Thursday, March 24, 2022

Evening the Playing Field in Philosophy Classes

As I discussed last week, overconfident students have systematic advantages in philosophy classes, at least as philosophy is typically taught in the United States. By confidently asserting their ideas in classroom -- even from day one, when they have no real expertise on the issues -- they get practice articulating philosophical views in an argumentative context and they receive the professor's customized feedback on their views. Presenting their views before professor and peers engages their emotions and enhances their memory. Typically, professors encourage and support such students, bringing out the best in them. Thus, over the long run, overconfident students tend to perform well, better than their otherwise similar peers with more realistic self-assessments. What seems to be an epistemic vice -- overconfidence -- ultimately helps them flourish and learn more than they otherwise would have.

I like these overconfident students (as long as they're not arrogant or domineering). It's good we encourage them. But I also want to level the playing field so that less-overconfident students can gain some of the same advantages. Here's my advice for doing so.

First, advice for professors. Second, advice for students.

Evening the Playing Field: Advice for Professors

(1.) Small-group discussions. This might sound like tired advice, but there's a reason the advice is so common. Small-group discussions work amazing magic if you do them right. Here's my approach:

* Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4. Insist on exactly 3 or 4. Two is to few, because friends will pair up and have too little diversity of opinion. Five is too many, because the quietest student will be left out of the conversation.

* Give the students a short, co-operative written task which will be graded pass / no credit (be lenient). For example, "write down two considerations in favor of the view that human nature is good and two considerations against the view". Have them designate one student as "secretary", who will write down their collaborative answer on a sheet of paper containing all their names. This should start them talking with each other, aimed at producing something concrete and sensible.

* Allow them five minutes (maybe seven), during which you wander the room, encouraging any quiet groups to start talking and writing.

* Reconvene the class, and then ask a group of usually quiet students what their group came up with.

* Explore the merits of their answers in an encouraging way, then repeat with other groups.

This exercise will get many more students talking in class than the usual six. (Almost no matter the size of the class, there will be six students who do almost all the talking, right?) The increased talkativeness often continues after the exercise is over. Not only do normally quiet students open their mouths more, but they gain some of the more specific benefits of the overconfident student: They practice expressing their views aloud in class, they receive customized feedback from the professor, by having their views put on the spot they feel an emotional engagement that enhances interest and memory, and they get the feeling of support from the professor.

Why it works: It's of course easier to talk with a few peers than in front of the whole class, especially when necessary to complete a (low-stress) assignment. Speaking to a few peers in the classroom and finding them to be nice about it (as they almost always are) facilitates later speaking in front of the whole class. Furthermore, when the professor calls on a small group, instead of on one student in particular, that student isn't being confronted as directly. They have cover: "This is just what our group came up with." And if the student isn't comfortable extemporizing, they can just read the words written on the page. All of this makes it easier for the quieter students to gain practice expressing their philosophical views in front of others. If it goes well, they become more comfortable doing it again.

(2.) Story time. Back in 2016, I dedicated a post to the value of telling stories in philosophy class. My former T.A. Chris McVey was a master of philosophical storytelling. He would start discussion sections of my huge lower-division class, Evil, with personal stories from his childhood, or from his time working on a nuclear submarine, or from other parts of his life, that related to the themes of the class. He kept it personal and real, and students loved it.

A very different type of student tends to engage after storytime than the usual overconfident philosophy guy -- for example, someone who has a similar story in their own lives. The whole discussion has a different, more personal tone, and it can then be steered back into the main ideas of the course. Peter [name randomly chosen from lists of former students], who might normally say nothing in class, finds he has something to say about parental divorce. He has been brought into the discussion, has expressed an opinion and has been shown how his opinion is relevant to the course.

(3.) Diversify topics and cultures. Relatedly, whenever you can diversify topics (add a dimension on religion, or family, or the military) or culture (beyond the usual European / North American focus), you shift around what I think of as the "academic capital" of the students in the class. A student who hasn't had confidence to speak might suddenly feel expert and confident. Maybe they are the one student who has had active duty in the military, or maybe their pre-college teachers regularly quoted from Confucius and Mencius. Respecting their expertise can help them recognize that they bring something important, and they will be readier to commit and engage on the issues at hand.

