The Large Language Turn: LLMs As A Philosophical Tool

by Jochen Szangolies

The schematic architecture of OpenAI’s GPT models. Image credit: Marxav, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a widespread feeling that the introduction of the transformer, the technology at the heart of Large Language Models (LLMs) like OpenAI’s various GPT-instances, Meta’s LLaMA or Google’s Gemini, will have a revolutionary impact on our lives not seen since the introduction of the World Wide Web. Transformers may change the way we work (and the kind of work we do), create, and even interact with one another—with each of these coming with visions ranging from the utopian to the apocalyptic.

On the one hand, we might soon outsource large swaths of boring, routine tasks—summarizing large, dry technical documents, writing and checking code for routine tasks. On the other, we might find ourselves out of a job altogether, particularly if that job is mainly focused on text production. Image creation engines allow instantaneous production of increasingly high quality illustrations from a simple description, but plagiarize and threaten the livelihood of artists, designers, and illustrators. Routine interpersonal tasks, such as making appointments or booking travel, might be assigned to virtual assistants, while human interaction gets lost in a mire of unhelpful service chatbots, fake online accounts, and manufactured stories and images.

But besides their social impact, LLMs also represent a unique development that make them highly interesting from a philosophical point of view: for the first time, we have a technology capable of reproducing many feats usually linked to human mental capacities—text production at near-human level, the creation of images or pieces of music, even logical and mathematical reasoning to a certain extent. However, so far, LLMs have mainly served as objects of philosophical inquiry, most notable along the lines of ‘Are they sentient?’ (I don’t think so) and ‘Will they kill us all?’. Here, I want to explore whether, besides being the object of philosophical questions, they also might be able to supply—or suggest—some answers: whether philosophers could use LLMs to elucidate their own field of study.

LLMs are, to many of their uses, what a plane is to flying: the plane achieves the same end as the bird, but by different means. Hence, it provides a testbed for certain assumptions about flight, perhaps bearing them out or refuting them by example. Read more »

The Irises Are Blooming Early This Year

by William Benzon

I live in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan. I have been photographing the irises in the Eleventh Street flower beds since 2011. So far I have uploaded 558 of those photos to Flickr.

I took most of those photos in May or June. But there is one from April 30, 2021, and three from April 29, 2022. I took the following photograph on Monday, April 15, 2024 at 4:54 PM (digital cameras can record the date and time an image was taken). Why so early in April? Random variation in the weather I suppose.

Irises on the street in Hoboken.

That particular photo is an example of what I like to call the “urban pastoral,” I term I once heard applied to Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

Most of my iris photographs, however, do not include enough context to justify that label. They are just photographs of irises. I took this one on Friday, April 19, 2024 at 3:23 PM. Read more »

Third Places and American Libraries

by Mark Harvey

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book…  —President Dwight Eisenhower, 1953

Andrew Carnegie

The other day I stopped in at one of those coworking spaces to see if it would be worth joining in an effort to increase my productivity. Productivity, in my case, is a fancy word to describe getting my taxes done on time, answering a few emails, staying atop some small businesses, and doing a little writing. I’m not exactly a threat to mainland China.

Unfortunately the place I visited had all the charm of a gulag in far east Russia, with poor lighting, and about four pale characters staring at their computer screens as if they could see the eternal void in the universe and had a longing to visit. No thanks.

It did get me thinking about “third places,” and libraries in particular. I believe the term, third place, was coined by the writer Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place. First places are our homes, second places are where we work, and third places are where we go to get relief from the first and second places. They include churches, libraries, pubs, cafes, parks, gyms, and clubs.

