Karma for robots

Victor asked:

Would a robot be affected by ‘Karma’?

Would they adhere to the same ‘karmic wheel’ as we, natural things do?

I am dedicating this week to this question.

Thank you in advance.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

On the face of it, the possibility of artificial intelligence, or androids who possess consciousness and have a sense of self like you or me, poses a significant challenge to religious beliefs such as the belief in the karma held in hinduism and buddhism. At the risk of ignoring the various important differences between accounts of karma (for example, whether karma is accounted for in cause and effect terms, or is dispensed by a divine entity who judges our actions) there is a common thread in the idea that this life I am now living is not my only life. I will be reborn, perhaps many times, and my actions in this life can affect what happens to me in the next.

One can also regard the doctrine of karma less literally, as an account of how our deeds make us the persons we are in this world – a concept which Plato would have well understood, in his account (in the dialogue Republic) of the nature of the soul and deeds which improve or harm the harmony of its integral parts. However, I shall start by focusing on the more literal interpretation.

Imagine you are an android who believes in karma. Your belief serves as a motivation to act ethically, because if you do not, then maybe in the next cycle you will live as a Windows PC. The problem is, while we have some idea or can imagine how it might be if my immaterial soul or atman ‘leaves’ my dying body and enters, say, the body of a beetle, it’s difficult to see what the connecting thread could be if mind-body dualism is rejected.

Then again, androids are just like you and me. You can get an android to believe anything that a human being can be made to believe. If a human being can believe they have an immortal soul then so can an android:

KRYTEN: He’s an android. His brain could not handle the concept of there being no silicon heaven.

LISTER: So how come yours can?

KRYTEN: Because I knew something he didn’t.


KRYTEN: I knew that I was lying. Seriously, sir. ‘No silicon heaven’? Where would all of the calculators go?

‘The Last Day’, Episode 18, Red Dwarf Series III by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (1989)

The idea of artificial intelligence assumes that consciousness and the sense of self can be accounted for in purely material terms. One possibility is that human beings run a ‘program’ that can, in principle be uploaded to a storage disk and downloaded into a new body. This opens the prospect of everlasting life (at least, until the end of the universe) but also raises the question of identity. How can I ‘be’, for example, each of a hundred clones who have had the GK program downloaded into them? What does it mean to ‘survive’ in these terms? What is the difference between truly believing that I am GK, and being under the illusion that I am GK? Perhaps, ultimately, there is none.

However, it is not necessary to make the questionable assumption that human beings run a program. It would be sufficient, in order to create a copy of GK, to reproduce the architecture of my brain in some functionally isomorphic structure. Imagine a scenario similar to the Ship of Theseus, where my malfunctioning body parts and organs are replaced by contrivances of metal and plastic, and then, finally, each dying brain cell is replaced by a silicon substitute. I would have become an android version of my former self. Am I still me, GK, or merely under the illusion that I am? If I am merely under the illusion that I am GK, when did I ‘die’? (See my YouTube video What is death?)

Either way, there does seem to be some mileage in the idea that this life I am now living, whether in fact I am a human being or an android, might not be my only life. There might, for all I know, be indefinitely more. Seen from a certain perspective, the possibility that life goes on and on with no letup is as terrifying as the prospect of hell. For the non-believer, death releases us from the consequences of our evil deeds. The longer we live, the greater the prospect that the harm we have done to our ‘self’, the program or structure that has the potential to continue indefinitely into the future, will be sufficient punishment for the wrongs we have done. That’s a kind of karma a robot can believe in. And maybe a human being too.


Ending the debate of materialism vs. idealism

Robert asked:

Materialism and idealism are side of philosophy which justify that philosophy has got no sense of reality about the universe, it merely confuses the people, hence it must be discouraged at all cost. Discuss.

Answer by Peter Jones

I do not normally respond to text messages since they suggest that the questionner is not serious and they are often, as here, almost impossible to decode, but you seem to raise an interesting issue. I cannot be sure that I’ve disentagled your words correctly, but the way I read them you seem to have drawn an unnecessary conclusion from the failure of Idealism and Materialism. These two doctrines in their common form, by which are symmetrical and directly opposed, are logically absurd. As you say, it would be possible to take this as a sign that philosophy, specifically metaphysics, is a waste of time. It is also possible, however, to take it as sign that these two doctrines are simply wrong.

So, in order to use their failure as an argument against philosophy you would have to show that one of them is correct. If they are both incorrect, then their failure in philosophy would be a proof of the value of doing it. You cannot prove that one of them is correct. Rather, philosophy proves that they are both absurd. Ergo, you cannot show that philosophy should be discouraged rather than encouraged. .