(4.) Finger-counting questions. Consider adding this custom: The first time a student raises their hand to speak in class, they raise one finger. The second time, two fingers. The third time, three fingers, and so on. When multiple students want to contribute, prioritize those with fewer fingers. When a student raises four fingers, hesitate, looking to see whether some lower-fingered students might also have something to say. This practice doesn't silence the most talkative students, but it will make them more aware of the extent to which they might be crowding other students out, and it constantly communicates to the quieter students that you're especially interested in hearing from them, instead of always from the same six.

This advice aims partly at enhancing oral participation in class, which is a big step toward evening the playing field. But to really level the playing field requires more. It's not just that the overconfident student is more orally active. The overconfident student has opinions, stakes claims, feels invested in the truth or falsity of particular positions, and takes the risk of exposing their ideas to criticism. This creates more emotional and intellectual engagement than do neutral, clarificatory oral contributions. My first three suggestions not only broaden oral participation in general but non-coercively nudge students toward staking claims, with all the good that follows from that.

Evening the Playing Field: Advice for Students

Your professor might not do any of the above. You might see the same six students dominating discussion, and you might not feel able to contribute at their level. You might be uninterested in competing with them for air time, and you might dislike the spotlight on yourself. Do yourself a favor and overcome these reservations!

First, the confident students might not actually know the material better than you do. Most professors in U.S. classrooms interpret students' questions as charitably as possible, finding what's best in them, rather than shooting students down in a discouraging way. If a confident student says something you think doesn't make sense or that you're inclined to disagree with, and if the professor seems to like the comment, it might not be that you're misunderstanding but rather that the professor is doing what they can to turn a weak contribution into something good.

Second, try viewing classroom philosophy discussions like a game. Almost every substantive philosophical claim (apart from simple historical facts and straightforward textual interpretations) is disputable, even the principle of non-contradiction. Take a stand for fun. See if you can defend it. A good professor will both help you see ways in which it might be defensible and ways in which others have argued against it. Think of it as being assigned to defend a view in a debate -- a view with which you might or might not agree.

Third, you owe it to yourself to win the same educational benefits that ordinarily accrue disproportionately to the overconfident students. You might not feel comfortable taking a stand in class. But so much of life is about reaching beyond your comfort zone, doing new things. Right? If you care about your education, care about getting the most out of it by putting your ideas forward in class.

Fourth, try it with other students. Even if your professor doesn't use small discussion groups, you can do this yourself. Most people find that it's much easier to take a stand about the material in front of a peer than in front of the whole class. Outside of class, tell a classmate about your objection to Kant. Bat it around with them a bit. This will give you already a certain amount of practice and feedback, laying the groundwork for later expressing that view, or some other one, in a class context. You could even say to the professor, "My friend and I were wondering whether Kant..." A good professor will love to hear a question like this. Thus students have been arguing about Kant outside of class! Yay!



"How to Diversity Philosophy: Two Thoughts and a Plea for More Suggestions" (Aug 24, 2016)

"Storytelling in Philosophy Class" (Oct 21, 2016)

"The Parable of the Overconfident Student -- and Why Academic Philosophy Still Favors the Socially Privileged" (Mar 14, 2022)

[image source]

Monday, March 14, 2022

The Parable of the Overconfident Student -- and Why Academic Philosophy Still Favors the Socially Privileged

If you've taken or taught some philosophy classes in the United States, you know the type: the overconfident philosophy student. Our system rewards these students. The epistemic failing of overconfidence ultimately serves them well. This pattern, I conjecture, helps explain the continuing inequities in philosophy.

It's the second day of class. You're starting some complex topic, say, the conceivability argument for metaphysical dualism. Student X jumps immediately into the discussion: The conceivability argument is obviously absurd! You offer some standard first-pass responses to his objection, but he stands his ground, fishing around for defenses. Before today, he knew nothing about the issues. It's his first philosophy class, but suddenly, he knows better than every philosopher who thinks otherwise, whose counterarguments he has never heard.

