A Philosopher's Blog

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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Love, Voles & Kant

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2014
Español: Intercambio de anillos entre los novios

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I discussed the current theory that love is essentially a mechanical matter. That is, what we regard as love behavior is merely the workings of chemistry, neurons and genetics. This view, as noted in the essay, is supported by Larry Young’s research involving Voles. This mechanistic view of love has some interesting implications and I will consider one of these in this essay. To be specific, I will consider the matter of the virtue of fidelity.

While most of human history has involved polygamous relationships (such as those enjoyed by the famous King Solomon), the idea of romantic fidelity has been praised in song, fiction and in the professed values of contemporary society. Given Young’s research, it could be the case that humans are biochemically inclined to fidelity—at least in the sense of forming pair bonds. Sexual fidelity, as with the voles, is rather another matter.

While fidelity is praised, one important question is whether or not is worthy of praise as a virtue. If humans are like voles and the mechanistic theory of human bonding is correct, then fidelity of the sort that ground pair-bonding would essentially be a form of addiction, as discussed in the previous essay. On the face of it, this would seem to show that such fidelity is not worthy of praise. After all, one does not praise crack heads for their loyalty to crack. Likewise, being addicted to love would hardly make a person worthy of praise.

One obvious counter is that while crack addiction is regarded as bad because of the harms of crack, the addiction that composes pair bonding should be generally regarded as good because of its good consequences. These consequences would be the usual sort of things people praise about pair bonding, such as the benefits to health.  However, this counter misses the point: the question is not whether pair bonding is good (it generally is in terms of consequences) but whether fidelity should be praised.

If fidelity is a matter of chemistry (in the literal sense), then it would not seem to be worthy of praise. After all, if I form a lasting bond because of this process it is merely a matter of a mechanical process, analogous to being chained to a person. If I stick close to a person because I am chained to her, that is hardly worthy of praise—be the chain metal or chemical.

If my fidelity is determined by this process, then I am not actually acting from fidelity but rather merely acting as a physical system in accord with deterministic (or whatever physics says these days) processes.  To steal from Kant, I would not be free in my fidelity—it would be imposed upon me by this process. As such, my fidelity would not be morally right (or wrong) and I would not be worthy of praise for my fidelity. In order for my fidelity to be morally commendable, it would have to be something that I freely chose as a matter of will.

One obvious concern with this sort of view is that it would seem to make fidelity a passionless sort of thing. After all, if I chose to be faithful to a person on the basis of a free and rational choice rather than being locked into fidelity by a chemical stew of passion and emotion, then this seems rather cold and calculating—like how one might select the next move in chess or determine which stock to buy. After all, love is supposed to be something one falls into rather than something that one chooses.

This reply has considerable appeal. After all, a rational choice to be loyal to a person would not be the traditional sort of love that is praised in song, fiction and romantic daydreams. One wants to hear a person gushing about passion, burning emotions, and the ways of the heart—not rational choice.  Of course, an appeal to the idealized version of romantic love might be a poor response—much like any appeal to fiction. That said, there does seem to be a certain appeal in the whole emotional love thing—although the idea that love is merely a chemical romance also seems to rob love of that magic.

A second obvious concern is that it assumes that people are capable of free choice—that is, a person can decide to be faithful or not. The mechanistic view of humans typically does not stop with the emotional aspects (although Descartes did seem to regard emotions, at least in animals, as having a physical basis—while leaving thinking to the immaterial mind). Rather, they tend to extend to all aspects of the human and this includes what we would regard as decision making. For example, Thomas Hobbes argued that we actually do not chose—we simply seem to make decisions but they are purely deterministic. As such, if the choice to be faithful is merely another mechanistic process, then this would be no more praiseworthy than being faithful through a love addiction. In fact, as has long been argued, this sort of mechanistic view would take care of morality by eliminating agency.



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Love, Voles & Mechanism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on March 12, 2014
English: Young bank voles (Clethrionomys glare...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The prairie vole has attracted some attention recently because of research into love and voles. Researchers such as Larry Young have found that the prairie vole is one of the few socially monogamous mammals—that is, a mammal that pair bonds for extended periods of time (even for life). Interestingly, this pair bonding does not occur naturally in other varieties of voles—they behave like typical mammals and do not engage in this sort of pair bonding.

Larry Young was rather curious about this feature of prairie voles and researched it. He found that the brains of the voles are such that the pleasure reward of sexual activity becomes linked to a specific partner. The specific mechanism involves oxytocin and vasopressin, but the important thing is that the voles become, in effect, addicted to each other in much the same manner that a smoker becomes addicted to cigarettes and associates pleasure with the trappings of smoking.  To confirm this, Young genetically modified meadow voles to be like prairie voles. The results supported the idea that the bonding is due to the chemistry: the normally non-bonding meadow voles engaged in bonding behavior.

Humans, unlike most other mammals, also engage in pair bonding (at least sometimes). While humans are different from voles, the mechanism is presumably similar. That is, we are literally addicted to love.

