Young adult author: robots help youth think about ethics

August 11, 2014

I’d say Jack Heath is correct to say so. I’ve never heard of him but his new book Replica sounds like something I’d enjoy reading. He doesn’t just promote his book in the piece, though:

The meaningful distinctions between human and android are fading. But while science class won’t prepare us for the resulting moral questions, English class can. Particularly if students study books like Lain Tanner’s Ice Breaker, a new book about a boatload of mechanical refugees hiding from the humans who wish to wipe them out. Or Brian Falkner’s ingenious thriller Brainjack, in which a self-aware computer virus uses neuro-headsets to infect human brains.

I haven’t heard of either of those. I’m trying to think of robot related books I read in my youth but at the moment all I can think of are movies based on stories. A.I. also known as Supertoys Last all Summer Long by Brian Aldiss and I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. And Kryten, from Red Dwarf. The series was eventually serialized into four books by the creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, all of which I own.

Kryten and Dave discuss Silicon Heaven: The afterlife of all electronic appliances when they die. The concept is used to keep robots, many of which are stronger and more intelligent than their masters, from rebelling. A belief chip is installed in robots to ensure that they will believe they will go to Silicon Heaven after a life of servitude to humans.

There’s some ethics right there. Is it fair to create a myth just to keep the underclass happy and accepting of their eventual fate? In this particular episode Kryten has learned that an improved android replacement is coming and he’s to be shut down. Lister helps him understand how unfair that is. Kryten succeeds in wrecking the replacement by telling it there is no silicon heaven. It’s Kryten’s first big lie as he still believes the place exists and won’t be swayed by Lister’s logic.

The next season, Lister gives Kryten some pointers on how to become a better liar and thus more like a human, something Kryten craves. There’s also an episode in the series where Kryten gets exactly what he wishes for – a human body – and has to deal with how that feels and changes who he is, and not for the better. Some of the show winds up pretty dated by this point but the writing was top notch and the topics explored by the characters could be pretty deep sometimes. I still pull out the first six in the series to watch on a regular basis.

Back to Heath:

The point of fiction is to wrap a philosophical problem in a story – to breathe life into it with quirky characters and spooky settings and, ideally, flash grenades. The point is not just to make the reader understand, but the make them feel. And just like with the robots, it’s feeling that makes you worth something.

And if you can empathize with the characters in a story and feel what they’re feeling, that same connectedness can also be applied toward real people and probably should be done more thoughtfully by everyone. Apathy may be a little easier than empathy and bullying doesn’t require the same commitments that caring does. But if you can cry because your favourite character met a bad end in the book, there’s probably hope for you.

CFI-Saskatoon thanks Pastor Sandra Beardsall for a fantastic talk on feminism and the United Church

June 19, 2011

Don’t you all wish you were in Saskatoon and members of this awesome group? It was terrific. Sadly koinosuke couldn’t be at today’s meet but she’s the one who contacted the Pastor about talking to us so I promised I’d take copious notes and report back. Hopefully my notes don’t make hash of what she said or misrepresent any of it. If any Freethinkers who were there want to add comments, please do. I’m going to do this in parts, the second to drop tomorrow morning, and a third in the afternoon if needed.

Sandra is currently a professor of Church History and Ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College on the U of Saskatchewan campus. She participates in research related to Christian history and the development of interfaith/interchurch dialogue. She talked about the history of Enlightenment and how the philosophies of René Descartes and others ultimately affected the Church.

Thanks to those writers in the 16th and 17th centuries, ideologies evolved from an automatic given that God was the root of all things to people developing theories and mindsets with a more internalized, self-based origin to thought and philosophy. “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes eventually declared and that was a bigger deal than I ever realized. It was a big deal for philosophers at the time, too, as they worked on ways to build on this wild epiphany and completely new thought process. This was the Enlightenment of humanity, finally being able to give humans credit for their own minds and thoughts instead of automatically assuming (without question) a god’s personal hands were guiding everyone.

The Church and theologians had some trouble with the idea that the self could be the center of knowledge. Sandra listed several reactions they had to this concept.

The first she mentioned was the creation of a more deistic approach to God, the notion that a prime mover of sorts got the world rolling but overall has left us the hell alone to do our own thing, for good or ill. Deists, she said, focus mostly on ethics and behaviour, the need to do one’s duty, employ reason, and delight in creation. (Not to be confused with Creationists, though. Different ball of wax.)

