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 IAmAnAtheist » Determinism and Responsibility

Determinism and Responsibility

The below item is part of my "Conversations" series.

A theist and an atheist cleaning up after a day working in a day care center

Madelyn: Peggy was in particularly rare form today. Did you hear what she said to Oliver?

Nicholas: Come on, it’s not her fault. We’ve just got to keep working with her.

Madelyn: Is this one of your atheist things?

Nicholas: I just meant that her Mom talks like that. How does that sound like an atheist thing?

Madelyn: I thought you meant that people were just machines so we’re not responsible for what we do.

Nicholas: I guess you’re right that I think people are like machines, sort of, but I’d never put it that way. In any case, we can think so we’re responsible for our actions.

Madelyn: How can we be responsible if there’s no soul? If a rock rolls down a hill and crushes a car, we don’t say that the rock is immoral for destroying property.

Nicholas: A rock can’t make decisions about what it does.

Madelyn: But in your view, neither can people. It’s just dominoes falling according to the laws of physics and would all be completely predictable if we had enough information, just like the rock.

Nicholas: The difference is that if a system is complicated enough to be self-aware and make decisions, then even if those decisions are theoretically predictable we can hold the system responsible for them because it could have chosen to do otherwise.

Madelyn: If you say that then you’d have to agree that if there was a computer that was complicated enough we’d have to hold it responsible for what it did.

Nicholas: Well, yeah.

Madelyn: No way! You’d send my iPod to prison for shuffling to a bad song?

Nicholas: Your iPod isn’t exactly self-aware.

Madelyn: You get what I mean though, right? It’s ridiculous to think that a machine could ever be responsible.

Nicholas: Why?

Madelyn: Because it’s a machine!

Nicholas: People are machines, too. I already agreed about that.

Madelyn: Then how could you tell when a robot or whatever was complicated enough that it would start having to be responsible for what it did?

Nicholas: I don’t know — I never really thought about that. I guess you could do tests to see if it was self-aware.

Madelyn: But how would you tell the difference between something that was really self-aware and something that was just programmed to pretend like it was self-aware?

Nicholas: I don’t know that it makes a difference. If something acts like it’s self-aware, we should treat it like it is.

Madelyn: That’s a total copout!

Nicholas: No it’s not. We do it all the time. I can’t really tell if other people are self-aware, but I treat them like they are because they seem to be.

Madelyn: What do you mean you can’t tell that people are self-aware? It’s obvious.

Nicholas: Well, what if we sent astronauts to another planet and there were aliens there. How would we know which ones were self-aware?

Madelyn: I don’t think they could be. Only humans have souls, so aliens couldn’t be self-aware.

Nicholas: Then what if we landed and an alien walked up, waved, and said, "Welcome Earthlings. We have learned English from your television broadcasts"? Would you consider it morally acceptable to capture the alien or kill it and see if it was good to eat since you might do that with any other animal?

Madelyn: That doesn’t seem right.

Nicholas: No, because we really can’t make a distinction between acting self-aware and being self-aware.

Madelyn: The difference with a robot is that if we build it then we know it isn’t self-aware.

Nicholas: You don’t know that. If you don’t start out with the assumption that self-aware things aren’t machines, you can’t conclude that a robot isn’t self-aware just because it’s a robot. You can’t assume what you’re trying to prove.

Madelyn: What I’m trying to prove is that Peggy is a brat.

Nicholas: How about we agree to take that as a given?

 


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Posted on September 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Conversations

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