My second place is a beautiful ranch in Colorado, so I have little to complain about, but when it comes to the close work of being on a computer, I really value third places. Scholars have described Oldenburg’s third place as having eight features including neutrality, leveling qualities, accommodation, a low profile, and a sense of home. In short, it’s a place that is welcoming, not fancy, free of social hierarchies, free of dues, and imparts no obligation to be there. That perfectly describes American libraries, one of our greatest institutions. Read more »

The Vegetarian Fallacy

by Jerry Cayford

Atelier ecosystemes des communs, Alima El Bajnouni, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Vegetarian Fallacy was so dubbed by philosophy grad students in a well-oiled pub debate back in the 1980s. There is a fundamental conflict—so the argument went—between vegetarians and ecologists. The first principle of ecology—everything is connected to everything else (Barry Commoner’s first law)—is incompatible with the hands-off, “live and let live” ideal implicit in ethical vegetarianism. The ecologists took the match by arguing that, pragmatically, animals either have a symbiotic role in human life or else they compete with us for habitat, and those competitions go badly for the animals. In the long run, a moral stricture against eating animals will not benefit animals.

Now, pub debates are notoriously broad, and this one obviously was. A swirl of issues made appearances, tangential ones like pragmatism versus ethics, and central ones like holism versus atomism. In the end—philosophers being relatively convivial drinkers—all came to agree that pragmatism and ethics must be symbiotic as well, and that the practice of vegetarianism (beyond its ethical stance) could be more holistically approached and defended. Details, though, are fuzzy.

A fancy capitalized title like “Vegetarian Fallacy” may seem a bit grandiose, given the humble origins I just recounted. What justifies a grand title is when the bad thinking in a losing argument is also at work far beyond that one dispute. And that is my main thesis. So, although I will elaborate the two sides, it will be only a little bit. I am more interested in the mischief the Vegetarian Fallacy is perpetrating not in the academy but in wider political and cultural realms. Read more »

Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence

by Marie Snyder

Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, was originally published in 1995 but more recently updated in a 25th anniversary edition in 2020. Well, he added a new introduction, but no study or concept in the book was updated despite huge changes in our lives since then and tons of new studies with updated technology. It’s kind of refreshing to read a book about the problem with kids today without a single mention of phones, but it feels a little sloppy. Goleman is a science journalist without a clinical practice in psychotherapy as far as I can tell. While his book is about how to be smart according to the front cover, it’s also being used in psychotherapy. It’s a fast, engaging read, but I have some concerns about the content and application.

The book outlines the need for emotional intelligence (EI) to be overtly taught to children, explains the psychoneurology of EI, argues for the primacy of emotional intelligence for success, adds in the need for emotional supports, and ends with a call for parents to be better educated as well. The principle underlying Goleman’s text is that there are four specific domains, adapted from Salovey & Mayer, that emerge from the activity of our brain circuits that have more of an impact on our general well being than does our intelligence: self-awareness, self-management (formerly motivation and self-regulation), empathy, and skilled relationships. Goleman explains that people will be better off emotionally, relationally, and vocationally if they develop their emotional intelligence to identify and understand their feelings as they happen, manage them effectively, understand other people’s feelings, and relate to others more positively. With a calm mind, people can make better decisions, which positively affects all other aspects of their life. Goldman has used these domains to help to develop educational programs to teach children Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in the schools through the CASEL organization. I feel like it goes without saying  that being able to manage our emotional experiences helps in other aspects in our lives, so I’m all in at this point. Read more »

Grand Observations: Darwin and Fitzroy

by Mark Harvey

Captain Robert Fitzroy

One of the artifacts of modern American culture is the digital clutter that crowds our minds and crowds our days. I’m old enough to have grown up in the era before even answering machines and the glorification of fast information. It’s an era that’s hard to remember because like most Americans, I’ve gotten lost in the sea of immediate “content” and the vast body of information at our fingertips and on our phones. While it’s a delicious feeling to be able to access almost every bit of knowledge acquired by humankind over the last few thousand years, I suspect the resulting mental clutter has in many ways made us just plain dumber. Our little brains can absorb and process a lot of information but digesting the massive amount of data available nowadays has some of our minds resembling the storage units of hoarders: an unholy mess of useless facts and impressions guarded in a dark space with a lost key.

If you consider who our “wise men” and “wise women” are these days, they sure seem dumber than men and women of past centuries. I guess some of them are incredibly clever when it comes to computers, material science, genetic engineering, and the like. But when it comes to big-picture thinking, even the most glorified billionaires just seem foolish. And our batch of politicians even more so.

