Wednesday, September 9, 2009

David McFarland: Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs - The Question of Alien Minds

(My review will appear in Philosophy in Review)

David McFarland Guilty Robots, Happy Dogs: The Question of Alien Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008. Pp. 256. US$34.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-19-921929-2); US$15.95 (paper ISBN-13: 978-0-19-921930-8).

David McFarland is a retired professor of animal behavior and robotics who pursues an active interest in philosophy. In this book he treats the question of whether non-human animals and future robots could be said to have minds. While much of the book brings research in animal behavior and robotics to bear on its theme, McFarland is also well acquainted with the philosophy of mind and he readily appropriates philosophical concepts and terminology -- ‘philosopher-speak’ (50) -- when needed. Although several chapters are almost completely devoted to philosophical ideas, I think that philosophers will actually find the non-philosophical sections more stimulating.

Chapter 1, ‘Mindless Machines’, sets up a taxonomy of increasingly sophisticated robot behaviors and abilities. Robots can be simply reactive to certain elements of their environment; they can demonstrate ‘stigmercy’, or ‘[t]he production of behavior that is a direct consequence of the effects produced in the local environment by previous behavior’ (219); a robotic ‘goal-achieving system’ can change its behavior (by stopping, for instance) when a certain goal has been achieved; a ‘goal-seeking system’ is designed to work towards the accomplishment of a certain goal ‘without the goal being represented within the system’ (11), while the behavior of ‘goal-directed’ systems is informed by such representations. Next comes a discussion of different types of autonomy. Robots can be autonomous as regards their procurement of energy (as exemplified by the fascinating ‘slugbot’ slug-hunting robot). If a robot is capable of determining which of its goals it will pursue in different circumstances -- choosing, for example, either to continue working or to recharge its batteries -- it is ‘motivationally autonomous’.

Chapter 2, ‘Design of Animals and Robots’, makes an interesting attempt to explain both the origins of species in nature and the development of robots in a market economy in terms of a single broad evolutionary framework. It also outlines a model of resource management as practiced by both animals and robots. Robots seem very different from biological organisms insofar as they depend upon humans to 'reproduce' them; however, many domesticated animals also reproduce with human assistance. Parasites in nature are similarly highly dependent upon their host organisms. More generally speaking, robots and animals alike are designed to fit particular niches and serve particular functions: ‘There is no such thing as a generalized animal; there will never be successful generalized robots’ (30). Here McFarland is already gesturing towards one of the book’s main points: that human beings are designed to perform human activities in human environments and thus are endowed with human intelligence and human minds, while other animals are designed to engage in other kinds of activities in other kinds of environments and thus are likely to possess other kinds of intelligence and other kinds of minds.

Chapter 3, ‘Interpreting Behaviour’, is more philosophical than the previous chapters and perhaps less interesting to philosophers. It offers an overview of the debate over folk psychology and eliminative materialism, continues with a more detailed account of Daniel Dennet’s notion of the ‘Intentional Stance’ and rationality, and concludes with the ‘rule of thumb’ that ‘for an animal or robot to have a mind it must have intentionality (including rationality) and subjectivity’ (95), where subjectivity requires not only that the animal/robot has experiences, but also that it knows that it has experiences.

The next three chapters introduce a number of phenomena associated with human mental activity (having a ‘theory of mind’, tool use, qualia, and self-awareness) and describe attempts to uncover their presence in animals through empirical research. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that the presence of subjective experience might be detected by experiments in which animals seem to choose the optimal available combinations of various pains and pleasures. Chapter 7, ‘The Material Mind’, returns to an overview of standard themes in the philosophy of mind, including mental causation, Searle’s Chinese Room, and various brands of functionalism. This is not a particularly strong chapter, and the material is better covered by many introductory texts. Chapter 8, ‘Mental Autonomy’, includes further discussions of subjective experience and self-awareness and develops a ‘wish list’ of powers and characteristics that an animal or robot should possess in order for it to be thought of as having a mind. This leads to questions of moral accountability; when something goes wrong, ‘Who is to blame, the robot or its designer?’ (188). Going beyond the ‘motivational autonomy’ described in Chapter 1, McFarland suggests that a robot might be designed to step outside pre-programmed decision-making algorithms, to ‘take the initiative’ and ‘break the rules’ when necessary (but how would it know when this is necessary?). Perhaps ironically, he mentions in an aside that, ‘[w]e hope its values would be such that it would not do anything stupid’ (198).

The book’s surprise conclusion is reserved for its epilogue, ‘The Alien Mind’. McFarland holds out little hope for the possibility that science will solve the problems of philosophy. He thinks that the empirical data can accommodate just about any of the various and conflicting theories at play in the contemporary philosophy of mind. The final closing paragraphs suggest that the attribution of mindedness to animals or (future) robots will, at the end of the day, be a matter of social convention.

