Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Is It So Fun to Condemn People on Facebook?

I'm not hatin' on hatin'. I want to be clear about that up front. Condemning rotten behavior is a crucial moral activity, and Facebook is a powerful means of doing so. My friends' Facebook condemnations of sexism and racism and ableism, for example, have increased my awareness of those issues.

And yet... condemning people's bad behavior on Facebook is almost too fun, in a way that niggles at me somehow. Why is it so fun, and what do its pleasures reveal about it?

Clearly part of the fun is that you're on a team. You and your friends get to be on the team of the righteous, aligned together against the target of your condemnatory passions, the person (and more broadly the people like them) who have done that stupid/awful/foolish thing! -- the stupid/awful/foolish thing that you (of course?) would never do. One of the great pleasures in life is building solidarity with like-minded folks in condemning others outside of your group, triumphing over them at least in imagination if not in reality. It's a moral pleasure as well as a social one, and when your condemnation is morally correct and epistemically defensible, it can be entirely good and justified.

Also crucial to the fun, I suspect, is that you receive no genuinely negative feedback for your condemnation. Your Facebook friends are probably like-minded. And if they're not, they're probably quiet. And even if they're not quiet, you can hide their posts or at least, by not "liking" their posts, make their posts less likely to appear at the top of your feed. There's a "like" button, but no "dislike" or "disagree". Now, if you condemn something that is controversial among your friends, you might get some pushback in the comments, but since that's not what we seem usually to want from Facebook condemnations, the activity works most smoothly when we condemn something safe, something we know our friends will also condemn or at least not rise to defend.

Another part of the fun, I think, is a kind of depersonalization of the target of the condemnation. You are condemning a person, yes, but almost always you are condemning a single act, or maybe a few acts of a similar type. The target of condemnation is seen only through one or a few quotations or photographs which might reflect a single moment's poor choice in a complicated life, but which come implicitly, through stasis and repetition, to signify some enduring and central trait in the condemned. You do not see how the person reacts to the condemnation; you do not see the context of the condemned action; you do not see the person attempting to apologize and reform -- or if you do see the person's apology, because the apology is inept (as most attempted apologies and reforms are), it becomes a fresh target for a new round of condemnation, itself again held static and repeated. Maybe one difference between sadism and its lighter cousin schadenfreude is that sadism revels in power over a flesh and blood victim, while schadenfreude (of a certain type) laughs at only a slice of someone, intentionally not gazing upon the target's full humanity. The pleasures of Facebook condemnation are in part schadenfreudist.

I don't think the practice should end. We must laugh at and also more seriously condemn people who do foolish and immoral things; and sharing this laughter and condemnation reinforces community norms. We can't always feel sympathetic pain and embarrassment on behalf of those who go wrong. Yet scrolling down through my Facebook feed that mixes shared indignation and laughter at foolishness in roughly equal proportions with cute kittens and talent shows, I feel that something human is missing -- the perpetrator, as a full person, before and after, with color and nuance and a suite of other traits, sometimes enough to earn forgiveness or forgetting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sci Phi Journal Call for Papers

Jason Rennie at Sci Phi Journal writes:

I'm looking for articles and short fiction for upcoming issues of Sci Phi Journal. The papers need to be at a relativly popular level and need to connect with or explore philosophy through the lens of science fiction or fantasy. I pay 5c a word for submissions that are published and there is a bonus 5c a word if the issue gets to 5000 sales. The articles or stories should be in the 2 – 4k word range but that isn't a strict limit. I do buy reprints but at a lower rate. There is no deadline for submissions, but for any particular issue the deadline is 30 days before publication, which happens on the first of the month. Issue #2 will be out soon and Issue #3 will be published in January 2015.
If you have, or would like to write, a short philosophical essay that discusses either a particular work of science fiction or themes in science fiction in general, I encourage you to consider this new venue!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Philosophical SF: Seventh Batch of Lists (Roy-Faderman, Clark, Schwitzgebel, and Killoren & Murphy)

Most philosophical SF lists!

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

Fifth set: Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider.

Sixth set: Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute their own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Ina Roy-Faderman (Instructor of Philosophy, Oregon State University, and poet):

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). Biotech isn't automatically a "good" or an "evil" for people and society. What are the repercussions of engineering people with enhanced and reduced capacities? Both positive and negative?

William Gibson, "Johnny Mnemonic" (short story, 1981). What are the pros and cons of biomodifying humans and other intelligent organisms? How if at all should such practices be regulated? Is it even possible to regulate new technologies fully?

Theodore Sturgeon, Venus Plus X (novel, 1960). What is gender? Is gender necessarily a binary? Why

Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid's Tale (novel, 1985). How does the role and treatment of women in our society affect society? What problems are there with persons of either gender being limited to reproductive purposes?

Connie Willis, The Doomsday Book (novel, 1992). How does disease affect society and culture, particularly with respect to our moral and ethical standards? How do we understand the impact of our small actions on the future, and what effect should potential impact have on our current behavior?

Ray Bradbury, "A Sound of Thunder" (short story, 1952). A start to looking at utilitarian analyses of possible consequences of our smallest actions. What are our obligations with regard to possible future consequences of our actions?

Kurt Vonnegut, "Welcome to the Monkey House" (short story, 1968). What are reasonable responses to a population issue? In what situation, if any, is assisted suicide ethically allowable? What are the consequences of different attitudes towards sex and sexuality?

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). How important is how we're made to our personhood? What guidelines should there be to using reproductive technologies? What should the limits of these uses be, if any?

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (short story 1958, novel 1966). What are our obligations to organisms that are not human? is intelligence a good thing? What are/should be our responsibilities to persons who do are not neurotypical?

John Chu, "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" (short story, 2013). Uses a strange phenomenon to make visible and concrete the emotional difficulties of coming out. A great way to start discussing what our obligations are to our family and what the importance is, if any, of genetics.


List from Stephen Clark (Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Liverpool):

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (novels, 2002-2003). Set in a very far future capitalist utopia, about to be threatened by a very different form of society. Questions about identity, humanity, social control are implicit, and there are even clear and fairly compelling arguments, mostly drawn from Stoic sources, about the rational roots of ethics.

C. J. Cherryh, Cyteen (novel, 1988). Issues about identity, cloning, slavery, enacted in part of Cherryh's Alliance/Union universe.

C. J. Cherryh, Chanur sequence (novels, 1981-1992). Issues about biological or cultural roots of behaviour, represented through several well-imagined intelligent species in an interstellar, multi-species compact.

Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan sequence (novels, 1986-2012), especially Memory (1996). Importance of memory for stable identity, dealing with temptation, social structures.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End (novel, 1953). The price of utopia, evolutionary leaps. Could an unchanged humanity be at home in the cosmos?

C. S. Lewis, Ransom trilogy (novels, 1938-1945), especially That Hideous Strength (1945), which explores some of the ideas in his The Abolition of Man. Roots of morality, social pressures and wickedness.

Philip K. Dick, Time out of Joint (novel, 1958) Not his best, nor yet his most disturbed, fantasy, but a neat demonstration of what it would be like to discover that one's entire life and surroundings are fake!

Clifford Simak, City (novel, 1952). Tales told about humanity by posthuman dogs - conflicting values of individual and collective; robot intelligence; cross-species compassion.

George Effinger, When Gravity Fails (novel, 1986). What would it be like to be able to load new characters or new talents via computer add-ons, set in a future dominated by Muslim (and mostly criminal) culture. There were two sequels, continuing the story, but without any final resolution.

Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth” (short story, 2014). Set in Lovecraft's cosmos - but turning Lovecraft's racism round entirely so that the followers of Cthulhu et al. are a persecuted minority who know and accept that humanity is transient. 


List from Eric Schwitzgebel (Professor of Philosophy, University of California at Riverside):

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (esp. “Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius”, “The Library of Babel”, and “The Circular Ruins”, short stories, mostly 1940-1949). Every story is philosophically weird and interesting in multiple ways, with repeating themes of infinitude, temporality, repetition, and metaphysical idealism.

Greg Egan, Diaspora / Permutation City (novels, 1994, 1997). If we could upload our minds into giant computers, including duplicating ourselves, backing ourselves up, radically altering our sensory experiences and personalities, what would be the consequences for personal identity and the meaning of life?

Vernor Vinge, A Fire upon the Deep / Children of the Sky (novels 1992, 2011). Features small packs of doglike creatures who communicate constantly through high-frequency sound; only together do they have sophisticated intelligence.

Olaf Stapledon, Sirius (novel, 1944). A dog endowed with human intelligence struggles to make sense of love, human irrationality, and the meaning of life.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Ship in a Bottle” (TV show, 1993). A character from the virtual-reality “Holodeck” attempts to take over the starship, resulting in confusion between simulation and reality, and raising the question of whether the difference matters.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (novels, 1865, 1871). Logic and metaphysics turn topsy turvy (time stops, memory runs backwards, Alice is only a figure in the king’s dream, etc.) while social conventions (tea time, croquet, the monarchy) continue unabated but bizarrely transformed.

