The Weekly Stripe – 17.07.20
We know you’re sick and tired of hearing about the ‘Trolley Problem’ - it’s done the rounds one too many times, someone should definitely pull the lever on it and grind it to a halt. That’s why, this week, we’ve put together a list of five (other) famous philosophical thought experiments that everyone should know about! What do the Ship of Theseus, the human body and late-90s girl group Sugababes all have in common? Read on to find out…
As huge sections of the population have gone remote and virtual, it feels like we’re close to living in the Matrix, or at least a budget version of it. The ‘Experience Machine‘ thought experiment, posed by Robert Nozick in 1974, asks whether we would choose to plug into a virtual reality experience machine that tricked us into believing we were living our ideal lives, where all our dreams came true. He thought we would not.
Imagine you were charged with designing society from the ground up, but you did so from behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance’ (you didn’t know your race, gender, socioeconomic status, nationality, tastes, etc.). How would you construct society so as to make sure you were happy with whatever lot you received? This is what John Rawls asked, and answered.
The cheerily named ‘Drowning Child’ experiment considers the case of a drowning child in a pond nearby. Clearly, it is our moral responsibility to save the child. What is also clear, for Peter Singer, is that it is irrelevant whether the child is drowning nearby or whether another child is also suffering similarly, but is located half way across the world. In other words, proximity is irrelevant to moral concern.
We’ve all heard of the Turing Test, but have you heard of the ‘Chinese Room’ experiment? If you work in AI, chances are you have. But for the rest of you, this is a famous experiment designed by John Searle who used it to argue that an AI can only ever simulate a mind, rather than actually have a mind.
So, what do the Ship of Theseus, the human body and Sugababes have in common? They all replace their constitutive components over time, yet retain their identity (or do they?).
The first recorded instance of the ‘Ship of Theseus‘ experiment came from Plutarch, who questioned whether the Ship of Theseus is the same ship after it has every plank, oar and sail replaced.