Monday, January 24, 2022

Reflections on Science Fiction as Philosophy, Plus Zombie Robots

Last weekend, two interviews of me came out. One is a long interview (about 6000 words) at with Nigel Warburton at Five Books on science fiction as a way of doing philosophy, including my recommendation of five great books of philosophical science fiction.

From the interview:

You could say that science fiction is a good teaching tool -- that it’s not really philosophy, but it’s good for popularising philosophical questions or getting people who might not otherwise be attracted to philosophy to think about philosophical questions. But serious philosophy takes the form of the expository essay, the journal article, the monograph. I don’t agree with that. I think serious philosophy can take a variety of forms.

Consider a classic of recent moral philosophy, Bernard Williams’ essay ‘Moral Luck’. That essay turns on an imaginary version of the story of Gauguin. Had Williams’ treatment of Gaugin been more detailed and more complex, it might have been even more philosophically interesting, as some subsequent commentators have pointed out. The more detail, the more we understand the complex dilemma that Gaugin faced, concerning his hopes for being a great artist and what the difficulties of leaving his family might be....

There’s a reason that philosophers sometimes reach for sketching mini-fictions in their writing. Those mini-fictions achieve something that can’t be as effectively achieved through more abstract prose. But as long as it remains a mini-fiction contained within an essay, it’s going to be somewhat impoverished as a fiction... It’s a kind of historical accident that philosophers almost exclusively write expository essays now. That’s not historically been the case.

Check out the interview also for discussion of the philosophical ideas in my five recommended books:

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others
Greg Egan, Diaspora
Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Olaf Stapledon, Sirius

Also last weekend, Barry Lam dropped the latest episode of his philosophical podcost Hi-Phi Nation -- this one on zombies. Philosophers who work on consciousness will be unsurprised to hear that David Chalmers features centrally in the episode. Christina Van Dyke and John Edgar Browning are also featured.

The episode concludes with some of my reflections on what I've called the Full Rights Dilemma for Future Robots -- the question of what we should do if we ever create machines whose moral status is unclear, machines who might or might not genuinely have conscious experiences like ours and thus might or might not deserve moral consideration similar to that of human beings. Do we give them the full rights of human beings, including rights to health care, rescue, and the vote, and thus risk (if they aren't actually conscious) sacrificing real human interests for empty machines without moral status worth the sacrifice? Or do we deny them full rights, and risk (if they do actually have rich conscious lives like ours) perpetrating mass slavery and murder?


Arnold said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

It's becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman's Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

The thing I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990's and 2000's. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I've encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there's lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar's lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman's roadmap to a conscious machine is at

megatron said...

Dear Eric,

I hope you enjoy the early start of spring. Did not know how to contact you.
First let me tell you that I appreciate very much reading your articles and interviews - on the philosophy of mind, science fiction, crazyism and many other directions you have been opening up for me and others.

My training is not as a philosopher or academic researcher, although I have been dabbling in theory and theory fiction.
Recently I have started a free newsletter that tries to track video essays, articles, ideas, reviews, exhibitions - of a growing interest in tracking thinking/feeling through Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction modalities. I am also trying to keep it as inclusive as possible and keep an open mind (and eye) towards global SF and Eastern European SF in particular, in all its forms. Especially in view of these highly alarming developments (and warmongering) that we are witnessing on all channels.

In the last issue (#3) I have been happy to include your interview on "the best books on SF and philosophy"
Just wanted to let you know.

many regards
Stefan Tiron