Linda Nagata, The Bohr Maker (novel, 1995). Duplicates of your mind can be sent to segregated subportions of others’ minds, reaching independent decisions before merging back into you (cf. Brin’s Kiln People).

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (stories, 1990-2002). One story features aliens whose language is visual and non-linear instead of linear and temporal; another features people who disable the part of their brain that makes beauty judgments about other people.

Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005). Cyberpunk packed tight with wild technological and social ideas, especially regarding self-enhancement, duplication, reincarnation, and human inferiority to AI.


List from David Killoren (Ethics Fellow, Coastal Carolina University) & Derrick Murphy (Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin at Madison):
Philosophically interesting episodes of The Twilight Zone (original series)

"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" (S1:E4, 1959). What is the ontological status of fictional worlds? Is it logically possible for an individual to move from the actual world to a fictional world?

"The Lonely" (S1:E7, 1959). How can we know whether others have minds? What would an android need to do (or to be) in order to be a member of the moral community?

"Long Live Walter Jameson" (S1:E24, 1960). Is immortality worth having? What moral obligations come with being an immortal who has to interact with mortals?

"The Eye of the Beholder" (S2:E6, 1960). Is beauty a matter of stance-independent fact, or a social construction, or merely an illusion, or something else altogether? If a person is regarded as ugly by everyone in her society (including herself), does this mean that she really isn't beautiful?

"Shadowplay" (S2:E26, 1961). What would I have to do to convince you that I am dreaming and that you're a figment of my imagination?

"Nothing in the Dark" (S3:E16, 1962). Why fear death? What would death personified look like?

"Person or Persons Unknown" (S3:E27, 1962). Is your identity in part constituted by others' knowledge of your life? If everyone forgets who you are, can you continue to be the same person?

"Four O'Clock" (S3:E29, 1962). Is it evil to obsess about others' evils?

"The Old Man in the Cave" (S5:E7, 1963). Do humans need to have a religion (whether that religion is true or not) in order to rein in our self-destructive impulses?

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (S5:E18, 1964). Is homogeneity an aesthetic defect? Would a hedonistic utopia, in which pleasure levels are high and pain levels are low, really be all that great?


More lists soon!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Philosophical SF: Sixth Batch of Lists (Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs)

Here’s still another set of four lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers. One striking thing to me is that although there are definitely some overlapping works among the lists, there’s quite a bit that doesn’t overlap, and some works that seem to me eminently worthy of inclusion but have not yet appeared among any of the 240 listings, nor in the comments section. There's really an amazing amount out there, when you think about it!

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

Fifth set: Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute your own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Joe Campbell (Professor of Philosophy, Washington State University):

Robert A. Heinlein, “—All You Zombies—” (short story, 1959). Classic sci-fi story that involves an especially interesting paradox of time travel.

Futurama, “Roswell That Ends Well” (TV episode, 2001). An explicit example of the grandfather paradox of time travel, with shades of Robert A. Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—.”

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko (movie, 2001). An example of the many-worlds interpretation of time travel, where time travel to the past requires travel to a different possible world that branches from the actual world. (See David Deutsch; J. Richard Gott; John Carroll et. al., A Time Travel Dialogue, 2014.)

Terry Gilliam, Twelve Monkeys (movie, 1995). An example of the no-change view of time travel, where people travel to the past but there are no alterations of past events. (See David Lewis, “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” (1976); J. Richard Gott; John Carroll et. al.)

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). Issues in bioethics, especially genetic determinism, free will, and moral responsibility.

Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange (movie, 1971). Great for discussions about free will, moral responsibility, and punishment. One of the few films that asks the question: Can you be praiseworthy if you could not have done otherwise?

Stephen Spielberg, Minority Report (movie, 2002). Covers the topic of pre-punishment: Can we punish people, or hold them morally responsible, for acts that they (arguably) will commit yet have not yet committed? (Based on the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, 1956. See Saul Smilansky, “Determinism and Prepunishment: the Radical Nature of Compatibilism”, 2007.)

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Covers issues in philosophy of mind: consciousness and the possibility of artificial intelligence. Also, an illustration of film as philosophy (Mulhall, 2008). (Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. In On Film (2008, 2nd edition), Stephen Mulhall contends that there is a philosophical debate about the nature of mortality between Leon (a replicant) and Deckard (a blade runner hired to “retire” Leon), Ch. 20, Director’s Cut DVD. This is also discussed in the Philosophy Bites episode, “Stephen Mulhall on Film as Philosophy.”)

Andy & Lana Wachowski, The Matrix; The Matrix Reloaded; The Matrix Revolutions (movies, 1999 & 2003). Deal with a spectrum of philosophical issues, especially knowledge vs. skepticism, realism vs. antirealism, free will and determinism, and subjectivity vs. objectivity about meaning and value. (Compare Cypher’s choice from The Matrix DVD, Ch. 19, with Robert Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974).

Honorable mentions (knowledge vs. skepticism): Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990); The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998); Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001).


List from Ross Cameron (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Virginia):

Philip K Dick, Ubik (novel, 1969). As with many of Dick’s novels, his characters inhabit a disturbing world where appearances and reality seem to come apart, and out of multiple potential versions of reality, it’s not clear what is real, if anything.

Alan Moore, Watchmen (comic, 1986-87). An otherwise realistic world contains an almost omnipotent superhero. His perception of time raises questions about free will and evitability, and his presence raises difficult moral and political questions.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (novel, 1990). A sorcerous dictator keeps his political enemies subordinated by making it literally impossible for them to express their shared sense of cultural identity.

China Miéville, Embassytown (novel, 2011). An alien society that cannot speak falsely first learns from humans how to make similes, and ultimately learns how to lie, changing them irrevocably.

Robert Heinlein, “All You Zombies” (short story, 1958). In a world where time travellers are responsible for going back to ensure that history happens as it did, a potential recruit is forced to grapple with the problem of other minds.

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: A Game of You (comic collection, 1993). A young woman encounters an imaginary character from her childhood, leading her and her female friends on a journey that causes them to examine their identity as friends and as women.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (novel, 1985). In a near future - and a very close possible world - a theocratic dictatorship has emerged in which women are severely repressed and must struggle to gain agency and community.

Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 (TV series, 2000-01). Buffy goes from being an only child to having a teenage sister overnight. Various characters grapple with their own identity, and what to do when duty seems to pull you in one direction and acting according to your nature another.

Melinda Snodgrass (writer), Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man” (TV episode, 1989). The artificial intelligence, Data, is forced to go on trial to prove that he has the right to self-determination and is not the property of Starfleet.

Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (movie, 1990). In a world where memories can be implanted and erased, a man struggles to know who he is and what is real.


List from Kenny Easwaran (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Texas A&M):

Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005) - how much computer enhancement and dissociation of the self is compatible with remaining human? what are the differences between a software algorithm, a legal system, an organism, and a religion, and can all of them potentially be conscious?

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008) - academics cut themselves off from causal contact with the world in order to develop theoretical knowledge independent of social and political fads. Trans-world communication plays an important role.

George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (series of novels, 1991-present) - the main plot content is not especially philosophical, but this series raises questions of the extent to which families rather than individuals are the units of action, in a world that is more economically and historically developed than most fantasy.

David Gerrold, The Man Who Folded Himself (novel, 1973) - how many roles can one person play in a time travel love story?

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002) - there is technology for creating clones that can live for a day, and which have most or all of the capacities of the individual. The novel investigates consequences for economics, privacy, politics, and health, in the midst of a noir set in future Los Angeles.

Greg Egan, Axiomatic (short story collection, 1995) - each story in this collection develops a strikingly original idea. In "The Hundred Light-Year Diary", a method for sending messages to the past is invented, and everyone learns future history as well as past history, and is issued their life-long diary as soon as they can read. Rather than investigating free will and fatalism, the story investigates the political role of information. Several stories investigate computational alteration or replacement of biological brains and their consequences for moral responsibility and personal survival and identity. Some are more comedic.

P.D. James / Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men (novel 1992, movie 2006) - centers on themes that have recently been explored by Sam Scheffler about the role of the ongoing existence of humanity in giving meaning to the life of an individual.

Christopher Nolan, Batman: The Dark Knight (movie, 2008) - classic puzzles from decision theory and ethics are given the twist of unreliability.

Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009) - explores issues of personal identity and the ethical issues of technology related to space travel for the purposes of dangerous work.

Christopher Priest / Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, The Prestige (novel 1995, movie 2006) - two different ways of performing the same magic trick raise very different worries about personal identity and one's moral obligations to oneself.


List from Rachael Briggs (Research Fellow in Philosophy, Australian National University and Griffith University):

James Tiptree Jr., “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (short story, 1973). A sentient arthropod contemplates free will, but everything he wills happens to match the typical life cycle of his species.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (novel, 2003). Brilliant genetic engineer Glenn ("Crake") is disgusted with human beings, their violence, and their environmental destructiveness. So he destroys the human race, and replaces it with a new species, the "Crakers", which he has designed as a superior replacement. The story is told by the last surviving human, who was Crake's best friend before the apocalypse.

