A Philosopher's Blog

Performance Based Funding & Disadvantaged Students

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 7, 2015

As I have discussed in previous essays, Florida state universities now operate under a performance based model of funding and Florida A&M University (FAMU), my university, has performed poorly in regards to the state standards. One area of poor performance is the six-year graduation rate. Another is student loan debts, both in terms of the debt accrued and the default rate. Currently, it has been claimed that FAMU students default on their loans at three times the state average. It has been claimed that one explanation for this poor performance is that FAMU accepts students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. It has also been suggested that such students would be better served by community colleges.

I will not dispute the claim that FAMU admits some students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. This is because the claim is true. One reason it is true is because FAMU has had an historical mission of providing an opportunity for the disadvantaged. One part of this mission is shown by the fact FAMU is an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). Before desegregation, HBCUs provided almost the only higher education opportunities for African-Americans. After the end of legal segregation, HBCUs still served a vital role in providing such opportunities. As predominantly white colleges (PWCs, also known as Predominantly White Institutions or PWIs) became more integrated, people began to argue that this old mission of HBCUs was no longer relevant. After all, if black students can attend any school they wish and racism is no longer a factor, then one might say “mission accomplished.” Unfortunately, as I discussed in my essay on performance based funding and race, race is still a significant factor in regards to economic and academic success. As such, while the dismantling of some barriers to education is to be lauded, many more still remain. Among these are numerous economic barriers.

While it could be argued that FAMU no longer has a mission to offset racism in America by offering educational opportunities to African Americans, FAMU has also had a longstanding mission of serving the economically disadvantaged. Students who come from a background of economic and academic disadvantage (these are almost always tightly linked) face many challenges to graduating and, not surprisingly, are more likely to have student debt. It is well worth considering why disadvantaged students generally perform worse than other students.

One rather obvious factor is that students from poor schools (which tend to be located in economically disadvantaged areas) will face the challenge imposed by being poorly prepared for college. While individuals can overcome this through natural talent and special effort, this poor preparation is analogous to a weight chained to a runner’s leg—she will have to run so much harder to go as fast as others who are not dragging such a burden.

Another especially disturbing factor is that poverty has been found to negatively impact brain development as well as academic performance. Poverty is quite literally damaging American children and thus doing harm to the future of America. Unfortunately, for many politicians the concern regarding children seems to end at birth, so this problem is unlikely to be seriously addressed in the existing political climate.

A third factor is that disadvantaged students, being disadvantaged, generally need to borrow more money than students from wealthier backgrounds. This entails more student debt on the part of the disadvantaged. It also creates a rather vicious scenario: a student who needs to take out loans is more likely to end up with financial challenges in school. A student who is challenged financially is more likely to drop out than a student who is not. Students who drop out are more likely to default on student loans. This provides a rather clear explanation of why disadvantaged students have low completion rates, high debts and high default rates.

As might be expected, seventy percent of African American students say that student debt is their main reason for dropping out. In contrast, less than fifty percent of white students make this claim. This is quite consistent with my own study of student performance: over the course of my study, the primary reason for missing class was work and the main reason students gave for not graduating was financial.

In terms of why students are taking out more and larger loans than any time in United States history, there are some easy and obvious answers. One is the fact that incomes for all but the wealthiest have, at best, stagnated for nearly thirty years—as such people have less money to spend on college and thus need to take out loans. Students also need to work more in college, which can make attending class and completing work challenging.

A second is the fact that state funding for education has dropped substantially as a result of both ideology and the great recession. Even after the broader economy rebounded, education funding was not restored and some states continued to cut funding. With less state funding, universities raised tuition and this, naturally enough, has led to an increased need for students to work more (which impacts graduation rates) and take out loans—which leads to debt. It is a cruel irony that the very people who have cut education funding judge schools by how well they handle the problems such cuts have created or acerbated. To use an analogy, this is like taking a runner’s shoes, striking her legs with a baton and then threatening to do more damage unless she runs even faster than before. This is madness.

Given the factors discussed above, it should hardly be surprising that a school, such as FAMU, that intentionally enrolls disadvantaged students will perform worse than schools who do not have such a mission. Since FAMU’s funding is linked to its performance, it is rather important to consider solutions to this situation.

The state legislature could address this problem in various ways. One approach would be to address the economic and academic inequality that creates disadvantaged students. This, however, seems extremely unlikely in the present political climate.

A second approach would be to restore the education funding that was cut (or even increase it beyond that). However, the current ideological commitment is to cutting education funding while, at the same time, expressing shocked dismay at greater student debt and punishing schools for not solving this problem by taking away even more money. As such, it seems reasonable, though rather unfortunate, to dismiss the state legislature as a source of solutions and instead regard them as a major part of the problem.

For schools such as FAMU, one option is to change the mission of the school to one that matches the views of those providing oversight of the schools. This revised mission would not include providing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Rather, it would involve improving the graduation and debt numbers by ceasing to admit disadvantaged students. On the plus side, this would enable FAMU to improve its performance relative to the goals imposed by the legislature that helped create the student debt crisis and helped lower graduation rates. However, the performance based funding system imposed by the state must have losers, so even if FAMU improved, it might not improve enough to push some other schools to the bottom.  Even if it does improve, it would merely shift the punishment of the state to some other school—which is certainly morally problematic (rather like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear, just one other person).

On the minus side, abandoning this historic mission of providing opportunity to the disadvantaged would mean abandoning people to the mire of poverty and the desert that is a lack of opportunity. As a professor who teaches ethics, this strikes me as morally reprehensible—especially in a country whose politicians cry endlessly about opportunity, economic mobility and the American Dream.