[image from the classic Onion article "Guy in Philosophy Class Needs to Shut the Fuck Up"]

It's also Student Y's first philosophy class. Student X and Student Y are similar in intelligence and background knowledge, differing only in that Student Y isn't irrationally overconfident. Maybe Student Y asks a question of clarification. Or maybe she asks how the author would deal with such-and-such an objection. More likely, she keeps quiet, not wanting to embarrass herself or use class time when other, more knowledgeable students presumably have more insightful things to say.

(I've called Student X a "he", since in my experience most students of this type are men. Student Y types are more common, in any gender.)

What will happen to Student X and Student Y over time, in the typical U.S. classroom? Both might do well. Student Y is by no means doomed to fail. But Student X's overconfidence wins him several important advantages.

First, he gets practice asserting his philosophical views in an argumentative context. Oral presentation of one's opinions is a crucial skill in philosophy and closely related to written presentation of one's opinions.

Second, he receives customized expert feedback on his philosophical views. Typically, the professor will restate Student X's views, strengthening them and fitting them better into the existing discourse. The professor will articulate responses those views, so that the student learns those too. If the student responds to the responses, this second layer of responses will also be charitably reworked and rebutted. Thus, Student X will gain specific knowledge on exactly the issues that engage and interest him most.

Third, he engages his emotions and enhances his memory. Taking a public stand stirs up your emotions. Asking a question makes your heart race. Being defeated in an argument with your professor burns that argument into your memory. So also does winning an argument or playing to a draw. After his public stand and argument, it matters to Student X, more than it otherwise would have, that the conceivability argument is absurd. This will intensify his engagement with the rest of the course, where he'll latch on to arguments that support his view and develop counterarguments against the opposition. His written work will also reflect this passion.

Fourth, he wins the support and encouragement of his professor. Unless he is unusually obnoxious or his questions are unusually poor, the typical U.S. professor will appreciate Student X's enthusiasm and his willingness to advance class discussion. His insights will be praised and his mistakes interpreted charitably, enhancing his self-confidence and his sense that he is good at philosophy.

The combined effect of these advantages, multiplied over the course of an undergraduate education, ensures that most students like Student X thrive in U.S. philosophy programs. What was initially the epistemic vice of overconfidence becomes the epistemic virtue of being a knowledgeable, well-trained philosophy student.

Contrast with the sciences. If a first-year chemistry student has strong, ignorant opinions about the electronegativity of fluorine, it won't go so well -- and who would have such opinions, anyway? Maybe at the most theoretically speculative end of the sciences, we can see a similar pattern, though. The social sciences and other humanities might also reward the overconfident student in some ways while punishing him in others. Among academic disciplines as practiced in the U.S., I conjecture that philosophy is the most receptive to the Overconfident Student Strategy.

Success in the Overconfident Student Strategy requires two things: a good sense of what is and is not open for dispute, and comfort in classroom dialogue. Both tend to favor students from privileged backgrounds.

It's ridiculous to dispute simple matters of fact with one's professor. The Overconfident Student Strategy only works if the student can sniff out a defensible position, one rich for back-and-forth dispute. Student X in our example immediately discerned that the conceivability argument for dualism was fertile ground on which to take a stand. Student X can follow his initial gut impression, knowing that even if he can't really win the argument on day two, arguments for his favored view are out there somewhere. Students with academically strong backgrounds -- who have a sense of how academia works, who have some exposure to philosophy earlier in their education, who are familiar with the back-and-forth of academic argumentation -- are at an advantage in sensing defensible positions and glimpsing what broad shapes an argument might take.

And of course speaking up in the classroom, especially being willing to disagree with one's professor, normally requires a certain degree of comfort and self-assurance in academic contexts. It helps if classrooms feel like home, if you feel like you belong, if you see yourself as maybe a professor yourself some day.

For these reasons -- as well as the more general tendency toward overconfidence that comes with social privilege -- we should expect that the Overconfident Student Strategy should be especially available to students with privileged backgrounds: the children of academics, wealthy students who went to elite high schools, White students, men, and non-immigrants, for example. In this way, initial privilege provides advantages that amplify up through one's education.