Ryo Hanmura, “Tansu” (short story, 1997). A magical tansu, or chest of drawers, motivates people to sit on top of it all night, chanting mechanically. When asked, people transformed by the tansu unanimously describe the the activity as deeply fulfilling, yet the narrator finds something frightening in the idea of being transformed.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (novel, 1975). A woman is introduced to her counterparts from three different possible worlds, in which feminism has taken three different historical courses.

Rattle issue #38, Tribute to Speculative Poetry (poetry journal, 2012). Poems that explore a wide variety of science fictional and philosophical themes, including the inner life of an android created to be a pleasing companion (“Elise as Android at the Japan! Culture + Hyperculture Festival” by Rebecca Hazelton), various kinds of transformative experience (“The Creature” by Aimee Parkison; “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” by John Philip Johnson), the relationship between humans and their pets (“BLACKDOOG™” by Charles Harper Webb), and even the possibility of divine intervention in sports games (“One Possibility” by Marilee Richards).

Doctor Who, “The Aztecs” (TV serial, 4 episodes, 1964). The Doctor, a time-traveler, takes his companions Barbara, Ian, and Susan to the Aztec Empire in the 15th Century. Barbara is mistaken for the goddess Yetaxa, and immediately put in charge of the empire. She tries to use her power to stop the Aztecs' human sacrifice, despite the suspicion that this policy creates among her subjects, and the Doctor's warnings that her inconsistent approach to time travel could endanger the universe.

Dark Matter: A Century of Science Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas and Samuel R. Delany (short story collection, 2000). This varied collection of writing by black science fiction authors addresses the nature and ethics of race, but also explores a range of other philosophical questions, including: "How can a vampire live ethically, given her dietary needs?" ("Chicago 1967", by Jewelle Gomez); "What would it be to borrow someone's eyes and see from their perspective?" ("Can You Wear My Eyes", by Kalamu y Salam); "How can human beings construct dignified lives in the face of an incurable terminal illness?" ("The Evening and the Morning and the Night", by Octavia Butler) and "Who owns the rights to Santa Claus?" ("Future Christmas", by Ishmael Reed).

Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics (short story collection, 1968). Old man Qfwfq recounts the reader with stories of his youth, when he and his relatives witnessed the Big Bang, the formation of the galaxies, the time when the moon was so close to the earth you could jump from one to the other, the evolution of land animals, and other historic events.

Jose Saramago, “The Centaur” (short story, 1978, English translation by Nadine Gordimer, 2004). An old centaur, oppressed by the human population, and frustrated by the struggle between his horse part and his human part, returns home to the sea.

Alex Temple, Switch: A Science Fiction Micro-Opera (work of music, 2013, recorded in performance by the Cadillac Moon Ensemble). In a society that draws deep class distinctions between the left-handed and the right-handed, a group of “hand offenders” rebels against the social categories on offer.


Seventh batch of lists here!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Professional Philosophers’ Susceptibility to Order Effects and Framing Effects in Evaluating Moral Dilemmas

Fiery Cushman and I have a new paper in draft, exploring the question of whether professional philosophers' judgments about moral dilemmas are less influenced than non-philosophers' by factors such as order of presentation and phrasing differences.

We recruited hundreds of academic participants with graduate degrees in philosophy and a comparison group of academics with graduate degrees in other fields. We gave them two "trolley problems" and two "Asian disease"-type framing effect cases.

We presented the trolley problems either with a Switch case first (the protagonist saves five people by Switching a runaway trolley onto a side track where it kills one), followed by a Push or Drop case (saving five by Pushing one person into the trolley's path or by Dropping him into its path); or Push/Drop first, followed by Switch. For each scenario, participants rated the protagonists' choice to kill the one person to save the five others, using a 7-point scale from "extremely morally good" to "extremely morally bad".

Our previous research suggests that non-philosophers are much more likely to judge the Push case and the Switch case equivalently when Push is presented first than when Switch is presented first. On some views of philosophical expertise, philosophers' judgments about these cases should be less dependent on order of presentation than are non-philosophers' judgments. In other words, philosophers, due to their familiarity with scenarios of this type and their expertise in applying moral principles to them, should have more stable opinions, less influenced by order of presentation. We wanted to see if philosophers with prior familiarity with the cases, or self-reported expertise in the area, or self-reported stability of opinion, would show smaller order effects. We also wanted to see if we could reduce order effects by enforcing a delay before responding during which we encouraged participants to reflect carefully on different versions of the scenario and different ways of phrasing the scenarios.

We were unable to find any level of expertise at which the order effects were detectably reduced. Nor did adding a reflection condition appear to reduce the order effects. This figure shows the rates at which Switch was rated as morally equivalent to either Drop or Push on the 7-point scale:

[click to enlarge]

The order effect, as indicated by the differences in height between the black and the gray bars, is basically the same for philosophers and the non-philosophers, even in the "reflection" condition.

This next figure breaks the results down by degree of self-reported expertise among philosopher respondents:

[click to enlarge]

Note that at no level of expertise does the order effect appear to be reduced: not among philosophers reporting being professors with a specialization in ethics, nor among philosophers reporting having a "stable opinion" about trolley problems of this sort. If anything, the trend appears to be toward larger order effects with increasing expertise.

Some of the most famous results in psychology are the Tversky-Kahneman "loss aversion" framing effects. Participants are asked to imagine that an unusual disease will kill 600 people if nothing is done and then given a choice between two programs: On Program A, 200 people will be saved. On Program B, there's a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no people will be saved. When the decision is framed this way, in terms of the number "saved", most people favor the non-risky Program A. When what are (purportedly) the exact same options are presented in terms of how many will die (400 will die vs. one-third probability that none will die and two-thirds probability that 600 will die), respondents tend to favor the risky Program B.

The results:
Percentage of philosopher respondents recommending the risky Program B, by framing, level of expertise, and order of presentation:

[click to expand]

As is evident from the figure, our philosopher respondents showed very large framing effects (similar to those of our comparison group and similar to the effect sizes seen in other studies with non-expert populations) -- again up to very high levels of expertise, including self-reported expertise on framing effects and self-reported stability of opinion about framing effects. To see this, look just at the black bars above, ignoring the gray bars.

Philosophers also showed large order effects when they were presented two slightly different framing-effect scenarios, either die-frame followed by save-frame or save-frame followed by die-frame. To see this, compare the adjacent pairs of black and gray bars above.

Full manuscript in draft here. Comments welcome!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Philosophical SF: Fifth Batch of Lists (Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider)

Four more lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers.

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute your own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Troy Jollimore (Professor of Philosophy, Cal State Chico, and poet):

Don DeLillo, Ratner’s Star (novel, 1974): Human scientists confront an apparent message from the far reaches of space, and come up against their own very human limitations in doing so. Makes a great pair with Lem’s His Master’s Voice (and, to a degree, Solaris).

Terry Gilliam, Brazil (movie, 1985): A very dark, very funny dystopian film that explores the individual vs. the state, and whose conclusion has some interesting connections with Nozick’s Experience Machine. The excellent and very witty script was largely written by British playwright Tom Stoppard.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005): Chronicles the plight of cloned humans (who do not know they are clones) raised for the sole purpose of donating their organs to “ordinary” humans. Sensitive, beautiful, and far-reaching.

P.D. James, The Children of Men (novel, 1992): What would life on Earth be like if human beings suddenly lost the ability to have children? This novel is a compelling and disturbing imagining of the extinction of the human race that feels, to me, much more vivid and real than nearly any other apocalyptic work of fiction I can think of. (Samuel Scheffler cites the novel in his book, Death and the Afterlife; reading the two in conjunction would be productive.) The 2006 film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is also excellent.

Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (movie, 2004): A thoughtful, disturbing, and funny exploration of some of the possibilities, implications, and dangers of memory-altering technology.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Always Coming Home (novel, 1985): A very nonstandard imagining of a potential human future, set in Northern California, in which humans have returned to a largely primitive and peaceful state of existence, turning their backs on consumerism and, for the most part, technology. A lovely act of anthropological imagination.

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961; English translation 1970): Astronauts on a station in a distant part of the galaxy confront a massive and deeply inscrutable alien being that may or may not be attempting to communicate with them, and people (or rather, reproductions of people) from their pasts, who may in fact be the alien’s attempt to communicate. Unforgettable and genuinely profound. (The 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky film alters the ending and, to some degree, the thematic focus, but it is also fabulous and very beautiful in its own right, a true cinematic masterpiece.)

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice (novel, 1968; English translation 1983): A thoughtful and intelligent imagination of “first contact” girded by a deep pessimism about the possibilities of transcending the conceptual boundaries set by one’s species nature. It would be interesting to read this (and/or Ratner’s Star and/or Solaris) in combination with Davidson’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” etc.

Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (novel, 1971; various English translations available). Yet another book about the difficulties of communicating with alien intelligences. (I seem to have a theme here – or an obsession.) Humans deal with the incomprehensible after-effects of an alien visitation. The novel was the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film, Stalker.

