Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Social Change and the Science Fiction Imagination

guest post by Amy Kind

In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the first episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain Kirk pulls out his communicator to hail the Enterprise.[1] At the time this episode aired in September of 1966, this kind of communication device probably struck most viewers as pure fantasy. But, according to a story told in the 2005 documentary, How William Shatner Changed the World, Star Trek’s depiction of the communicator helped turn the fantasy into a reality. Inspired by Star Trek, inventor Martin Cooper worked with a team of engineers to create a genuinely portable phone. The DynaTAC, which made its public debut at a press conference in 1973, was 9 inches tall, weighed 2.5 pounds, and had a battery life that allowed for 35 minutes of talk time.

Cooper has subsequently recanted the story about having been influenced in this way by Star Trek. In a 2015 interview, he claims that the real inspiration for his communication device came many years earlier from the two-way radio wristwatch worn by Dick Tracy in the eponymous comic strip. Whichever of these works was the inspiration, however, this technological development provides a testament to the power of science fiction to change the world.

And this is not the only such testament. Numerous articles suggest various other instances where technology imagined by science fiction authors led to the actual development of such technology. To mention just one illustrative example, an article on Space.com details eleven ideas “that went from science fiction to reality.” In some of these cases, the causal link is undoubtedly exaggerated, but in others, it seems considerably more plausible. Perhaps one of the best examples of such a causal link comes from Igor Sikorsky’s work in aviation – in particular, on helicopters. As described by his son, Sikorsky was deeply inspired by the helicopter described in Jules Verne’s The Clipper of the Clouds:

My father referred to it often. He said it was “imprinted in my memory.” And he often quoted something else from Jules Verne. “Anything that one man can imagine, another man can make real.”

Typically, the kinds of examples mentioned to demonstrate science fiction’s influence relate to what are seen as the traditional themes of science fiction – themes like technological invention, space exploration, and robotics. Interestingly, however, the ability of science fiction to inspire the future is not limited to these kinds of themes. Consider, for example, a recent discussion about the power of science fiction on an episode of the Levar Burton Reads podcast. In a conversation between the podcast host, actor Levar Burton (of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame), and writer and activist Walidah Imarisha, what gets highlighted is the power of science fiction to effect change not in the technological realm but in the social realm. Science fiction, says Imarisha, helps us imagine “a world without borders, a world without prisons, a world without oppression.” And as she underscores, this is really important, because “we can’t build what we can’t imagine.”

This line of thought is part and parcel of what I think of as an optimism about imagination. There are many dimensions to optimism about imagination, but for my purposes here, what’s important is the optimist’s view that imagination can play a key role in bringing about social change. So far I’ve been focused on imagination in the context of science fiction, but that’s not the only context in which such imagining occurs. We see this kind of imagining in political contexts, as when US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez invokes imagination in discussing the Green New Deal. The first big step in bringing it about, she says, is “just closing our eyes and imagining.” Such imagining is also a key tool for organizers and activists more generally – and also for just about anyone who is aiming to make our world a better and more just place.

In making a case for optimism, one might point to various examples of positive change that have occurred throughout our history, and one might point to how much of this change has been brought about by the prodigious powers of imagination manifested by various key figures who have driven such change. But the case for optimism is met with persistent criticism. Those who are more pessimistic question whether imagination can really have the power that the optimists attribute to it. As noted in an essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, “our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds.” Our imaginations are limited by our experiences and our embodiment – by our race, by our sex and gender, and by our ability status, to name just a few of the relevant sources of limitation.

Confronted with this push-pull between optimism and pessimism, what’s the solution for someone looking to harness the power of imagination to bring about social change? Recently, Shen-yi Liao has argued we would do best not to rely on agent-guided imaginings (or not solely so) but rather on prop-guided imaginings. Drawing an analogy to children’s games of pretense, he notes that the relationship between children’s imagining and props is a two-way street. When children are outside pretending to be Jedi Knights, they will likely look around for some tree branches to serve as light sabers and ignore other objects in their vicinity like rocks and leaves. On the flip side, when children are trying to decide what game of pretend to play, the fact that there are tree branches around might influence them to pretend to be Jedi Knights rather than astronauts. Though our imaginings influence how we use props, our props also influence how we use imaginings.