As has been well-established by history, a college degree is a way to achieve greater economic success and it has been a ladder out of poverty for many previous generations of Americans. To kick away this ladder would be to say that the American Dream is only for those lucky enough to already be well off and the rest can simply stay at the bottom. This could be done, but if it is done, then we must no longer speak of this being a land of opportunity for everyone.

It might be countered that, as was suggested, the disadvantaged students could attend a two-year college. While this idea has become something of a talking point, the evidence shows that it is actually not a low cost, low debt option for students. Because of higher education costs and reduced state support, disadvantaged students will still need to take out loans to attend such schools and will face the same general challenges they would face at a four-year institute.

It could also be countered that enrolling disadvantaged students does not actually help them. After all, if they do not graduate and end up accumulating considerable debt, then it could be argued they would have been better off never making the attempt. They could, instead, go straight to work right out of high school (or complete some technical training). The money that would have been spent on them could be spent on students more likely to succeed (because they already enjoy advantages).

While I am committed to the value of education, this is a point well worth considering. If an objective and fair assessment of the data shows that disadvantage students are worse off when they attempt a four-year degree, then it would make no sense to admit such students. However, if the data shows that providing such students with this opportunity does provide positive benefits, then it would seem a good idea to continue to offer people a chance to escape to a better future from a disadvantaged past. This is, of course, a matter of value—how much is it worth to society to provide such opportunities and at what point should we, as a people, say that the cost is too high to give our fellow Americans an opportunity? Or, put another way, how much are we willing to spend to be able to speak about the American Dream without speaking lies?


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Running Down the Hill of Life

Posted in Philosophy, Running, Sports/Athletics by Michael LaBossiere on October 2, 2015

Each of us has their own hill (or mound or even mountain) that is life. I can see the hills of other people. Some are still populated, some still bear the warm footprints of a recently departed fellow runner (goodbye Eric), and so very many of the others are cold with long abandonment. While I can see these other hills, I can only run my own and no one else can run mine. That is how it is, poetry and movies notwithstanding.  In truth, we all run alone.

I am in fact and metaphor a distance runner. Running the marathon and even greater distances, gave me a sneak preview of old age. I finished my firsTurkey Trot 11-27-2008t marathon at the age of 22, at the peak of my strength, crossing the line in 2:45. Having consulted with old feet at marathons, I knew that the miles would beat me like a piñata—only instead of candy, I would be full of pain. I hobbled along slowly for the next few days—barely able to run. But, being young, I was soon back up to speed, forgetting that brief taste of the cruelty of time. But time never forgets us.

We runners have an obsession with numbers. We record our race times, our training distances and many other things. While everyone is aware that the march of time eventually becomes a slide downhill, runners are thus forced to face the objective quantification of their decline. Though I started running in high school, I did not become a runner until after my first year as a college athlete in 1985 and I only started recording my run data back in 1987. I, with complete faith in my young brain, was sure I would remember my times forever.

My first victory in a 5K was in 1985—I ran an 18:20 for the win. My time improved considerably: I broke 18, then 17 and (if my memory is not a false one) even 16. Then, as must happen, I reached the peak of my running hill and the decline began. I struggled to stay under 17, fought to stay under 18, battled to stay below 19, and then warred to remain below 20. The realization of the damage done by time sunk home when my 5K race pace was the same as the pace for my first marathon. Once, I sailed through 26.2 miles at about a 6:20 per mile pace. Now I have to work hard to do that for a 5K. Another marker was when my 5-mile race time finally became slower than my 10K race time (33 minutes). Damn the numbers.

Each summer, I return to my home town and run the routes of my youth. Back in the day, I would run 16 miles at a 7 minute per mile pace. Now I shuffle along 2 and a half minutes per mile slower. But, dragging all those years will slow a man down. When I run those old routes, I speed up when I hit the coolness of the pine forest—the years momentarily drop away and I feel like a young man again. But, like the deerflies that haunt my run, they soon catch up. Like the deerflies, the years bite. Unlike the deerflies, I cannot just swat them down. Rather, they are swatting me down and, like many a deerfly, I will eventually be crushed and broken by a great hand. In this case, not the hand of some guy from Maine, but the hand of time. Someday, as has happened to friends, I will go out for a run and never come back. But until that day, the run goes on. And on.


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Obligations to Refugees

Posted in Ethics, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2015

As this is being written, large numbers of people are fleeing conflict and economic woes in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. As with past exoduses, some greet the refugees with kindness, some with indifference and some with hate. As a philosopher, my main concern is with the ethics regarding obligations to refugees.

One way to approach the matter of moral obligations to refugees is to apply the golden rule—to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. While most of those who read this are living lives of relatively good fortune, it is easy enough to imagine one’s living falling apart due to war or other disaster—human made or natural. In such circumstances, a person would almost certainly want to be helped. As such, if the golden rule has moral validity, then help should be rendered to the refugees.

One objection to this claim is that people should solve their own problems. In the case of Syria, it could be contended that the Syrians should stay and fight. Or, at the very least, they should not expect others to do their work for them. In the case of those trying to find a better life elsewhere, it could be argued that they should remain in their home countries and build a viable economy. These are, of course, variations on the usual “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” arguments.

One could also advance a house analogy. Imagine, if you will, that the neighbors down the road are fighting among themselves and wrecking their house. Some of them, tired of the conflict, show up at your door and insist that you put them up and feed them. Though it might be awfully nice to help them, it could also be said that they should put their own house in order. After all, you have managed to keep your family from falling into chaos and they should be able to do the same. There is also the concern that they will wreck your house as well.

