Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course


Conduct Does Not Equal Rulebook: Emma F.

While recently reading the book Originals by Adam Grant, I was intrigued by a study that was presented on the topic of raising children. The study evaluated discipline techniques of  parents of non-Jewish people who housed Jews during the Holocaust, and the parents of those who did not. What separated these two groups? The study determined that those who were raised to develop their own moral conduct were more likely to be compassionate individuals (the group that housed Jews in danger). These people’s parents were more likely to encourage their children to consider how their actions affected others. The other group, conversely, was more likely to have been raised in a rule based system, which removed the need for the child to think about what they personally considered to be right and wrong; these people were more likely to be a part of the group that did not house Jewish people.

Although there are more nuances to this experiment that I presented, I think it speaks to some of the value of ethics as a topic of philosophical discussion. As Dr. Sandell noted in his lectures on Moral Philosophy, the discussion of ethics is supposed to “make the familiar unfamiliar”, to put a microscope to our actions and discover the basis of our moral decision-making. Throughout this unit, I’ve learned that the developing our own morals does not mean creating a set of hard-and-fast rules to follow, but identifying values that will guide us as we unpack difficult situations and make decisions. This is the ‘moral conduct’ mentioned in the experiment above. For me, the value of ethics outside of the classrooms is to promote a sort of independence in our actions. When we stand by the values we deem important, we can put more confidence in our idea of the ‘good’ or ‘moral’ action. When we look to Hollywood and other entertainment industries, the push and pull of good and bad, the hero and the villain, is obvious; however, in a world where our problems are not so clear cut, it is crucial that we think for ourselves, and that our morals are self-generated.

On the other hand, ethics in the classroom has been an interesting ride. Like I said before, the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is instilled at a young age, but I hadn’t really been exposed to the subtleties of the schools of thought that drive moral decision making, the two that we touched on being Utilitarianism and the Categorical Imperative. Like most of my classmates, I can’t marry myself to the values of one or another, but there are some threads within each that I find attractive.

Categorical Imperative: Probably the largest confirmation of this school of thought in my own moral conduct is my belief that some actions have more moral value than others. This was made clear to me after Eric presented a scenario in class:

A boy has a chocolate bar, sees a homeless man in need and sacrifices his own chocolately desires to give the bar to the homeless man. In another situation, a boy has a chocolate bar and takes a bite, decides he doesn’t like it, then passes it on to the homeless man in need.

Assuming that both situations have the same outcome (let’s say the man receives the same amount of chocolate), I would say that the decision of the boy in the first situation holds more moral value. The key part is that the boy makes a sacrifice, and although he thinks that he will enjoy the chocolate bar, he places the homeless man’s needs above his own. The decision is driven by a contemplation of needs and an overall selflessness. The other situation, although not immoral in my eyes, isn’t first prompted by an independent action towards charity, but as a secondary option that was fulfilled when his primary course of action (eating the chocolate bar) wasn’t so pleasant.

Of course, there are other conditions to explore in this scenario, such as whether or not the first boy performed his action for the praise of onlookers or as for fuel his own ego, but the principle remains the same. The good will of a person does affect the moral worth of the decision, and in general, if the will of a person is rooted in greed or exploitation, then it cannot be considered a ‘good will’. This would also mean that a a positive result could spring from an absence of good will, and that a negative result could spring from an action of good will, and these are the conditions that this school of thought upholds.

Utilitarianism: “Do the thing that makes the most people content” has some problematic strings attached, so for the sake of concision, I’ll stick to the parts that I consider the most personally useful. In the most basic sense, utilitarianism just seems practical; it support the act of letting people vote on a course of action, and implementing the most popular choice. In other ways, there are grey spaces that are made when we ask the questions “Does some people’s contentment matter more than others?” and “Should we consider what is best for a society’s function over the contentment of a group of people”?

However, I do believe in the notion that we do often have to make sacrifices for the sake of overall gain. What makes ‘most’ people happy or satisfied isn’t often what makes all people happy or satisfied, and we must accept that we may sometimes be on the sacrificing side so that there can be a net positive reaction. For example, this can manifest in the classroom when a student sacrifices their act of contributing to a discussion so that others may speak, contribute, and diversify the discussion. When organizing an event, an organizing member may volunteer to do a tedious or grueling task that is unpleasant but will ensure the success of the event and the enjoyment of many people. These examples are just simple situations of sacrifice.

It is very important to add that this doesn’t apply to situations of human rights. There is a crucial distinction to be made in the statement that certain groups of people should not experience reduced levels of human rights (legal, social, political, etc.) so that other groups should have more power. Although this situation is nuanced in many facets of our international society, I cannot say it is moral.

Now it’s time to put these ethical discussions to work.

The moral dilemma that I want to examine is this: to trigger warning or not to trigger warning?

For those of you new to the term ‘trigger warning’, it is a ‘statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content)’. I am interested to discuss the place of trigger warnings within the slam poetry community, where there has been a continuous conversation about whether or not artists should use before performing a potentially distressing piece. It is not uncommon to attend a poetry slam and see poets delivering trigger warnings for sexual assault, drug abuse, self-harm, and other topics associated with emotional trauma.