It would certainly be a strange response to the failure of these two doctrines to discourage people from finding out that they both fail. It would be seem more sensible to make philosophy compulsory in schools, so that everybody has this useful information. Then we would all be pondering the question of what this could mean for the truth about the universe. It must mean that there is another possible solution. And there is another solution. You might like to do a search on ‘nondualism’ and ‘dialethism’. These are two very different responses to your problem, between which you will have to choose. In order to prove that philosophy is useless you would have to show that both of these are logically absurd, or perhaps just nondualism, since dialethism is the proposal that the universe itself is logically absurd. If you cannot do that there is nothign to prevent us from assuming that philosophy is reliable, useful and fit for purpose.

Philosophy confuses people, of course, and this is why we should encourage people to do it. Most people prefer to remain unconfused and some encouragement is usually needed. Utter philosophical confusion is the primordial soup from which should emerge a new and more rational order, a freeing of the mind from its usual hodge-potch of unverified beliefs and received dogmas in order to make way for a more rational construction built from scratch. Descartes showed us the method, and the method is doubt. Doubt and confusion is what philosophy is for. If you are confused, and you know that you are confused, then you are doing philosophy properly. You need not assume that the confusion will be permanent. It would be a mistake to take the failure of certain traditions and styles of philosophical thought for the failure of the entire enterprise.


Is morality inherent?

Christopher asked:

Is morality inherent ? I ask because I think it is, and here is why.

Often people claim morality is relative due to the differences in what is and is not acceptable from culture to culture, person to person. I don’t believe that this ‘problem’ actually conflicts my belief except for one point. To me this seems to be mistaking the effect for the cause. There was a time when there was no civilization or even a ‘society’ outside of what we would consider to be family today. So these social customs and morals originated from us. We came up with these laws and they had to come from within us, because there was a time when there was no other social customs for us to borrow from or base ours on.

To use an example, Jesus said ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ because it came from his heart, not because he was taught it or was conforming to social customs. It was an inherent feeling that spurred this statement. Now I do not disagree that people have different moral beliefs, but the reason is that everyone’s morality comes from within and we are all different. A Christian may today adhere to Christian morality, but I believe it is because their inner nature already agreed with it. Christian morality is a reflection of what is within the person’s heart.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Your text suggests that by ‘inherent’ you mean innate, inborn, inherited. I will assume this.

Whether or not morality is innate is an empirical, scientific, question, especially for cultural anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists. It is a question for descriptive ethics.

Moral philosophy is not so much concerned with what we do (descriptive ethics) as with what we should do (normative ethics), as well as with matters such as moral realism, moral truths and moral facts.

I agree with you that human nature includes moral feelings and dispositions: roughly compassion, kin altruism and reciprocal altruism, being evolved adaptations conducive to survival in our ancestors as groups of social, child-rearing, cooperative primates competing with like groups.

If this be so, we would expect morality to be much the same in all societies at all times, and that cultural variation would be explained by different beliefs, circumstances and emphasis. And I think this is so. A few examples of such variation:

Beliefs. A society which believes its god demands human sacrifices might practice this. Less rare today, is belief that female circumcision eliminates all disposition to adultery.

Circumstances. Subsistence societies, in time of famine, may practice infanticide (it’s that or the whole family dies). But they love their children as much as we do.

Emphasis. Western societies tend to value individual rights/freedom over duty to family and community, and Eastern cultures vice versa.

In short, cultural moral variation can be explained by variation in belief, circumstance and emphasis. And all societies have moral codes meeting basic human needs (identity, security, affection, meaning), dealing with conflict, prohibiting lying, stealing, adultery and murder, and detecting/punishing freeloaders.

The main shortcoming of our innate morality is that is narrow or tribal, typically extending to family and friends, less to strangers, yet less to distant peoples. Aristotle was happy with this, seeing no need to extend concern beyond the city state: indeed enslavement of outsiders was fine.

Hume felt we could widen our sympathies by adopting some ‘common point of view’ and by agreeing rules governing our dealings with others. Kant relied on reason: as rational beings who are ends in ourselves, we freely self-legislate moral rules so that these apply to all rational beings. However all normative moral systems, including virtue ethics, Kantianism and utilitarianism, recognize the special concern we have for nearest and dearest.

Maybe the new Information Age , allowing us to share text, thoughts and images with anybody in the world who has a cellphone, will foster a global, one-tribe notion.