I have confined myself to remarks about the United States, because I suspect the sociology of overconfidence plays out differently in some other countries, which might explain the difficulty that international students sometimes have adapting to the style in which philosophy is practiced here.

I myself, of course, was just the sort of overconfident student I've described -- the son of two professors, raised in a wealthy suburb with great public schools. Arguably, I'm still employing the same strategy, opining publicly on my blog on a huge range of topics beyond my expertise (e.g., Hume interpretation last week, COVID ethics last month), reaping advantages analogous to the overconfident student's four classroom advantages, only in a larger sphere.

Coming up! Some strategies for evening the playing field.


Related: "On Being Good at Seeming Smart" (Mar 25, 2010).

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Some Recent Talks and Interviews

"Would You Shut Off a Robot Who Might Be Conscious?" -- 50 minute talk at Ruhr University Bochum, on YouTube.

"Eric Schwitzgebel: Metaphysics of Mind, Issues of Introspection, Ethics of Ethicists, Aliens and AI" -- a wide ranging two hour interview with Tevin Naidu at Mind-Body Solution, on

* YouTube
* Spotify
* Apple podcasts
* Google podcasts.

Digital Afterlives -- an hour-long YouTube conversation, pitched for a broad audience, at the UCR Palm Desert Campus with Susan Schneider and John M. Fischer on "uploading" your consciousness into computers and personal identity.

"Zombies" -- a 32 minute podcast on zombies (traditional, Hollywood, and philosophical) featuring Christina van Dyke, David Chalmers, John Edgar Browning, and some of my reflections on whether AI systems might be "zombies" in the sense of outwardly seeming to have consciousness but inwardly lacking it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

How to Defeat Higher-Order Regress Arguments for Skepticism

In arguing for radical skepticism about arithmetic knowledge, David Hume uses what I'll call a higher-order regress argument. I was reminded of this style of argument when I read Francois Kammerer's similarly structured (and similarly radical) argument for skepticism about the existence of conscious experiences, forthcoming in Philosophical Studies. In my view, Hume's and Kammerer's arguments fail for similar reasons.

Hume begins by arguing that you should have at least a tiny bit of doubt even about simple addition:

In accompts of any length or importance, Merchants seldom trust to the infallible certainty of numbers for their security.... Now as none will maintain, that our assurance in a long numeration exceeds probability, I may safely affirm, that there scarce is any proposition concerning numbers, of which we can have a fuller security. For 'tis easily possible, by gradually diminishing the numbers, to reduce the longest series of addition to the most simple question, which can be form'd, to an addition of two single numbers.... Besides, if any single addition were certain, every one wou'd be so, and consequently the whole or total sum (Treatise of Human Nature 1740/1978, I.IV.i, p. 181)

In other words, since you can be mistaken in adding long lists of numbers, even when each step is the simple addition of two single-digit numbers, it follows that you can be mistaken in the simple addition of two single-digit numbers. Therefore, you should conclude that you know only with "probability", not with absolute certainty, that, say, 7 + 5 = 12.

I'm not a fan of absolute 100% flat utter certainty about anything, so I'm happy to concede this to Hume. (However, I can imagine someone -- Descartes, maybe -- objecting that contemplating 7 + 5 = 12 patiently outside of the context of a long row of numbers might give you a clear and distinct idea of its truth that we don't normally consistently maintain when adding long rows of numbers.)

So far, what Hume has said is consistent with a justifiable 99.99999999999% degree of confidence in the truth of 7 + 5 = 12, which isn't yet radical skepticism. Radical skepticism comes only via a regress argument.

Here's the first step of the regress:

In every judgment, which we can form concerning probability, as well as concerning knowledge, we ought always to correct that first judgment, deriv'd from the nature of the object, by another judgment, deriv'd from the nature of the understanding. 'Tis certain a man of solid sense and long experience... must be conscious of many errors in the past, and must still dread the like for the future. Here then arises a new species of probability to correct and regulate the first, and fix its just standard and proportion. As demonstration is subject to the controul of probability, so is probability liable to a new correction by a reflex act of the mind, wherein the nature of our understanding, and our reasoning from the first probability become our objects.