It’s hard to know the shape and content of the human mind in our millions of years of development but the story goes that we’ve advanced in consciousness almost every century, with major advances in periods such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That may be true for certain individuals but as a whole, it seems we drove right on past the bus stop of higher consciousness with our digital orgy and embryonic embrace of artificial intelligence. Are we losing the wonderful feeling, agency, and utility of uncluttered minds? Read more »

The Aesthetics of Dispassionate Observers

by Dwight Furrow

Aesthetic properties in art works are peculiar. They appear to be based on objective features of an object. Yet, we typically use the way a work of art makes us feel to identify the aesthetic properties that characterize it. However, dispassionate observer cases show that even when the feelings are absent, the aesthetic properties can still be recognized as such. Feelings seem both necessary yet unnecessary for appreciation of the work.

How do we square this circle?

When we ascribe to works of art properties such as beautiful, melancholy, mesmerizing, charming, ugly, awe-inspiring, magnificent, drab, or dynamic we are typically reporting how the work affects us, and we often use what we loosely call “feelings” to help in the ascription. A painting is charming if the viewer feels charmed. The architecture of a building is awe-inspiring if an admirer has the feeling of being awed. To say that a musical passage is beautiful but it leaves me uninspired and bored is peculiar and would require some special explanation for what is meant by “beautiful” in this case. We typically use the degree and kind of pleasure we feel about an object to be one measure of its beauty. The feelings involved in our response to artworks or other aesthetic objects need not be full blown emotions. As many commentators have pointed out, a sad song does not necessarily make one feel sad if you have nothing to be sad about. In fact, we often find sad songs exhilarating. Yet sad songs make us feel an analog to sadness which helps us attribute the property “sad” to the song.

In other words, there is something that it is like to feel charmed, awed, in the presence of beauty, or “sad-adjacent” that typically accompanies the identification of that property in an object. And the feeling state helps us identify the property. We know a film is amusing because it makes us feel amused, joyful because it sparks feelings of joy, etc.

But this raises a puzzle about dispassionate observers. Read more »

How Quantum Models Work

by David Kordahl

A notable theorist visits a notable laboratory (Stephen Hawking at CERN, 2013)

The science lab and the theory suite

If you spend any time doing science, you might notice that some things change when you close the door to the lab and walk into the theory suite.

In the laboratory, surprising things happen, no doubt about it. Depending on the type of lab you’re working in, you might see liquid nitrogen boiling out from a container, solutions changing color only near their surfaces, or microorganisms unexpectedly mutating. But once roughly the same thing happens a few times in a row, the conventional scientific attitude is to suppose that you can make sense of these observations. Sure, you can still expect a few outliers that don’t follow the usual trends, but there’s nothing in the laboratory that forces one to take any strong metaphysical positions. The surprises, instead, are of the sort that might lead someone to ask, Can I see that again? What conditions would allow this surprise to reoccur?

Of course, the ideas discussed back in the theory suite are, in some indirect way, just codified responses to old observational surprises. But scientists—at least, young scientists—rarely think in such pragmatic terms. Most young scientists are cradle realists, and start out with the impression that there is quite a cozy relationship between the entities they invoke in the theory suite and the observations they make back in the lab. This can be quite confusing, since connecting theory to observation is rarely so straightforward as simply calculating from first principles.

The types of experiments I’ve had been able to observe most closely involve electron microscopes. For many cases where electron microscopes are involved, workers will use quantum models to describe the observations. I’ve written about quantum models a few times before, but I haven’t discussed much about how quantum physics models differ from their classical physics counterparts. Last summer, I worked out a simple, concrete example in detail, and this column will discuss the upshot of that, leaving out the details. If you’ve ever wondered, how exactly do quantum models work?—or even if you haven’t wondered, but are wondering now that I mention it—well, read on. Read more »

Responsibility Gaps: A Red Herring?

by Fabio Tollon

What should we do in cases where increasingly sophisticated and potentially autonomous AI-systems perform ‘actions’ that, under normal circumstances, would warrant the ascription of moral responsibility? That is, who (or what) is responsible when, for example, a self-driving car harms a pedestrian? An intuitive answer might be: Well, it is of course the company who created the car who should be held responsible! They built the car, trained the AI-system, and deployed it.