The pro-trigger warning side seems obvious at first. If artists can let people know about an upcoming sensitive topic, then those who might find the topic harmful can mentally prepare themselves or remove themselves from the environment. From a utilitarian perspective, we are increasing the amount of net happiness because those who may have experienced unhappiness from the artistic presentation were able to remove themselves completely. From this perspective, trigger warnings seem courteous and fair.

However, I do think this situation is a bit more faceted than that. I’ve recently been speaking with several of poets in the community about their thoughts on trigger warnings, and have uncovered a few more layers. Firstly, one of these poets was confident in saying that taking care of your audience is a responsibility of the artist on stage, but that this care doesn’t have to come in the form of a trigger warning; we want art to illicit vivid experiences in our audiences, so audience care (in it’s ideal form) means not preventing these experiences from happening. A crucial process in attending a poetry slam is facing emotions that are difficult to deal with, and ‘interrogating’ those feelings further (my friend noted that if she doesn’t feel uncomfortable at one point in a slam, she considers it a failure). This stand point challenges the utilitarian perspective because it claims that what is most challenging can also the most valuable. Being prompted to examine our feelings of discomfort isn’t often a purely joyful act, but it is still worth doing because it can lead to intrapersonal understanding, for example.

However, for these moments of discomfort and contemplation to take place, we do need to be in a mentally sound and lucid state of mind, and for some individuals, a certain topic may inhibit this state. That is the main push and pull of the trigger warning discussion. But where does our moral responsibility exist in this conversation?

I do agree that it is our responsibility to take care of the audience- to deliver a thoughtfully crafted poem that resonates with others an delivers a message. If we are using trigger warnings as permission to ourselves to present shockingly graphic and devastating material, we have to consider the value of such a piece.

Secondly, in terms of responsibility, we also have to consider that it is impossible to prevent all emotionally harmful reactions from occurring. We simply cannot always be sure of what kinds of things can act as triggers for different people (smells, locations, objects), and although we can try our best to be cognizant of the effect of our words, they have different connotations within different people’s lives. It is also important to point out that the real world doesn’t have trigger warnings- we can encounter triggering things in our day-to-day life, and it is important (to a healthy level) that we keep the slam space from turning into a sanitized space free of discomfort or challenging topics. I believe it is important for audience members to realize that when they enter a slam, they are acknowledging the possibility that they may hear or view things that will make them feel things (those things not always being pleasant), and that the organizers of the slam should also publicly acknowledge this possibility as well (this is commonly done in Vancouver). The slam, as my friend said, is a microcosm of our real world, and we should treat it as such. This means that the community values artistic diversity and experience, but does not tolerate hate speech, for example.

The conversation could definitely go on. For me, the trigger warning conversation is very intriguing because it is so closely tied to a community that I am a part of. The conversation also changes and evolves when we speak about trigger warnings on educational material, social media, and other social situations.

To tie back to what I said earlier about moral conduct, the discussion of trigger warnings doesn’t have to be one that decides whether or not we ultimately use them. We have to ask ourselves why we might use them, the effects it has on the people around us, and the ways we can change our mode of action to accomplish the same goal. I would love to hear what you have to say about the topic, so please drop a comment!



The Heebie Jeebies and Fear Mongering Puppets- Emma F.

When we speak about aesthetic experiences, we often are referring to the pleasing ones. That’s easy enough; in colloquial language we are likely to coo over the edgy clothing ‘aesthetic’ of a person or the cutesy cherry blossom theme of a blog. I too sought to experience such pleasantries during my Christmas break (which on many occasions, I did), but realized that there were far more disconcerting things to behold that I still can categorize as an ‘aesthetic experience’. In short, eleven freaky Italian puppets changed the aesthetic game for me.

It was a usual Christmas venture to the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, where the grounds were decorated with lights and displays of the 12 days of Christmas (partridge in a pear tree and the whole bit). All was well until I encountered the eleven pipers piping, a line up of three-quarter-sized abominations with plaster faces, lilting slowly under their puppet strings. Some had large wrinkled smiles and hooked noses, others with squinted eyes and animalistic faces. It somehow seemed instantly wrong. And I couldn’t quite explain it at first; other people around me would recoil slightly at the sight of them as well. There weren’t quite disgusting, and not super scary, but just creepy. But why?

I thought back at that time to a video I had watched years earlier about what makes things creepy, and things seemed clearer. The video (linked further in the post) described that beings that look human, but are not quite human, tend to creep us out. Cartoon characters are different enough from us that we accept them, but these puppets were human models that were tweaked just slightly. This resulted in the feeling of creepy: we keep our guard up, feel slightly panicked, and want to remove ourselves from that experience.

Aesthetic experience or not? I think so.

In the past couple of weeks, I think my most steady and significant personal finding is that our response to the world around us (our aesthetic experience) can be universal (rooted in human biology) or experience-based (rooted in individual). And I think that the puppet situation has a big application here- if I was creeped out and others were too, then what is the universal evolutionary advantage of being repelled by such a being (if there is one?). Could my past experience have changed my response? It seems that both sides are at play.