The second was the development of orthodoxy and a retreat in some circles toward a focus on “correct belief.” She went on a bit of a tangent here to discuss Europe’s changing political structure at the time that had a lot to do with why the orthodox movement enamoured so many believers. The feudal system had collapsed or was on the verge or something and merchant-based commerce and trade was starting to gain in popularity, shifting money and power around in bunch of good and not so good ways. I scribbled down “guard turf” for some reason… She was talking about how the nature of Authority was changing at this time, so the social stress of that helped lead people back into thinking of the past and past beliefs being better for people. Safer, I suppose, traditional? (That part’s lost to my brain now. I have large gaps in my history knowledge and this is one of them. If I feel like it later I’ll look for some links to expand on this and learn more. You see why I say this was fantastic, though, right?)

The third reaction was a move toward “pietism” and the creation of the Evangelical and Spriritualism movements that gained a lot of popularity later on. Germans get the credit for jump-starting this, apparently. (I’ve got Quakers written down here and Jacob Bain — I guessed on spelling and might have gotten that completely wrong. Some spiritualist/mystic styled guy of some reknown.) The emphasis for these people was to bring belief to the heart, I guess could be said, to share experiences of God from very personal perspectives, independent of doctrine or theology. I wrote “emphasis on interior experience, feeling; congruence of the inner and outer self” here.

From all these diverse paths, more things grew out of them. Those I’ll get to in part two.

“Skepticism and the Fate of Philosophy”

March 9, 2011

Those in and around Saskatoon can head over to the St. James Church Basement tonight for another Philosophy in the Community session. Professor Anthony Jenkins will be discussing this issue. (Breaks added)

Philosophy has, throughout its past, been profoundly marked out from other fields of study by the peculiar roles skepticism has played within it. From its role in ancient philosophy to the varied roles skepticism has played in early modern philosophy, skepticism has been embraced or exploited as a part of philosophy itself.

But it has also been exploited, for both religious and also for more secularly humanist ends, against philosophy. In no other and for no other discipline has scepticism had or could it plausibly have any such roles as these.

In this talk, then, we will be examining critically each of these diverse roles skepticism has had in relation to philosophy, as well as the positions philosophers and the critics of philosophy have attempted to provide in opposition to skepticism. We hope that through such an examination we may be better able to understand and appreciate not only what philosophy is and has been but also of what it can still meaningfully be.

So, if you’re ever felt skeptical about skepticism, or philosophical about philosophy, this might be the place for you tonight.

Details (if you didn’t click the link):


The Refinery
St. James Church Basement
609 Dufferin Avenue
(at 12th Street, just off Broadway)

Random quotes for lack of other ideas

February 16, 2011

“A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one.” — Heraclitus of Ephesus

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes … and the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

“Only the extremely ignorant or the extremely intelligent can resist change.” — Socrates

“I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of established religion” — Baruch Spinoza

“The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.” — Albert Einstein


2 debates worth noting

January 26, 2011

Locally, at least. Last night there was a debate going on in Regina regarding religion and faith. I don’t know all the details of what went on in terms of arguments but tonight there’s another one here in Saskatoon at the University called “Does God Exist?” It starts at 7pm and costs $10 to attend. Location is the Arts building, room 143. George Williamson (Professor of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan) will be speaking for the atheist/Freethinker side of things this evening. Said he in an email about last night’s debate:

The whole debate went off with a fair bit of humor and good cheer. I think I acquitted myself well, though of course there are some major limitations with the case I finally went with. I at least enjoyed myself, walking a thin line with some smart-ass, barbed comments gently delivered. We were supposed to do a short interview with a local TV station but they didn’t show up until the debate was in full swing. There was a mention of it on the 6 o’clock news apparently, with some shots of the debate from the back of the hall, but I never saw that.

Neither did I. I didn’t even remember there was a debate going on over there. Clearly I’m letting the side down… I’ll be at tonight’s thing, though, and will take notes for a post about it later. George will be facing off against Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy from Talbot School of Theology, Biola Univeristy.

Should be good.

edit 4:53 pm: in Regina, George debated Michael Horner. Tonight’s debate is hosted by Campus (Crusade) for Christ and university students won’t be charged to attend provided they bring their student cards. The $10 charge is for the rest of us. I’m looking forward to it and my iPod is charging right now; it’s so easy to keep notes on that thing.