Having thus found in every probability, beside the original uncertainty inherent in the subject, a new uncertainty deriv'd from the weakness of that faculty, which judges, and having adjusted these two together, we are oblig'd by our reason to add a new doubt deriv'd from the possibility of error in the estimation we make of the truth and fidelity of our faculties (p. 181-182).

In other words, whatever high probability we assign to 7 + 5 = 12, we should feel some doubt about that probability assessment. That doubt, coupled with our original doubt, produces more doubt, thus justifying a somewhat lower -- but still possibly extremely high! -- probability assessment. Maybe 99.9999999999% instead of 99.99999999999%.

But now we're down the path toward an infinite regress:

But this decision, tho' it shou'd be favourable to our preceeding judgment, being founded only on probability, must weaken still further our first evidence, and must itself be weaken'd by a fourth doubt of the same kind, and so on in infinitum; till at last there remain nothing of the original probability, however great we may suppose it to have been, and however small the diminution by every new uncertainty. No finite object can subsist under a decrease repeated in infinitum; and even the vastest quantity, which can enter into human imagination, must in this manner be reduc'd to nothing (p. 182).

We should doubt, Hume says, our doubt about our doubts, adding still more doubt. And we should then doubt our doubt about our doubt about our doubt, and so on infinitely, until nothing remains but doubt. With each higher-order doubt, we should decrease our confidence that 7 + 5 = 12, until at the end we recognize that the only rational thing to do is shrug our shoulders and admit we are utterly uncertain about the sum of 7 and 5.

If this seems absurd... well, probably it is. I'm sympathetic with skeptical arguments generally, but this seems to be one of the weaker ones, and there's a reason it's not the most famous part of the Treatise.

There are at least three moves available to the anti-skeptic.

First, one can dig in against the regress. Maybe the best place to do so is the third step. One can say that it's reasonable to have a tiny initial doubt, and then it's reasonable to add a bit more doubt on grounds that it's doubtful how much doubt one should have, but maybe third-order doubt is unwarranted unless there's some positive reason for it. Unless something about you or something about the situation seems to demand third-order doubt, maybe it's reasonable to just stick with your assessment.

That kind of move is common in externalist approaches to justification, according to which people can sometimes reasonably believe things if the situation is right and their faculties are working well, even if they can't provide full, explicit justifications for those beliefs.

But this move isn't really in the spirit of Hume, and it's liable to abuse by anti-skeptics, so let's set it aside.

Second, one can follow the infinite regress to a convergent limit. The mathematical structure of this move should be familiar from pre-calculus. It's more readily seen with simpler numbers. Suppose that I'm highly confident of something. My first impulse is to assign 100% credence. But then I add a 5% doubt to it, reducing my credence to 95%. But then I have doubts about my doubt, and this second-order doubt leads me to reduce my credence another 2.5%, to 92.5%. I then have a third-order doubt, reducing my credence by 1.25% to 91.25%. And so on. As long as each higher-order doubt reduces the credence by half as much as the previous lower-order doubt, we will have a convergent sum of doubt. In this case, the limit as we approach infinitely many layers of doubt is 10%, so my rational credence need never fall below 90%.

This response concedes a lot to Hume -- that it's reasonable to regress infinitely upward with doubt, and that each step upward should reduce our confidence by some finite amount -- and yet it avoids the radically skeptical conclusion.

Interestingly, Hume himself arguably could not have availed himself of this move, given his skepticism about the infinitesimal (in I.II.i-ii). We can have no adequate conception of the infinitesimal, Hume says, and space and time cannot be infinitely divided. Therefore, when Hume concludes the quoted passage above by saying "No finite object can subsist under a decrease repeated in infinitum; and even the vastest quantity, which can enter into human imagination, must in this manner be reduc'd to nothing", he is arguably relying on his earlier skepticism about infinite division. For that reason, Hume might be unable to accept the convergent limit solution to his puzzle -- though we ourselves, rightly more tolerant of the infinitesimal, shouldn't be so reluctant.