To explore this idea a little further, it’s important to set the framework for what constitutes an aesthetic experience. I think that the aesthetic experience is that which evokes emotion, that which produces a ‘vivid experience’ and knowledge. The structure of thought is based on the work of Baumgarten, who claimed that the scale of aesthetic value of a work of art should be one that evaluates the ability to produce this ‘vivid experience’. And I would say this applies to our day-to-day experiences as well.

For example, when we are concentrating on a certain task (like riding a bike, making a sculpture), or even partaking in a passive act like watching TV, there are emotions attached. These emotions (or perhaps emotional phenomena), from happiness to fear to jealousy to surprise, are the criteria for an aesthetic experience to occur. We are constantly being bombarded with the sensory overload that is our world today, but all of our everyday stimuli may not produce an aesthetic experience. Yes, we may perceive things in our environment passively, such as a stop sign or a harbour seal, but if these things don’t evoke an emotional sensation, no aesthetic experience is produced.

Following this model, there is also knowledge to be had in aesthetic experiences. Congruent to my previous blog post on knowledge, having an aesthetic experience would have a physical effect on a brain due to brain plasticity. Performing an activity (and then repeating it) would continually change neural pathways and create knowledge from that experience, or an association of a certain emotion with a certain stimuli. That being said, not all knowledge is gained from aesthetic experiences exclusively. We can gain knowledge of a structure of a building, for example, or the route to a certain location, but these things may not evoke emotion, and therefore not produce an aesthetic experience.

Now back to the case of the puppets. The explanation to why slightly-non-human things creep us out is summed up perfectly in the video, so please take a watch.

In short, it’s the ambiguity of these faces that make them creepy. The puppet faces (like masks worn on humans) don’t show real, expressive human emotions, which are generally our markers for making a judgment on whether they are a threat or not. Our brain’s evolutionary response to this maybe-dangerous thing is the feeling of creepy. Not quite an adrenaline rush to kick off our fight or flight mode, but enough to make us wary. For example, if the creepy puppets at Butchart Gardens did wrestle their way out of the display to make a run at me, I was prepared to respond (or at least more prepared to respond than if I didn’t consider the puppets a possible threat).

This creepiness response is a development of human evolution; some evidence for this is provided in the fact that large groups of people generally have similar uneasy responses to the same ‘creepy’ things. In this case, the aesthetic experience and the emotional sensation is rooted in biology and therefore universal, taking into account that there are most likely outliers.

But can our past experience change our aesthetic experiences?  Anecdotally, the obvious answer seems to be yes. Not all humans react to stimuli in the same manner; certain experiences don’t evoke the same emotions in the whole population. To give an example, a dear friend of mine was once pushed off a paddleboard and abandoned in seal-infested waters. When he sees a seal, the experience instills fear. However, when I see a seal, it produces a positive, happy response. In this case, his experience has caused him to relate seals with danger, and thus alter his aesthetic experiences involving seals, compared to mine. The same goes for the viewing of art (plays, painting, poetry), as certain narratives, themes, and messages will tend to resonate with different audiences based on that audience’s experience.

Now this is just speculation, but perhaps  it may possible for the Butchart puppets to elicit a positive reaction to some. Let’s say a certain garden-goer has dedicated their life to the art of puppet-making and can artistically appreciate the nuance and quality of the puppets as an art piece. Could this experience trump the natural ‘creepiness’ effect of the puppets? Or at least reduce it? I can’t say for sure in this specific case, but I feel confident in saying that our experiences do have a part in affecting the way in which we interact with aesthetics.

So, if you are not into voluntarily creeping yourself out, I would avoid the Butchart Gardens at Christmas time. If you are into the act of exposing yourself to a variety of aesthetic experiences, positive and negative, it might be your jam (even as a bit of a self-experiment). Pictures to come of the hellish puppets, will post at a later date.



The Brain is Plastic and Knowledge is too- Emma F.

The ‘mind’ is a word that is thrown around on the daily. However, in its colloquial use, we often don’t pin it down to a single definition, but rather vaguely refer to it as a center of thoughts, reason, and cognition, among other things. When it was proposed in class that the mind could be described as our personal body of knowledge, it seemed logical enough, but my troubles came along when the mind was also described as completely separate from the brain. Perhaps due to the everyday use of the word ‘mind’, I’ve been operating under the assumption that the biological brain and the mind have a substantial overlap, and I don’t think I am the only one who thinks so (think about how people even gesture to their head when referencing the mind). So the question for me was, how can knowledge not exist in the mind? Isn’t that where our individual experiences are manifested into strengthened neural pathways and new connections? So here goes the attempt to prove philosophically (with a bit of help from neuroscience) that knowledge can truly live in our own skulls.

P1: We gain knowledge from all experience.

P2: The human body is altered through experience.

C: Therefore, knowledge exists in the human body.

Perhaps not an airtight syllogism, but we’ll keep it tidy just for clarity’s sake.