However, this answer is a bit hasty. The worry here is that the autonomous nature of certain AI-systems means that it would be unfair, unjust, or inappropriate to hold the company or any individual engineers or software developers responsible. To go back to the example of the self-driving car; it may be the case that due to the car’s ability to act outside of the control of the original developers, their responsibility would be ‘cancelled’, and it would be inappropriate to hold them responsible.

Moreover, it may be the case that the machine in question is not sufficiently autonomous or agential for it to be responsible itself. This is certainly true of all currently existing AI-systems and may be true far into the future. Thus, we have the emergence of a ‘responsibility gap’: Neither the machine nor the humans who developed it are responsible for some outcome.

In this article I want to offer some brief reflections on the ‘problem’ of responsibility gaps. Read more »

Open Letter Season: Large Language Models and the Perils of AI

by Fabio Tollon and Ann-Katrien Oimann

DALL·E 2 generated image

Getting a handle on the impacts of Large Language Models (LLMs) such as GPT-4 is difficult.  These LLMs have raised a variety of ethical and regulatory concerns: problems of bias in the data set, privacy concerns for the data that is trawled in order to create and train the model in the first place, the resources used to train the models, etc. These are well-worn issues, and have been discussed at great length, both by critics of these models and by those who have been developing them.

What makes the task of figuring out the impacts of these systems even more difficult is the hype that surrounds them. It is often difficult to sort fact from fiction, and if we don’t have a good idea of what these systems can and can’t do, then it becomes almost impossible to figure out how to use them responsibly. Importantly, in order to craft proper legislation at both national and international levels we need to be clear about the future harm these systems might cause and ground these harms in the actual potential that these systems have.

In the last few days this discourse has taken an interesting turn. The Future of Life Institute (FLI) published an open letter (which has been signed by thousands of people, including eminent AI researchers) calling for a 6-month moratorium on “Giant AI Experiments”. Specifically, the letter calls for “all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4”. Quite the suggestion, given the rapid progress of these systems.

A few days after the FLI letter, another Open Letter was published, this time by researchers in Belgium (Nathalie A. Smuha, Mieke De Ketelaere, Mark Coeckelbergh, Pierre Dewitte and Yves Poullet). In the Belgian letter, the authors call for greater attention to the risk of emotional manipulation that chatbots, such as GPT-4, present (here they reference the tragic chatbot-incited suicide of a Belgian man). In the letter the authors outline some specific harms these systems bring about, advocate for more educational initiatives (including awareness campaigns to better inform people of the risks), a broader public debate, and urgent stronger legislative actions. Read more »

Does Identity Matter?

by Dwight Furrow

When we speak about identity, we usually have in mind the various social categories we occupy—gender categories, nationality, or racial categories being the most prominent. But none of these general characteristics really define us as individuals. Each of us falls into various categories but so does everyone else. To say I’m a straight white male puts me in a bucket with millions of others. To add my nationality and profession only narrows it down a bit.

While all these factors contribute to one’s identity, they don’t reach what makes each of us a distinct individual. Why should that matter? It matters in part because we want to be treated as an individual not a type, but also because having an understanding of one’s distinctive identity might help us decide what kind of life to live. It might help us guide our self-formation by reinforcing decisions tailored to one’s very specific needs, values, and aspirations.

So what does constitute our distinctiveness as persons? We might try to answer this by thinking about cases in which one’s identity is missing—what is commonly called an identity crisis. In an identity crisis we question our purpose in life, what our role or place in society is, what values we ought to be committed to, or the meaning and significance of our activities. But having purpose, meaning, and a commitment to certain values doesn’t quite individuate us either. We share values, commitments, and meanings with many others. These all seem necessary to us as individuals but aren’t sufficient to explain what makes us the distinctive selves we are.