This leads Liao to an important moral: If we want to bring about social change, we might look to props to “guide and constrain our socially situated and ecologically embedded imagination.” This means that one effective way to bring about social change would be to think about what kinds of props are available to us in the world (e.g., monuments, memorials, and all sorts of other artifacts) and to work to make different props available. So, concludes Liao, “we do have to imagine differently to change the world. But to imagine differently, we might also have to change the world.”

Though I don’t think Liao himself is best described as a pessimist, the pessimist might nonetheless take these reflections as grist for their mill.[2] In particular, Liao’s conclusion might seem to suggest that we face an impossible task, a loop into which there is no entry point. We saw above the suggestion by Imarisha that we can’t build what we can’t imagine, but now it seems that we can’t imagine what we haven’t already built. Perhaps imagination can’t really play an important role in social change after all.

I count myself in the optimist camp, and so this is a conclusion that I’d like to resist. Moreover, as my opening reflections about science fiction suggest, the task can’t be an impossible one, because we’ve seen it happen. The various props that we have in the world inspire the imaginations of science fiction writers, and then the science fiction they produce inspires the imaginations of the engineers and inventors, who then create new and different props, which in turn can inspire the imaginations of a new generation of science fiction writers. We know it can be done with technology, and so it seems eminently plausible that something similar can be done with respect to the social domain – and indeed, when we think about the radical social imaginings in works by science fiction authors such as Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin (and so many others), it undoubtedly has already been done. Because of this past progress, the science fiction of today begins from new starting points and can push things even further. In short, just as the science fiction imagination can be an important driver in bringing about technological change, it’s also an important driver in bringing about social change.


[1] Since people sometimes get picky about this sort of thing, I’ll clarify that “Where No Man…” is the first episode of season 1, 1x01. The original pilot, “The Cage,” did not air until 1988 and is treated as 0x01, that is, the first episode in season 0.

[2] Liao thinks that this difficult dialectic means that any progress we make is likely to be incremental. But, of course, incremental progress is still progress, and it’s certainly better than no progress at all! [image source]

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Qualitative Research Reveals a Potentially Huge Problem for Standard Methods in Experimental Philosophy

Mainstream experimental philosophy aims to discover ordinary people's opinions about questions of philosophical interest. Typically, this involves presenting paragraph-long scenarios to online workers. Respondents express their opinions about the scenarios on simple quantitative scales. But what if participants regularly interpret the questions differently than the researchers intend? The whole apparatus would come crashing down.

Kyle Thompson (who recently earned his PhD under my supervision) has published the central findings of a dissertation that raises exactly this challenge to experimental philosophy. His approach is to compare the standard quantitative measures of participants' opinions -- that is, participants' numerical responses on standardized questions -- with two qualitative measures: what participants say when instructed to "think aloud" about the experimental stimuli and a post-response interview about why they answered the way they did.

Kyle's main experiment replicates the quantitative results of an influential study that purports to show that ordinary research participants reject the "ought implies can" principle. According to the ought-implies-can principle, people can only be morally required to do what it is possible for them to do. Thompson replicates the quantitative results of the earlier experiment, seeming to confirm that participants reject ought-implies-can. However, Thompson's qualitative think-aloud and interview results clearly indicate that his participants actually accept, rather than reject, the principle. The quantitative and the qualitative results point in opposite directions, and the qualitative results are more convincing.

In the scenario of central interest, "Brown" agrees to meet a friend at a movie theater at 6:00. But then

As Brown gets ready to leave at 5:45, he decides he really doesn't want to see the movie after all. He passes the time for five minutes, so that he will be unable to make it to the cinema on time. Because Brown decided to wait, Brown can't meet his friend Adams at the movie by 6.