A few words about Christian morality. Jesus’ moral teaching was pretty conventional. A version of the Golden Rule (‘do unto others etc’) appears in Leviticus, written long before Jesus birth, and also appears centuries earlier in Confucianism, as well as being a feature in Hinduism, Taoism, indeed almost every ethical tradition, religious or otherwise. Jesus significance is not as a moral teacher, but as somebody believed by millions to be uniquely the son of God and thereby uniquely the way, the truth and the life. The Christian attitude to morality, innate or otherwise, is that without God’s grace we are hopeless sinners, and to rely on our own resources will be of no avail.


Why should I be moral?

Gladys asked:

‘Why should I be moral?’ through philosophy in ethics.

Answer by Stuart Burns

Excellent Question!!

It is also one that stumps a lot of philosophers who should know better.

One of the issues the question raises, is just what is it to ‘be moral’? But I am going to side-step that particular take on the question you asked, and try to give an answer that would be neutral to however you choose to understand the notion of ‘being moral’.

Clearly, the question you ask is not the moral question of ‘what moral reasons do I have to be moral?’ but rather the question ‘what extra-moral reasons to I have to be moral?’ The first question is trivially answered by ‘One ought to do what one ought!’ But the second one seeks an answer outside of the strictures of morality.

Both Plato and Kant believed that morality is dictated by reason and so a fully rational person is automatically a moral person too. But that leaves open the question of why I should follow the dictates of reason. Theists believe that morality is dictated by God. But again, that leaves open the question of why I should follow the dictates of God. Utilitarianism believes that one should seek the greatest good for the greatest number. But fails to provide an answer to the question of why I should follow the dictates of Utilitarianism if they conflict with my own interests. Other notions of morality hold that being moral is being concerned with the welfare of others, and being moral is being altruistic. But this also fails to provide an answer to your question – why should I care about others? There is also a social conception of morality that thinks ‘being moral’ is thinking or acting in the interests of the society at large. But again, your question asks why I should be concerned about that.

The bottom line is that unless the particular system of morality in question can provide an incentive to be moral based on enlightened self-interest, that particular system of morality has no answer to the challenge of why anyone should be moral according to its lights. The only motivating reason for anyone to do anything has to be based on enlightened self interest. We are, after all, an evolved survival machine engineered by natural selection for the purpose of ensuring that our genes survive and flourish. We are, in other words, designed to pursue our own (in a genetic sense) self-interest.

Of course, the details of any particular response in terms of self-interest will depend on the system of morality in question. For Theistic morals, for example, it is the reward of Heaven and the threat of Hell that provides the motivation to be moral. Each different ethical theory will provide its own attempt at providing a self-interested motive to be moral. Not all are successful. Plato and Kant, for example, singularly fail. Not many people are consistently rational. Most let their emotions rule their lives. So it is a vain hope that defining morality in terms of reason will convince people to be moral.

Only variations of Ethical Egoism start off with the self-interested motivation. But then, Ethical Egoism is not very well understood, and is therefore not a very popular system of ethics.


A different look at free will

Christopher asked:

Are there any good arguments for not having free will other than lack of evidence for it and that it doesn’t conform to how the rest of the universe works? I do not believe in free will, per se, but I believe that there is something there that is the driving force behind voluntary action. I say I don’t believe in free will because I believe that this ‘something’ is not free, it cannot ‘choose’ unbiasedly, it is influenced by the external physical world (sensation and perception) as well as the internal physical world (pain, hunger, thirst, ‘instinct’). What I find to be so compelling to believe that there is ‘something’ is the fact that I can do things like hold my breath or think about a subject on command.

Now how long I hold my breath is determined physically, (I’ve been told that it is impossible to hold your breath until you die) and how I think about the subject is determined by my personal beliefs, but there is a small window that some sort of ‘will’ comes into play between where the ‘decision’ starts and the ‘limitations’ begin. I realize that both of the previously mentioned actions need to be learned before they can be performed, but I’m not sure how or if learning is involved in the problem of free will. I’m also very interested in consciousness and somehow ‘intuitively’ feel that the two are dependent on each other, probably that free will is a quality of, or arises from consciousness, but I’m at a dead end there too. Any ideas?

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Christopher.

You ask some interesting questions. I don’t think this one can be answered except by a long essay, but below are two quotations that might give you food for thought. For the view these represent the freewill-determinism debate would be caused by a misunderstanding, and the two horns of the dilemma may be ‘sublated’ for the truth.

First is Ramesh Balsekar giving the meaning of ‘Wu Wei’ or non-volitional living, from his book The Ultimate Understanding:

Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doer-ship, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing – the positive doing and the negative not-doing – are both aspects of ‘doing’. How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life – and everyone else’s life – is being lived.