The nature of character

January 13, 2011

This is the part two I promised I’d write yesterday. Part one had to do with morality and how it seems to be culturally determined and socially enforced.

Professor Emer O’Hagan’s talk last night was titled “Do We Lack Moral Character?” but she said little about morality specifically. Her lecture focused much more on the definition of character and the debate that goes on in terms of whether our character traits are inherent (aka “global”) or if they are determined more by situational stimuli (local).

She started by outlining the situationist argument which is basically the theory that one’s character traits rely mostly on what we’re doing and what’s happening around us. She mentioned a few studies done in the past that seem to lean towards this idea, one of which being Milgrim’s obedience study.

It was set up to make people think they were participating in a completely different study where they had to ask another person questions and shock that person any time the response was incorrect. The “learner” wasn’t actually hooked up to anything dangerous. He was one of the researchers and left in another room to play the recording that sounded like someone being tortured to death by increased levels of shocking.

What Milgrim and his team discovered was that people will follow orders no matter what the end result. Some required more prompting than others, but ultimately many listened to the authority in the lab coat and continued administering the shocks, even after the screaming stopped. Not that they were happy to comply, of course. Most of them found it very distressing and wrong but the need to obey in that situation still took precedence over compassion or integrity.

Someone else mentioned the Stanford prison experiments. I piped up about what I thought I knew about that one once O’Hagan admitted she wasn’t too familiar with it, but I got facts wrongs. I hate getting facts wrong, so I’ll make sure they’re right here. Philip Zimbardo invited some students to participate in a role playing experiment where some of the boys would be guards at a prison they made in the basement, and the rest would act as the prisoners. They were told at the beginning that they could quit at any time, but once the game got going, everyone got so involved in their roles that the majority forgot that part. Zimbardo hoped to run his prison for 2 weeks but had to pull the plug before the first week was up. He was also caught up in the prison aspect and ceased to be an objective observer.

O’Hagan mentioned several other studies that tried to track compassion (would theology students off to speak about the Good Samaritan be one if they were in a hurry?) and honesty (in the 1920s, children were checked in a variety of situations to see how many would lie or cheat) and helpfulness (finding a dime in a phone booth radically increased likelihood that they’d help a person pick up the stuff they dropped outside the phone booth). She wasn’t coming down on the side of the situationists on this topic, though. She preferred the opposing approach, that character is the property of a life, not a moment.

During the Q&A, one of the people in the audience suggested that incentives need to be considered. Are people generous because it comes to them naturally, or do they just want the tax break? Are people helpful because they genuinely want to help, or are they avoiding guilt trips/wanting to impress someone? How much do expectations and chance of reward come into play? Can social policy/prisons/cities be designed to promote good character traits, and should they be?

It was also mentioned that making character assumptions about someone can be a grievous error since it often leads to misunderstandings and disappointments. If people are going to be sorted by particular traits they appear to possess, people might overlook other flaws of character that should also be taken into consideration if we really want to understand someone’s motives. We should also be more up front about our own motivations and our limitations as well.

By and large, it made for an interesting discussion and I haven’t hit on half of what got said. More about the study of moral character can be found here, including history and the role luck plays in all of this.

Philosophy in the Community takes on morality tonight

January 12, 2011

Professor Emer O’Hagan will be asking, “Do We Lack Moral Character?” If you’re in or around Saskatoon and want to take this in, the talk starts at 7pm, St. James Church basement (by The Refinery), 609 Dufferin Ave. More information about this meet (and the rest of the series) can be found here. It should be interesting.

As luck, or the Google God, would have it, I found an article from last year entitled Morals don’t come from God detailing some of the findings from a study done between Harvard and the University of Helsinki. Researchers concluded that religion had little to do with creating a sense of morality. To reach that point, they ran people through a number of psychological tests that would measure moral behaviour — or maybe studied results of people who’d taken them previously. The article isn’t too clear on that.

These tests present dilemmas ranging from how to handle freeloaders at ‘bring a dish’ dinner parties to the justification of killing someone to save others. Few, if any, of the answers can be looked up in holy books.

Thousands of people — varying widely in social background, age, education, religious affiliation and ethnicity — have taken the tests. Pyysiäinen and Hauser say the results (mainly still in the publication pipeline) indicate that “moral intuitions operate independently of religious background”, although religion may influence responses in a few highly specific cases.