When confronted with such puzzles we might hope that philosophy could straighten us out. However, the results of philosophical inquiry into questions of personal identity are mixed, although I think in the end helpful. Read more »

A Science Thanksgiving

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

The pistol shrimp (Image credit: Wired)

It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in the U.S., and there’s an informal tradition on Thanksgiving to give thanks for all kinds of things in our lives. Certainly there’s plenty to be thankful for this year, especially for those of us whose lives and livelihoods haven’t been personally devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. But I thought I would do something different this year. Instead of being thankful for life’s usual blessings, how about being thankful for some specific facts of nature and the universe that are responsible for our very existence and make it wondrous? Being employed and healthy and surrounded by family and friends is excellent, but none of that would be possible without the amazing unity and diversity of life and the universe. So without further ado and in no particular order, I present an entirely personal selection of ten favorites for which I am eternally thankful.

I am thankful for the value of the resonance level energy of the excited state of carbon-12: carbon-12 which is the basis of all organic life on earth is formed in stars through the reaction of beryllium-8 with helium-4. The difference in energies between the starting materials (beryllium + helium) and carbon is only about 4%. If this difference had been even slightly higher, the unstable beryllium-8 would have disappeared long before it had transmuted into carbon-12, making life impossible. Read more »

Life Is hard. Can Philosophy Help?

by Dwight Furrow

Does philosophy have anything to tell us about problems we face in everyday life? Many ancient philosophers thought so. To them, philosophy was not merely an academic discipline but a way of life that provided distinctive reasons and motivations for living well. Some contemporary philosophers have been inspired by these ancient sources giving new life to this question about philosophy’s practical import.

The problem with the contemporary discussion about philosophy as a way of life is that answers to questions about how to live are too often drawn directly from these ancient sources. Aristotle, the Stoics, or Epicurus are treated as sages bestowing wisdom on us blinkered moderns. While there is no doubt great wisdom in this ancient literature, one might question the relevance of their commentary. We live in vastly different circumstances confronting problems of which they never dreamed. Furthermore, there has been a flood of philosophical water flowing under the bridge during the past 2000 years. Is that just so much effluent to be drawn off while we contemplate the Stoic logos or Plato’s forms?

This literature needs input from contemporary philosophers who can apply their considerable analytic skills to problems in living as they emerge in modern society without being freighted with ancient ideologies. Hence the import of Kieran Setiya’s new book, Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way. It is a paradigm of what is needed in current discussions about philosophy as way of life. Read more »

Privacy as a Common Good in the Age of Big Data

by Josie Roux and Fabio Tollon

Do we need to rethink the role (or conception) of privacy in a highly digitised world? The widespread collection of online user data has generated substantial interest in the various ways in which our right to privacy has been violated. Additionally, worries about our privacy being undermined are also linked to the coercive or manipulative power that digital technologies have over our lives. The concern, then, is that the widespread gathering and use of massive amounts of private information by Big Data barons might undermine individual autonomy. Moreover, if we consider that citizen autonomy is a crucial element of democracy, it becomes clear that the problem of privacy invasions of widespread data collection goes beyond its effect on individual users.

Here we would like to suggest that this situation demands that we reassess the way that we value privacy in liberal democracies.  Traditionally, privacy has been valued as an individual good; it is valued instrumentally for the individual goods it protects such as intimacy, creativity, self-expression, and personhood. In general, privacy is viewed as a right afforded to individuals that protects them from incursions from society. However, if we value privacy for its essential role in the protection of democracy, then it becomes clear that privacy is not only important for individuals but for society as a whole, and is not just an individual good but a common good. Read more »

Skepticism as A Way of Life

by Dwight Furrow

Today “skepticism” has two related meanings. In ordinary language it is a behavioral disposition to withhold assent to a claim until sufficient evidence is available to judge the claim true or false. This skeptical disposition is central to scientific inquiry, although financial incentives and the attractions of prestige render it inconsistently realized. In a world increasingly afflicted with misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies we could use more skepticism of this sort.