Despite its anticlimactic conclusion, the book is certainly worth reading. Even in this age of fashionable naturalism, philosophers will still have something to learn from McFarland’s style of thinking, with its thorough grounding in robotic engineering and empirical studies of animal behavior. They will certainly come away with a new stock of practical examples and ideas to philosophize about. One odd deficiency of the book is that it seems a bit dated. Its references peter out towards the end of the 1990s and it has nothing to say about the great recent advances in brain research resulting from new imaging technologies. The book is generally well written and is equipped with a useful glossary, which should make it accessible and even interesting for lay readers and undergraduates. There are, however, better first introductions to its more strictly philosophical content.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College, Israel

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mark Schultz: The Stuff of Life - A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA

Read my review on the Metapsychology site:

Neil M. Gorsuch: The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

Read my review on the Metapsychology site:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hilary Putnam: Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein.

Hilary Putnam
Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life:
Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2008.
Pp. 136.
US$19.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-253-35133-3).

(My review will soon appear in Philosophy in Review)

Putnam is famously willing to change his opinions and preoccupations. This book is born of one such transformation: Putnam’s turn towards Judaism. Its brief autobiographical introduction tells us that the process began when Putnam’s older son announced that he wanted to celebrate his upcoming bar mitzvah, a request that brought the family to services held at Harvard’s Hillel House and eventually resulted in Putnam’s praying on a daily basis and teaching a course in Jewish philosophy. That course brought Putnam into contact with the works of three leading Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, Franz Rozensweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas, and helped him ‘reconcile’ his apparently contradictory Jewish and philosophical ‘sides’ (6). He came to interpret the ideas of those thinkers in a manner sympathetic to the approach to religion he found in the later Wittgenstein. Inspired by his recently acquired yet profound appreciation for that triad of Jewish (and definitely continental!) philosophers, Putnam set out to write a book which would ‘help the general reader, especially the general reader who would go and read one or more of these thinkers, to understand the strange concepts and terms that appear in their works, and to avoid common mistakes in reading them’ (8). Considering how short the book is, Putnam can only be congratulated for the remarkable extent to which it achieves his goals.

The first chapter, ‘Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein’, argues that Rosenzweig shared Wittgenstein’s distaste for systematic philosophy as well as his understanding that a religion should be thought of as a way of life rather than a theory about the world. Putnam explains how Rosenzweig rejected not only both essentialism and nominalism, but also the mindset that leads to the adoption of such doctrines. It is fascinating to see how he brings his analytic background into the discussion. If Derek Parfitt can be mentioned in connection with Understanding the Sick and the Healthy (a short book by Rosenzweig which Putnam suggests should be read before the magnum opus, The Star of Redemption), the Messiah’s arrival must be nigh! Stanley Cavell’s ideas are mobilized to explain that, for Rosenzweig, God’s presence must be acknowledged rather than proven. The chapter goes on to explain Rosenzweig’s call for a ‘new thinking’ that is organically connected with life as it is lived (and more particularly, with life as lived in a Jewish ritual framework). The chapter concludes with Putnam’s criticism of Rosenzweig’s negative opinion of religions other than Judaism and Christianity.

Discussion of Rosenzweig continues into the next chapter, ‘Rosenzweig on Revelation and Romance’, which takes on several major themes from the Star of Redemption and offers important advice about how it should be read. As is the case with Buber and Levinas, Rosenzweig is concerned to square the universal ethical values that are foundational for Judaism with its more particularistic and communal aspects. Putnam may have slipped at one point in this chapter (44) by attributing great significance to what may have been a simple error in Rosenzweig’s recollection of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. For a moment he reads The Star of Redemption with the obsession for detail applied by Leo Strauss to the Guide for the Perplexed.

Chapter 3 is largely devoted to getting people to interpret Martin Buber’s I and Thou correctly. Putnam efficiently warns of various pitfalls that lie in wait for the novice reader, pointing out difficulties in the translation of several key terms from German to English. He reminds us that Buber is a ‘moral perfectionist’ rather than someone interested in setting down practical rules of conduct, and that Buber does not claim all ‘I — Thou’ relationships to be necessarily good or all ‘I-It’ relationships to be bad. He insists that Buber was not concerned solely with inter-human relations — he was serious when he wrote about God. Appropriately, Putnam supplies a neat reformulation of Buber’s theology — in less than eighty words!

I remember reading somewhere that Putnam once said Levinas was an important philosopher, but that he suffered from a ‘speech defect’, i.e., a difficulty in expressing ideas clearly. The chapter on Levinas goes a long way towards resolving that problem by offering a clear restatement of some of his main themes, including the priority of ethics over metaphysics, radical responsibility towards the ‘Other’, and Levinas’ relationship to Jewish tradition. Helpful comments are made regarding several of Levinas’ more obscure tropes: ‘face’, ‘trace’ and ‘height’. In a very clever expository move meant to help out analytic philosophers, Putnam attempts to demystify Levinas’ relationship to Husserl and Heidegger by pointing out similarities and links between continental phenomenology and the ideas of Rudolf Carnap. It is refreshing to see that while Putnam has great respect for Levinas, he is also willing to conclude the chapter with some powerful criticisms of the master. Against Levinas’ demand for asymmetrical ‘infinite responsibility’ towards the Other, Putnam reminds us that, ‘[i]t is Aristotle who taught us that to love others one must be able to love oneself’ (99).