Maybe it is cynical to say so, but I believe that parts of this proposition cannot be answered by philosophy alone. I was first inspired to defend this stance after having a discussion with my dad about brain plasticity, a phenomenon described in Dr. Michael Merzenich’s book. Although I am only a portion of the way through the book myself, it explores the human brain’s incredible ability to change throughout our lives, under our own control. The predominant scientific agreement in the early 20th century was that our brain’s were hard-wired, and reached an immovable maturity by around 2 years of age. Everybody was thought to be in a sort of cognitive lottery; in terms of your grey matter, our future was predetermined by the unchanging capacity of our intelligence, proficiencies, and attitudes. But Merzenich argues that this notion could not be further from the truth:

“We are in the early stages of a Brain Plasticity Revolution. The revolution begins with a clearer understanding the brain machinery is being continuously rewired and functionally revised, substantially under your control, throughout the course of your natural life. You have the remarkable ability to strengthen and grow the person that you are at any age.”

That’s the gist. But more applicable to my philosophical proposition is the fact that Merzenich proves that these changes occur through experience, which brings me to my first premise. We can put brain plasticity on the back burner for a sec, and come back to it in Premise 2.

Soft wired


P1: We gain knowledge from all experience.

This premise is a basic scaffolding for the proposition. For my purposes here, I am not too concerned with knowledge gained through rational thought, and will mainly focus on experience. I’ll define ‘experience’ here as an interaction with something outside of oneself. As Kant might explain it, interacting with the world around us provides diverse sets of input from which we can draw knowledge; however, all of this knowledge is coloured by our own impression of the world, and we cannot truly know the ‘true’ version of our physical world. This fits nicely into my proposition because it recognizes that the brain (operating as a repository of knowledge) is subjective. The inputs it receives throughout its senses are imperfect, and yet it can change and adapt to serve us astonishingly well.

P2: The human body is altered through experience.

This is the big one- Merzenich writes about life-changing ways in which brain plasticity has allowed for certain abilities to develop or redevelop. But, we experience brain changes on smaller level, every day. When we are learning to solve a certain mathematical problem for example, we may stumble through it the first time. But as we repeat similar types of processes that activate the same machinery and processes of the brain, we eventually gain proficiency. As the real neuroscientist, Merzenich says,

“When our brains sense a sound, a feeling, a sight, or a smell, then our eyes of skin sense or ears or nose translates it into patterns of electrical impulses that engage the brain. Those patterns of electrical impulses travel through the brain on incredibly thin transmission wires (axons), and are complexly conveyed in the brain from one cell to another. As a skill is developed (such as whistling, or doing a pirouette, or identifying bird calls) the specific neural routes that account for successfully performing this new skill become stronger, faster, more reliable, and much more… specialized for the task at hand.”

We’ve all experienced this same process. I think back to learning tap; when learning a new dance, the precise combination of small muscle movements in the foot and complicated rhythms were often flummoxing. But as I practiced, the movements were easily recalled, and I could perform a continuous flow of tap dance without actively trying to recall the next step. Yes, we call this ‘muscle memory’, but really the memory, and the strengthened neural pathways, exist in our head.

Conclusion: Therefore, knowledge exists in the human body.

The brain physically changes through experience, this seems very clear to me. Because of this, I feel that I can say that these strengthened pathways represent knowledge itself. Yes, we cannot literally look at the physical brain and read a line of fine print that says ‘I can read’, or ‘I can tap dance’, or ‘I can solve a trigonometric math equations’. But these ‘neural routes’ are in fact representing these statements, just in a different language; the plastic changes of our brain are direct evidence that we have encountered a certain experience, or have repeated one. With the correct observational tools, we could even view these changes, view knowledge, in the folds of our fatty brain masses. Knowledge must be a physical thing because our physical body must access it and use it to perform activities, make decisions, and build even more connections in the brain.

But if this is true, and knowledge inherently exists throughout this evidence, we must have varying degrees of knowledge in some areas. Merzenich even uses the word ‘strengthens’, which denotes continual growth, not something like and on-and-off switch. As such, my knowledge of a tap dance can begin as weak knowledge and grow into strong knowledge, like a gradient. I may need to do some more research on this one, but I think this could even apply to recalling facts. As we repeatedly recall facts from our brain, the neural routes to retrieve them could also strengthen, and recall speed could increase.

And just as our knowledge can be strengthened through brain plasticity, it can also weaken. When we don’t activate neural routes regularly, our ability to perform certain activities can decline. As we age and our biological material naturally loses its elasticity and strength, our brain can deteriorate to the point where it resembles something closer to our infant brain, before it has undergone critical brain-plasticity-driven development. So, we can also draw another conclusion from this. If our brain is plastic, then our knowledge must be too. It is only permanent as long as we exercise it.

The way the proposition stands, I think a few questions still remain:

What about a dead brain?

When a person dies, and the cells in their brain starve from lack of oxygen, the electrical activity eventually ceases. For my proposition, I think I must clarify that our brains contain knowledge only as long they can communicate within themselves and with the body. My proposition emphasizes the presence of knowledge in the connections between parts of the brain, and if there is no electrical activity in these parts, then the connections could be considered void. And thus, the very physical components of knowledge would be lost.