Third, higher-order doubts can take the form of reversing lower-order doubts. Your third-order thought might be that your second-order doubt was too uncertain, and thus on reflection your confidence might rise again. If my first inclination is 100% credence, and my second thought knocks it down to 95%, my next thought might be that 95% is too low rather than too high. Maybe I kick it back up to 97.5%. My fourth thought might then involve tweaking it up or down from there. Thus, even without accepting convergence toward a limit, we might reasonably suspect that ever-higher orders of reflection will always yield a degree of confidence that bounces around within a manageable range, say 90% to 99%. And even if this is only a surmise rather than something I know for certain, it's a surmise that could be either too high or too low, yielding no reason to conclude that infinite reflection would tend toward low degrees of confidence.

* - * - *

Well, that was longer than intended on Hume! But I think I can home in quickly on the core idea from Kammerer that precipitated this line of reflection.

Kammerer is a "strong illusionist". He thinks that conscious experiences don't exist. If this sounds like such a radical claim as to be almost unbelievable, then I think you understand why it's worth calling a radically skeptical position.[1]

David Chalmers offers a "Moorean" reply to this claim (similarly, Bryan Frances): It's just obvious that conscious experience exists. It's more obvious that conscious experience exists than any philosophical or scientific argument to the contrary could ever be, so we can reject strong illusionism out of hand, without bothering ourselves about the details of the illusionist arguments. We know in advance that whatever the details are, the argument shouldn't win us over.

Kammerer's reply is to ask whether it's obvious that it's obvious.[2] Sometimes, of course, we think something is obvious, but we're wrong. Some things we think are obvious are not only non-obvious but actually false. Furthermore, the illusionist suspects we can construct a good explanation of why false claims about consciousness might seem obvious despite their falsity. So, according to Kammerer, we shouldn't accept the Moorean reply unless we think it's obvious that it's obvious.

Kammerer acknowledges that the anti-illusionist might reasonably hold that it is obvious that it's obvious that conscious experience exists. But now the argument repeats: The illusionist might anticipate an explanation of why, even if conscious experience doesn't exist, it seems obvious that it's obvious that conscious experience exists. So it looks like the anti-illusionist needs to go third order, holding that it's obvious that it's obvious that it's obvious. The issue repeats again at the fourth level, and so on, up into a regress. At some point high enough up, it will either no longer be obvious that it's obvious that it's [repeat X times] obvious; or if it's never non-obvious at any finite order of inquiry, there will still always be a higher level at which the question can be raised, so that a demand for obviousness all the way up will never be satisfied.

Despite some important differences from Hume's argument -- especially the emphasis on obviousness rather than probability -- versions of the same three types of reply are available.

Dig in against the regress. The anti-illusionist can hold that it's enough that the claim is obvious; or that it's obvious that it's obvious; or that it's obvious that it's obvious that it's obvious -- for some finite order of obviousness. If the claim that conscious experience exists has enough orders of obviousness, and is furthermore also true, and perhaps has some other virtues, perhaps one can be fully justified in believing it even without infinite orders of obviousness all the way up.

Follow the regress to a convergent limit. Obviousness appears to come in degrees. Some things are obvious. Others are extremely obvious. Still others are utterly, jaw-droppingly, head-smackingly, fall-to-your-knees obvious. Maybe, before we engage in higher-order reflection, we reasonably think that the existence of conscious experience is in the last, jaw-dropping category, which we can call obviousness level 1. And maybe, also, it's reasonable, following Kammerer and Hume, to insist on some higher-order reflection: How obvious is it that it's obvious? Well, maybe it's extremely obvious but not utterly, level 1 obvious, and maybe that's enough to reduce our total epistemic assessment to overall obviousness level .95. Reflecting again, we might add still a bit more doubt, reducing the obviousness level to .925, and so on, converging toward obviousness level .9. And obviousness level .9 might be good enough for the Moorean argument. Obviously (?), these are fake numbers, but the idea should be clear enough. The Moorean argument doesn't require that the existence of conscious experience be utterly, jaw-droppingly, head-smackingly, fall-to-your-knees, level 1 obvious. Maybe the existence of consciousness is that obvious. But all the Moorean argument requires is that the existence of consciousness be obvious enough that we reasonably judge in advance that no scientific or philosophical argument against it should justifiably win us over.

