Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Phil’s Day Off. Alternatively Known As: What Did I Just Watch?

SPOILERS for episodes 1-8 of Westworld under the cut.

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Metaphysics Part 2: Discussions and Lemon Loaf

Last Thursday we held class discussions on our metaphysics topics. Unfortunately, I missed the very beginning as I was late. To compensate, I distributed lemon loaf to my group members.

The first group discussion I was in was with Emma F., Katie, and Claire! Between eating lemon loaf we surmised about the way each of our topics related to each others. Katie began with talking about her topic and the questions it brings up: Emotions and what they are really made of, how do we define them, and how they relate to metaphysics and its questions of person-hood. Next, Claire began talking about her metaphysical questions related to existence; existing vs living, being vs Being, and the way we know ourselves through others. Emma was next, and we actually found out our topics were both inspired from the same show! Her questions were with regards to the component of memory in the self, and it’s necessity in the concept of ‘self’. How memory could possibly result in adaptation or change of the ‘self’.

I stated my metaphysical questions next, and we began to discuss Westworld and the questions Artificial Intelligence brings up. It was brought up how the self is generally considered to be a combination of memories, emotions, and intelligent thought. If AI could possess all of these, wouldn’t they then be Beings? Katie brought up that we don’t entirely understand emotions and thus can’t define the experience of having emotions. I found her point there to be extremely interesting as I hadn’t really thought about that before, how do we prove the AI are genuinely experiencing emotions rather than mimicking when we don’t entirely understand emotion? We also discussed how philosophy and metaphysics will influence future discussions of rights for artificial intelligence.

The second group discussion I was with Emma M., Megan, Ashlee, and Katherine. Katherine, Megan, and Emma discussed 1D fanfiction and Ashlee and I held one another, distraught. I can’t remember exactly which tangent brought that up. Our topics were broader in this group, Katherine discussed bundle theory and the way it relates to the self, whether or not we have any innate qualities that are not a result of our environment, Megan discussed religion as it relates to metaphysics.

Overall, I think I definitely learned a lot from hearing other people’s thoughts about metaphysics and their own questions and speculation on the topic! Metaphysics is one of those topics where you can’t really “prove” anything beyond a reasonable doubt.

 

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Metaphysics Part 1: Artificial Intelligence and the question of being vs Being

Like classmate Emma, I’ve also come upon the series “Westworld” as inspiration for my metaphysical questions. Set in a future where artificial intelligence, known as “Hosts”, occupy a virtual reality plane that us “normal” humans can enter. Non-AI’s, referred to by the hosts as “Newcomers”, can kill, maim, traumatize, or fornicate with these Hosts at their own will with no consequence, and the AI’s are powerless to respond in turn. The memories of these AI’s are reset and manipulated daily, leaving them unaware of the brutalities committed against them by the newcomers. Each is designed with a specific purpose in a “story line” on the virtual reality plane, although the plane is reset every few years to a new setting, and their character roles, referred to as their “builds”, are wiped. According to their creators, while they have passed the Turing test with flying colors since their inception and are very human-like, their every thought and memory is programmed into them.

SPOILERS from here. Things begin to complicate themselves when the Hosts develop sentience and awareness of their falsely constructed reality, the ability to lie to their creators, as well as their own independent thought and action. They are no longer only mimicking humanity.

Episode 3 introduces the “Bicameral mind” theory – the psychological theory that the mind can be divided into two aspects. First: your consciously produced, introspective thoughts that contain reason and the ability to consider your role in the universe and question the nature of your reality and senses, and second: another aspect that simply listens and obeys an unknown voice based on your own instincts. According to this theory, the “voices of God(s)” described in many ancient epics and religious texts are the voice of the bicameral mind. Think Homer’s Iliad vs Homer’s the Odyssey. If a human being begins to ask “Why are we here on this earth? What is our role, who am I truly?” then these are products of the first aspect. Whereas the robot’s in Westworld operate solely on the second aspect, obeying their instincts and thoughts that are programmed into them, reacting the way they are programmed to. Although in this case, programmed not by God, but by humans. However, the bicameral mind theory also states that eventually an outside force will drive the development of the first aspect. This, this is what happens to the AI in Westworld.

This begets the following questions: although all of the questions are based on the premise that the creation of artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test and go even further than it is an inevitable fact of our future.