But can we translate our knowledge to paper? To art? I believe we can, but our knowledge would remain only that. A translation. We can attempt to help people understand things the way we understand things, to know the things we know, but we can not transplant the same brain machinery into their heads. This is not to say that art or communication in general is useless- we just have to understand that our knowledge of a thing, or of how to do a thing, is unique to our own brain.

Well, I thank and congratulate you for making it this far through the post if you did. Even as I write, it seems that the premise of knowledge-within-matter begs many more explanations.

The most ~certain~ thing I can say for now is that I believe that there is indeed knowledge between our two ears. And if our mind contains our knowledge, than our mind must include our brain in there somewhere.



Dolores the Robot Learns Freedom- Emma F.


With all the hype surrounding Phil’s Day Off, I was excited to dive further into my area of inquiry; however, I was sure that my hour devoted purely to metaphysics wouldn’t yield answers to all of my questions. But, it did provide some solid metaphysical ground to walk on, which I have been seeking these past weeks. Although there are still plenty of questions, there are a couple more temporary conclusions for now.

After bouncing around some different ideas of what my PDO would look like, I decided on devoting myself to a full episode of Westworld (despite my best wishes, I hadn’t advanced in the show since my first blog post). For most people, TV is a way to unwind, relax, and zone out from the outside world, but for my purposes of PDO, I wanted to zoom in. I wanted to watch actively and attentively. Because I couldn’t be sure of what was to come in the episode I planned to watch (ep. 3), my general goal was to continue to observe and reflect upon the phenomenon of memory recall in the ‘hosts’. Some of my original questions have remained unanswered, so I was focusing on a few for my PDO session:

Can the self adapt or is it constant? Does adaptation of the self come from experience?

What is the intersection of intelligence and self?

Additionally, I planned to have an approximately 20 minute reflection after watching the show. I didn’t plan the form in which the reflection would take place, but just planned to use a graphic organizer to summarize my most prominent discoveries from the session. This artifact will appear later in the post.

All in all, it went as planned. Episode three turned out to be very helpful to my topic of study, because it branched out from Maude’s relationship with memory to a variety of other hosts who were experiencing similar ‘memory-related dysfunctions’. For example, the robotics engineers were puzzled by a host who went on a shooting spree on a handful of other hosts, all of which had previously ‘killed’ him in past roles. Dolores, the central host in the show, begins to question her own purpose and demonstrates behavior that wildly defies her programming. In general, it is believed that our past experience changes us. Until now, the past experience of the hosts has been fabricated to give the hosts the bare information to carry out their daily roles, and any memory of those days are wiped by the next morning. But now that memory of past experience is starting to ‘stick’, the hosts are changing. Are their selves changing too?

Let’s roll back to the bundle theory. If the self is a non-unified bundle of experience, thoughts, and influence, then the behavioral changes in the hosts do indicate a change of self. If the self is like a reservoir, then the host’s newfound ability to recall past experience is allowing them to fill this reservoir to something more human-like. Remembered experience allow them more options for varied behavior, for feelings that were not previously programmed. That’s a strange thought indeed, to think that there is opportunity for these hosts to ‘program’ new emotions, experiences, and ideas into their head, much like we do everyday, even though this ability was denied to them in their creation. Yes, the park programmers have installed ‘backstories’ into the hosts, controlled, fabricated memories that are created by humans. But the hosts are now changing without updates and have become dynamic beyond the control of the programmers. By the bundle theory, the self is a growing, flexing thing, and the hosts in Westworld are experiencing this growth and change.

Below you can view my artifact, based around this idea. The square boxes represent a behavior that is expressed by a Westworld host, but one that is learned, and not contextually programmed. The text on the lines linking to the middle represent how this behavior is linked to memory recall.

mind map

So it seems that the adaptation of self in the hosts is supported by the bundle theory, but the narrative theory of self also came to mind during the episode. A milestone in the series so far is when Dolores speaks to one of the park engineers about freedom. She expresses her understanding of the ability to make choices, to influence one’s future, to speculate on where her life is leading her. She is the only host who seems to conceptualize time on a large scale, while others seem only concerned with their repeating, programmed day. Dolores has identified herself as an individual separate from the world she lives in and this is groundbreaking. If we suppose that the self can be defined as one’s ability to place themselves into the story of their own life, Dolores is on the cusp of this. With the fragments of past experiences, she is able to recognize the best way to face a certain situation, and change her behavior to suit it (even if this means deviation from programmed behavior). Dolores is beginning to self-actualize, as she realizes her potential to make choices, to make a change in herself, to learn.

Maybe this post has become a bit of a headache at this point, but hopefully some of this is as juicy for me as it is for you. I’m not quite sure if TV is meant to be dissected to this extent, but I’ve enjoyed doing so anyway.

Westworld has provided excellent framework upon which to explore this topic, and my Phil’s Day Off has offered up some good opportunity for insight and reflection. I have come to believe that memory and self are in fact linked, and the connection between the two has become a bit clearer. Thanks Phil.