What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doer-ship in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.

Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ – who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?

And here is Gurdjieff putting the same view differently, in an extract from P.D. Ouspensky, Conversation with Gurdjieff. In Search of the Miraculous – Fragments of an Unknown Teaching):

I asked G. what a man had to do to assimilate this teaching.

‘What to do?’ asked G. as though surprised. ‘It is impossible to do anything. A man must first of all understand certain things. He has thousands of false ideas and false conceptions, chiefly about himself, and he must get rid of some of them before beginning to acquire anything new. Otherwise the new will be built on a wrong foundation and the result will be worse than before.’

‘How can one get rid of false ideas?’ I asked. ‘We depend on the form of our perceptions. False ideas are produced by the forms of our perception.’

G shook his head.

‘Again you speak of something different,’ he said. ‘You speak of errors arising from perceptions but I am not speaking of these. Within the limits of given perceptions man can err more or err less. As I have said before, man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people think that they can do, and the first question all people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be understood. Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him – all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind.

‘Everyone finds that nothing is being done in the way it ought to be done. Actually everything is being done in the only way that it can be done. If one thing could be different everything could be different… Try to understand what I am saying. Everything is dependent on everything else, everything is connected, nothing is separate. Therefore everything is going in the only way it can go. If people were different everything would be different. They are what they are, so everything is as it is.’

This was very difficult to swallow.

‘Is there nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be done?’ I asked.

‘Absolutely nothing’.

‘And can nobody do anything?’

‘That is another question. In order to do it is necessary to be. And it is necessary first to understand what to be means.’

Food for thought at least.

You may not find this view amenable but you’ll see that it represents a moving of the goalposts in regard to the traditional academic freewill debate. The dilemma evaporates. We come right back to the Oracle at Delphi and the idea that in order to answer your question it would be necessary to ‘Know thyself’. I hope you find this interesting if not convincing.


Dating with a Kantian ethicist

Esther asked:

Hi, I know this question may be a little personal, But I am a philosophy major at university, and I have a passion for the subject. Unlike most undergraduate majors, I do not simply study it because I need a degree, but I actually take it to heart and live by it. I am a Kantian ethicist and try to live my life by Kant’s imperatives. The thing I am wondering is, when I try to date people and tell them this they get scared and ‘weirded out’. Why are people so scared of dating a philosopher? Why does philosophy scare people when Religion does not? They are both contain the same basic elements: a ethical theory, system of values, and a basic treatise yet one scares potential dates off and the other does not. Why is this so?

Answer by Stuart Burns

I don’t know that this is the only answer, but it the answer that I have come up with over the almost 50 years I have been a self-described philosopher.

It takes a very special attitude towards life to be a self-described philosopher. It takes a special kind of generalist approach to understanding questions. And it requires a very sceptical attitude towards edicts handed down by authority, any authority. Very few people have that attitude or can adopt that approach. So as philosophers, we tend to view all sorts of questions and issues in a way that confuses most people.

The vast majority of people do not think in generalist terms, and never question their values or their ethical assumptions. This vast majority prefers to let other people instruct them in this regard. Which is why religion is so prevalent. Religion provides ready answers to generalized questions, and simple edicts instead of moral theory. (Super-market tabloids serve a similar purpose.) Asking people to think like a philosopher scares them, because they do not know how. (Schools do not teach people to think for themselves – good heavens, can you imagine the chaos if the students began to question the lessons provided by their teachers!!) Most people would not know what to do with an ethical theory or a basic treatise. They are much happier with simple to follow edicts, and a simple list of values. ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ or ‘Life is Sacred!’. No if ands or buts, no requirement for thinking, no requirement for dealing with consequences.

Since most people accept their handed-down moral system without question, it makes them uncomfortable in the presence of someone who announces to all and sundry that they do so question such things. Someone who has learned to think in this generalized way, to examine their values and ethical premises, and to question the authority behind the edicts that society proclaims is a very scary person to most people.

So over the years, I have learned to keep my mouth shut with regards to my interest in Philosophy. Except for some very rare occasions, or with some very rare friends, I do no more than mention my interest in philosophy, and then only if asked. If you have not already discovered this, I think you will find that you cannot have a philosophical discussion with most people – no matter how intelligent they are; no matter what the topic might be.

So I don’t think that it is the oddity (to me, at least, not being a fan of Kant) of your Kantian ethics that is the problem, it is the uniqueness of your outlook on the questions of daily life that threatens.