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (novel, 1952): A satire of industrial and cultural automation in the near future, where technology has rendered most humans superfluous. Still one of the most intelligent deep critiques of the dangers of technology to be found in fiction.


List from David Chalmers (Professor of Philosophy, New York University and Australian National University):

john campbell, “the last question” (short story, 1932): the first and still the best singularity fiction: machines design smarter machines in order to design even smarter machines.

isaac asimov, the end of eternity (novel, 1955): most philosophers like “consistent” time travel with a single timeline, but i love the complex structure here with time police hanging out in metatime.

douglas adams, hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy (series of radio shows and novels, 1980ish): the babel fish disproves god; the cow wants to be eaten; the total perspective vortex; time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so; and 42.

robert zemeckis, back to the future 2 (movie, 1989): another complex model of metatime -- i set my students to work trying to figure out the model of time travel here, and they at least got close.

greg egan, “learning to be me” (short story, 1990): permutation city is great even if it's philosophically incoherent, but this is a much tighter piece about consciousness and identity.

andy & lana wachowski, the matrix (movie, 1999): still the best brain-in-vat and virtual reality movie, and it raises almost every issue in philosophy.

christopher nolan, memento (movie, 2000): a wonderful depiction of the extended mind and pathologies of extended memory.

charles stross, accelerando (novel, 2005): like most singularity fiction, the depiction of superintelligence is disappointing, but the exospecs get the extended mind right.

ramez naan, nexus (novel, 2012): the philosophy doesn't run so deep here, but it's wildly entertaining neuroscience fiction.


List from Adriano Palma (Senior Lecturer of Philosophy, University of Kwazulu-Natal):

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker (movie, 1979). People are led to a place which is counterfactually something in which wishful thinking is successful. They need a guide (the ‘stalker’).

Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow (movie, 2014). A mysterious brain controls a huge number of robots that occupy Europe. An American journalist finds himself in the position of being killed a number of times retaining the memory traces of the killings before his death. On what free will entails in terms of what (Borges &) H. Frankfurt would call “the alternatives”.

Christopher Nolan, Memento (movie, 2000). In the semi Nietzschean return, or the eternal return in reverse. It has a lot to show about attention & memory in the phil of mind areas. The protagonist has short term full amnesia.

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (novel, 2007). An alternative reality, where Israel is not born (where it is now) but in the snow.

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). The dude assumes the identity of a superior being in order to travel in time (space-time & the issues around the so called personal identity).

Thomas More, Utopia (novel, 1516). Well, if you did not know it invented scifi, but it allows reflections on equilibria in the sense of Nash & co.

George Orwell / Eric A. Blair, 1984 (novel, 1949). An excellent scifi/fantasy comparison on what control is in education and social relationships.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Nienasycenie [Insatiability] (novel, 1927). Excellent on mind control: an Asian army controls brains by murtib’ing a pill making pliant subjects.

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice (novel, 1968). One of the best treatment of the untreatable theme of „translation” in the Davidson/Quine areas. People are asked to understand what an alien textmessage is...

Bernard le Bouvier Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes [Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds] (novel/dialogue, 1686). In looking at the plurality he has the notion of the insignificance of the perspective of humans, thence entering the strange space in which one's imagination is smaller and not larger than what is known.


List from Susan Schneider (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Connecticut):

Robert Sawyer, Mindscan (novel, 2009). A fellow with an inoperable brain tumor attempts to upload his brain onto a computer and learns the hard way that uploading is no means of survival. Sawyer astutely depicts the metaphysical, legal and ethical challenges that arise. It is fun to assign this book with philosophical work on personal identity, such as Parfit on teleportation.

Ray Bradbury, “The Sound of Thunder” (short story, 1952). Time travelers on safari change the past by being lazy and straying off the path. A consistent time travel story. Hilarious.

Eric Schwitzgebel and R. Scott Bakker, “Reinstalling Eden” (short story, 2013). Your story in Nature! (Reprinted in the second edition of my book).

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). This film, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, (also recommended) is a cinematic masterpiece. Set in the near future a dystopian Los Angeles it treats the topic of the sentience of androids with great sensitivity and features one of the richest endings in film (if you ask me). Dick’s novel adds major elements to the story that the film does not capture. Still, the film is excellent in its own right.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Ship in a Bottle” (TV episode, 1993). Professor James Moriarty is a sentient holodeck creature who demands to be free to live outside of the holodeck and cleverly generates computer simulations within simulations.

Isaac Asimov’s robot stories (short stories and novels, 1939-1985). Most of Asimov’s robot’s stories are situated at the beginning of positronic robotics and space exploration. Robots are programmed to follow the Three Laws of Robotics. The film I, Robot is also excellent.

Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky (movie, 2001). A wealthy playboy faces a horrible accident and arranges to be placed in a cryonic sleep for 150 years, where he lives in virtual reality. The simulation is not without glitches, and the visit from the tech support representative in virtual reality is priceless. The film is a colorful illustration of external world skepticism.

Charlie Kaufman and Michael Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (movie, 2004). Clementine erases the memories of her relationship with Joel, so Joel tries to have the same procedure. But as his memories begin to disappear, he has a change of heart and tries to escape the procedure.


Sixth set of lists here.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sci Phi Journal

Readers interested in connections between philosophy and science fiction might want to check out the new Sci Phi Journal which publishes both science fiction and science-fiction-related philosophy articles.

Issue 1 has, among other things, a defense of the philosophical merit of The Matrix sequels, a discussion of the morality of Star Trek's "prime directive", a fun story about a dying robot's attempt to find religion and afterlife, and a charmingly-written story about the discovering of a seemingly human corpse on an alien planet.

It could be the start of a wonderful thing!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Philosophical SF: Fourth Batch of Lists (Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley)

Four more lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers.

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg

And more to come! By the end, I'll have posted about 300-400 recommendations, which I will sort into a master list, analyzing in various ways. (If you are a professional philosopher [roughly, Ph.D. and full-time teaching or post-doc] or an SF writer with graduate training in philosophy and you would like to contribute a list to the project, please email me.)

Readers, please feel free to contribute your own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Keith Frankish (Senior Visiting Research Fellow, The Open University, and Adjunct Professor, Mind and Brain Program, University of Crete):

Henry James, “The Jolly Corner” (short story, 1908). Revisiting his childhood home, a middle-aged man confronts his monstrous alter ego and achieves a sort of redemption. Raises questions about choice, responsibility, character, and personal identity. (For a different take on the same theme, see Basil Dearden’s 1970 film, The Man Who Haunted Himself, starring Roger Moore.)

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (novel, 1949). In a grimy Stalinist state, thought is controlled, history rewritten, and the minds of nonconformists ruthlessly reshaped. Themes include collectivism, power, censorship, propaganda, and the relation between language and thought.

Nigel Kneale, The Year of the Sex Olympics (TV play, 1968). Depicts a future in which an elite pacify and control the rest of the population through sensationalist reality television. Themes of hedonism, populism, and the role of the mass media. Parallels with Plato’s case against the poets.

Alain Resnais, Je t’aime, Je t’aime (movie, 1968). A man time travels through the last year of a tragic relationship, re-experiencing events in random order. Uses time travel as a metaphor for memory and the way we construct our identities through narrative.

Terry Nation et al., Survivors (TV series, 1975-7). A plague wipes out most of humanity and the few survivors try to rebuild society. The series explores political and philosophical issues, including the relation between the individual and the collective, the trade-off between freedom and security, and gender politics. Highlights include the episodes “Law and Order”, “Lights of London”, and “Over the Hills”.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Sacrifice (Swedish: ‘Offret’) (movie, 1986). A man makes an irrational personal sacrifice in order to prevent a nuclear war. A poetic film that is open to many interpretations (including religious ones), but which is broadly about how we give meaning to our lives.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Inner Light” (TV episode, 1992). An alien probe causes Captain Picard to experience life in a long-dead civilization. A touching episode, which deals with identity, memory, survival, and the representation of time.

Greg Egan, Diaspora (novel, 1997). A story of software-based posthumans, who can create their own identities and virtual environments. Explores what life might be like when completely freed from biology and massively enhanced by technology.

Peter Watts, Blindsight (novel, 2006). An intelligent spaceship crewed by neurologically enhanced humans makes first contact with a terrifyingly alien species, while a narrator skilled in reading body language struggles to make sense of it all. Raises questions about the nature of intelligence and the function of phenomenal consciousness. This book is like crack cocaine for philosophers of mind.

Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009). A solitary moon worker discovers that he is merely a token of a person-type. (Or is he the type?)


List from Ben Blumson (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore):

Forest Acerkman, “Cosmic Report Card: Earth” (short story, 1973). This short story condenses most of the characteristics of the genre into a single letter.

Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). A novel set in spaces of different dimensions.

Martin Amis, Time's Arrow (novel, 1991). The protagonist of this novel is a Nazi doctor who experiences time in reverse.

John Barth, “Frame-Tale” (short-story, 1968). This metafiction on the theme of looping time has a twist.

Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (short story, 1941). This short story is a beautiful illustration of a particularly strange form of anti-realism.