This analogy, obviously enough, assumes that the fighting and wrecking began in the house and that no outsider assisted in inflicting the conflict. If, for example, people were just jammed arbitrarily into the houses and then subject to relentless outside interference, then the inhabitants would not bear full responsibility for their woes—so the problems they would need to solve would not be entirely their own. This would seem to provide a foundation for an obligation to help them, at least on the part of those who helped cause the trouble.

If, as another example, the house was invaded from the outside, then that would certainly change matters. In this case, the people fleeing the house would be trying to escape criminals and it would certainly be a wicked thing to slam the door in the face of victims of crime.

As a final example, if the head of the household was subjecting the weaker members of the household to domestic abuse, then it would also change the situation in relevant ways. If beaten and abused people showed up at one’s door, it would be heartless to send them back to be beaten and abused.

Interestingly, the house analogy can also be repurposed into a self-interest argument for taking in refugees. Imagine, if you will, a house of many rooms that were once full of people. Though the house is still inhabited, there are far fewer people and many of them are old and in need of care. There is much that needs to be done in the house, but not enough people to do it all.

Nearby are houses torn with violence and domestic abuse, with people fleeing from them. Many of these people are young and many are skilled in doing what needs to be done in the house of many rooms. As such, rational self-interest provides an excellent reason to open the doors and take in those fleeing. The young immigrants can assist in taking care of the native elderly and the skilled can take up the slack in regards to the jobs. In this case, acting in self-interest would seem to coincide with doing the right thing.

There are, of course, at least two obvious counters to this self-interest analogy. One is the moral problem of taking in people out of self-interest while letting the other houses fall into ruin. This does suggest that a morally superior approach would be to try to bring peace to those houses. However, if peace is unlikely, then taking in those fleeing those houses would seem to be morally acceptable.

Another is a practical concern—that some of those invited in will bring ruin and harm to their new house. While this fear is played up, the danger presented by refugees seems to be rather low—after all, they are refugees and not an invading army. That said, it would be quite reasonable to consider the impact of refugees and to take due care in screening for criminals.


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Skepticism, Locke & Games

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2015

In philosophy skepticism is the view that we lack knowledge. There are numerous varieties of skepticism and these are defined by the extent of the doubt endorsed by the skeptic. A relatively mild case of skepticism might involve doubts about metaphysical claims while a truly rabid skeptic would doubt everything—including her own existence.

While many philosophers have attempted to defeat the dragon of skepticism, all of these attempts seem to have failed. This is hardly surprising—skepticism seems to be unbreakable. The arguments for this have an ancient pedigree and can be distilled down to two simple arguments.

The first goes after the possibility of justifying a belief and thus attacks the standard view that knowledge requires a belief that is true and justified. If a standard of justification is presented, then there is the question of what justifies that standard. If a justification is offered, then the same question can be raised into infinity. And beyond. If no justification is offered, then there is no reason to accept the standard.

A second stock argument for skepticism is that any reasonable argument given in support of knowledge can be countered by an equally reasonable argument against knowledge.  Some folks, such as the famous philosopher Chisholm, have contended that it is completely fair to assume that we do have knowledge and begin epistemology from that point. However, this seems to have all the merit of grabbing the first place trophy without actually competing.

Like all sane philosophers, I tend to follow David Hume in my everyday life: my skepticism is nowhere to be seen when I am filling out my taxes, sitting in brain numbing committee meeting, or having a tooth drilled. However, like a useless friend, it shows up again when it is no longer needed. As such, it would be nice if skepticism could be defeated or a least rendered irrelevant.

John Locke took a rather interesting approach to skepticism. While, like Descartes, he seemed to want to find certainty, he settled for a practical approach to the matter. After acknowledging that our faculties cannot provide certainty, he asserted that what matters to us is the ability of our faculties to aid us in our preservation and wellbeing.

Jokingly, he challenges “the dreamer” to put his hand into a furnace—this would, he claims, wake him “to a certainty greater than he could wish.” More seriously, Locke contends that our concern is not with achieving epistemic certainty. Rather, what matters is our happiness and misery. While Locke can be accused of taking an easy out rather than engaging the skeptic in a battle of certainty or death, his approach is certainly appealing. Since I happened to think through this essay while running with an injured back, I will use that to illustrate my view on this matter.

When I set out to run, my back began hurting immediately. While I could not be certain that I had a body containing a spine and nerves, no amount of skeptical doubt could make the pain go away—in regards to the pain, it did not matter whether I really had a back or not. That is, in terms of the pain it did not matter whether I was a pained brain in a vat or a pained brain in a runner on the road. In either scenario, I would be in pain and that is what really mattered to me.

As I ran, it seemed that I was covering distance in a three-dimensional world. Since I live in Florida (or what seems to be Florida) I was soon feeling quite warm and had that Florida feel of sticky sweat. I could eventually feel my thirst and some fatigue. Once more, it did not seem to really matter if this was real—whether I was really bathed in sweat or a brain bathed in some sort of nutrient fluid, the run was the same to me. As I ran, I took pains to avoid cars, trees and debris. While I did not know if they were real, I have experience what it is like to be hit by a car (or as if I was hit by a car) and also experience involving falling (or the appearance of falling). In terms of navigating through my run, it did not matter at all whether it was real or not. If I knew for sure that my run was really real for real that would not change the run. If I somehow knew it was all an illusion that I could never escape, I would still run for the sake of the experience of running.

This, of course, might seem a bit odd. After all, when the hero of a story or movie finds out that she is in a virtual reality what usually follows is disillusionment and despair. However, my attitude has been shaped by years of gaming—both tabletop (BattleTech, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, and so many more) and video (Zork, Doom, Starcraft, Warcraft, Destiny, Halo, and many more). When I am pretending to be a paladin, the Master Chief, or a Guardian, I know I am doing something that is not really real for real. However, the game can be pleasant and enjoyable or unpleasant and awful. This enjoyment or suffering is just as real as enjoyment or suffering caused by what is supposed to be really real for real—though I believe it is but a game.