Programming the Heart and the Rights of Robots- Emma F.

Until our recent discussions within the metaphysics unit, it felt a bit like I was floundering in the depths of my own metaphysical inquiry. Consolidating some of my own personal questions with others’ was refreshing and helpful in solidifying my thoughts and reframing my direction. In others ways, though, it opened up an almost overwhelming amount of additional questions.

For the sake of this blog post, I will mainly focus on my first discussion, as I found it the most constructive. Our group was comprised of Claire, Katie, Pourchista, and I, and all of our inquiries focused on what I would call the ‘threshold of humanness’. Claire was concerned with the dividing line between being and Being while Katie was investigating the role of emotions in creating an ‘authentic self’. And Pourchista, like myself, was interested in AI, specifically in the ethics of integrating AI into our own society. What I find interesting is that all of our topics somehow tackle the idea that there is more than one way of existing: as a functioning being (but perhaps not practicing ‘authenticity’) and an ‘authentic’, self-aware, conscious being.

This discussion took shape as each of us gave a brief description of our topic of inquiry. We prodded one another with questions, and made connections between our areas of study. There were a few stand-out conversations that have altered my own course and brought up additional questions

The first was a conversation that the group had surrounding Claire’s topic. Claire made the distinction between three aspects of our being: the heart (emotional, feeling), the mind (intellectual, judging), and the soul (spiritual). I was prompted to think back to AI; if all of an AI’s actions are sourced in man-made programming, can we still make this three part distinction? It seems to me that the AI is Westworld, for example, are programmed to appear as human as possible, which would mean replicating these three aspects in the android. But this has allowed a few questions to pop up for me. Can we program the heart? Or ‘feeling’? I suppose we can program an AI to exhibit behaviours of sadness when they see an animal being abused, for example, but I also think our ability to ‘feel’ is developed with experience. Our experience with others allows us to develop empathy, fears, anger. And these sorts of experiences are recalled with memory. Can recalling experiences through memory, for AI, improve the capacity to ‘feel’, or exhibit human emotions? Would those emotions be more genuine, or authentic than programmed reactions?

Secondly, Pourchista’s points on the ethics of AI were also super interesting. Pourchista believes that it is inevitable that AI will be integrated into our everyday life, and that we will eventually have to develop policies to protect AI rights. In terms of my own study in memory, I found this incredibly relevant. Should we afford AI rights to their own memory? For the androids in Westworld, are we performing a moral disservice by wiping their ‘memories’ each day and allowing them to live in ignorance of their true purpose? A tricky area to travese, I think.

Overall, I can’t say that many of my initial questions have been answered with these discussions. But hearing the voices of my classmates have, in a way, put my own topic into a larger context; it is easy to see how each of our inquiries interact with one another. Looking forward to Phil’s Day Off, I will be narrowing my focus towards finding things that resemble answers. My goal is to leave this project with some solid ground to walk on, and I am intent on doing so!



Westworld and the Intersection of Memory and Self- Emma F.

Recently I have become a bit enthralled in Westworld. A revitalization of the 1973 film, the new TV series has recently boomed in popularity, and I have hopped on the bandwagon. However, with two episodes  behind me, I’ve also been drawn to the inherent metaphysical aspects of the show.

The show is set in a not-too-far future where the rich can take a vacation to the acclaimed Westworld, a theme park set in the American Wild West. The park is a place for people to enjoy an authentic, historical heyday complete with guns, cowboys, and saloons galore. However, the rich ‘guests’ are not the only inhabitants of the park. They are joined by charge of ‘hosts’, artificially manufactured androids that seem indistinguishable from the guests themselves. As the guests go about their own pleasures, the hosts are programmed to follow specific narratives to shape and add depth to the world.

However, Westworld wouldn’t be a show about AI unless these robots eventually malfunction.

The show itself is split between the happenings within the park and, in the background, scientists and robotics engineers toiling over AI updates and narrative construction. Although there are many areas of philosophy to delve into here, I want to focus on memory. In the show, a specific host named Maude is a prostitute who begins to turn away customers after she deviates from her regular speech patterns. The scientists observe her slipping away into a dreamy state, recalling what seems to be ‘memories’ from a previous role in Westworld. Although any previous data should have been wiped from her programming, these recollections manifest in her waking a dreaming ‘mind’.

And this convoluted train of thought brings me to my main question. Does memory constitute a ‘self’? Or more specifically, is it a necessary component to the self? I intend on using Maude’s own narrative within Westworld as a tool to further explore these questions. I am curious to explore how we might describe Maude’s state of self before and after these she had experienced these memories, and how these two states differ from one another.

  1. First, some things to answer before tackling the big Q. It’s widely agreed that non-human things can be intelligent. It is in the name AI itself. But what is the intersection of intelligence and self? If intelligence is the capabilities of the machine (ability to apply logic, respond to stimuli), where is the self stored? Is it a by-product of intelligence, or of experience? If two identical AI humanoids were produced, is it possible that they could have unique selves based upon experience and memory?
  2.  Is memory the conscious recollection of past experience, or can it exist within oneself without being ‘accessed’? For Maude, did she have ‘memory’ of her past life before she consciously realized it?
  3. Is the self present from birth, or the activation of an AI, if at all? Can the self adapt or is it constant?

