Saturday, July 30, 2005

R.U.R. or R.U.Rn't an android?

Illustration by C. Lee Healy from
Philip K. Dick and the Umbrella of Light

Japanese scientists have produced an "android". Repliee Q1 is a robot with the outward form of a woman, that flutters its eyelids and appears to breathe. In science fiction the word "android" typically used to refer to artificially created human-like beings composed of organic material, who might well be indistinguishable internally as well as externally from the real McCoy. A robot, by contrast, is a mechanical being. If constructed to resemble a human in outward form, it is a humanoid robot. In recent years, "android" has commonly been used to mean humanoid robot: hence the description of Repliee Q1 as an android. "Robot" entered the English language in the 1920s from the Czech (from robota, or forced labour) via Karel Čapek's play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Ironically, Čapek's robots were artificial organic beings, and thus androids--not robots in the usual meaning of the word.

In post-WW2 science fiction, the android was a standard metaphor for the racially oppressed human: the being who is unjustifiably discriminated against on the basis of origin. However, one writer, Philip K. Dick, used the android as a metaphor for the alienated, psychologically damaged human, who was unable to relate empathically to others. In Dick's fiction the android is the human who is becoming less autonomous and more machine-like in his or her behaviour, while the robot represents the potentiality for movement in the other direction: toward greater spontaneity and caring for others. Among the ways in which Dick, who died in 1982, has been honoured is by the creation of a robot in his image. The fact that the undertaking is called the Philip K. Dick Android Project shows that those involved don't understand Dick's writing.

René Descartes wrote:
…if I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I just happen to have done, I normally say that I see the men themselves.... Yet do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons? I judge that they are men. And so something which I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgement which is in my mind.
If Descartes were to see some of Repliee Q1's descendants crossing the square, I doubt he could so unerringly judge whether they were conscious beings or mere machines. (There were, after all, no life-like humanoid robots in the 17th century to test Descartes' powers of discernment.) But Descartes was half right: we do make judgements about the inner lives of the beings that we see only from the outside. Repliee Q1's designer, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, says, "we have found that people forget she is an android while interacting with her. Consciously, it is easy to see that she is an android, but unconsciously, we react to the android as if she were a woman." In the future we are likely unconsciously to grant personhood to a whole range of mechanical, non-sentient beings with whom we interact. By contrast, even now we exclude from personhood a whole range of sentient beings, whose inner lives we fail to recognize, and whom we wrongly judge to be automatons. Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (not to be confused with the movie version, Blade Runner) looks at humans, androids, robots, and animals, and asks who counts? It's something to sleep on.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


In what could prove to be a milestone on the road to peace in Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army has announced an end to its armed struggle to unite Ireland, and proclaimed its intention to work for its goal by peaceful means. The BBC has extensive coverage, including videos. In April, Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, the party generally described as the political wing of the IRA, called on the IRA to renounce violence. Ian Paisley, the intransigent leader of the powerful Democratic Unionist Party, greeted today's news with scepticism.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Shoot to kill

On Friday, when police in London shot dead a suspected suicide bomber on an Underground train, my reaction was, "Good, they got one." I have no sympathy for people who try to blow up other people on subways or buses. Yesterday police announced there had been a tragic error. The dead man, they said, had no connection to terrorism. He was an electrician from Brazil, who apparently was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He also made the fatal mistake of trying to run from plain-clothes police.

When I was a student in England in the 1970s, I took the train up to London from Brighton one day, to shop, but mostly just to wander around. London is the historic capital of the English-speaking world, and is endlessly fascinating. (As Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life....") Late in the afternoon, I was making my way back toward Victoria Station, walking across Green Park, when suddenly two men, who had come up silently behind, accosted me and demanded to see what was in the small bag I was carrying. They were tough, no-nonsense types, one on either side of me. I thought I was about to be robbed, but could see no escape. Hoping to frighten them away, I said something like, "Leave me alone or I'll call the police." At this point they produced identification: they were the police, in plain clothes. I assume they were on the lookout for drug dealers or IRA bombers. As soon as they saw there was nothing of interest in my bag (perhaps an apple and a book), they let me go. I spent some time on the way home being irritated at this rather menacing invasion of my privacy.