In philosophy, “skepticism” refers to the theoretical position that no claim satisfies the requirements for genuine knowledge. It is a move in the long-standing debate about the nature of knowledge and justification. However, this modern, theoretical use of the term harkens back to an ancient philosophical tradition that viewed skepticism, not solely as a theoretical position, but as a way of life. As the debate about philosophy as a way of life has emerged in the past several decades, this ancient view of skepticism has received some discussion. It’s worth considering what it can contribute to that debate.

Is skepticism a coherent way of life?

Most of the discussion makes use of the argument provided by Sextus Empiricus, who lived in the second or third century CE somewhere in the Mediterranean region and whose works have survived largely intact. The basic argument is this:

A good life should be as free from psychological disturbance as possible. Thus, a good life is a life of tranquility. Philosophical argument is the means through which we can achieve tranquility.

If you have attended seminars in philosophy, you might question this claim but bear with me. Read more »

God Help us all: Fending off an American Theocracy

by Mark Harvey

The Crusades

The trouble with theocracies is that they generally lead to crusades. And the trouble with crusades is that if you’re not of the right sect or denomination, you’ll end up crucified. Theocracies lead nowhere, bring great suffering on peoples, stifle creative thought, and have women covered or in the kitchen. They do anything but lead to paradise on earth. But they do give people a taste of hell.

Whether it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Isis caliphate in Iraq and Syria, or The Islamic State of Iran, theocracies are inherently oppressive, and regressive. They subscribe to the idea that there is only one God, he is to be obeyed without question, and that those ruling in a theocratic government have some sort of manifest connection with that God.

James Madison

To some degree, Americans have been spared the ravages of theocracies. We are perhaps most indebted to James Madison for that. Madison, sometimes called the father of the Constitution, understood well in advance of 1789 when the framers met in Philadelphia, that the new nation being formed needed to be free and clear of the factionalism so often created by religious zealots. In letters to his close friend Thomas Jefferson, Madison wrote, “When Indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude….Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.”

I have no issues with religion per se. I think it genuinely helps some people navigate their lives and having a faith strong enough to maintain an unswerving optimism in the face of life’s hardships is even enviable. For the truly dispossessed and bereaved, a belief in God may be the last thing to cling to. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our great writers and a transcendentalist, called the religious sentiment “mountain air” and “the embalmer of the world.”

“It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the hills is it,” he said. Read more »

Epicurus and the Ethics of Pleasure

by Dwight Furrow

If philosophy is not only an academic, theoretical discipline but a way of life, as many Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers thought, one way of evaluating a philosophy is in terms of the kind of life it entails.

On that score, if we’re playing the game of choose your favorite ancient philosopher, I would say I’m most inspired by the vision of Epicurus. This is not because he had compelling arguments for his views. The fragments of original texts that we have, and the unreliability of many of the commentaries of his contemporaries, leave us with little knowledge of his actual arguments. What is attractive about Epicurus is the vision of a good life that emerges from his work and life.

Unlike Plato and Aristotle at their academies or Stoic sages who populated the ruling class (or endured crushing hardship from the wrong side of that boot), Epicurus presided over “The Garden.” In that tranquil private space outside Athens, he and his followers gathered to enact a humble life of modest pleasure enjoying the bounty of the harvest with friends in conversation. The ideal was that even people of limited means could live a life of contentment and ease if they thought clearly about the nature of pleasure, grasped the need for moderation, and rejected superstitious religious and political beliefs that caused psychological turmoil. Read more »

Acting Machines

by Fabio Tollon

Fritzchens Fritz / Better Images of AI / GPU shot etched 1 / CC-BY 4.0

Machines can do lots of things. Robotic arms can help make our cars, autonomous cars can drive us around, and robotic vacuums can clean our floors. In all of these cases it seems natural to think that these machines are doing something. Of course, a ‘doing’ is a kind of happening: when something is done, usually something happens, namely, an event. Brushing my teeth, going for a walk, and turning on the light are all things that I do, and when I do them, something happens (events). We might think the same thing about robotic arms, autonomous vehicles, and robotic vacuum cleaners. All these systems seem to be doing something, which then leads to an event occurring.  However, in the case of humans, we often think of what we do in terms of agency: when we do perform an action things are not just happening (in a passive sense). Rather, we are acting, we are exercising our agency, we are agents. Can machines be agents? Is there something like artificial agency? Well, as with most things in philosophy, it depends.