1. How would Martin Heidegger’s theory of being vs Being accommodate artificial intelligence?

What If an AI evolves outside its own programming, develops the ability to question its own existence, feels as we feel and understands as we understand? Does it then, still, constitute a being rather than a Being? Are only organic, biological humans capable of Being?

The idea that only organic intelligence can constitute Being contradicts the idea that capital B Being is about much more than biology, than the sum of our parts. Yet, one could argue that Artificial Intelligence is by its own nature incapable of Being as it is but a product of its own programming; if it undergoes evolution, it is only due to its programming. Yet, some would argue that even human beings are nothing but a product of our own programming due to either the blueprints of biology or a higher power.

2. Can Artificial Intelligence develop “Self” in the philosophical sense? Do they exist in the same way humans do?

This Unit on Metaphysics has explored various theories on what the “self” is. However, what I have found most interesting is the recent topic of Jean Paul Sartre’s “Existence Precedes Essence” vs Descartes idea that “Essence precedes existence”. According to Sartre, humans have no “essence” or innate “human nature”. We merely exist and there is no innate essence or meaning to this. Unlike a knife or a pair of scissors, we were not constructed to serve a specific purpose. For scissors, essence precedes existence.

However, Descartes argues that humans are creatures of God, given an “essence” by God. Therefore, essence precedes existences if we are children of God. How does this relate to Artificial Intelligence you may ask? Well, for AI essence precedes existence. Artificial Intelligence will be constructed by humanity, given an essence by humanity. Therefore, according to Satre, they would not be equivalent to humans. They would have the same level of self as a pair of scissors, for their existence is a means to an end via a predetermined essence. However, if we subscribe to Descartes idea, then Artificial Intelligence can exist in the same way as humans, human beings functioning as God to AI.

3. If Artificial Intelligence can have a self, can be Beings rather than beings, do they therefore have the same right to life and liberty as we do? Are they then equivalent to us? If they don’t, if Artificial Intelligence can only ever mimic human mind and consciousness, where do we stand then?

If you subscribe to the idea that AI can have an idea of “self”, if they can Be, than I would say that it is a natural conclusion that they deserve the same treatment and recognition as we do. I foresee this becoming a major issue once we do have human-like AI, as not everyone will agree on whether they truly exist in the same right as we do.

However, even if they don’t, I find the idea of using AI that only experience the primitive sector of the bicameral mind as the recipients of depraved human fantasies such as the acts committed upon them in Westworld to be deplorable. In the very first episode of the show the main character, Dolores, is strongly implied to have been raped by the Man in Black. Even if her memory is wiped on the daily, even if she’s technically not a “person” at that point, I still believe that it is morally reprehensible to use intelligent life in such a fashion.

 

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The Real Ideology is the Friends We Make Along the Way: An Extremely Belated “Plato’s Cave” Post

In Plato’s cave, the shackled prisoner reaches enlightenment upon entering the real world. From there, he is portrayed as having achieved the ultimate level of knowledge. I don’t find myself entirely agreeing with Plato’s allegory, as I believe there is always more to discover on our journey to the goal of enlightenment. I see our knowledge as constantly evolving and growing. An occasion in which I can look back on and realize it was a form of “enlightenment”, only to later have the knowledge attained from such enlightenment evolve and change, is the very first book I had ever read on political theory; Marx for Beginners.

For those of you unaware, Marxism is a form of socioeconomic analysis focusing on class struggle. It originates from the works of Karl Marx and Fredierich Engels, and what you are most likely aware of, is that Marx and Engels wrote the “Communist Manifesto”. The Manifesto advocated for the creation of a socialist society that would transition into a communist one, and called for united proletarian revolution. Communism would entail very literal, absolute equality; all property being commonly owned, each individual working and being paid according to his own need. No social classes, no currency, no state. At the small, simple age of 13, I was entranced by the idea of a world where equality would be real; I had decided that I was to become a radical Communist, bring glorious proletariat revolution to the decidedly politically moderate Canada, and essentially become a miniature, 5 foot tall, female, Iranian-Canadian Che Guevara. I was decidedly obsessed, and I glorified the concept and some of its key figures: Lenin, Trotsky, Luxembourg, and Castro. On some level, I held the belief that criticisms of communism could only come from the privileged bourgeois, trying to induce a red scare. The fact that Communism was such a taboo only made it more alluring, and it didn’t end with that one book. Some samples of what I came to read include: the original Communist Manifesto, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, select few of Chomsky’s work, and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Of course, at 13 years old, I barely understood what I was reading.