Roald Dahl, “William and Mary” (short story, 1960). A non-sceptical brain-in-a-vat scenario.

Philip K Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (novel, 1968). A novel about artificial intelligence which makes it difficult to believe that androids could be unconscious.

Robert Heinlein, “All You Zombies” (short story, 1959). A looping and incestuous time-travel story.

Ursula K Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (short story, 1973). A purported reductio of utilitarianism.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince (novel, 1943). This novel contains the most charming counterexamples to the sufficiency of resemblance for representation.


List from Mason Cash (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Central Florida):

Iain M. Banks, “The State of the Art” (short story, 1991). The Culture (featured in many of Banks’ SF/Space Opera novels), is a post-scarcity libertarian technological utopia, in which AI minds take care of just about all the heavy thinking and planning, and humanoid inhabitants can do and be whatever they want. The theme through many of these novels is how messed up people can still be in such a utopia. A Culture ship and its human crew discover Earth in 1977, at the height of the Cold War and on the brink of nuclear armageddon. Our narrator argues for contact. Another wants to defect to Earth (inconceivably to many of his colleagues). Another argues that the whole insane planet should be destroyed with a micro-black hole. The limits of utopia, the beauty of flawed humanity, the role of scarcity and risk and fragility in human life, and the possibility that important aspects of life might be lost when one can have and do whatever one likes, for as long as one likes.

Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (novel, 2010). Once any civilization develops realistic artificial realities, in which people can upload themselves and live, religious fanatics inevitably use this tech to make sure that there really is a Hell, in which “deserving” people can now be subjected to unending torture and torment. A war is being fought in a series of different virtual realities, to determine whether these Hells should exist. The anti-hell side (including the above mentioned Culture) is losing. Should the virtual war be brought into the real world, if it means saving millions of intelligent beings from eternal torment?

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine (a collection of connected short stories, 1957). Possibly the most charming existential novel you will find. Douglas Spaulding, 12 years old, living in Green Town Illinois in 1927, realizes that he is alive. But with that comes the realization that one day he also will die. A rumination about what it means to really live, love, and be happy. It’s not obviously SF, but by an SF author, and includes a time machine, an attempt to build a virtual reality “happiness machine” (c.f. Nozick’s “experience machine”), a tragic love story about a reincarnated lover, a ready-to-die great-grandma's thoughts on immortality, a 9 year old’s inspiring thoughts on happy endings, a serial killer horror story and the need for scary stories that add danger to life, a mechanical gypsy fortune-teller who cries for help, and bottling all the joys of a summer day into a bottle of dandelion wine.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (novel, 2008). Irrefutable proof of an alien civilization is discovered, and we could get there in just a few years’ travel time. While the UN is deliberating about what to do, the Jesuits recognize a message from God in the circumstances of the discovery, and so organize a secret Mission to this world. But the mission ends in horrific disaster. A Jesuit priest and linguist is the sole survivor, rescued 40 years later, now broken, bitter, disillusioned, and reluctant to discuss the mission. Alternating chapters set at the beginning and end of the mission explore how this disaster happened. Themes of interspecies interpretation (and misinterpretation), what the existence of an alien civilization means for religion (is our God also their God?), interpretation of God’s will (if He so obviously wanted us to go there, how could He let it become such a disaster)?

Neal Stephenson, Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer (novel, 1995). A cyberpunk novel set in a post-scarcity (sort of) world in which any material can be constructed by nanotechnology “compilers” out of “the Feed”; a supply pipe of energy and basic elements. A wealthy engineer creates an AI “primer” book that will provide the best possible education for his daughter, by telling her stories that teach her about life and help instill whatever skills she will need (the book is a combination of AI adaptive scriptwriter that learns what its person needs, and a remote human actor who gives the script real human voice and emotion). The primer falls into the hands of Nell, a slum dweller. Explores the role of education, the economics and class structure of a post-scarcity Earth, the power of those who control the Feed, and artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). In this advanced-tech world, Arbre, “avout” academics are cloistered from "saecuar” society, living simple lives in monastic institutions (“concents") doing science, philosophy, and studying -- over thousands of years -- the way the civilizations outside their walls rise and fall. Many of the academics have views paralleling Earth philosophers and scientists. A recurring debate between advocates of platonic realism and mathematical formalism plays a role in solving a mystery/problem/potential threat of world-changing scale and significance. (Geek fun: identify the Earth philosopher/scientist whose views are paralleled.)

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Biologically engineered artificial intelligence “replicants” are indistinguishable from humans in almost every way. But they are not seen as “persons”. Humans fear them, and have banned them from Earth, they are only used off-world slave labor. They also have a four-year life-span. The main character, Deckard, is a Bladerunner, whose job is to hunt and “retire” any replicants found on Earth. A group of them have returned to Earth, because they are nearing four years, and don’t want to die. Are they really alive, and deserving of respect and autonomy? Or are they mere machines, that can be “retired” with impunity? Explores the important ethical dimensions of AI, especially critiquing the idea that humans are special as pure hubris, motivated by an unjustified belief in the “supremacy” of the biological over the artificial. (See also Battlestar Galactica (2004-9), Bicentennial Man, and Star Trek TNG’s “Measure of a Man” episode).

George H.R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones / A Song of Ice and Fire (HBO drama 2011- / novels 1996- ). An extended meditation on the nature of power, set in a mediaeval/magical world. Many aspects of political philosophy are explored here. Political power, military power, religious influence, wealth, the institutions of nobility and inheritance, the irrelevance of “fairness”, the “soft” power of women in a patriarchy, the limitations of “honorable” conduct in a dishonorable world, the perceived importance (or not) of familial love and bonds, the military advantages of powerful weapons (dragons), the plight of the common people when “powerful” people go to war for more power, the horrors of war, what successful leadership requires, the distraction of human power-games in the face of a largely-ignored world-threatening common problem....

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (five book “trilogy” 1979-92; also 1978-80 radio play, 2005 movie, 1984 video game, a comic book, and a set of towels). SF comedy classic; tells the story of a “wholly remarkable book” through the story of Arthur Dent, an Earthling whose planet is destroyed to make room for a hyperspace bypass and his friend Ford Prefect who turns out to be from a planet near Betelgeuse, and who writes for the book. (Ironically the story of Arthur Dent is often punctuated by excerpts from the book.) The book’s entire entry on the planet Earth reads “Mostly harmless”. Explores many philosophical ideas. See especially the Total Perspective Vortex, a proof of God’s existence (which thus proves that He cannot exist), the End of the Universe, an ethical meat that wants to be eaten, a virtual reality universe, and a supercomputer programmed to compute the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything (philosophers threaten to strike if the machine does their job, until the machine proposes a better idea). Also reveals the true origin of the Earth and of Humanity.

Paul Verhoeven/ Phillip K Dick, Total Recall (movie, 1990; very loosely based on a PKD short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”). Themes of memory and identity; illusion and reality. Who are you really? and what is “real“ anyway? Quaid dreams about Mars. He tries resolving this by taking a virtual vacation involving installing memories of a spy-themed adventure to Mars. Quaid emerges to realize he might be a spy who had had his memory erased, and who has mistakenly believed he was an ordinary guy. But is this really happening, or is the whole thing taking place in the virtual vacation? Who is Quaid "really"; a spy/assassin who thought he was an ordinary guy, or an ordinary guy who used to be a spy/assassin, or just an ordinary guy dreaming he is a spy (who used to be an assassin)? What matters more, who we “really” are, or who we choose to be?


List from Brian Keeley (Professor of Philosophy, Pitzer College):

Jocelyn Moorhouse, Proof (movie, 1991). A very early film of both Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving (so, fun for that reason alone), in which Weaving plays a curmudgeonly blind person with real trust issues. Part of his worry about being deceived revolves around his lack of access to the visual world, so he has taken to taking photographs, having sighted people tell him what's in the images, writing that (in braille) on the back, and then checking those descriptions against what other sighted people report. An interesting exploration of epistemology as well as what epistemic standards are appropriate to what situations. DISCLAIMER: Fiction, but not really speculative fiction, but connects in interesting ways with the next piece, which is a bit more speculative.

H.G. Wells, “The Country of the Blind” (short story, 1904). In this short story, Wells describes an explorer, Nuñez, who accidentally discovers a valley in the Andes separated off from the rest of the world containing a population of humans who have all lost their sight several generations earlier. As such, they no longer believe in the phenomenon of vision. The story follows Nuñez's frustrating attempts to first rule them (after all, in the country of the blind…) and then later even to convince them that he has access to a sense that they do not have. How would one go about convincing a group of extremely functional blind people, living in an environment that they have adapted to their needs, of the existence of the visual world? Wells argues that it would be harder than one might initially imagine.

David Cronenberg, eXistenZ (movie, 1999). The story revolves around an virtual reality game in which you play a part in a story about a plot to murder the designer of a virtual reality game (and take a guess what the topic of the game within a game is!). This movie came out the same year as The Matrix and if you ever wondered what might have happened if they had explored the possibility of a Matrix running inside the Matrix, this is your movie. This film pairs well with Descartes’ Meditations by asking how would you know that you were in “reality” as opposed to a well-designed immersive video game? It also explores a number of Sartrean themes (hence, the title) concerning the nature of free will and the roles we adopt in life.