Reverse lower-order doubts with some of the higher-order doubts. Overall obviousness might sometimes increase as one proceeds upward to higher orders of reflection. For example, maybe after thinking about whether it's obvious that it's obvious that [eight times] it's obvious, our summary assessment of the total obviousness of the proposition should be higher than our summary assessment after thinking about whether it's obvious that it's obvious that [seven times] it's obvious. There's no guarantee that with each higher level of consideration the total amount of doubt should increase. We might find as we go up that the total amount of obviousness fluctuates around some very high degree of obviousness. We might then reasonably surmise that further higher levels will stay within that range, which might be high enough for the Moorean argument to succeed.


[1] Actually, I think there's some ambiguity about what strong illusionism amounts to, since what Kammerer denies the existence of is "phenomenal consciousness", and it's unclear whether this really is the radical thesis that it is sometimes held to be or whether it's instead really just the rejection of a philosopher's dubious notion. For present purposes, I'm interpreting Kammerer as holding the radical view. See my discussions here and here.

[2] Kammerer uses "uniquely obvious" here, and "super-Moorean", asking whether it's uniquely obvious that it's uniquely obvious. But I don't think uniqueness is essential to the argument. For example, that I exist might also be obvious with the required strength.

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Do Androids Dream of Sanctuary Moon?

guest post by Amy Kind

In the novel that inspired the movie Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick famously asked whether androids dream of electric sheep. Readers of the Murderbot series by Martha Wells might be tempted to ask a parallel question: Do androids dream of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon?

Let me back up a moment for those who haven’t read any of the works making up The Murderbot Diaries.[1] The series’ titular character is a SecUnit (short for Security Unit). SecUnits are bot-human constructs, and though they are humanoid in form, they generally don’t act especially human-like and they have all sorts of non-human attributes including a built-in weapons system. Like other SecUnits, Murderbot has spent most of its existence providing security to humans who are undertaking various scientific, exploratory, or commercial missions. But unlike other SecUnits, Murderbot has broken free of the tight restrictions and safeguards that are meant to keep it in check. About four years prior to the start of the series, Murderbot had hacked its governor module, the device that monitors a SecUnit and controls its behavior, sometimes by causing it pain, sometimes by immobilizing it, and sometimes by ending its existence.

So how has Murderbot taken advantage of its newfound liberty? How has it kept itself occupied in its free time? The answer might initially seem surprising: Murderbot has spent an enormous amount of its downtime watching and rewatching entertainment media. In particular, it’s hooked on a serial drama called The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. We’re not told very much about Sanctuary Moon, or why it would be so especially captivating to a SecUnit, though we get some throw-away details now and then over the course of the series. We know it takes place in space, that it involves murder, sex, and legal drama, and that it has at least 397 episodes. In an interview with Newsweek in 2020, Wells has said that the show “is kind of based on How to Get Away with Murder, but in space, on a colony, with all different characters and hundreds more episodes, basically.”

It's not uncommon for the sophisticated AI of science fiction to adopt hobbies and pursue various activities in their leisure time. Andrew, the robot in Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, takes up wood carving, while Data, the android of Star Trek, takes up painting and spends time with his cat, Spot. HAL, the computing system built into the Discovery One spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, plays chess. But it does seem fairly unusual for an AI to spend so much of its time binge-watching entertainment media. Murderbot’s obsession (one might even say addiction) is somewhat puzzling, at least to its human clients. In All Systems Red, when one of these clients reviews the SecUnit’s personal logs to see what it’s been up to, he discovers that it has downloaded 700 hours of media in the short time since their spacecraft landed on the planet they are exploring. The client hypothesizes that Murderbot must be using the media for some hidden, possibly nefarious purpose, perhaps to mask other data. As the client says, “It can’t be watching it, not in that volume; we’d notice.” (One has to love Murderbot’s response: “I snorted. He underestimated me.”)