Other factors spurred my intense passion for Communism further; my best friend’s grandparents were real life, Chilean Communists who had been persecuted by Pinochet, who were only happy to repeat their heroic tales of bravery in the face of Fascism. This was also only a year after the Occupy Wall Street Protests had died down. At the same time as my introduction to Marxism, I started to become a Feminist. With that, came the analysis of patriarchy, intersectionality, and oppression in works from authors such as Bell Hooks. The concept of privilege politics was introduced to me via feminist and anti-racist theory. Thus, my very first political beliefs were formed, and “radical” ones at that.

Upon reading the People’s History of the United States, I was appalled by the western world in which I had been brought up in. This too, felt like a form of enlightenment. I couldn’t fathom the horrors of history that had never been addressed, the injustice against indigenous peoples, the whitewashing of our history so as to make us appear to be the ever constant heroes. The anti-communist propaganda brought about in our culture through McCarthyism and the first and second Red Scare, historical events like the banning of the Communist party of Canada made me see that the society we lived in could be just as unjust as those we adored to criticize. I thought I really did have the world entirely figured out at that point; all we had to do was have an inter-sectional, feminist, anti-racist, LGBT inclusive, revolution to destroy Capitalism, Colonialism, and Imperialism!

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi truly depicts the young revolutionary

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi truly depicts the young revolutionary

In the 4 years (wow, it really doesn’t feel that long) since I discovered politics and the political spectrum, I’ve discovered again and again that it’s not as black and white as I once thought. That I was wrong about some things. The dictatorial figures I had felt were unfairly slandered by the West, Mao and Stalin, were discovered upon actually reading into historical accounts to be the murderous, in the case of Stalin, genocidal, cruel, and authoritarian figures they were said to be. After hearing the testimonies of those from Eastern Europe who suffered under Stalin, learning about the long, brutal spectre left by Communism on Eastern Europe, the testimonies of those from China who are still suffering from Mao’s legacy, I knew I could no longer place my ideology on a pedestal of glory. Fidel Castro himself may perhaps be the most morally-grey historical figure I have yet to read about. Turns out no ideology, no country, holds a monopoly on mass murder.

My view of privilege politics has evolved, I have come to view it as too simplistic and western-centric to adequately summarize the oppression of various marginalized groups worldwide, and too often misused. No ill will towards the passionate defendants of course. I can see where it’s coming from, it was my very first introduction to the concept of social justice, and I certainly agree with the basis that certain groups have an advantage over others on a systematic level. I still consider myself a Feminist, but my personal views on feminist issues such as pornography and prostitution have evolved time and time again. Most importantly, I have found that even those on a different side of the political spectrum or debate oftentimes want what they believe to be the best for the world, or if you discuss a concept long enough, you may find the two of you agreeing.

Except Fascists, screw Fascists.

So, how about that for enlightenment. Still, some things stay the same in ways: I hold steadfast that Communism has never been practiced correctly as real Communism is incompatible with the existence of a state, that the system does not necessarily require authoritarianism, and that when it comes to death toll, more so can be attributed to Capitalism than to Communism. That the Western World is still guilty of injustice upon injustice, genocide, exploitation of the “third world”, thriving off the legacy of colonialism, and that Western Imperialism has been responsible for poverty, destabilization, death, and dictatorships worldwide. Most importantly, that Capitalism as a system is unjust, violating the moral principles I hold steadfast that human life and liberty not just takes precedence over profit, but that the concepts of profit, wage labour, private ownership, and the free market is incompatible with the human right to life and liberty. Yet, I know that none of this makes it so that I can cast socialism as the unsung hero of the story.

Quite honestly, left-wing politics and socialism still form the foundation of my viewpoints. What I’m trying to communicate is that what we may initially believe to be enlightenment may evolve, may grow, and that we should never place our so called enlightenment on such a pedestal so as we become blinded to the idea that what we believe may be flawed, or even wrong. So, a note to our dearly departed Plato: There is always more to learn, there is always room for evolution. Even for great, dead, philosophers.