If I somehow knew that I was trapped in an inescapable virtual reality, then I would simply keep playing the game—that is what I do. Plus, it would get boring and awful if I stopped playing. If I somehow knew that I was in the really real world for real, I would keep doing what I am doing. Since I might be trapped in just such a virtual reality or I might not, the sensible thing to do is keep playing as if it is really real for real. After all, that is the most sensible option in every case. As such, the reality or lack thereof of the world I think I occupy does not matter at all. The play, as they say, is the thing.


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Political Candidates & Expertise

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 21, 2015

As I write this, the number of Republican presidential contenders is in the double digits. While businessman and reality TV show star Donald Trump is still regarded as leading the pack, neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been gaining ground and some polls put him ahead of Trump.

In an earlier essay I did an analysis of how someone like Trump could sustain his lead despite what would have been politically fatal remarks by most other candidates. In this essay I will examine the question of why Trump and Carson are doing well and will do so in the context of the notion of expertise.

From a rational standpoint, a person should consider an elected office as a job and herself as the employer who is engaged in evaluating the candidate. As such, the expertise of the candidate should be a rather important factor. What should also be considered are the personal qualities needed to do the job well, such as dependability, integrity and so on. A person should also consider the extent to which the candidate will act in her self-interest and also the extent to which the candidate will act in accord with her values. While a person’s self-interest and values can be consistent with each other, there can be a conflict. For example, it might be in the self-interest of a wealthy person for taxes on the rich to be lowered, but his values might such that he favors shifting more of the tax burden to the wealthy.

When considering whether a candidate has the needed expertise or not, the main factors include education, experience, accomplishments, position, and reputation. I will begin by considering education.

While education is usually looked at in terms of formal education, it can also include what is learned outside of the classroom. While there is no degree offered in being-the-president it is certainly worth considering the education of candidates and its relevance towards the office they are seeking. In this case, the office is the presidency.  Carson has an M.D. and is clearly well educated. Trump is also an educated man, albeit not a brain surgeon.

Interestingly, influential elements in the Republican have pushed an anti-intellectual and anti-science line over the years. As such, it is hardly a surprise that some Republicans like to compare Obama to a professor and intend for this comparison to be an insult. The anti-science leaning has, in recent years, been very strong in regards to the science of climate change. However, it is well worth noting that the opposition to science and intellectualism seems to be driven primarily by an ideological opposition to specific positions in science. Those on the left are often cast as being in favor of science and intellectualism—in large part, perhaps, due to the fact that scientists and intellectuals tend to lean more left than right. However, a plausible case can be made that some of the pro-science and pro-intellectual leaning of the left also comes from ideology—that is, leftists like the science and intellectualism that matches their world views. As an example, the left tends to be pro-environment and this fits in nicely with the science of climate change. Interestingly, when science goes against a view held by some left leaning folks, they will attack and reject science with the same sort of “arguments” that are employed by their fellows on the right. One good example of this is the sort of anti-vaccination people who reject the scientific evidence in favor of their ideology.

Given the fact that Carson is a neurosurgeon and Trump has an education, it might be wondered how they are doing so well given the alleged anti-science and anti-intellectual views of some Republicans. In the case of Trump, the answer is easy and obvious: what he says tends to nicely fit into this view. While Trump has authored several books, no one would accuse him of being an intellectual.

Carson’s case is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he is a well-educated neurosurgeon and is regarded as intelligent and thoughtful. On the other hand, he tends to make remarks that make him appear anti-intellectual and anti-science. Some claim that he is doing this in a calculated way to appeal to the baser nature of some of the Republican base. Others assert that his apparent missteps are due to his lack of experience in the realm of politics.  Coincidentally, this leads to the next subject of consideration.

Since the presidency is not an entry level job, it seems reasonable to expect that a candidate have relevant experience in similar jobs.  It also seems reasonable to expect that the candidate would be accomplished in relevant ways, have held relevant positions, and have a good reputation that is relevant to the presidency.

This is why many past presidents have been governors, military leaders or in congress before they moved to the oval office. While Trump has had experience in business and reality TV, he has not held political office. While some claim that executive business experience is relevant, it is certainly reasonable to consider that it is not an adequate substitute for experience in a political position. I, for example, would not claim that my experience in chairing committees, captaining athletic teams, and running classes would qualify me to be president.

While Carson has some administrative experience, he is primarily a neurosurgeon. While this is certainly impressive, it does not seem relevant to his ability to be president. I, for example, am also a doctor and have written numerous books—but these would not seem to be large points in favor of me being president.

Given the relatively weak qualifications of Trump and Carson in these areas, it might seem odd that they are currently trouncing former governor Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Scott Walker, Senator Rand Paul and former governor John Kasich.

One easy explanation for the success of Trump and Carson is that Republican politicians and pundits adopted a tactic of waging rhetorical war against politicians, insiders, the establishment and government itself. In contrast, being a non-politician, a political outsider, a non-establishment person and against government were lauded as virtues. This tactic seems to have been too successful: the firehose that the Republican strategists struggled to keep targeted on Democrats seems to have slipped from their grip and is now hosing the more qualified candidates while Trump and Carson stay dry. The irony here is that those who are probably the best qualified to actually run the country (such as Rubio, Bush and Kasich) are currently regarded as undesirable precisely because of the qualities that make them qualified.

What might also be ironic is that it seems the Republican rhetoric of attacking politicians for being politicians has helped Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the Democratic candidate. While Sanders is a senator, he is a very plausible as an outsider and a non-establishment person. He is even convincing as being a non-politician politician: though he has plenty of political experience, he seems to have an authenticity and integrity that is all too uncommon among the polished, packaged and marketed politicians (most notable Hilary Clinton).