Over the course of the series, as we learn more and more about Murderbot, the puzzle starts to dissipate. Certainly, Sanctuary Moon is entertainment for Murderbot. It’s an amusing diversion from its daily grind of security work. But it’s also much more than that. As Murderbot explicitly tells us, rewatching old episodes calms it down in times of stress. It borrows various details from Sanctuary Moon to help it in its work, as when it adopts one of the character’s names as an alias or when it decides what to do based on what characters on the show have done in parallel scenarios. And watching this serial helps Murderbot to process emotions. As it states on more than one occasion, it doesn’t like to have emotions about real life and would much prefer to have them about the show.

Though Murderbot is not comfortable engaging in self-reflection and prefers to avoid examination of its feelings and motivations, it cannot escape this altogether. We do see occasional moments of introspection. One particularly illuminating moment comes during an exchange between the SecUnit and Mensah, the human to which it is closest. In the novella Exit Strategy, when Mensah asks why it likes Sanctuary Moon so much, it doesn’t know how to answer at first. But then, once it pulls up the relevant memory, it’s startled by what it discovers and says more than it means to: “It’s the first one I saw. When I hacked my governor module and picked up the entertainment feed. It made me feel like a person.”

When Mensah pushes Murderbot for more, for why Sanctuary Moon would make it feel that way, it replies haltingly:

“I don’t know.” That was true. But pulling the archived memory had brought it back, vividly, as if it had all just happened. (Stupid human neural tissue does that.) The words kept wanting to come out. It gave me context for the emotions I was feeling, I managed not to say. “It kept me company without…” “Without making you interact?” she suggested.

Not only does Murderbot want to avoid having emotions about events in real life, it also wants to avoid emotional connections with humans. It is scared to form such connections. But a life without any connection is a lonely one. For Murderbot, watching media is not just about combatting boredom. It’s also about combatting loneliness.

As it turns out, then, Murderbot is addicted to Sanctuary Moon for many of the same reasons that any of us humans are addicted to the shows we watch – whether it’s Ted Lasso or Agents of Shield or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These shows are diverting, yes, but they also bring us comfort, they give us outlets for our emotions, and they help us to fight against isolation. (Think of all the pandemic-induced binge-watching of the last two years.) So even though it might seem surprising at first that a sophisticated AI would want to devote so much of its time to entertainment media, it really is no more surprising than the fact that so many of us want to devote so much of our time to the same thing. Though it seems tempting to ask why an AI would do this, the only real answer is simply: Why wouldn’t it?

The reflections in this post thus bring us to a further moral about science fiction and what we can learn from it about the nature of artificial intelligence. In our abstract thinking about AI, we tend to get caught up in some Very Big Questions: Could they really be intelligent? Could they be conscious? Could they have emotions? Could we love them, and could they love us? None of these questions is easy to answer, and sometimes it’s hard to see how we could make progress on them. So perhaps what we need to do is to step back and think about some smaller questions. It’s here, I think, that science fiction can prove especially useful. When we try to imagine an AI existence, as works of science fiction help us to do, we need to imagine that life in a multi-faceted way. By thinking about what a bot’s daily life might be like, not just how a bot would interact with humans but how it would make sense of those interactions, or how it would learn to get better at them, or even just by thinking about what a bot would do in its free time, we start to flesh out some of our background assumptions about the capabilities of AI. In making progress on these smaller questions, perhaps we’ll also find ourselves better able to make progress on the bigger questions as well. To understand better the possibilities of AI sentience, we have to better understand the contours of what sentience brings along with it.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether androids would dream of Sanctuary Moon, or even of anything at all.[2] But thinking about why they might be obsessed with entertainment media like this can help us to get a better big-picture understanding of the sentience of an AI system like Murderbot… and perhaps even a better understanding of our own sentience as well.


[1] And if you haven’t read them yet, what are you waiting for? I highly recommend them – and rest assured, this post is free of any major spoilers.

[2] Though see Asimov’s story “Robot Dreams” for further reflection on this.

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Postscript by Eric Schwitzgebel:

This concludes Amy Kind's guest blogging stint at The Splintered Mind. Thanks, Amy, for this fascinating series of guest posts!

You can find all six of Amy's posts under the label Amy Kind.