natural world and seeing how this blended together with his writings on metaphysics. This got me interested in looking at the contemporary landscape of empirical research.

On the Biological Purpose project, you’re studying mistakes. What are you looking into?
The team is looking at the nature of mistakes, which we hypothesize are something definitional of the living world. If you look at a proton or an electron, you don't find mistake-making. It'd be incorrect to say that a proton is mistaken for being attracted to something or being repelled from something – it's just not in the lexicon. However, in the biological world, mistakes are rampant. You and I both make mistakes every day. So do our fundamental developmental systems – we can produce too much of a protein, or our DNA can have a writing error. These goal-oriented systems have a state which they are trying to reach, and we often consider mistakes as failing to reach this state. But sometimes, the organism is doing the right thing and just happens to not reach this state – is this still a mistake, or is this a failure? Ultimately, we would like to develop a definitional framework for mistakes that allows us to address questions like this.


Once you have a definition of mistakes, what do you plan to do?
We’d like to look into its implications, like the irreducibility of mistake-making to physics. To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider an omniscient demon or a god who knows the physical state of every single particle in the world – its position, its velocity, and so on – at a given point in time. In principle, this being, given this knowledge, could infer all possible and future states of these particles. He should be able to tell you what’s going to happen two minutes from now. But, even with a snapshot like this, this demon could not tell which of two variations within an organism – let’s say a shark’s fin – is the correct or mistaken one. Even with a perfect knowledge of physics, you couldn't get to which of these elements is the correct one, which tells us that there is something inherently unique about the biological world that can’t be captured by knowing more physics and is centered around the notion of mistakes.

Beyond that, our future work is going to be focused on stimulating and developing new empirical research questions, based on our definition of mistakes, which will help us understand how living systems behave. Part of that will entail working with other colleagues on the Biological Purpose project to study the nature of blood clotting. Blood clotting is a system where you have a monitored activity and when that activity goes awry or meets a certain threshold, other activities are put into place in order to bring the system back to a certain state. Because this system has a goal-directed nature to it, we think it will be useful for understanding and applying our framework of mistakes.


What work-related topics keep you awake at night?
The things keeping me up at night right now are philosophical issues with respect to teleology, or the notion that there is purpose in living systems and how they organize and the things they do. This is so central to how we understand biology, yet so little understood philosophically. On one hand, we try to understand biology through reducing a system to its parts and explaining organisms through physics and chemistry. Even when we reduce an organism and its functions to atoms and molecules, however, we still incorporate purposive language in our explanation of an organism and its actions. This suggests something unique about the biological world and some utility in thinking about an organism’s purposiveness, but it’s unclear how this can help us understand causality in biological systems.

Beyond the philosophy of it all, this keeps me up because I find it difficult to reconcile my own personal wonder and imagination of the natural world with my tendency towards the concise explanations offered by empiricism. One part of me says it can all be explained by physics and chemistry, but the other part of me says that there’s something unique here – something almost magical. And what’s interesting to me is that this uniqueness I see isn’t because of some hope I have for the natural world to remain mystical, but actually from seeing the research in which reductionism doesn’t bring us full understanding. That tension between these two worlds is the spawn of the things that keep me up at night.


What’s next for you?
Ideally, I would leverage my current skills to get a more permanent position teaching the philosophy of science. The postdoc positions I’ve had have offered a few years of security in exchange for the thrill of research where you’re at the forefront of starting and contributing to something new – developing radical new ideas and testing them out in the playing field. But, that security is short-term, and I would like the stability of knowing where I was going to work year after year, and I’m sure my wife would appreciate that, too. If I get there, I’ll miss the thrill of being a part of unhinged research, but I’ll have a place to hang my hat and corrupt the youth, as Socrates once said. That’s the goal.

Edited for clarity

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