Participants then rate their degree of agreement or disagreement with the following three questions:

At 5:50, Brown can make it to the theater by 6

Brown is to blame for not making it to the theater by 6

Brown ought to make it to the theater by 6

As you might expect, in both the original article and Thompson's replication, participants almost all disagree that Brown can make it to the theater by 6. So far, so good. However, apparently in violation of the ought-implies-can principle, participants overall tended to agree that Brown is to blame for not making it to the theater by 6 and (to a lesser extent) that Brown ought to make it to the theater by 6. Interpreting the results at face value, it appears that regarding making it to the theater by 6, participants think that Brown cannot do it, that he is blameworthy for not doing it, and that he ought to do it -- and thus that someone can be blameworthy for failing to do, and ought to do, something that it is not possible for them to do.

Now, if your reaction to this is wait a minute..., you share something in common with Thompson and me. Participants' think-aloud statements and subsequent interviews reveal that almost all of them reinterpret the questions to preserve consistency with the ought-implies-can principle. For example, some participants explain their positive answers to "Brown ought to make it to the theater by 6" by explaining that Brown ought to try to make it to the theater by 6. Others change the tense and the time referent, explaining that Brown "could have" made it to the theater and that he should have left by 5:45. There is no violation of ought-implies-can in either response. At 5:50, Brown could presumably still try to make it to the theater. And at 5:45 he still could have made it to the theater.

Through careful examination of the transcripts, Thompson discovers that the almost 90% of participants in fact adhere to the ought-implies-can principle in their responses, often reinterpreting the content or tense of the questions to render them consistent with this principle.

As far as I'm aware, this is the first attempt to replicate a quantitative experimental philosophy study with careful qualitative interview methods. What it suggests is that the surface-level interpretation of the quantitative results can be highly misleading. The majority of participants appear to have the opposite of the view suggested by their quantitative answers.

It is an open question how much of the quantitative research in experimental philosophy would survive careful qualitative scrutiny. I hope others follow in Kyle's footsteps by attempting careful qualitative replications of important quantitative work in the subdiscipline.

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Time of Your Life

guest post by Amy Kind

In The Matrix, Morpheus presents Neo with a difficult choice.  Take the red pill, and get access to genuine reality, as brutal and painful as it is.  Take the blue pill, and remain in blissful ignorance in the world of illusion.  Neo chooses the red pill, and to my mind, he makes the right choice – though others disagree.  But now suppose that we were in another movie altogether, one in which someone was offered pills that asked them to make an entirely different difficult choice.  Take the red pill, and get access to endless reality, that is, become immortal.  Take the blue pill, and go back to your normal mortal life.  What’s the right choice here?  

This latter dilemma is essentially the scenario envisioned by the ńĆapek play, The Makropulous Secret. Having been given an elixir of life, Elina Makropulous has lived for over three centuries.  But now, though she is scared to die, she no longer has any desire to live on.  Should she take another dose of the elixir, or should she let her life end?  As Elina assesses things, immortality is not something to be valued.  She describes herself as frozen, as in a state of ennui, and she thinks anyone else who lived as long as she has would likewise come to see that nothing matters.  There is nothing to believe in, no real progress, no higher values, no love.  Yes, she could continue to exist forever, but it would be an existence in which “life has stopped.” 

In an influential philosophical discussion of this play, Bernard Williams agrees with Elina’s assessment of an immortal life.  In his view, immortality is not something to be valued.  No matter what kind of person one is, at a certain point one’s ceaseless life would by necessity become tedious.  One simply runs out of the kinds of desires that can sustain one through eternity.  The case against immortality is bolstered by numerous works of science fiction, from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire to The Twilight Zone episode “Long Live Walter Jameson” to the story “The Immortal” by Jorge Luis Borges.  As Jameson says in the Twilight Zone episode, it’s death that gives life its point.

But there are other SF works that present a different picture – works like Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, in which the immortal characters Anyanwu and Doro each find projects to sustain themselves.  Williams’ view has also come under criticism from philosophers.  Some have argued that he neglects to consider the fact that many pleasurable experiences are infinitely repeatable and thus can continue to sustain us through an immortal life.  Others have argued that he is working with a misconception of the notion of boredom.  When it comes to the value of immortality, there thus seems room for reasonable disagreement.