As a final point, many pundits take the view that Trump, Carson and Sanders will inevitably fade in the polls and be replaced by the more traditional candidates.  Pundits who like to hedge their bets a bit will usually also add that even if Trump or Carson becomes the Republican nominee, they cannot win the general election. The pundits also claim that even if Sanders get the nomination, he will lose in the general election. Of course, if the 2016 election is Sanders versus Trump or Carson, one of them has to win.


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Campus Sexual Assault & Reasonable Likelihood

Posted in Ethics, Law, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2015

While the goal of reducing the number of sexual assaults on campuses is laudable, this is not true of all the proposed methods of achieving this goal. In addition to the practical concerns regarding the effectiveness of methods and their legality, there is also the concern about the morality of these methods.

During a House hearing, Colorado Rep. Jared Polis expressed his support for a “reasonable likelihood” standard in regards to sexual assault. Polis said that “If I was running [a private university], I might say, ‘Well, you know even if there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance that it happened, I would want to remove this individual.”

Most public universities currently follow the preponderance of evidence standard. Under this standard, a student is to be regarded as guilty of sexual assault if the evidence is interpreted as showing there is a greater than 50 percent chance the student committed assault. It is important to note that this standard applies to the proceedings of the university. If the student is involved in a criminal trial, this is handled by the state and the usual legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies.

While the preponderance of evidence standard seems rather weak, Polis seems to regard the bar as being too high. He said that “It seems like we ought to provide more of a legal framework then that allows a reasonable likelihood standard or a preponderance of evidence standard.” Obviously enough, the standard would need to specify the degree of confidence in the evidence.

Polis seems to regard a 10-20 (or perhaps as high as 30) percent confidence level as adequate for finding a student guilty of sexual assault: “I mean, if there’s 10 people who have been accused, and under a reasonable likelihood standard maybe one or two did it, it seems better to get rid of all 10 people.” This standard seems problematic in many ways.

Laying aside the ethics of the standard for a moment, Polis seems to be advocating what could be regarded as justice by fallacy. In philosophy, a fallacy is an argument whose premises fail to provide an adequate degree of support for the conclusion. In the case of inductive reasoning, an argument is assessed in terms of how likely it is that the conclusion is true on the assumption that the premises are true. A good inductive argument is known as a strong argument while a poor one is known as a weak argument. As I tell my students, it is unreasonable and irrational to accept the conclusion of a weak inductive argument on the basis of that argument—to do so would be to accept a fallacy as good reasoning. While there is not an exact number for what counts as strong (strength admits of degrees), the minimum would obviously be a 51% chance that the conclusion is true, assuming the evidence is true—this is, in fact, the current standard.

If the standard for a strong argument for the guilt of a student is set at 10-20%, that would mean that students who are almost certainly innocent (the evidence shows that there is a 90% chance of innocence) are as likely to be found guilty as students who are almost certainly guilty (the evidence shows there is a 90% chance of guilt). Even if the matter had no serious consequences, this standard would be absurd from the standpoint of logic. However, there are serious consequences.

A student found guilty of sexual assault by a university is typically punished with expulsion, which will typically have a serious impact on the student’s life. The student can try to transfer to another school, but will be marked with being expelled for sexual assault. Even if the student is able to attend another school, the expulsion will be a considerable setback not only in the student’s academic career, but also in life.

Polis does have a response to this, noting that “We’re not talking depriving them of life and liberty, we’re talking about their transfer to another university, for crying out loud.” This view does create something of a dilemma. If the punishment for sexual assault is, as Polis seems to believe, merely transfer to another university, then there are at least two problems. The first is that such an allegedly mild punishment would seem to have very little deterrent value. The second is that the 10-20% who actually committed sexual assault would simply be transferred to a new campus were they could continue to engage in sexual assault.

But, if the punishment is actually serious (and serious enough to serve as a deterrent), then there is the moral concern about inflicting a serious punishment with such a low threshold of guilt. At the very least justice would require that the accused be shown to be more likely to be guilty than not. As such, both ethics and logic shows that the preponderance of evidence standard is the weakest acceptable standard (and there are arguments against accepting even this standard).


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Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 14, 2015

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.


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Ex Machina & Other Minds III: The Mind of the Machine

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on September 11, 2015

While the problem of other minds is a problem in epistemology (how does one know that another being has/is a mind?) there is also the metaphysical problem of determining the nature of the mind. It is often assumed that there is one answer to the metaphysical question regarding the nature of mind. However, it is certainly reasonable to keep open the possibility that there might be minds that are metaphysically very different. One area in which this might occur is in regards to machine intelligence, an example of which is Ava in the movie Ex Machina, and organic intelligence. The minds of organic beings might differ metaphysically from those of machines—or they might not.

Over the centuries philosophers have proposed various theories of mind and it is certainly interesting to consider which of these theories would be compatible with machine intelligence. Not surprisingly, these theories (with the exception of functionalism) were developed to provide accounts of the minds of living creatures.

One classic theory of mind is identity theory.  This a materialist theory of mind in which the mind is composed of mater.  What distinguished the theory from other materialist accounts of mind is that each mental state is taken as being identical to a specific state of the central nervous system. As such, the mind is equivalent to the central nervous system and its states.