Spike Jonze / Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich (movie, 1999). A fanciful exploration of issues in personal identity. John Cusack's character discovers a portal that lets you experience the world from the perspective of actor John Malkovich. It’s fun to get students to explore what's incoherent in how this process works, according to the film. Also, you can pair this movie with Daniel Shaw's “On Being Philosophical and Being John Malkovich, which explores the questions of whether and how a film can be “philosophical” or “do philosophy”. Be warned that this film depicts violence towards women and animals. Further, one of the main characters (albeit not a sympathetic one) expresses trans-phobic views.

Star Trek: The Next Generation , “The Measure of a Man” (1989, TV episode). Can an AI be a person, in the moral sense or legal sense? In this episode, a scientist wishes to disassemble the android (and Second Lieutenant) Data, a procedure that might kill him. The scientist goes as far as arguing that Data is not a person, but property (and hence, has no right to self-determination). A trial is held to determine Data's status.

Ted Chiang, “Liking What You See: A Documentary” (short story, 2002). “Lookism” is the idea that how somebody looks -- that is, how attractive they are judged to be by society -- has an undue influence on the advantages and disadvantages a person experiences. If we were able to disable the part of the brain that judges the attractiveness of faces -- if we were able to reversibly induce the brain disorder known as prosopagnosia -- should we? This short story explores that possibility.

Daniel Suarez (Leinad Zeraus), Daemon and FreedomTM (novels, 2006 & 2010). Originally written as a single work, but eventually published in two volumes, these two books can be seen as an exploration of the implications of a number of technologies currently on the horizon (with some coming to pass even in the few years since they were written). Written in the form of a cyberpunk thriller, AI, drones, 3D-printing, self-replicating autonomous machine warfare, video games, & virtual reality are all thrown into the mix, as an AI begins to organize a conspiracy to control (or at least significantly change) the world. Many themes in philosophy of technology are at play.

Edwin Abbott Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (novel, 1884). A classic work written from the point of view of 2-dimensional beings in a 2-D world (the "author” of the book is "A Square") upon their interaction with the 3rd dimension. Originally, it was renowned for its satire of hierarchical (Victorian) society, but after Einstein, how it handles the idea of there being more dimensions than those with which one is familiar became an important element of how it is read.

Bruce Sterling, “Swarm” (short story, 1982). What is the function/advantage of intelligence? This story involves an encounter between a group of scientists and a (apparently) non-intelligent, superorganism species that resemble earthly social insects. Sterling's piece looks at other forms that intelligent life might take.


Fifth batch of lists here.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Possible Psychology of a Matrioshka Brain

Enclose the sun inside a layered nest of thin spherical computers. Have the inmost sphere harvest the sun's radiation to drive computational processes, emitting waste heat out its backside. Use this waste heat as the energy input for the computational processes of a second, larger and cooler sphere that encloses the first. Use the waste heat of the second sphere to drive the computational processes of a third. Keep adding spheres until you have an outmost sphere that operates near the background temperature of interstellar space.

Congratulations, you've built a Matrioshka Brain! It consumes the entire power output of its star and produces many orders of magnitude more computation per microsecond than all of the current computers on Earth do per year.

Here's a picture:

(Yes, it's black. Maybe not if you shine a flashlight on it, though.)

A common theme in discussions of super-duper-superintelligence is that we can have no idea what such a being would think about -- that a being so super-duper would be at least as cognitively different from us as we are from earthworms, and thus entirely beyond our ken. But I'd suggest (with Nick Bostrom, Eric Steinhart, and Susan Schneider) that we can think about the psychology of vast supercomputers. Unlike earthworms, we know some general principles of mentality; and, unlike earthworms, we can speculate, at least tentatively, about how these principles might apply to entities with computational power that far exceeds our own.


Let's begin by considering a Matrioshka Brain planfully constructed by intelligent designers. The designers might have aimed at creating only a temporary entity -- a brief art installation, maybe, like a Buddhist sand mandala. These are, perhaps, almost entirely beyond psychological prediction. But if the designers wanted to make a durable Matrioshka Brain, then broad design principles begin to suggest themselves.

Perception and action. If the designers want their Brain to last, it probably needs to monitor its environment and adjust its behavior in response. It needs to be able to detect, say, an incoming comet that might threaten its structure, so that it can take precautionary measures (such as deflecting the comet, opening a temporary pore for it to pass harmlessly through, or grabbing and incorporating it). There will probably be engineering trade-offs between at least three design features here: (1) structural resilience, (2) ability to detect things in its immediate environment, and (3) ability to predict the future. If the structure is highly resilient, then it might be able to ignore threats. Maybe it could even lack outer perception entirely. But such structural resilience might come at a cost: either more expensive construction (at least fewer options for construction) or loss of desirable computational capacity after construction. So it might make sense to design a Brain less structurally resilient but more responsive to its environment -- avoiding or defeating threats, as it were, rather than just always taking hits to the chin. Here (2) and (3) might trade off: Better prediction of the future might reduce the need of here-and-now perception; better here-and-now perception (coupled with swift responsiveness) might reduce the need of future prediction.

Prediction and planning. Very near-term, practical "prediction" might be done by simple mechanisms (hairs that flex in a certain way, for example, to open a hole for the incoming comet) but long-term prediction and prediction that involves something like evaluating hypothetical responses for effectiveness starts to look like planful cognition (if I deflected the comet this way, then what would happen? if I flexed vital parts away from it in this way, then what would happen?). Presumably, the designers could easily dedicate at least a small portion of the Matrioshka Brain to planning of this sort -- that seems likely to be a high-payoff use of computational resources, compared to having the giant Brain just react by simple reflex (and thus possibly not in the most effective or efficient way).

Unity or disunity. If we assume the speed of light as a constraint, then the Brain's designers must choose between a very slow, temporally unified system or a system with fast, distributed processes that communicate their results across the sphere at a delay. The latter seems more natural if the aim is to maximize computation, but the former might also work as an architecture, if a lot is packed into every slow cycle. A Brain that dedicates too many resources to fighting itself might not survive well or effectively serve other design purposes (and might not even be well thought of as a single Brain), but some competition among the parts might prove desirable (or not), and I see no compelling reason to think that its actions and cognition need be as unified as a human being's.

Self-monitoring and memory. It seems reasonable to add, too, some sort of self-monitoring capacities -- both of its general structure (so that it can detect physical damage) and of its ongoing computational processes (so that it can error-check and manage malfunction) -- analogs of proprioception and introspection. And if we assume that the Brain does not start with all the knowledge it could possibly want, it must have some mechanism to record new discoveries and then later have its processing informed by those discoveries. If processing is both distributed and interactive among the parts, then parts might retain traces of their recent processing that influence reactions to input from other parts with which they communicate. Semi-stable feedback loops, for example, might be a natural way to implement error-checking and malfunction monitoring. This in turn suggests the possibility of a distinction between high-detail, quickly dumped, short-term memory, and more selective and/or less detailed long-term memory -- probably in more than just those two temporal grades, and quite possibly with different memories differently accessible to different parts of the system.

Preferences. Presumably, the Matrioshka Brain, to the extent it is unified, would have a somewhat stable ordering of priorities -- priorities that it didn't arbitrarily jettison and shuffle around (e.g., structural integrity of Part A more important than getting the short-term computational outputs from Part B) -- and it would have some record of whether things were "going well" (progress toward satisfaction of its top priorities) vs. "going badly". Priorities that have little to do with self-preservation and functional maintenance, though, might be difficult to predict and highly path-dependent (seeding the galaxy with descendants? calculating as many digits of pi as possible? designing and playing endless variations of Pac-Man?).

The thing's cognition is starting to look almost human! Maybe that's just my own humanocentric failure of imagination -- maybe! -- but I don't think so. These seem to be plausible architectural features of a large entity designed to endure in an imperfect world while doing lots of computation and calculation.

A Matrioshka Brain that is not intentionally constructed seems likely to have similar features, at least if it is to endure. For example, it might have merged from complex but smaller subsystems, retaining the subsystems' psychological features -- features that allowed them to compete in evolutionary selection against other complex subsystems. Or it might have been seeded from a similar Matrioshka Brain at a nearby star. Alternatively, though, maybe simple, unsophisticated entities in sufficient numbers could create a Matrioshka Brain that endures via dumb rebuilding of destroyed parts, in which case my current psychological conjectures wouldn't apply.