A couple interesting theories are thrown in to question why religions would exist in the first place. Are they by-products of a human predilection toward believing in souls and an afterlife? Are they created solely for law-enforcement in group and community situations? They don’t answer those questions in the article, but the researchers, Pyysiäinen and Hauser, like the psychological theory.

They argue that human populations evolved moral ideas about behavioural norms — which themselves promoted group cooperation — before they became encoded in religious systems. The researchers suggest that we may possess an innate ‘moral grammar’ that guides these ideas.

The paper plays to a wider issue than this point of largely anthropological interest, for it challenges the assertion commonly made in defence of religion: that it inculcates a moral awareness. If we follow the authors’ line of thinking, religious people are no more likely to be moral than atheists.

Can I have a chorus of, “Well, duh!!” from the audience? It’s been my impression, based on all the reading I’ve done and things that I’ve learned over the years, that morality and ethics tend to rely on cultural and societal norms that exist independent of holy books. Yeah, some laws get made that are similar to biblical laws, but that doesn’t make them biblical laws, specifically. They are laws that benefit society as a whole and earlier societies came to the same damn conclusion and also enforced them. It stands to reason.

In terms of morality, though, look at the history of slavery. Better yet, let’s look at current trends in the area of incest. It’s completely legal in some countries, specifically China, France, Israel, the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Turkey. Switzerland made headlines last month when it was suggested that their anti-incest laws were out of date and should be reassessed. A case was up in court there involving a man and his daughter.

Epstein’s lawyer, Matthew Galluzzo,

said that charges against his client were still “only allegations” that have not been proven.

“Academically, we are obviously all morally opposed to incest and rightfully so,” he told “At the same time, there is an argument to be made in the Swiss case to let go what goes on privately in bedrooms.”

“It’s OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home,” he said. “How is this so different? We have to figure out why some behavior is tolerated and some is not.”

To quote from that Opposing Views article I linked to above:

If the only reason for prohibiting fathers from being in sexual relationships with daughters is the increased possibility of passing on a genetic disorder, then why do we permit marriages between Jews who may pass on Tay-Sachs disease or blacks who may pass on sickle cell anemia?

The reason that we don’t prohibit Jews from marrying Jews or blacks from marrying blacks despite the increased risk of passing on genetic disorders is that these types of relationships are not inherently morally flawed whereas incestuous relationships between fathers and daughters are.

Furthermore, if the possibility of passing on genetic disorders is the only reason for opposing legalized consensual incest, then what possible reason is there to oppose a father being in a sexual relationship with his adult son?

Talk about a can of worms… Good question though, eh?

And what about polygamy? Personally, I have no problem at all with the idea – so long as all marriages in the group involve consenting adults and nobody’s making sexual advances toward the kids, or grooming them to be wed before the age of consent. Given the economic problems people have with child care, jobs and affording their homes these days, you’d think it’d make sense to make group contracts that share the load more equally. But I guess that’s just me.

The Star has an article about the polygamy issue in British Columbia right now. They’ve been trying to figure out if the century-long prohibition on that was based on some logical reason or if it was a religious edict.

It will be an important distinction for a B.C. judge to consider as he decides whether Canada’s law against polygamy violates the religious guarantees in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — a case prompted by the obscure polygamous commune of Bountiful, B.C.

The B.C. government’s own lawyer has conceded that, if the prohibition dating back to 1890 is in fact a religious law originally intended to impose Christianity onto society, it must be struck down.

The article quotes John Witte Jr., a law professor in Georgia who explains that monogamy has been the desired arrangement since early Greek and Roman days.

He said ancient Greek and Roman philosophers described monogamous marriage as “natural and necessary” to foster mutual love, respect and companionship among husbands and wives.

In contrast, he said the Roman emperors who established the first anti-polygamy laws in the third century denounced the practice as “unnatural and dangerous,” placing it in the same category as rape and incest. In some cases, polygamy was punishable by death.

Witte said those early beliefs about marriage have informed every Western culture since, from early Christians, the Catholic and Protestant churches, the Enlightenment— which eschewed religion and Christianity — and modern-day England and America.

But that says nothing about the current rate of divorce between men and women who married for whatever the hell reason and have since changed their minds about mutual love, respect and companionship with those people. Divorce has been morally taboo in the past, too. Henry VIII had to declare England to be Protestant just so he could get around the Catholic ban on divorce, recall. That maybe wasn’t the best idea he ever had, but he was king. Who was in a position to stop him?