As I said, I was unaware of them until they were on either side of me. But if I had had a few moments warning of what I first took to be threatening strangers, I might have made a run for it. Would they have shot me? I doubt that they were armed, and in any case suicide bombers, who by their nature pose an immediate threat to anyone around, were not likely on the police radar screen then. They probably would have tried to run me down and tackle me. At worst, I would have wound up with some bruises and a determination to file a complaint. Not a bullet in the head.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Root cause

The Observer/Guardian has a feature piece on the background of the London bombers. (Thanks to Anna Kelly for the tip.) What emerges is a stew of radical Islamic teachings, Pakistani connections, and a degree of alienation among young Britons in the immigrant community, exacerbated by Britain's involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Liberal democracies, whose life blood is tolerance and diversity, are faced with the difficult question of how to combat those in their midst who reject tolerance and diversity. Is religion itself--or at least any religion that demands obedience to an allegedly divine moral code--at root an enemy of liberal democracy? Have a look at this Ottawa Citizen column by David Warren. Warren argues that to avert disaster, and combat Islamic fundamentalism, Western countries must reject Enlightenment values and return to an explicitly Christian social and political regime. This view, which is growing on the conservative right in North America, seems to me a mirror image of Islamic fundamentalism, although not yet as violent. (Many in the Muslim world, however, see the invasion of Iraq as an example of Crusader violence.) Warren says even Sharia law is to be preferred to secularism.

In her book Science As Salvation, the fine British philosopher Mary Midgley argues that teleology--the discovery of design and purpose--is intrinsic to human understanding of the world. Science is part of this enterprise, and even scientists who are atheists are not immune from the search for meaning. For many, science fills the role that religion fills for others. The difference is that science is, or ought to be, a rational enterprise, welcoming vigorous debate, with its theories forever open to revision. My point here is that there is a powerful desire in humans for systems of belief that seem to make sense of the world and that tell us how to conduct our lives. Some people would rather die, and kill others too, than live with uncertainty. We live in an age when the verities of the nation state, the capitalist order, and Newtonian science are crumbling, and when many are desperately seeking refuge in other-worldly dogmas. If the values of science, progress, and democracy cannot find a new footing in an economically and ecologically sustainable global community, irrational and dangerous beliefs will rush in to fill the void. As H. G. Wells wrote, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." Those who are not willing to abandon the world to the fundamentalists have their work cut out for them. Time is short.

July 22 update: Here are pieces worth reading by Polly Toynbee and Naima Bouteldja.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Karl Marx is the greatest

Karl Marx is the greatest philosopher, according to a poll conducted by the BBC. Some 34,000 listeners cast votes after hearing advocates for the various candidates, with Marx pulling in almost 28% of votes, more than twice as many as runner-up David Hume. Rounding out the top ten were Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, Immanuel Kant, St. Thomas Aquinas, Socrates, Aristotle, and Karl Popper. The result is bound to confirm the belief of right-wingers that the BBC and its listeners are a bunch of unreconstructed Bolsheviks, just as Tommy Douglas's victory in the Greatest Canadian contest confirmed their worst suspicions about the CBC and its listeners.

Although trying to judge who is the single "greatest" person in any field of endeavour (even hockey) is a mug's game, certainly Marx and Hume rank high on my list of great intellectuals. Many would say that Hume was a philosopher's philosopher, in a way that Marx wasn't--and Marx no doubt would have agreed. As he famously wrote: "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Marx is often viewed primarily as an economist and political activist, though he is at the same time very much a social and political philosopher. Karl Popper, who decried what he saw as the totalitarian implications of the thought of Plato and Marx, nevertheless recognized the contribution Marx made to social science through emphasizing the importance of economic and technological factors in history. The prominent economic historian Robert Heilbroner (1919-2005), who was both sympathetic to and critical of Marx, wrote that Marx's model of the capitalist economy "displayed extraordinary predictive capacity" and that, despite its limitations, Marx's analysis "remains the gravest, most penetrating examination the capitalist system has ever undergone." (Surely there is something to be said for an economist who, in discussing the distinction between productive and unproductive labour, speaks of Milton producing Paradise Lost "as a silkworm produces silk, by expressing his nature through his activity.") As for Marx's general theory of historical development, which asserts that economic structures survive or fall as they promote or hinder the development of society's productive powers, this was corroborated (i.e., lent support) by the collapse of the Soviet Union, was it not?