Wilder still: How might a Matrioshka Brain implement long-term memory, remote conjecture, etc.? If it is massively parallel because of light-speed constraints, then it might do so by segregating subprocesses to create simulated events. For example, to predict the effects of catapulting a stored asteroid into a comet cloud, it might dedicate a subpart to simulate the effects of different catapulting trajectories. If it wishes to retain memories of the psychology of its human or post-human creators -- either out of path-dependent intrinsic interest or because it's potentially useful in the long run to have knowledge about a variety of species' cognition -- it might do so by dedicating parts of itself to emulate exactly that psychology. To be realistic, such an emulation might have to engage in real cognition; and to be historically accurate as a memory, such an emulated human or post-human would have to be ignorant of its real nature. To capture social interactions, whole groups of people might be simultaneously emulated, in interaction with each other, via seemingly sensory input.

Maybe the Brain wouldn't do this sort of thing very often, and maybe when it did do it, it would only emulate people in large, stable environments. The Brain, or its creators, might have an "ethics" forbidding the frequent instantiation and de-instantiation of deluded, conscious sub-entities -- or maybe not. Maybe it makes trillions of these subentities, scrambles them up, runs them for a minute, then ends them or re-launches them. Maybe it has an ethics on which pleasure could be instantiated in such sub-entities but suffering would always only be false memory; or maybe the Brain finds it rewarding to experience pleasure via inducing pleasure in sub-entities and so creates lots of sub-entities with peak experiences (and maybe illusory memories) but no real past or future.

Maybe it's bored. If it evolved up from merging social sub-entities, then maybe it still craves sociality -- but the nearest alien contacts are lightyears away. If it was constructed with lots of extra capacity, it might want to "play" with its capacities rather than have them sit idle. This could further motivate the creation of conscious subentities that interact with each other or with which it interacts as a whole.

This is one possible picture of God.


Related posts:

  • Group Organisms and the Fermi Paradox
  • How to Be a Part of God's Mind
  • Our Possible Imminent Divinity
  • Skepticism, Godzilla, and the Artificial Computerized Many-Branching You
  • Monday, October 06, 2014

    Philosophical SF: Third Batch of Lists

    Four more lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers. For a general description of the project and the first four lists, see here. For the second four lists see here. And more soon, too!


    List from Johan De Smedt (post-doc in philosophy, Ghent University):

    Battlestar Galactica: Home, part 2 (TV series, 2005-2006): What is the identity of beings (cylons) that always reincarnate upon death, and that have several clones living concurrently (some friendly to humans, others hostile to them)?

    Jack Vance, The Languages of Pao (novel, 1957): sketches a universe in which a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true.

    Richard Cowper, The Twilight of Briareus (novel, 1974): universal infertility and the fate of humanity/human cultures if there is no next generation, a trope that has been taken on by several other books (also P.D. James's Children of Men, Brian Aldiss's Greybeard).

    Robert A. Heinlein, Job: A comedy of justice (novel, 1984): C.S. Lewis meets David Lewis. A literalist interpretation of the Book of Job playing out across multiple actualized possible worlds.

    Stephenie Meyer, Breaking Dawn (novel, 2008): sketches the perfect postmortem human body as outlined in the hereafter of e.g., Aquinas.

    Richard Adams, Watership Down (novel, 1972): alien society at the bottom of the food chain (rabbits!), experiments in diverse political systems, and the role of religion (prophecy, adherence to culture hero) in political decision making.

    Joss Whedon, Serenity (movie, 2005): How far can a government go to enforce its ideals upon its citizens (follow up of the space Western television series Firefly)?

    Joe Haldeman The Forever War (novel, 1974): two species are sucked into an interstellar war against unknowable enemies with an incomprehensible psyche. Human veterans have to adapt to cultures with norms that are ever more remote from the society they originate from.

    Daniel F. Galouye, Dark Universe (novel, 1961): about perception in a post-apocalyptic underground world without light (some cultures use echolocation, others have adapted to infrared seeing).

    Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron-3 (novel, 1964): the ultimate brains-in-a-vat/evil demon story, superior to and predating The Matrix.


    List from Scott Bakker (SF writer and blogger who did graduate work in philosophy at Vanderbilt):

    Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin (movie, 2013).Terrifying meditation on different kinds of meat, alien and human, inhabiting different kinds of skin.

    Spike Jonze, Her (movie, 2013). The single most believable cinematic portrayal of the quotidian consequences of AGI.

    George F. Slavin and Stanley Adams, “The Mark of Gideon,” Star Trek original series (TV episode, 1969). Wonderful example of the way manipulating frames of epistemological reference can drive human behaviour.

    Frank Herbert, Dune (novel, 1965). Famed meditation on individual exceptionality, politics, and religion.

    Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom, The Jesus Incident (novel, 1979). The real story of the real Pandora (as opposed to James Cameron’s imperialistic pastiche), pitting organic and technological intelligences at multiple levels.

    Paul Verhoeven (and Edward Neumeier), Starship Troopers (movie, 1997). The fascistic tropes of American military narratives spoofed too well to be appreciated by American critics or audiences.

    Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote In God’s Eye (movie, 1974). First contact, not so much between species, as between technical intelligences (corresponding to the angels and devils of our own scientific natures).

    William Gibson, Neuromancer (novel, 1984). Watershed novel credited with euthanizing the Myth of Progess in science fiction.

    Cormac McCarthy, The Road (novel, 2006). The culinary fate of intentionality après le Deluge.

    Scott Bakker, Neuropath (novel, 2008). Because everybody’s gotta eat, Semantic Apocalypse or no!


    List from Jonathan Kaplan (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University):

    Michael Coney, The Celestial Steam Locomotive and Gods of the Greataway (novels, 1983, 1984). An adventure story in which various kinds of (post-)humans work together to achieve various ends, only some of which they understand. What is it to be human? to be a person? How should we think about choice and alternative possibilities?

    Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (novel, 1977). (The 2006 movie adaptation is quite faithful to the book.) An undercover drug enforcement agent loses touch with reality. Who are we, when we pretend to be who we are not? To whom do we owe loyalty?

    Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (novel, 1974). In a police state, a TV star wakes up to find he is now a nobody. What is "reality," and whose reality matters?

    Harlan Ellison, "Shatterday" (short story, 1980). A man discovers that he has split in two. What if there was another you? What if the other you was a better person? What is it to be decent human being, and why does it matter?

    William Gibson, "The Winter Market" (short story, 1985). A producer works directly with artists' emotions. Does this imply anything about consciousness? About the nature of our experiences? What is art? Some reflection on the potential for immortality.

    Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (novel, 2013). An embodied fragment of an AI seeks revenge. How should we think about personal identity and responsibility in the case of distributed entities? Does this have any implications for thinking about ourselves?

    Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Follows a physicist from an “anarchist” society. Reflections on political systems, morality, political organizing. Do all great dreams fail? Is it the nature of all political systems to decay into bureaucracies, or worse?

    Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Word for World is Forrest" (novella, 1972, later expanded to a novel, 1976). A logging camp on another world uses the native species as slave labor. Reflections on colonialism and responsibility, as well as on social change. What is it to be a person? How do (and how should) societies change?

    George R. R. Martin, "With Morning Comes Mistfall" (short story, 1973). A scientific expedition comes to debunk to a local myth. Is there a value in leaving things unexplored? Should we want science to answer even the all the questions it can answer? Is there any value in remaining willfully ignorant of what we could easily learn?

    Dan Simmons, Phases of Gravity (novel, 1989). The story follows an Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon, as he moves through a world that no longer seems to be moving forward. Where do we find meaning in our lives? How do we reconcile ourselves to the world we find ourselves in?


    List from Jonathan Weinberg (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Arizona):

    Millennium-end movies about skepticism: The Matrix / 13th Floor / Dark City / Existenz (movies, 1998-1999). Existenz may be the best film of that list, but the middle two, though less well-known, each contain interesting sections dramatizing what it really would feel like to slowly come to think that a skeptical hypothesis may actually be true. Some exploration (though not particularly well worked out) of the relationship between memory and personal identity in Dark City as well.

    Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). AI , the problem of other minds... does anyone really need Blade Runner glossed at this point?

    Ursula K. LeGuin, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" (short story, 1973). The problem of evil; one aspect of it I particularly like is that it puts the problem in more human-sized terms, where the readers must ask themselves whether they would be the sort of person described by the title, or not.

    David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). What if you could temporarily put your consciousness into a disposable copy of yourself, which could then run various errands for you, and whose consciousness would be re-absorbed by yours after 24 hours? The copies are self-destructing: if they don't re-absorb by 24 hours, then they disintegrate, so in general, the copies strongly identify as the person they are copies of, expecting to live on via the re-absorption. But then again... what if you were such a copy, and you realized that you are now in a circumstance where you won't ever get to rejoin the original? Really interesting exploration of fusion/fission and personal identity; it's written in what one might call the first-person-singular-plural.

    The Leftovers (TV series, 2014-present). (I confess I haven't read the book of that title by Tom Perrotta, who is also one of the makers of the show.) The premise is that all of a sudden, at a point about three years before the story starts, about 2% of the world's population just… vanished. Poof. It's kind of like the rapture, except it's clear that the departed people weren't any better than everyone else, and indeed, there doesn't seem to be any pattern to who did or did not vanish. It's maybe a borderline case of the SF/Fantasy genre. What I find compellingly philosophical about it, inter alia, is that it is an exploration of what it would be like to like in a world in which you had evidence that Humean worries about induction really were true. What if the universe did just throw us a massive, inexplicable, unprojectable curve ball? How would we conduct our lives? (For a much, much darker, weirder, and horrifying exploration of the unknowable in sci-fi form, I can recommend Jeff Vandermeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance. But I'm not sure I even know how to begin glossing it, frankly. So I'm cheating and helping myself to a parenthetical here.)