Young also found that prairie voles suffer from what humans would call heart ache: when a prairie voles loses its partner, it becomes depressed. Young tested this by dropping voles into beakers of water to determine the degree of struggle offered by the voles. He found that prairie voles who had just lost a partner struggled to a lesser degree than those who were not so bereft. The depressed voles, not surprisingly, showed a chemical difference from the non-depressed voles. When a depressed vole was “treated” for this depression, the vole struggled as strongly as the non-bereft vole.

This also presumably holds for humans as well. While it is well know that humans typically become saddened by the loss of a partner (either by death or a breakup), this research also presumably suggests that human depression of this sort has a chemical basis and that it could be “cured” by suitable treatment. This is, of course, what is often attempted with therapy and medication.

While the mechanical model of love (and the mind in general) might seem like something new, the idea of materialism (that everything is physical—as opposed to some things being non-physical in nature) is an old one that dates back to Thales. The idea that human beings are mechanical systems goes back to Descartes: he regarded the human body as a purely mechanical system, albeit one controlled by a non-material mind. Thomas Hobbes accepted Descartes view that the body is a machine, but rejected Descartes’ dualism. Influenced by the physics of his day, Hobbes held that the human being is a deterministic machine, just like all other machines and living creatures.

Perhaps the most explicit early development of the idea that humans are machines occurred in Julien de La Mettrie’s Man a Machine.  While La Mettrie is not as famous as Hobbes or Descartes, many of his views are duplicated today by modern scientists. La Mettrie held that humans and animals are essentially the same, although humans are more complex than most animals. He also held that human beings are material, deterministic, mechanist systems. That is, humans are essentially biological machines. Given these views, the idea that human love and vole love are essentially the same would be accepted by La Mettrie and would, in fact, be exactly what his theory would predict.

Interestingly enough, contemporary science is continuing the project started by philosophers like Thales, Hobbes and La Mettrie. The main difference is that contemporary scientists have much better equipment to work with and can, unlike La Mettrie and Hobbes, examine the chemical and genes that are supposed to determine human behavior. Without perhaps realizing it, scientists are apparently proving the theories of long dead philosophers.

The chemical theory of love does have some rather interesting philosophical implications and some of these will be considered in upcoming essays.


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Playing with Solipsism

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on June 21, 2013
Ol' Solipsism

Ol’ Solipsism (Photo credit: found_drama)

Imagine that you are the only being that exists.  Not that you are the last person on earth, but that the earth and everything other than you is merely the product of your deranged imagination. This, very crudely put, is solipsism.

As with watching Star Trek, most philosophers go through a solipsism phase. As with the Macarena and Gangnam Style, this phases usually fades with merciful rapidity. This fading is, however, usually not due to a definitive refutation of solipsism. In many cases, philosophers just get bored with it and move on. In other cases, it is very much like the fads of childhood-it is okay to accept the fad as a kid, but once you grow up you need to move on to adult things. Likewise for solipsism-a philosopher who plays with it too long will be shamed by her fellows. Mostly.

Just for fun, I thought I would play a bit with solipsism-in the manner of an adult who finds an favorite childhood toy in the attic and spends a few moments playing with it before setting it aside, presumably to go write a status update about it on Facebook.

Interestingly enough, solipsism actually has a lot going for it-at least in terms of solving philosophical problems and meeting various conditions of philosophical goodness.

One obvious thing in favor of solipsism is that, as per Descartes’ wax example, every experience seems to serve to prove that I exist rather than that something else  exists. For example, if I seem to be playing around with some wax, I can (as per Descartes) doubt that the wax exists. However, my experience seems to show rather clearly that I exist and doubting my existence would just serve to prove I exist. In fact, as skeptics have argued for centuries, it seems impossible to prove that there is anything external to myself-be it an external world or other minds. As such, solipsism seems to be the safest bet: I know I exist, but I have no knowledge about anything else.

Another factor in favor of solipsism is its economy and simplicity. All the theory requires is that I, whatever I am, exist. As such, there would presumably be just one ontological kind (me). Any other theory (other than the theory that there is nothing) would need more stuff and would need more complexity. These seem to be significant advantages for solipsism.

A third factor is that solipsism seems to solve many philosophical problems. The problem of the external world? Solved: no such thing. The problem of other minds? Solved: no such things. The mind-body problem? Probably solved. And so on for many other problems.

Naturally, there are various objections to solipsism.

One obvious objection, which I stole from Descartes (or myself), is that if I was the only being in existence, then I would surely have made myself better. However, I make no claims to being omnipotent-so perhaps I made myself as well as I could. Or perhaps I did not create myself at all-maybe I just appeared ex-nihilo. In any case, this does not seem to be a fatal problem.

A related objection is the argument from bad experiences:  cannot be the only thing in existence because of the bad experiences I have.  I’ve experience illness, injury, pain and so on. Surely, the argument goes, if I was the only being in existence I would not have these bad experiences. All my experiences would be good.