Agency, in its human form, is usually about our mental states. It therefore seems natural to think that in order for something or other to be an agent, it should at least in principle have something like mental states (in the form of, for example, beliefs and desires). More than this, in order for an action to be properly attributable to an agent we might insist that the action they perform be caused by their mental states. Thus, we might say that for an entity to be considered an agent it should be possible to explain their behaviour by referring to their mental states. Read more »

Robots, Emotions, and Relational Capacities

by Fabio Tollon

The Talon Bomb Disposal Robot is used by U.S. Army Special Forces teams for remote-controlled explosive ordnance disposal.

I take it as relatively uncontroversial that you, dear reader, experience emotions. There are times when you feel sad, happy, relieved, overjoyed, pessimistic, or hopeful. Often it is difficult to know exactly which emotion we are feeling at a particular point in time, but, for the most part, we can be fairly confident that we are experiencing some kind of emotion. Now we might ask, how do you know that others are experiencing emotions? While, straightforwardly enough, they could tell you. But, more often than not, we read into their body language, tone, and overall behaviour in order to figure out what might be going on inside their heads. Now, we might ask, what is stopping a machine from doing all of these things? Can a robot have emotions? I’m not really convinced that this question makes sense, given the kinds of things that robots are. However, I have the sense whether or not robots can really have emotions is independent of whether we will treat as if they have emotions. So, the metaphysics seems to be a bit messy, so I’m going to do something naughty and bracket the metaphysics. Let’s take the as if seriously, and consider social robots.

Taking this pragmatic approach means we don’t need to have a refined theory of what emotions are, or whether agents “really” have them or not. Instead, we can ask questions about how likely it is that humans will attribute emotions or agency to robots. Turns out, we do this all the time! Human beings seem to have a natural propensity to attribute consciousness and agency (phenomena that are often closely linked to the ability to have emotions) to entities that look and behave as if they have those properties. This kind of tendency seems to be a product of our pattern tracking abilities: if things behave in a certain way, we put them in a certain category, and this helps us keep track of and make sense of the world around us.

While this kind of strategy makes little sense if we are trying to explain and understand the inner workings of a system, it makes a great deal of sense if all we are interested in is trying to predict how an entity might behave or respond. Consider the famous case of bomb-defusing robots, which are modelled on stick insects. Read more »

Stoicism: Is it Therapy or Philosophy?

by Dwight Furrow

One of the more remarkable developments in popular philosophy over the past 20 years is the rebirth of stoicism. Stoicism was an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy founded around 300 BCE by the merchant Zeno of Citium, in what is now Cyprus. Although, contemporary professional philosophers occasionally discuss Stoicism as a form of virtue ethics, most consider it to be a minor philosophical movement in the history of philosophy with limited influence. Yet it has captured the attention of the non-professional philosophical world with many websites and online communities devoted to its practice. Some estimate membership in these communities at about 100,000 participants. Stoicism has also played a seminal role in the development of cognitive/behavioral therapy in psychology.

The puzzle is why Stoicism is now having its moment—because it is genuinely weird.

To be sure, Stoic ethics gives some good advice. One central tenet is that we place far too much value on external things such as wealth, popularity, or prestige at the expense of moral virtue. In an age of celebrity worship, groveling for likes on social media, and a mad dash for cash, none of which does much to promote happiness, we could surely use more focus on what really matters in life. But this sort of advice isn’t unique to Stoicism. It is hard to imagine any mainstream ethical theory not condemning our fascination with bling, careerism, and greed. Nevertheless, the Stoic reasoning on these ethical matters is distinctive and important because it deeply shapes the practical advice that has made it so popular. Read more »