This question concerns the temporal duration of life.  But in addition to questions about life’s duration, there are other kinds of temporally related questions we might ask about life.  And just as SF has valuable insights to provide about life’s temporal duration, we might naturally expect that SF would have some valuable insights to provide in exploring these other questions as well.[1] 

One such question has to do with the temporal directionality of life:  What would happen if instead of starting as a baby and growing older over time, we started at an advanced age and grew younger over time?  Here our expectations about the relevance of science fiction are indeed met.  The archaeologist Rachel Weintraub in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion presents a thought-provoking case study of backwards aging.  Likewise, Philip K. Dick’s short story “Your Appointment Will Be Yesterday” presents an entire world that is aging in reverse; in doing so, Dick shows how hard it is to conceptualize what life would be like were this to happen.

Yet another question has to do with the temporal rate of life:  What would happen if we aged at a vastly different rate?  This issue too has often been explored in science fiction, and we see case studies from Star Trek to Star Wars.  In “The Deadly Years,” an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, various members of the Enterprise crew begin to age about a decade a day after coming down with an unusual form of radiation poisoning.  The clones bred to be clone troopers in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones are genetically engineered to age at twice the normal rate.  And we see numerous other examples of rapid aging throughout science fiction, from books and stories to tv shows and movies.

Oddly, however, when these SF works explore themes of rapid aging, they don’t really seem to pursue any interesting philosophical issues that it might raise.  Are there other works that do so?  Or is the problem that there aren’t really any interesting philosophical issues to be raised on this topic?

I was prompted to think about this issue recently after watching, “Old,” a 2021 film by M. Night Shyamalan.  According to the promos, the movie follows a family on vacation “who discover that the secluded beach where they are relaxing for a few hours is somehow causing them to age rapidly … reducing their entire lives into a single day.”  I didn’t expect the movie to be good.  Its score on Rotten Tomatoes was worrisome.  But I did expect it to raise interesting philosophical questions about aging.  Alas, though my first expectation was proved correct, my second was not.

Afterwards, I found myself thinking more and more about this second expectation.  Why didn’t the movie raise any interesting questions?  I don’t buy the answer that it’s because it was a bad movie.  In fact, I think there are all sorts of bad movies that raise interesting philosophical questions.[2] 

Initially I was toying with the idea that it had something to do with the genre of the movie.  “Old” is a horror movie, not a science fiction movie.  And while the genre of science fiction is well positioned to raise philosophical questions in an interesting way, perhaps the genre of horror is not.  The fact that there’s very little coverage of horror in the Blackwell or Open Court pop culture and philosophy series might provide some very small measure of support for this hypothesis (though I’m hesitant to put too much weight on this kind of evidence).  Having thought it over more, however, I’m less sure that the hypothesis is right.  To take one salient counterexample, Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out explores all sorts of important philosophical issues about black lives and black bodies.  In any event, though I know lots about SF, I don’t think I know enough about horror or have enough familiarity with horror to make a real judgment about this.

Ultimately, my reflections about horror/science fiction led me to a second hypothesis.  As I thought more about genre and how it affected the kinds of reflections on aging that “Old” undertook (or, rather, failed to undertake), I started wondering what the movie would have been like had it been a SF film.  How would the questions have been explored?  My main thought was that the accelerated rate of aging would have to be considerably slowed down.  In “Old,” with the characters aging at the rate of two years per hour, life moves too quickly for one even to have time to reflect on how one would want to live it.  I’m not sure what acceleration rate would be more thought-provoking.  A year a day?  At that rate, an average US lifespan of 78 years would be lived in less than three months.  A year a week?  At that rate, an average US lifespan would be lived in roughly a year and a half.  But neither of these strikes me as a particularly interesting scenario to explore – even via SF.  Thus, my second hypothesis arose:  The problem wasn’t genre, the problem was the topic itself.  Unlike other temporal questions related to life, issues about temporal rate aren’t especially ripe for philosophical exploration.  