If I remember correctly, Karl Marx and David Hume have at least one academic distinction in common: they were both turned down when they applied for teaching positions at the University of Edinburgh.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Bob Dylan revisited

Bob Dylan was in town last night. It's been 40 years since the singer went electric and had many of his folk-music fans howling at this betrayal of purity. (Martin Scorsese has just released his 3-1/2 hour documentary, No Direction Home, covering Dylan in the key years from 1961 to 1966; it's scheduled to be shown on PBS September 26 and 27.) The outrage seems quaint now, given Dylan's illustrious place in the rock-music pantheon, but last night I couldn't help thinking that perhaps those folkies had a point. Dylan's songs were there, but transformed into rather generic rock, his lyrics and his old sardonic attitude submerged in a sea of electronic sound. And time has taken its toll on his voice, although perhaps the sound system didn't help. I think he was chanting in Sanskrit, with the occasional English word thrown in for the heck of it. Occasionally it worked for me, as with "Highway 61 Revisited". All in all, though, if it's the real Bob Dylan you want, play a CD at home. Perhaps I'm being unduly negative; the crowd at the Memorial Centre cheered wildly after every number. The band made us clap and cheer for a good four or five minutes at the end before coming back to do an encore consisting of "Don't Think Twice" and "All Along the Watchtower". The latter turned out to be Dylan doing Hendrix doing Dylan. Frankly, though, there's nothing, not even Dylan, that can touch the Jimi Hendrix version, which is one of the ultimate highs of rock music. But in any case, thank you, Bob, for everything.

And while I'm speaking of popular music, here's a new voice worth checking out. Navigate your way to the video of "Us".

Friday, July 15, 2005

War of the species

Frank R. Paul's 1927 illustration

Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is the usual technically proficient Hollywood schlock. Undoubtedly, a British director, working with British actors, would have made a more interesting film. Still, apart from the failed-father-redeems-himself hook, and being set in the wrong country and century, the movie is reasonably faithful in many of its details to H. G. Wells' 1898 novel. The novel itself is primarily an account of the havoc wreaked by invaders from Mars, with only a very little reflection on the metaphorical meaning of it all. Clearly, though, Wells enjoyed taking a poke at the smug satisfaction of imperial Britain, as his alien invaders trample London like someone kicking apart an anthill (his own image). In the movie, Spielberg visually references the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on New York, but it seems a stretch to see the story as about terrorism, Iraq, eco-catastrophe, or anything other than the frisson of the modern end-of-the-world genre. And yet,
...across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. ... Their world is far gone in its cooling, and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. ... And before we judge of them too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Wells' allusion to imperialism is clear, but is The War of the Worlds then also about animal rights? (I am indebted to Shannon Elliott for pointing this out.) The Martians do not eat, as such, but nourish themselves by directly injecting the blood of other creatures into their own veins. It seems they mean to turn humans into domesticated farm animals for this purpose. Wells' story implicitly raises the question that is raised explicitly by philosopher Mark Rowlands, author of Animals Like Us and Animal Rights: A Philosophical Defence. That is, what argument could we make against being used as a food source by powerful alien conquerors of Earth? The sorts of argument typically used to justify human exploitation of non-humans--namely, that we're smarter than they are, or that it's natural for predators to consume prey--suddenly may not seem quite as attractive or convincing when we're on the losing end of things.

Friday, July 08, 2005

On terrorism

The bombings in London have again demonstrated how difficult it is to stop fanatics from killing large numbers of civilians. Properly speaking, "terrorism" refers to politically-motivated (physical) attacks against non-combatant targets, typically undertaken with the intent of spreading fear among the general population of which the victims are members. "Non-combatant" is the key here. Attacking US or British military forces does not make Iraqi rebels terrorists, although they are commonly called terrorists in the US media. The October 2000 attack on the USS Cole was not a terrorist attack, despite President Clinton's characterization of it as such. German soldiers who attacked Allied forces during World War Two were not terrorists, even though they were fighting for an evil cause.