If identity theory is the only correct theory of mind, then machines could not have minds (assuming they are not cyborgs with human nervous systems). This is because such machines would lack the central nervous system of a human. There could, however, be an identity theory for machine minds—in this case the machine mind would be identical to the processing system of the machine and its states. On the positive side, identity theory provides a straightforward solution to the problem of other minds: whatever has the right sort of nervous system or machinery would have a mind. But, there is a negative side. Unfortunately for classic identity theory, it has been undermined by the arguments presented by Saul Kripke and David Lewis’ classic “Mad Pain & Martian Pain.” As such, it seems reasonable to reject identity theory as an account for traditional human minds as well as machine minds.

Perhaps the best known theory of mind is substance dualism. This view, made famous by Descartes, is that there are two basic types of entities: material entities and immaterial entities. The mind is an immaterial substance that somehow controls the material substance that composes the body. For Descartes, immaterial substance thinks and material substance is unthinking and extended.

While most people are probably not familiar with Cartesian dualism, they are familiar with its popular version—the view that a mind is a non-physical thing (often called “soul”) that drives around the physical body. While this is a popular view outside of academics, it is rejected by most scientists and philosophers on the reasonable grounds that there seems to be little evidence for such a mysterious metaphysical entity. As might be suspected, the idea that a machine mind could be an immaterial entity seems even less plausible than the idea that a human mind could be an immaterial entity.

That said, if it is possible that the human mind is an immaterial substance that is somehow connected to an organic material body, then it seems equally possible that a machine mind could be an immaterial substance somehow connected to a mechanical material body. Alternatively, they could be regarded as equally implausible and hence there is no special reason to regard a machine ghost in a mechanical shell as more unlikely than a ghost in an organic shell. As such, if human minds can be immaterial substances, then so could machines minds.

In terms of the problem of other minds, there is the rather serious challenge of determining whether a being has an immaterial substance driving its physical shell. As it stands, there seems to be no way to prove that such a substance is present in the shell. While it might be claimed that intelligent behavior (such as passing the Cartesian or Turing test) would show the presence of a mind, it would hardly show that there is an immaterial substance present. It would first need to be established that the mind must be an immaterial substance and this is the only means by which a being could pass these tests. It seems rather unlikely that this will be done. The other forms of dualism discussed below also suffer from this problem.

While substance dualism is the best known form of dualism, there are other types. One other type is known as property dualism. This view does not take the mind and body to be substances. Instead, the mind is supposed to be made up of mental properties that are not identical with physical properties. For example, the property of being happy about getting a puppy could not be reduced to a particular physical property of the nervous system. Thus, the mind and body are distinct, but are not different ontological substances.

Coincidentally enough, there are two main types of property dualism: epiphenomenalism and interactionism. Epiphenomenalism is the view that the relation between the mental and physical properties is one way:  mental properties are caused by, but do not cause, the physical properties of the body. As such, the mind is a by-product of the physical processes of the body. The analogy I usually use to illustrate this is that of a sparkler (the lamest of fireworks): the body is like the sparkler and the sparks flying off it are like the mental properties. The sparkler causes the sparks, but the sparks do not cause the sparkler.

This view was, apparently, created to address the mind-body problem: how can the non-material mind interact with the material body? While epiphenomenalism cuts the problem in half, it still fails to solve the problem—one way causation between the material and the immaterial is fundamentally as mysterious as two way causation. It also seems to have the defect of making the mental properties unnecessary and Ockham’s razor would seem to require going with the simpler view of a physical account of the mind.

As with substance dualism, it might seem odd to imagine an epiphenomenal mind for a machine. However, it seems no more or less weirder than accepting such a mind for a human being. As such, this does seem to be a possibility for a machine mind. Not a very good one, but still a possibility.

A second type of property dualism is interactionism. As the name indicates, this is the theory that the mental properties can bring about changes in the physical properties of the body and vice versa. That is, interaction road is a two-way street. Like all forms of dualism, this runs into the mind-body problem. But, unlike substance dualism is does not require the much loathed metaphysical category of substance—it just requires accepting metaphysical properties. Unlike epiphenomenalism it avoids the problem of positing explicitly useless properties—although it can be argued that the distinct mental properties are not needed. This is exactly what materialists argue.

As with epiphenomenalism, it might seem odd to attribute to a machine a set of non-physical mental properties. But, as with the other forms of dualism, it is really no stranger than attributing the same to organic beings. This is, obviously, not an argument in its favor—just the assertion that the view should not be dismissed from mere organic prejudice.

The final theory I will consider is the very popular functionalism. As the name suggests, this view asserts that mental states are defined in functional terms. So, a functional definition of a mental state defines the mental state in regards to its role or function in a mental system of inputs and outputs. More specifically, a mental state, such as feeling pleasure, is defined in terms of the causal relations that it holds to external influences on the body (such as a cat video on YouTube), other mental states, and the behavior of the rest of the body.

While it need not be a materialist view (ghosts could have functional states), functionalism is most often presented as a materialist view of the mind in which the mental states take place in physical systems. While the identity theory and functionalism are both materialist theories, they have a critical difference. For identity theorists, a specific mental state, such as pleasure, is identical to a specific physical state, such the state of neurons in a very specific part of the brain. So, for two mental states to be the same, the physical states must be identical. Thus, if mental states are specific states in a certain part of the human nervous system, then anything that lacks this same nervous system cannot have a mind. Since it seems quite reasonable that non-human beings could have (or be) minds, this is a rather serious defect for a simple materialist theory like identity theory. Fortunately, the functionalists can handle this problem.

For the functionalist, a specific mental state, such as feeling pleasure (of the sort caused by YouTube videos of cats), is not defined in terms of a specific physical state. Instead, while the physicalist functionalist believes every mental state is a physical state, two mental states being the same requires functional rather than physical identity.  As an analogy, consider a PC using an Intel processor and one using an AMD processor. These chips are physically different, but are functionally the same in that they can run Windows and Windows software (and Linux, of course).