P.S. The comic book/movie adaption of said comic book, Persepolis, is a great non-fiction account of the Iranian Revolution. As well as a beautiful coming of age story!

 

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“Millennials are more easily offended”: A Deconstruction

Many Baby Boomers frequently claim that Millennials are the most easily offended generation in history. I was inspired to deconstruct this argument from our in-class discussions about political correctness and the opposing anti-political correctness movement as a reactionary force.

The conclusion that millennials are more sensitive to perceived offense is based on the following premises:

Premise 1: Millennials, the most recent generation of young adults, are easily offended.

Premise 2: That prior generations were not offended easily.

Conclusion: Millennials are the most easily offended generation in history.

If you assume that both Premise 1 and Premise 2 are true, logic dictates that the conclusion is in fact, valid. One can easily see how if it’s true that millennials are easily offended, and other generations were not, that that makes them uniquely sensitive.

However, to evaluate for truth:

Premise 1: I do see some truth in this statement. Speaking as a millennial, I would take some offense to certain statements and phrases that those of a previous generation may not feel the same way with regards to. For example, certain racial terms that don’t constitute slurs, but indicate a level of lacking in awareness on the current state of racial affairs. Examples would be using the term oriental to refer to east Asians, using the term Indian to refer to Indigenous people, or using the term “Blacks” rather than “Black People”. However, there is not a lack of justification to the feelings of offense. These terms have been frequently used in a derogatory, dehumanizing, or in the case of calling Natives “Indians”, blatantly ignorant manner. I believe that if there is logical justification to the feelings of offense, then it can hardly be labelled as “easily” made. Additionally, this is a massive generalization about an entire generation of individuals with their own opinions.

I believe that one major reason that Baby Boomers and the like categorize us as easily offended is the value many of us place in political correctness. An example is that many (40% of Millennials) believe that speech offensive to minority groups should be subject to government restrictions. This is in comparison to 27% of Gen X, 24% of Baby Boomers, and 12% of the silent generation. Criticism is based on the idea that this is censorship. Which is, uh, true, but censorship is always present to a degree. I’m assuming the intent of such criticism is to invoke 1984 style, big brother-esque imagery. Yet, if we don’t restrict offensive speech to a certain degree, we are allowing the incitement of hatred and violence. Look to the Orlando Nightclub shootings. That, that is the result of lifetime of being surrounded by hateful, violent, homophobic speech. Language, opinions, they have a ripple effect and you cannot argue that words cannot act as violence when people kill themselves over the words said to them, when people are murdered for being gay because the shooter was raised by the words of his religious leader, his mother, his father, to believe that being gay is disgusting and wrong and worthy of punishment. That, I believe, is where many Millennials come from when they argue for some limitations on offensive speech.

Premise 2: I believe that this is where the argument falls apart. It seems to me, that in fact, prior generations were much more easily offended than ours.

Now, let me explain. I believe, and many sociologists believe this as well, that popular media is a reflection of our culture & our values. Think of some of the most popular media on TV in the recent past: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, the Walking Dead, the Wire, Greys Anatomy. You know what they have that would never get them aired in prior generations? Sex, lots of sex, even gay sex, nudity, drugs and the graphic portrayal of drug use, sympathetic portrayals of drug users, LGBT characters, vulgar humor, blood, gore, violence. Any single one of these things would be enough to get a show boycotted, the network boycotted, mass public outcry in any generation prior to this one. If you want to see easily offended, look to the Motion Picture Production Code in place from 1930-1968. For those unaware, the MPPC was a mandatory set of moral guidelines for the movie industry. Here are some highlights for what was not allowed on the big screen: Profanity, any form of or even silhouette of nudity, drugs, a complete blanket ban on homosexuality, white slavery (but black slavery was fine!), interracial relationships, or ridicule of the clergy. The code was specifically written to promote a specific, conservative, ideology, regardless of the artistic beliefs and freedoms of the director. Even after the code was no longer in use, you could best believe that there are still those offended by such things such as LGBT people existing and wish to censor them, and that these people are (mostly) not composed of millenials.