But who is a "non-combatant", and why is it wrong to target non-combatants? Fanatics in the Al-Qaeda mould may believe that they are engaged in a holy war against all infidels, and that most Westerners, not simply those in the military, are in effect combatants and therefore legitimate targets. And when it comes to modern conventional warfare--as exemplifed by World War Two--doesn't the mass mobilization of society for the war effort make almost everyone a participant? Add to that the fact that civilians may be supporters of the war--indeed, civilians like President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld may be in charge of the war--while, as in Vietnam, some soldiers may be reluctant draftees, and the justification for drawing a moral line between combatants and non-combatants can appear murky.

However, if a combatant is defined as anyone in the chain of command of the war effort, then it is clear that Bush and Rumsfeld are combatants in the Iraq War, while farmers selling produce to US Army bases are not, and that while attacking the latter would be terrorism, attacking the former would not be. Even so, it does not follow that non-combatants are morally innocent, or that combatants are morally guilty. One writer, George Mavrodes, has suggested that the rule against attacking non-combatants can best be thought of as a utilitarian convention designed to minimize casualties, just as driving on the right side of the road (or left side, as the case may be) is a convention designed to minimize injuries. Driving on the right isn't inherently better than driving on the left, but in Canada and the US that's the rule, and we should stick to it because of its practical effects.

If that's correct, can a utilitarian case ever be made in favour of terrorism? The bombing of Dresden by Allied forces in World War Two was arguably an instance of terrorism. And surely the atom-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrorist attacks. If President Bush is really sincere in his desire to bring all terrorists to justice, shouldn't he order the arrest of all those Americans still alive who were directly involved in those terrorist attacks? On the other hand, those bombings are sometimes justified by claiming that they were designed to shorten the war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki certainly did that), thus resulting in fewer casualties than would otherwise have occurred. But such justification opens a can of worms, for it suggests that terrorism, including that of Al-Qaeda, may be morally legitimate if it has a prospect of succeeding, in the long run, in accomplishing a worthwhile goal. At a minimum terrorists would have to be allowed to argue the worthiness of their cause as an excuse for their actions. Most of us, viewing the bombings of July 7 in London, will not want to allow any such defence. What is shocking about the bombings is not just the unlikelihood that any of the victims individually merited such treatment, but the callousness of those responsible for the attacks, whatever their ultimate goals or chances of success.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Trashing Canada

I am repeatedly struck by the "Canada sucks" attitude of so many right-wing bloggers and commentators in this country. Eugene Plawiuk has a post on the topic, and here's an example. Even the Barrie Live 8 concert drew its share of scorn from the right: Canadian music sucks too, along with universal health care and Canadian institutions and values generally. Most Canadians are allegedly ignorant dupes of the corrupt socialist forces running the country. There is an almost pathological hatred among these conservatives for the CBC, which to them represents and promotes all they dislike about the country. On the other hand, the USA is typically held up as embodying all positive values. Many right-wing bloggers (especially from Alberta) dream of separating from Canada and threaten (promise?) to personally emigrate to the States.

If you're a baseball fan (and I have no hesitation in saying that baseball is a wonderful American contribution to the world), you either love the N.Y. Yankees or you hate them. Now, residents of New York can be forgiven for being Yankee fans. But why do other people cheer for the Yankees? I suspect that in many (not all) cases it's because they have a deep need to identify with a winner rather than with an underdog. Similarly, I suspect that many Canadians who trash Canada have an inferiority complex and a deep desire to be seen by others as winners in life. They measure this country by the standards of the winners (especially the USA) and find Canada wanting. Their problem is that most Canadians don't agree with them. The great majority of Canadians think that, while there are many problems that need to be fixed in this country, on the whole it's a pretty good place to live. They like universal health care and the Barenaked Ladies and, yes, even the CBC. They don't believe that Canada is shirking its duty for having failed to join the US and Britain in invading Iraq. They don't believe that Canada should be more like its southern neighbour.

The negativity of many on the right infects the federal Conservative Party, which has failed to capitalize on the woes of a very vulnerable Liberal Party precisely because the Tories are widely perceived as having so little that is positive to offer. Conservatives have had a long and proud tradition, from John A. to John G., as the makers and defenders of Canadian sovereignty and distinctive Canadian values. Until modern conservatives can start saying, in effect, "Here's what we like about Canadian values and institutions--and here's how we can all make them even better", they are likely to remain in the political wilderness.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Happy Dominion Day

Raise a glass to the memory of Sir John A. and say
No to Deep Integration.