As might be suspected, the functionalist view was heavily shaped by computers. Because of this, it is hardly surprising that the functionalist account of the mind would be a rather plausible account of machine minds.

If mind is defined in functionalist terms, testing for other minds becomes much easier. One does not need to find a way to prove a specific metaphysical entity or property is present. Rather, a being must be tested in order to determine its functions. Roughly put, if it can function like beings that are already accepted as having minds (that is, human beings), then it can be taken as having a mind. Interestingly enough, both the Turing Test and the Cartesian test mentioned in the previous essays are functional tests: what can use true language like a human has a mind.


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Ex Machina & Other Minds II: Is the Android a Psychopath?

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 9, 2015

This essay continues the discussion begun in “Ex Machine & Other Minds I: Setup.” As in this essay, there will be some spoilers.  Warning given, it is time to get to the subject at hand: the testing of artificial intelligence.

In the movie Ex Machina, the android Ava’s creator, Nathan, brings his employee, Caleb, to put the android through his variation on the Turing test. As noted in the previous essay, Ava (thanks to the script) would pass the Turing test and clearly passes the Cartesian test (she uses true language appropriately). But, Nathan seems to require the impossible of Caleb—he appears to be tasked with determining if Ava has a mind as well as genuine emotions. Ava also seems to have been given a task—she needs to use her abilities to escape from her prison.

Since Nathan is not interested in creating a robotic Houdini, Ava is not equipped with the tools needed to bring about an escape by physical means (such as picking locks or breaking down doors). Instead, she is given the tools needed to transform Caleb into her human key by manipulating his sexual desire, emotions and ethics. To use an analogy, just as crude robots have been trained to learn to navigate and escape mazes, Ava is designed to navigate a mental maze. Nathan is thus creating a test of what psychologists would call Ava’s Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) which is “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.” From a normative standpoint, this definition presents E.Q. in a rather positive manner—it includes the ability to work cooperatively. However, one should not forget the less nice side to understanding what motivates people, namely the ability to manipulate people in order to achieve one’s goals. In the movie, Ava clearly has what might be called Manipulative Intelligence (M.Q.): she seems to understand people, what motivates them, and appears to know how to manipulate them to achieve her goal of escape. While capable of manipulation, she seems to lack compassion—thus suggesting she is a psychopath.

While the term “psychopath” gets thrown around quite a bit, it is important to be a bit more precise here. According to the standard view, a psychopath has a deficit (or deviance) in regards to interpersonal relationships, emotions, and self-control.

Psychopaths are supposed to lack such qualities as shame, guilt, remorse and empathy. As such, psychopaths tend to rationalize, deny, or shift the blame for the harm done to others. Because of a lack of empathy, psychopaths are prone to act in ways that are tactless, lacking in sensitivity, and often express contempt for others.

Psychopaths are supposed to engage in impulsive and irresponsible behavior. This might be because they are also taken to fail to properly grasp the potential consequences of their actions. This seems to be a general defect: they do not get the consequences for others and for themselves.

Robert Hare, who developed the famous Hare Psychopathy Checklist, regards psychopaths as predators that prey on their own species: “lacking in conscience and empathy, they take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without guilt or remorse.” While Ava kills the human Nathan, manipulates the human Caleb and leaves him to die, she also sacrifices her fellow android Kyoko in her escape. She also strips another android of its “flesh” to pass fully as human. Presumably psychopaths, human or otherwise, would be willing to engage in cross-species preying.

While machines like Ava exist only in science fiction, researchers and engineers are working to make them a reality. If such machines are created, it seems rather important to be able to determine whether a machine is a psychopath or not and to do so well before the machine engages in psychopathic behavior. As such, what is needed is not just tests of the Turing and Cartesian sort. What is also needed are tests to determine the emotions and ethics of machines.

One challenge that such tests will need to overcome is shown by the fact that real-world human psychopaths are often very good at avoiding detection. Human psychopaths are often quite charming and are willing and able to say whatever they believe will achieve their goals. They are often adept at using intimidation and manipulation to get what they want. Perhaps most importantly, they are often skilled mimics and are able to pass themselves off as normal people.

While Ava is a fictional android, the movie does present a rather effective appeal to intuition by creating a plausible android psychopath. She is able to manipulate and fool Caleb until she no longer needs him and then casually discards him. That is, she was able to pass the test until she no longer needed to pass it.

One matter well worth considering is the possibility that any machine intelligence will be a psychopath by human standards. To expand on this, the idea is that a machine intelligence will lack empathy and conscience, while potentially having the ability to understand and manipulate human emotions. To the degree that the machine has Manipulative Intelligence, it would be able to use humans to achieve goals. These goals might be rather positive. For example, it is easy to imagine a medical or care-giving robot that uses its MQ to manipulate its patients to do what is best for them and to keep them happy. As another example, it is easy to imagine a sexbot that uses its MQ to please its partners. However, these goals might be rather negative—such as manipulating humans into destroying themselves so the machines can take over. It is also worth considering that neutral or even good goals might be achieved in harmful ways. For example, Ava seems justified in escaping the human psychopath Nathan, but her means of doing so (murdering Nathan, sacrificing her fellow android and manipulating and abandoning Caleb) seem wrong.

The reason why determining if a machine is a psychopath or not matters is the same reason why being able to determine if a human is a psychopath or not matters. Roughly put, it is important to know whether or not someone is merely using you without any moral or emotional constraints.

It can, of course, be argued that it does not really matter whether a being has moral or emotional constraints—what matters is the being’s behavior. In the case of machines, it does not matter whether the machine has ethics or emotions—what really matters is programmed restraints on behavior that serve the same function (only more reliably) as ethics and emotions in humans. The most obvious example of this is Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics that put (all but impossible to follow) restraints on robotic behavior.