Laying aside the possibility that I am a masochist, the easy and obvious reply is to point out that a person’s dreams are produced by the person, yet dreams can be nightmares. I’ve written up many of my nightmares as horror adventures for games such as Dark Conspiracy and Call of Cthulhu so it can be gathered that I do have some rather awful nightmares. I also have dreams with more mundane woes and suffering, such as nightmares about illnesses, injuries and so on. Given that it is accepted that a person can generate awful dreams, it would seem to make sense that the same sort of thing could happen in the case of solipsism. That is, if I can dream nightmares I can also  “live” them.

Another objection is that the alleged real world contains things that I do not understand (like specialized mathematics) and things I could not create (like works of art). As such, I cannot be the only being that exists.

The easy and obvious reply to the understanding reply is that I understand as much as I do and the extent of my understanding defines what seems possible to me. To be a bit clearer, I have no understanding of the specialized mathematics that lies beyond my understanding and hence I do not really know if there is anything there I do not actually know. That is, what is allegedly beyond my understanding might not exist at all. Interestingly, any attempt to show that something exists beyond my understanding (and hence must be created by someone else) would fail. To the degree I understand it, I can attribute it to my own creation. To the degree I do not, I can attribute it to my own ignorance.

In terms of the art objection, the easy reply is to note that I can dream of art that I apparently cannot create myself. To use an example, in the waking world, I have little skill when it comes to painting. But I have had dreams in which I saw magnificent  original paintings I had not seen in real life.  The same applies to dream statues, architecture and so on. As such, the art that seems beyond me in the world could be produced in the same way it occurs in dreams.

Descartes (or me), I think, had the most promising project for refuting solipsism: if I can find something that I cannot possible be the cause of, then that gives me a good reason to believe that I am not the only being in existence. Or, more accurately, that I am not the only being to ever exist. However, there does not seem to be anything like that-after all, everything I experience falls within the limits of me and hence could all be about and only me.

But surely that is crazy.

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Descartes First Meditation

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics by Michael LaBossiere on December 27, 2009

Descartes begins his project with the decision to sweep away all his dubious beliefs and build a new groundwork for the sciences. Unlike the previous questionable foundation, the new foundation is intended to indubitable. In order to reach his goal, he intends to reject any belief that is not completely reliable.

Realizing that an attempt to examine every belief would be an impossible task, he elects to instead examine the foundational beliefs on the supposition that if they fall, all the rest will fall with them.

After settling on his methodology, he turns to the senses. Though he once trusted them, he realizes they can deceive. Following his method, he decides to no longer put faith in them.

He pauses for a moment and considers that although the senses might deceive in certain cases, to deny their general evidence would be rather insane. But, as he notes, he has dreamed that he was awake when he was actually asleep-so he could be sleeping now and thus be deceived. He considers that perhaps the dream world is not as vivid as the world he experiences when he is ‘awake’ and hence distinguishable, but then realizes that there is no sure standard to distinguish the ‘real’ world from the ‘dream’ world. Thus, he decides to assume that though he thinks he is awake, he is instead dreaming.

Though well on his skeptical journey, Descartes pauses again. He considers that what he experiences in his dreams are like paintings of things such as satyrs: even if the composite beings are unreal, surely the simpler parts, like the head and legs, are real things. Further, even if the being is a complete fiction, at least the colors that compose it must be real. By analogy, he considers that the same is true of the ‘real’ world and hence the general things, such as body, extension, shape, quantity, number, and spatial location, must be real. Because of this view, he considers the sciences that deal with complex entities, such as physics and medical science, lack certainty. In contrast, since the mathematical sciences are not concerned with matters of existence, he considers them as certain-at least in some respects. After all, he reasons, whether he is awake or slumbering, adding two and three yields five and squares are four sided figures. At this point it seems as if Descartes’ project has come to and end-he considers that mathematical sciences cannot be doubted. However, this is not the case-he takes his project to another level by considering God and the evil ‘demon.’

While Descartes believes in God, he does not know whether God is causing him to perceive a world that, in fact, does not exist. He also considers that given the fact that other people are self-deceptive in matters they believe they know extremely well, he could also be mistaken when doing math or geometry.

He pauses for a moment and reflects that since God is alleged to be good, perhaps He does not want Descartes to be deceived. But he rejects this-after all, if a good God allows him to be deceived sometimes, then a good God could allow him to be deceived all the time-and he is deceived at least some of the time.

In the face of this difficulty, he decides that he will reject any claim that is not certain. By doing this, he hopes to make it possible to create a foundation of certainty for the sciences. Ironically, to reach this goal he must consider a situation of the most extreme skepticism.

For the sake of his project, he decides to consider the possibility that he is the victim of an evil ‘demon’ who has ‘created’ an illusory world to deceive him. Though Descartes decides to regard himself as lacking a physical body, he does draw a limit to the power of the demon. Though the demon is supposed to be very powerful and deceitful, it cannot force Descartes to believe-he retains the ability to suspend judgment even in the world of illusion.

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