So yeah. Morality at The Refinery tonight. Be there, or be a rectangular thing. A part 2 to this topic will likely get posted on the morrow once I’ve heard Professor O’Hagan’s views and her answers to the questions that will follow.

edit Jan 13/2010: fixed pronoun for Professor O’Hagan. Whoops is all I say about that…

The domestication and alienation of women

November 9, 2010

Philosophy in the Community has a lecture at the Refinery in Saskatoon tomorrow night on the topic of:

“Domestic Bliss?: The Problem of Housework and Alienation”

Is domestic labour inherently tedious, boring, and unfulfilling or is it just that way because it is underpaid and undervalued in our current capitalist economy? Is paying for domestic labour an adequate response to this devaluation? In order to answer these questions distinctions must be made between the domestic labour that is geared towards maintaining healthy, fed, and refreshed individuals (laundry, cleaning, cooking, maintaining a home) and the caring labour that takes care of dependents (children, the disabled, and the elderly). While these forms of labour have similarities, there do appear to be differences related to whether the person receiving care is unable to do the work herself. These differences will be discussed.

I wonder if there’s still a sense in feminist circles that housewives are “letting the team down” by staying home fulfilling the “traditional roles” instead of getting careers like everyone else. Are they still letting the team down by getting jobs that amount to the same workload in a career woman’s home?

It’ll be an interesting talk, methinks.

Yes, Newsweek should have not titled their piece “Sam Harris believes in God”

October 18, 2010

It’s tricky wordplay and not fair to the mindset Harris is trying to describe.

Harris’s true obsession, then, is not God but consciousness, the idea that the human mind can be taught—trained, rationally—to be more loving, more generous, less egocentric than it is in its natural state. And though he knows that he can sound like a person who believes in God, he thinks that God is the wrong word to describe his beliefs. “There’s a real problem with the word,” he says, “because it shields the genuinely divisive doctrines and believers from criticism. If the God of the 25 percent is incredibly valuable, which it is; and it’s actually worth realizing, which it is; and it’s something we can talk about rationally, which it is; then calling it ‘God’ prevents you from criticizing all the divisive nonsense that comes with religion.” Believing in transcendence is not the same thing as believing that you’ll get virgins in paradise if you blow yourself up—and Sam Harris wants to be clear about that.

He’s on tour promoting his new book, The Moral Landscape. Based on other parts of the article, what he’d really like to see is humanity reaching a point where compassion and bliss and awe and all those other words and feelings often reserved for religious experience and expression could be uttered and felt by everyone equally. Whether the feelings come out of faith or meditation or a walk in the woods or whatever.. have the experience and come out of it peaceful and willing to share that experience with others. If those who manage that can help others find the way to those feelings and those actions, and if those people would help more, we’d all be better off.

Did the Chilean miners agree to be walking advertisements?

October 15, 2010

Oakley donated sunglasses to every miner so they could come into the light protected and looking fashionable. People are complaining about Oakley’s self-promotion of their range of high tech eyewear ($180 and up). I think it’s crass but not entirely unexpected. And at least the sunglasses are being used for the purpose they were designed for, eye protection.

Somebody went and gave them Jesus shirts to wear as well. What’s the point of that design and execution?

The Jesus Film Project is a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International, the massive Orlando, Florida-based evangelical ministry.

The Jesus Film Project tells us they have translated the film into 1,105 languages and that it has been seen in every country. You can watch or listen to over a 1,000 of the translations here.

The main goal of TJFP’s ministry is to create and distribute effective media in every language, says Berry Fiess, the group’s director of field information services.

Seventeen days into the mine accident, CCCI country director for Chile, Christian Maureira, started contacting public officials to see if they could send the miners a copy of the film. Fiess said Maureira was able to reach a daughter and a brother of miner Jose Henriquez.

Through that family contact, the group was able to send an MP3 audio version of the Jesus film and an MP3 audio version of the New Testament in Spanish to Henriquez down in the mine.

Ahh, they’re using this to argue that all of these men should feel reborn in Jesus’ name now after their dark and long tomb experience, just like Jesus experienced!

Too bad some other group didn’t beat them to it and promote reality via t-shirts congratulating them on leaving Plato’s cave.

Fac sapias et liber eris. Make it that you are wise.


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