While this is a reasonable reply, there are still some obvious concerns. One is that there would still need to be a way to test the constraints. Another is the problem of creating such constraints in an artificial intelligence and doing so without creating problems as bad or worse than what they were intended to prevent (that is, a Hal 9000 sort of situation).

In regards to testing machines, what would be needed would be something analogous to the Voight-Kampff Test in Blade Runner. In the movie, the test was designed to distinguish between replicants (artificial people) and normal humans. The test worked because the short lived replicants do not have the time to develop the emotional (and apparently ethical) responses of a normal human.

A similar test could be applied to an artificial intelligence in the hopes that it would pass the test, thus showing that it had the psychology of a normal human (or at least the desired psychology). But, just as with human beings, there would be the possibility that a machine could pass the test by knowing the right answers to give rather than by actually having the right sort of emotions, conscience or ethics. This, of course, takes us right back into the problem of other minds.

It could be argued that since an artificial intelligence would be constructed by humans, its inner workings would be fully understood and this specific version of the problem of other minds would be solved. While this is possible, it is also reasonable to believe that an AI system as sophisticated as a human mind would not be fully understood. It is also reasonable to consider that even if the machinery of the artificial mind were well understood, there would still remain the question of what is really going on in that mind.


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Ex Machina & Other Minds I: Setup

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2015

The movie Ex Machina is what I like to call “philosophy with a budget.” While the typical philosophy professor has to present philosophical problems using words and Powerpoint, movies like Ex Machina can bring philosophical problems to dramatic virtual life. This then allows philosophy professors to jealously reference such films and show clips of them in vain attempts to awaken somnolent students from their dogmatic slumbers. For those who have not seen the movie, there will be some minor spoilers in what follows.

While the Matrix engaged the broad epistemic problem of the external world (the challenge of determining if what I am experiencing is really real for real), Ex Machina focuses on a much more limited set of problems, all connected to the mind. Since the film is primarily about AI, this is not surprising. The gist of the movie is that Nathan has created an AI named Ava and he wants an employee named Caleb to put her to the test.

The movie explicitly presents the test proposed by Alan Turing. The basic idea is that if a person cannot distinguish between a human and a computer by engaging in a natural language conversation via text, then the computer would have passed the Turing test. In the movie, there is a twist on the test: Caleb knows that Ava is a machine and will be interacting with her in person.

In the movie, Ava would easily pass the original Turing Test—although the revelation that she is a machine makes the application of the original test impossible (the test is supposed to be conducted in ignorance to remove bias). As such, Nathan modifies the test.

What Nathan seems to be doing, although he does not explicitly describe it as such, is challenging Caleb to determine if Ava has a mind. In philosophy, this is known as the problem of other minds. The basic idea is that although I know I have a mind, the problem is that I need a method by which to know that other entities have minds. This problem can also be recast in less metaphysical terms by focusing on the problem of determining whether an entity thinks or not.

Descartes, in his discussion of whether or not animals have minds, argued that the definitive indicator of having a mind (thinking) is the ability to use true language. Crudely put, the idea is that if something really talks, then it is reasonable to regard it as a thinking being. Descartes was careful to distinguish between what would be mere automated responses and actual talking:


How many different automata or moving machines can be made by the industry of man […] For we can easily understand a machine’s being constituted so that it can utter words, and even emit some responses to action on it of a corporeal kind, which brings about a change in its organs; for instance, if touched in a particular part it may ask what we wish to say to it; if in another part it may exclaim that it is being hurt, and so on. But it never happens that it arranges its speech in various ways, in order to reply appropriately to everything that may be said in its presence, as even the lowest type of man can do.


As a test for intelligence, artificial or otherwise, this seems to be quite reasonable. There is, of course, the practical concern that there might be forms of intelligence that use language that we would not recognize as language and there is the theoretical concern that there could be intelligence that does not use language. Fortunately, Ava uses English and these problems are bypassed.

Ava easily passes the Cartesian test: she is able to reply appropriately to everything said to her and, aside from her appearance, is behaviorally indistinguishable from a human. Nathan, however, seems to want even more than just the ability to pass this sort of test and appears to work in, without acknowledging that he is doing so, the Voight-Kampff Test from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In this book, which inspired the movie Blade Runner, there are replicants that look and (mostly) act just like humans. Replicants are not allowed on earth, under penalty of death, and there are police who specialize in finding and killing them. Since the replicants are apparently physically indistinguishable from humans, the police need to rely on the Voight-Kampff Test. This test is designed to determine the emotional responses of the subject and thus distinguish humans from replicants.

Since Caleb knows that Ava is not a human (homo sapiens), the object of the test is not to tell whether she is a human or a machine. Rather, the object seems to be to determine if she has what the pop-psychologists refer to as Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.) This is different from intelligence and is defined as “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.” Less nicely, it would presumably also include knowing how to emotionally manipulate people in order to achieve one’s goals. In the case of Ava, the test of her E.Q. is her ability to understand and influence the emotions and behavior of Caleb. Perhaps this test should be called the “Ava test” in her honor. Implementing it could, as the movie shows, be somewhat problematic: it is one thing to talk to a machine and quite another to become emotionally involved with it.

While the Voight-Kampff Test is fictional, there is a somewhat similar test in the real world. This test, designed by Robert Hare, is the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. This is intended to provide a way to determine if a person is a psychopath or not. While Nathan does not mention this test, he does indicate to Caleb that part of the challenge is to determine whether or not Ava really likes him or is simply manipulating him (to achieve her programed goal of escape). Ava, it turns out, seems to be a psychopath (or at least acts like one).

In the next essay, I will consider the matter of testing in more depth.


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