These are the  categories of questions that I’ve been considering recently. One of the large philosophical ideas that has come into play is the bundle theory of self (theorized by David Hume), which explains the self as a non-uniform bundle of experience and thoughts, not all of them our own. As I continue to explore the relationship between memory and self, I think this theory will be a valuable tool to project my ideas upon. Specifically, it could be said that Maude possesses a sort of bundle of experience, and that her thoughts about that experience that may go farther than her initial programming. What does that mean for her development of ‘self’? Using Hume’s theory of a guideline of one kind of ‘self’, I hope to answer this question.

To be able to interact with the the topic of AI from a somewhat knowledgeable standpoint, I have just been looking through some sources that explain the history of AI and where it is today. Specifically, the Turing test and machine learning. Check it out if you are interested.

For now, I am interested in continuing discussion with my peers who are also studying AI, and gaining insight on their point of view. And of course, looking forward to a Westworld marathon.



‘That which causeth Lust’: Dr. Handy and Clitoris Logic- Emma F.

Historically, the clitoris has been tragically misunderstood. When searching for a misconstrued argument pertaining to the clitoris, my web searches revealed what seemed like an endless buffet of past ignorance. However, I became particularly interested in an excerpt of a book that examines the relationship between homosexuality, clitorises, and intersex people (referred to as ‘hermaphrodites’ in the text). The argument that you’ll find below is one that was formulated by Dr. William Handy in the early 1800’s; during this time, he was conducting an inquiry into persons with perceived ‘enlarged clitoris’. Specifically he was interested in the determining factor of clitoris size. Please familiarize yourself with page 156-157 in the follow link to get the full scope here:

An interesting logical argument emerged through my reading, which is centralized by the quote: “The clitoris grew to unnatural proportions because of “the morbid effect of frequent lascivious unnatural excitement”. Here we could replace ‘lascivious unnatural excitement’ with ‘stimulation’ for argument’s sake. If you read the sentences that follow, Handy seems to conclude that women who engage in sex with other women show evidence of the described enlargement from the premises below.

Premise 1: Clitoral stimulation leads to clitoral enlargement

Premise 2: Sex between women involves clitoral stimulation.

Conclusion: Women who have sex with other women have enlarged clitorises.

A closer look at this argument shows that the factual correctness simply does not stand up. Firstly, after a bit of research, it seems that there is no scientific evidence to show that Premise 1 is factually correct. Although clitoris size can vary, the claim that stimulation directly leads to prolonged, permanent enlargement doesn’t garner scientific support. This was just an assumption that Handy was operating from during his time of study.

If we take a look at Premise 2, we can conclude that this statement CAN be true, but is not necessarily true. Which is to say, sex between women could involve clitoral stimulation in some cases, and not in others. So if I we were to label this premise in terms of factual correctness, I would probably slap on a ‘can’t tell’.

But! Let’s say that Premise 2 is factually correct. If it is true that clitoral enlargement is derived from clitoral stimulation, and that women who have sex with other women experience this stimulation (in every given case), it should be fair to say that they would have enlarged clitorises. This makes the argument valid. In other words, if variable A causes result B, then a group that experiences variable A should observe result B.

However, an important distinction should be made. The premises only support the conclusion that women having sex with other women would have enlarged clitorises. We would need an entirely other argument to prove that women who experience clitoral stimulation (from other sources) would also experience this same enlargement. This is simply because we only know of one group that experiences clitoral stimulation, and that group is women who have sex with other women. Without any other information, we cannot assume any other group experiences clitoral stimulation, and therefore clitoral enlargement. Conversely, we still cannot say ‘women who have sex with other women are the ONLY group with enlarged clitorises’, for it is possible that there are in fact other groups of people who experience clitoral stimulation, and therefore clitoral enlargement.

Altogether, it seems Hardy has constructed a false, but valid argument. He was misguided in his facts, and therefore he came to a conclusion that was also false. Oh, the falsehoods.

From this point in time, it took still hundreds of years for the clitoris to be more thoroughly understood and normalized, and scientific research and discovery would eventually disprove this argument officially. There were assumptions made about the clitoris in the 1800’s that could obviously be questioned and refuted with our modern lens. Take a look at the rest of the chapter in the text if you are interested to explore!

For now, I’ll just give a shoutout to Dr. Handy for his attempt to understand what people of the 1800’s saw as the ~elusive~ clitoris. You got it wrong, but your validity stood up ok. Nice try bro.



Plato’s Cave: How I Learned That I Was a Capitalist Snake- Emma Field

In the most stressful of situations, it is easy to believe that we will act with heroism, ethical integrity, and a general sense of the PLUR (the flower power of the 21st century).

Courtesy of insomniac.com

However, this is the story of how I learned that our own (my own?) ethical constructs are more fluid and more subject to influence than I had ever believed. And this fluidity or even abandonment of moral standards (in a modeled setting) is amplified by a mob mentality.