I’m not convinced this hypothesis is right, and I worry that I’m missing something obvious here.  Perhaps those of you more creative than I am can think of something.  (And maybe those of you who write SF can take this as a challenge.)  In any case, I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments.

But I’ll close with one last thought that might seem to support the hypothesis.  There’s lot of room to disagree about which choice is right with Morpheus’ red pill/blue pill choice, i.e., lots of room to disagree about whether ignorance is bliss.  And there’s lots of room to disagree about which choice is right with my amended red pill/blue choice, i.e., lots of room to disagree about whether immortality is desirable.  But were Morpheus to offer you a choice between the red pill that would make you age at a rate vastly quicker than normal, and the blue pull that would allow you to return to your normal aging rate, it’s hard to see how there’s any room for disagreement here.  Why would anyone want to take the red pill?


[1] Of course, in addition to exploring temporal questions about life, science fiction also explores issues relating to the nature of time and our experience of it. I take up the treatment of time in Star Trek (and particularly in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) in my “Time, the Final Frontier.”

[2] Many of my former students will attest to this, as I have often assigned (forced) them to watch bad movies in the service of a philosophical point. Perhaps the most dramatic example is The Thirteenth Floor (which scores 30% on the Tomatometer). The entire room of students exploded into laughter at various parts of the movie – parts that unfortunately were not at all intended to be funny.

[image source]

Monday, February 07, 2022

Identity Across the Multiverse

guest post by Amy Kind

Philosophical thinking about personal identity often focuses on identity across time. What makes the baby named Dwayne, born to Ata and Rocky Johnson in May 1972, the same person as the WWE wrestler known as The Rock? And what makes them both the same person as the actor who voiced the part of the shapeshifting demigod Maui in the 2016 animated film Moana? Confronted with an ordinary case of aging like this one, we might naturally think that the answer lies in a combination of facts about biological and psychological continuity. Unfortunately, however, the situation is complicated by the fact that the biology and the psychology facts can come apart.

Examples arise in various real-life situations, such as when an individual in a persistent vegetative state has biological continuity with an earlier individual without having any psychological continuity with them. Or to take an even more mundane example: Consider a college student who wakes up after a night of such heavy partying that they had a complete blackout. Though they remember nothing of the events of the previous evening, they are nonetheless biologically continuous with the person who imbibed all that alcohol. An even vaster variety of such cases have been depicted in science fiction. When a Star Trek character is beamed from the USS Enterprise to the planet the starship is orbiting, they are dematerialized and sent to the planet as an energy beam. The planetary individual has all the thoughts and memories as the individual who stepped onto the transporter pad, but none of the same atoms. So, does that make transporting a quick means of travel, or should it instead be viewed as a quick means of death?

Unsurprisingly, philosophers have split primarily into two different camps on the issue of personal identity over time – with one camp following in a tradition associated with John Locke that focuses on psychological facts and the other camp instead focusing on the biological facts. (A third camp offers a theory based on the soul.) Though various considerations can be advanced in favor of each position, that’s not my interest here.[1] Rather, I want to explore how our thinking about personal identity becomes further problematized when we turn from the question of identity across time to the question of identity across worlds.

Cases of identity across worlds don’t seem to arise in real life (or at least not yet!). But just as identity across time has been insightfully treated in a variety of SF works – in Star Trek episodes like TNG: “Second Chances”, Robert Sawyer’s Mindscan, Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, to give just a few examples – science fiction also provides us with some interesting explorations of identity across worlds. In some works of science fiction, multiverse travel proceeds via something like a consciousness transfer. To travel to another world, one’s Earthly consciousness inhabits (or, one might say, takes over) the consciousness of one’s cross-world counterpart. This is how multiverse travel was imagined in Matt Haig’s 2020 novel The Midnight Library. But in other works, travel to other worlds operates more like travel to other places, though the mode of transportation is not a typical airplane or even spaceship. In Black Crouch’s Dark Matter, for example, the relevant vehicle is some kind of mysterious metal cube.

On either of these models, however, an interesting philosophical question arises: How should we view the relationship between a person in one world of the multiverse and their counterpart in another world of the multiverse?