Like the Introduction, the Afterword to this book will be of special interest to Putnam-watchers. While pleading that ‘I do not for one moment delude myself into thinking that my own reflections.. . . are deep religious philosophy in the way that the writings I have been discussing are profound,’ Putnam goes on to locate his own ‘current religious standpoint’ as ‘somewhere between John Dewey in A Common Faith and Martin Buber’ (100). While rejecting the standard supernatural elements of traditional Judaism, Putnam is unwilling to do without some picture of God as a person, ‘which need not be “taken literally”, but is still far more valuable than any metaphysical concept of an impersonal God, let alone a God who is “totally other”’ (102). The Afterword concludes with a useful summary of the main differences of opinion between the book’s protagonists, but it also points to their broad similarity when contrasted with the main competing strategy for squaring Judaism with naturalism — Maimonides’ program of negative theology.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College, Israel

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

David Shoemaker: Personal Identity and Ethics - A Brief Introduction

Read my review on the Metapsychology site:

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Irving Singer: Philosophy of Love: A Partial Summing-Up

Read my review on the Metapsychology site:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Colin McGinn - Mindf*cking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation

This review will appear in Philosophy in Review

Colin McGinn Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation. Stockfield: Acumen 2008. Pp. 76. $24.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-1-84465-114-6).

Deja-vu! A respected analytic philosopher publishes a medium length paper as a tiny yet self-standing hardcover book. In it he analyses a folk-epistemological term whose obscenity allows it also to serve as the book’s provocative and eye-catching title.

Is McGinn’s book simply his attempt to gain the fifteen minutes of celebrity enjoyed by Harry Frankfurt when the essay ‘Bullshit’ was republished as the overpriced nanobook, Bullshit? The question is unavoidable, but out of fairness I shall address that comparison only after discussing the book’s actual content.

What, then, is the meaning of ‘mindfucking’? The term usually (but only usually, as we shall see) refers to the uninvited and malevolent manipulation of someone’s mind and beliefs through illegitimate, non-rational, emotion-based techniques. Such techniques prey upon the particular psychological weaknesses of their intended victims and also require their practitioners to engage in a preliminary process of ‘seduction’ in which the confidence of the victim is gained and his or her resistance worn away. Mindfucking is an especially reprehensible form of deception because, unlike simple lying or ‘bullshitting’ (in Frankfurt’s sense of speech completely untethered from considerations of truth and untruth), it intrinsically involves the deliberate infliction of grave psychological harm upon its victims. McGinn is exactly on target when he mobilizes Iago’s manipulation of Othello as the classic illustration of these phenomena. When carried out by collectives or institutions, mindfucking is related to the all-too-familiar practices of indoctrination, brainwashing, and propaganda.

For better or worse, it appears that the term ‘mindfucking’ is not an entirely unambiguous. McGinn insists that ‘the meaning of “mindfuck” is not exclusively negative; the phrase is sometimes used to describe the positive sensation involved in having, or in being presented with, some striking new idea, or in having some sort of agreeably life-altering experience’ (5). This assertion makes one wonder why McGinn is so eager to promote a term whose inherent ambiguity is bound to promote confusion, especially when the phrase ‘to fuck with someone’s mind’ can usually be replaced without loss of meaning with the clearly negative but admittedly less titillating expression, ‘to mess with someone’s mind’. In any event, we learn that certain films (Fight Club!), Kuhnian paradigm shifts, and even romantic love might count as mindfucks in this non-pejorative sense. However, the concluding pages of the book assure us that it is not itself a mindfuck, but rather merely an essay on mindfucking that ‘will have served its purpose if it alerts the reader to a phenomenon on which it is advisable to have a clear grip’ (76).

So: is this a worthwhile book or just a Bullshit wannabe? McGinn must certainly be aware that people are bound to make comparisons; in fact, he makes constant references to Frankfurt’s work, starting from the very opening sentence of his preface. Unfortunately for McGinn, while Bullshit is actually the shorter of the two works, its philosophical and literary references are more intriguing -- and numerous -- than those found in Mindfucking. Bullshit also contains the germ of a theory of the prevalence of bullshit in our day, while McGinn has basically nothing to say about factors affecting the frequency with which mindfucking occurs in contemporary society. Most importantly, in Bullshit Frankfurt brings to light a new epistemological category, while people have long been aware of mindfucking, even if they lacked an obscene term with which to speak of it. A simple Google-search for 'psychological manipulation' will produce countless articles on what McGinn calls 'mind-fucking'. How great would have been the loss to philosophy if McGinn had used the book's subtitle as its main title: A Critique of Mental Manipulation?

Sometimes McGinn seems bored with his topic; he dutifully cranks out a workmanlike and predictable analysis of a not especially promising concept. It is disappointing that given the tremendous amount of new research in cognitive science taking place today, McGinn could find nothing in its results worth mentioning when writing an essay about psychological manipulation. Such practical information would have helped readers learn how to escape the clutches of potential mindfuckers.

If McGinn’s little book draws new readers into the philosophical audience, more power to him. However, the whole affair strikes me as unworthy of his considerable philosophical talents.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College