Now, let’s take a modern day example of a show some people in our generation may take offense to: South Park. I’m going to speak as someone of this generation who finds the show crude, irritating, unfunny, and yes, offensive to many marginalized groups. However, despite the fact that many people may take offense to the show, there’s no one really clamoring to get it off air, holding boycotts of the studio and loud public protests. I wouldn’t say I’d shed a tear for it’s cancellation, but I wouldn’t take any time out of my day to bother anyone else about it. Also, consider that many Millennials do enjoy the show, regardless of how offensive it is.

My main argument against premise #2 can be summed up as: Unlike our predecessors, we do not have mass public outrage over a breast on the screen or the existence of a gay character, nor do we have strict moral guidelines for what can and cannot be depicted that explicitly promote an ideology. Some of us may feel offense to a racist joke on TV, but there is not a sizable amount of us attempting to ban all racial jokes from TV or film. Therefore, I have found that premise #2 cannot be declared true. This makes the overall argument valid, but not true; therefore, not sound.

However, where did these perceptions come from in the first place? I would say that there are a variety of reasons why many may come to this conclusion about Millennials. One of the reasons I believe is simply because it seems to be human nature to continually criticize those younger than us for whatever perceived misgivings they have; older people always seem to have something negative to say about younger people. They likely haven’t taken into account that they don’t have the same amount of life experience, that they were likely the same way when they were younger. We seem to have forgotten the culture clash between the traditionalist parents of the 50s and their hippie, anti-war, liberal children. But, that doesn’t seem to fully account for the massive amounts of articles constantly criticizing Millennials.

As stated previously, one major criticism of the generation is their “political correctness”. In class, Mr.Jackson and I discussed the anti-political correctness movement as a reactionary movement; it seems to contain many hallmarks of such. The change in the status quo, in this case, attempts to equal the playing field for marginalized groups in society, is met with instinctive backlash as it involves challenging our ingrained values. It doesn’t help that the term “politically correct” has had changing definitions over time, and many can’t define exactly what it entails and examples of such. It also doesn’t help that many proclaimed examples of political correctness gone too far have been misinterpreted.

One such example, popularly used by my favorite Law teacher, is “Baa Baa Rainbow/White/Blank Sheep”. Upon researching into it, variations of the story have been reported by the British media since 1986 to the point where it’s almost attained the status of urban legend. The original 1986 story reported a ban on the nursery rhyme at the privately run Beevers Nursery. The then Daily-Star journalist, Bill Akass, heard of a ban issued on the nursery rhyme, and telephoned the Hackney-Council for their reaction to the story. This, despite the fact that the nursery was run by parents and not the council. The council automatically stated they supported the nursery’s decision. Three days later, when the Hackney Gazette had taken up the story, it came out that there had been no ban in the first place and it was the council’s statement of support that had created the story in the first place and caused a snowball effect. The British tabloid, The Sun proceeded to carry the story and directly attribute it to “Loony left-wing councilors”. The Sun’s version of events was thus carried by other newspapers, despite having no evidence for the assertions made in the story. The 1986 Daily Mail, another British tabloid, carried the story further and asserted that the council had made a mandatory racialism awareness course where the original rhyme was declared racist, to be replaced with “baa baa green sheep”, and the story being ascribed to an “anonymous playgroup leader”. In fact, an optional race awareness course was there, but no ban was made and it wasn’t even discussed. Yet still, other tabloids and newspapers picked it up despite the complete lack of evidence. The Council attempted to set the record straight, but had to drop legal action against the Daily Mail due to lack of funds. Later on, the Daily Mail attempted to compare the council to Nazi Germany. Ironic, seeing as the Daily Mail supported Hitler right up until the start of World War II. Still, only British-Black Newspapers printed the Council’s rebuttals to the claims made against them. The completely false original story has been referenced as fact as late as 2003, despite having no foundation behind it, the corrections, the court actions, and remains apart of popular culture. One of the most popular examples of political correctness gone too far was originally a complete fabrication by conservative tabloids.

In short, I believe the idea that millennials are easily offended is disputable, and I vehemently disagree with the premise that previous generations (Gen X, Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation) were not/aren’t easily offended, but that they simply take offense to different concepts. As is natural, as social values chane and evolve. Furthermore, I understand where the fear of censorship from the related concept of political correctness comes from, but I believe some restriction of hateful speech is necessary for the protection of
marginalized groups from
discrimination and violence. Thus, I don’t believe that the millenial investment in political correctness is evidence of thin skin, as there is an argument to be made behind it.

 
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