    China Miéville, Embassytown (novel, 2011). A member of a very small set of sci-fi books where the relevant science is linguistics. It centrally concerns the challenge of communicating with an alien race whose language, among other challenging properties, seems to be one in which one cannot knowingly express a falsehood. (Having learned about lying from the humans, the aliens have a kind of Olympic competition to see who can come as close to lying as possible.)

    Neil Gaiman, Murder Mysteries (short story, 1998; graphic novel, 2002). As Heaven enters into late stages of planning for the Creation, an angel is wakened to serve his purpose as Heaven's detective, to investigate the very first murder ever. It plays with both fantasy and noir genres, and is an examination of the problem of evil.

    Neil Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). A sci-fi adventure book starring a philosopher-monk-hero, where major plot twists involve the manyworlds interpretation of QM, and debates over Platonism in metaphysics. No, really.

    L. Sprague DeCamp, "Aristotle & The Gun" (short story, 1958) - A man travels back to ancient Greece, to try to jump-start the scientific revolution by a millenium or so, with rather unintended consequences.

    Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (novel, 2004). Set in a version of early 19th century England and Europe in which the English have (re?)discovered magic. Both an interesting exploration of genre (fantasy? alt-history? pastiche of 19th century novels), and an exploration of the philosophical conflict between Englightenment and Romantic takes on modernity, made manifest in the different styles of sorcery of the two title characters.


    As before, readers are encouraged to add further suggestions in the comments section.

    Fourth batch of lists here.

    Friday, October 03, 2014

    Justin Coates at Flickers of Freedom, and Bragging

    Former UCR student (and co-author with me on a paper about ethicists' behavior at philosophy conferences) Justin Coates is blog hosting at Flickers of Freedom this month.

    He's awesome because UCR is the best!

    Am I bragging about the successes of UCR students? Well, so be it. As it happens, "The Best Column Ever" about bragging was published today. That makes today Brag (about Your Students and Everything Else) Day. You wish you could write an announcement post with as clever a turn as that one. (Or that one.)

    Okay, I admit, that was kind of weak. But still, check out Justin and the Sunstein column.

    Philosophical SF: The Second Batch of Lists

    On Tuesday, I posted four lists of philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction recommended by professional philosophers. Here are four more lists of ten "personal favorites" from four more professional philosophers. (Three are philosophy professors, one is a professional SF writer who incorporates philosophical themes in his work.)

    For more background on this project, see Tuesday's post.


    List from Pete Mandik (Professor of Philosophy, William Paterson University, and co-host of SpaceTimeMind):

    Peter Watts, Blindsight (novel, 2006). Cogsci savvy tale in which assorted transhumans and extraterrestrials get by just fine without phenomenal consciousness...or do they?

    Ted Chiang, “Understand” (short story, 1991) Thorough and convincing first-person phenomenology of human super intelligence--you’ll feel like you know what it’s like to get your IQ quadrupled overnight.

    Greg Egan, Diaspora (novel, 1997) Living indefinitely long as a godlike digital posthuman is all well and good, and when you run out of physical universe(s) to explore, there’s solace to be had in math.

    Black Mirror, “Be Right Back” (TV show, 2013) Digital simulacra of the recently departed may be exactly what the grief-stricken don’t want but can’t help but seek.

    Bruce Sterling, Schismatrix Plus (novel, 1995) Deeply weird political and economic turmoil in a solar system infested by post human factions (genetically engineered vs cyborgs) and, eventually, extraterrestrial investors.

    David Gerrold, The Man Who Folded Himself (novel, 1973) Exhaustive exploration of time-travel enabled narcissistic self-indulgence: meet, greet and *expletive deleted* your temporal counterparts.

    Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005) Nothing else that I’ve read comes as close to this in depicting what living through the technological singularity would be like; "mind-bending future shock” is an insufficiently hyperbolic superlative.

    Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan, “Another Cold Morning” (comic book, 1998) Harsh and grim fistful of future shock depicting waking up from cryo stasis into an overwhelming future that has zero use for you.

    Tom Scott, “Welcome to Life: The Singularity, Ruined by Lawyers” (YouTube video, 2012) Everyone can have digital immortality, but not everyone can afford a version unsullied by direct brain advertising.

    Roger Williams, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect (novel, 1994) A virtual god, subservient to Asimov’s laws of robotics, emerges from the technological singularity, and the ensuing cosmic paternalism puts every human into a heaven they desperately want out of, despite (or because of) all the sex and ultraviolence.


    List from Eric Kaplan (TV writer and blogger who did philosophy grad work at U.C. Berkeley):

    Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker (novel, 1937) -- What is the purpose of life and history?

    Gene Wolfe, The Hero as Werewolf (novel, 1991) -- What is evil? What is the role of universalizability in ethics?

    Futurama, “Why Must I be a Crustacean in Love?” (TV episode, 2000) -- What's the relationship between ethics and sociobiology?

    Futurama, “Hell is Other Robots” (TV episode, 1999) -- Feuerbach thesis of the origin of religion -- is religion a human creation and if so what purpose does it serve?

    Algis Budrys, Rogue Moon (novel, 1960) -- What is personal identity?

    Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (novel, 1972) -- What is personal identity?

    Theodore Sturgeon, Maturity (short stories, 1947-1958) -- What is the purpose of life? What is a well-lived life?

    Lewis Padgett, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (short story, 1943) -- Are other conceptual schemes possible?

    Eric Rücker Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros (novel, 1922) -- Nietzsche and the myth of the eternal return -- the heaviest thought.

    G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (novel, 1908) -- Theodicy -- why would a good God allow evil?

    Alice Bradley Sheldon / James Tiptree, Jr., “A Momentary Taste of Being” (short story, 1975) -- biology and the purpose of life.


    List from Simon Evnine (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Miami):

    Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (novel, 1993). Gender roles, and the significance of empathy in discharging our responsibilities for each other.

    Michael Flynn, Eifelheim (novel, 2006). Aliens appear in a medieval German village; a deep reflection on love and sacrifice.

    Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (novel, 1980). Hermeneutics: In the far future, a story about people trying to make sense of their distant past (us), told in an invented dialect that makes it equally a problem for us to make sense of them.

    Liz Jensen, The Uninvited (novel, 2012). The nature of the adult world, and its relation to children and the future.

    Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice (novel, 2013). Having a divided mind, and the existence of social divisions, take on a whole new meaning when agents are composed of multiple people.

    Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (novel, 1969). The meaning of gender is explored when a male protagonist comes to a planet inhabited by humans who change their gender naturally.

    Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child (novel, 1988). How do we deal with the intolerable when we have an obligation to care for it?

    Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep (novel, 1992). A story involving a variety of kinds of minds, including transcendent minds, human minds infused by transcendent minds, and group minds.

    Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (novel, 2009). How well do we know ourselves?

    Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (4 novels, 1983). A haunting work about the experience of finitude.


    List from Helen De Cruz (Postdoc in Philosophy, University of Oxford, and blogger):

    Ursula Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness (novel, 1969). Explores a society where its inhabitants do not have a gender.

    Daniel F Galouye, Dark Universe (novel, 1961). What's it like to be blind, not just to be blind but to live in a world where everyone is blind and relies on echolocation?

    Daniel F. Galouye, Simulacron-3 (novel, 1964). There are several books and movies on the brains in a vat/deceiving demon theme (e.g., most famously, The Matrix), but if I had to pick a favorite, this would be it.

    Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (novel, 1967). Features naturalistic versions of Hindu gods and reincarnation. Can the status quo be challenged by introducing Buddhism?

    Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (novel, 1966). Heinlein's lunar society exhibits his libertarian ideas, as well as the view that there's no such thing as a free lunch (expressed in the awkward acronym TANSTAAFL)

    Robert Heinlein, “Jerry Was a Man” (short story, 1947). Ponders the issue of human rights for nonhuman animals and what it means for someone to be human, with the protagonist, a genetically-modified chimpanzee.

    Richard Garfinkle, Celestial Matters (novel, 1996). Assumes that ancient science describes accurately how the world works - so we have things like Aristotelian physics, spontaneous generation, taoist Chinese alchemy, and geocentrism with real spheres in space.

    Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (novel, 1966). On personal identity and mental disability.

    P.D. James, Children of Men (novel, 1992). Social criticism and theological reflection focusing on the results of mass infertility.

    Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (novel, 1954). If you're the last surviving human in a vampire-apocalypse, does it make sense to want to survive? And who is the monster, to be feared, in a new world populated by vampires?


    Wow, now I want to read (and watch) all this stuff!
    Guess I'll start here.

    As before, readers are encouraged to add further suggestions in the comments section.

    October 6: The third batch of lists.