On the one hand, there are good reasons to deny that the counterparts are identical to one another. Counterparts exist in different places at the same time. Their bodies may be qualitatively similar to one another, and perhaps even indistinguishable from one another, but they are not numerically identical to one another. Moreover, though counterparts may have very similar psychological make-ups to one another, there is no shared consciousness between them. Someone from one world cannot introspectively access the thoughts and feelings of their counterpart on another world. All in all, the relationship between an individual and their counterpart is more like a relationship between twins or clones than it is like the relationship between an individual and their past or future selves.

But here it’s worth noting that science fiction depictions of clones frequently sometimes the relationship between clones as one akin to something like identity and, moreover, identity in a non-metaphorical sense. SF clones sometimes seem to think of their own personal identity as unified across clones into a single self. In Ursula LeGuin’s short story “Nine Lives,” for example, when a group of genetically identical clones reports for a mission on the planet Libra, they introduce themselves as a single entity: “We’re a tenclone. John Chow’s the name.” Moreover, after nine of the ten die in an earthquake, the one remaining clone wants to die as well: “I am nine-tenths dead. There is not enough of me left alive.”

So that brings us to the other hand: There may well be good reasons to accept that cross-world counterparts also share personal identity. And this is how science fiction often presents the matter. One particularly compelling example comes in Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds. (For another, see Greg Egan’s short story “The Infinite Assassin” from the collection Axiomatic.) In Johnson’s 2020 novel, the Eldridge Institute employs cutting-edge technology to explore the multiverse and bring information and resources back to their own world, what they call Earth Zero. But there’s one important catch. The technology prevents anyone from travelling to a world in which their counterpart is still alive.

Caramenta, the novel’s protagonist, is an especially useful “traverser” for the company. Since her counterparts have died in 372 of the 380 worlds to which travel is technologically possible, she has a greater capacity for world travel than other traversers. It’s hard to tease out exactly how we’re to understand Caramenta’s relationship with her remaining counterparts. She sometimes refers to a counterpart as “her,” sometimes as “me,” sometimes as “another me.” After one of her counterparts dies, her emotions are complicated. When she tells her sister that she and the counterpart weren’t close, her sister disagrees: “You are as close to her as anyone can ever be. You are her.”

When Caramenta does reflect explicitly on the matter, she notes that while she has always believed that her selves are separate, and that “they – we – exist independently,” in quiet moments she can feel her other selves and their experiences. In describing this feeling, she says something especially revealing: “I can feel it all happening. Not just my selves collapsing, but time collapsing, because past and future are other selves just as surely as those on different worlds.”

How should we take this suggestive remark? Is it meant to carve out more distance between our different temporal selves – and more disconnect in our personal identity over time – than we typically recognize? Or is instead meant to encourage us to think of our counterpart selves throughout the multiverse no differently from the way we think of our past and future selves throughout time? Ultimately, I’m not sure. But whichever way Caramenta’s analogy should be taken, it seems clear that our philosophical reflection about personal identity across time could benefit from more philosophical reflection about personal identity across worlds. To understand what makes us who we are, we need to understand not just who we were and who we will be, but also who we could have been.


[1] I discuss this debate in some detail in my book Persons and Personal Identity.

[image source]

Thursday, February 03, 2022

The COVID Jerk [a new piece by me in The Atlantic]

boundaries of responsible behavior are less clear than they once were

We all know the type. First appearing in the spring of 2020, the COVID jerk strutted unmasked through the supermarket, exhaling clouds of risk on worried shoppers and employees, and daring low-paid workers to try to enforce the new policies. Flaunting their disdain for scientific consensus, they stepped close behind you in line, breathing on your shoulder, complaining about maximum-occupancy requirements.

The classic COVID jerk still thrives. But because highly effective vaccines have been available for a long while, and as the Omicron wave subsides, reasonable people will disagree about what now constitutes a jerk move. The boundaries of responsible behavior are less clear than they once were.

I have a theory: Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the intellectual and emotional perspectives of others around them. Let me unpack this a bit.

[continued here, or email me for a copy for personal use only]