Now this may sound pretty intense; I would like to preface this by saying I realized that I had the potential to be capitalist snake in a closed, modeled activity that involved no crimes against humanity. This past summer I participated in a summer program called SHAD, where I lived on campus at one of the host universities (in my case, University of New Brunswick) for four weeks with a group of almost 70 Canadian students from all over the country. The program was mainly focused on empowering youth by providing a variety of experiences in areas of science, business, leadership, and entrepreneurship. Nearing the end of my month on the East Coast, our group took part in an activity that brought with it some major discovery, but not without the undertone of some shame as well.

To make this story a little easier to understand, please bear with me as I explain the activity. The parameters of the activity itself, and our roles within it, were meant to model the roles of people and corporations through the processes of industry: processing, marketing, etc. The 70 of us were assigned one of 4 roles, and we began our duties with a small sum of Monopoly money to complete our tasks.

  • Extractors: used their money to buy ‘raw materials’ (rectangular pieces of paper) that represented metal, paper, and wood (blue, green, yellow)
  • Processors: bought their materials from the extractors to process the raw materials into refined forms (triangles, squares, circles)
  • Manufacturers (that was me!): bought materials from processors and used the materials to create various products with the help of paper clips.
  • Consumers: bought ready-made products from manufacturers through a barter system.

The activity was played in rounds, where the room exploded into chaos as we bought, sold, and traded materials and products, frantically trying to increase the heft of our Monopoly cash wads. The mediators of the game would announce the changing preferences of the consumers throughout the activity (ie. “Blue squares are very ‘in’ right now!”, “Consumers are avoiding circles as a recent study has proven they are choking hazards”, etc. etc), and as a manufacturer, I scrambled to meet their needs. It seemed to me that the activity would prove to be a simple exercise in supply and demand, and within the first minutes of the activity, everybody was settling into their roles. By the first half-hour, however, everyone had tunnel-vision.

I was in manufacturing overload. I sought to buy my materials quickly and efficiently, for the lowest price, regardless the quality. I bartered with the suppliers relentlessly, and slapped together paper and paper clips to present to my consumers. My cash doubled easily in the first round. My mind was locked in the cycle of output, output, output.

As the rounds past, all the players were operating with a similar, focused mentality. Patents were introduced and people began applying for the right to tax other players on using certain materials, the right to charge people for wasted material, etc. Many people were searching for ways to generate profit by restricting other players’ powers, and the intensity of the game was amplified. Players would dump their waster on other players’ desks to avoid environmental fines, and soon those who left their money out in the open were subject to theft. The pile of products bought and discarded  by consumers was growing, reminiscent of a landfill behind them.

The mediators continued to periodically announce information to the group. It turned out that triangle products were considered radioactive. Blue was now unfashionable. We all seemed to pay less and less attention to the announcements if it did not give us information on how to sell more. As the game came to a close, our materials were depleted, all the paper clips used up. Handfuls of patent-holders were circling the room, demanding money for the most absurd infringements.The game to a close, and one play had gathered more than $19,000, starting from a few hundred bucks. The room was littered with paper, and there was even seemed to be some grudges forming among us, the people who had grown and bonded so strongly throughout the last couple of weeks.

The mediators addressed us all. They reminded us that at no point in time had they said that the object of the activity was to collect as much money as possible. In fact, turns out our negligence of the radioactive triangle problem killed us all. As we were all pre-occupied with our own tasks, we failed to address a problem that, in this model, was the most destructive thing of all. Perhaps we figured someone else would do something about it- and yet all 70 of us didn’t. It might seem that this whole activity was a cheap trick to get us to feel bad, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that.

Courtesy of i.imgflip.com

To use the allegory of Plato’s Cave, I would say that before the activity, I, at least, was shackled to the idea that moral goodness was a sort of a default. And yet in the model, I acted with the classic kind of corporate greed, self-interest, and disdain for the environment which we usually deem to be objectively bad. These are actions that I would criticize others for, and yet  I embodied them. This experience led me out of the cave, allowing me not to realize a greater wealth of knowledge on the outside (as in the original allegory), but allowing to realize a capability I didn’t know existed, a way of being I couldn’t fathom completely. I learned that ‘moral goodness’ takes will and conscious decision. What we call ‘corporate monsters’ in the real world aren’t born capitalist snakes, we all simply have the ability to make immoral decisions, but what sometimes is harder is to curb them.

If I were to return to the cave, I believe I would have difficulty convincing my fellow cave-mates of such an experience, as they too would probably like to believe that my own described behaviors would be simply uncharacteristic for a ‘good, moral person’. And yet, as the ‘enlightened’ cave person, it is impossible for me now to not consider the ramifications that these types of actions would have in the real world. I’m not convinced now that I’ve been raised a monster and will corrupt the world with my newfound abilities, but the experience has allowed me to step out of my normal setting of thinking, to take a look at what is frightening possible. If it’s possible in a model, why not in the real world?

And that’s a bit of a scary thought.