Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ghost in the Machine

Hola Everybody...
I am gone all day today. Those around make sure the village idiots don’t burn down my house?

Thanks in advance for your attention in this matter.

We finally have a reasonably intelligent man in the Oval Office who’s actually going to allow science to do--- well -- science! In light of the recent hoopla around scientific research, I thought the following pertinent...

I miss you, Latina.

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-=[ Ghost in the Machine ]=-

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

-- Philip K. Dick

“Few are those who can see with their own eyes and hear with their own hearts.”

-- Albert Einstein

Most people see philosophy as something pointed-headed nerds do in academia – as something totally divorced from reality and anything of practical value. However, the fact is that we’re all philosophers at some level. We all have assumptions that guide our perception of reality.

The difference, I guess, is that some people have never questioned the assumptions they inherited from their family of origin or culture. Others, more cynical, choose to shrug their shoulders as if saying it doesn’t matter. Still others, the more skeptical among us, have questioned our assumptions and come away with a clearer, or at least more conscious sense of direction. Whatever the case may be, the basic definition of a philosopher is lover of knowledge. And almost everything you do or use today has as its origin a philosophical assumption.

Everything we do, every action we take, is a response to a question. The difference between those that sleep walk through life and those that are awake is that former have lost sight of the questions while the latter not only are conscious of the questions, but are asking newer ones.

You probably know the work of Philip K. Dick through the various films that have been adapted from his science fiction novels, including Total Recall and Minority Report. One of the best-known (and best made), Blade Runner, was based on his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As is most often true with literary works, the movie, while being one of the better adaptations, does not do justice to the strange but subtle thinking that drives the novel.

So why am I writing about a science fiction writer if I’m discussing philosophy? Well, while Dick wouldn’t be considered a philosopher in the strict sense of the word, the philosophical questions he addresses in his novels cut to the heart of philosophy and shows that philosophy is not just merely academic papers and theory. Many writers of fiction -- especially science fiction – address profound philosophical ideas.

Dick was a prolific writer who initially set out to become a “serious novelist” but because he first found success within science fiction, he became categorized in that genre. He was clearly fascinated the early pre-Socratic philosophers who claimed that all reality is in constant flux.

His books, often featuring spaceships, aliens, and probable futures, are vehicles for his exploration into questions such as whether or not we can ever know the world we live in is real; what would happen if time ran backwards; the nature of alternate realities, and the roots of our self identities. He created societies where humanity is organized into tribes according to their mental state, or where each character is forced to experience the world through the consciousness of others, or in which all the characters are dead, but haven’t realized this (I know people like that on 360 LOL!). The really fascinating thing about Dick’s novels is that he rarely answers the philosophical questions he poses, allowing instead the absurdities of those questions create and play out through his plot. It also forces us, the readers, to attempt to think about these questions for ourselves.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asks a simple but deceptive question: what makes us human? In the novel, Dick imagines a future society in which organic androids, so advanced that they are indistinguishable from humans, are used as laborers and slaves for “real” humans. He makes us question whether we can tell the difference between androids and people, and more radically, if there is a real difference. To make matters more interesting, this debate takes place against a background of a radioactive future world, where humans who stay on earth can at any time be downgraded to the non-person status of “specials” if they become too contaminated.

One of the main relationships in the novel is between an android and a “special,” two very different types of “non-person.”

The idea of a soul is central to religious philosophy and the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term “ghost in the machine” to argue against Descartes’ contention that the soul is something non-physical. The idea that we have no soul, that everything can be reduced to physical explanations was extremely threatening

The work directly addresses some of the most fundamental questions of philosophy. What is a person? Do humans have souls? As imagined by Dick, an android possesses the same physical make-up as a person, made up of artificial flesh and blood, with an artificial brain. So does this make them “human” or not? The hero of the novel, Deckard, has the job of hunting down and killing runaway androids. Humans have developed increasingly more complex methods to identify androids as they in turn evolve and become more sophisticated. The idea being that while an artificial intelligence might eventually give the impression of being human, if put to the test, emotions such as empathy would be missing.

Eventually, Deckhard questions whether a bounty hunter like him can really be human since he feels no empathy for the androids he kills. He is also challenged whether he could pass an empathy test himself, when an android asks him to take one, although he ends up realizing that he actually does feel empathy for androids, if only for the pretty female ones. *grin*

All these questions are never fully resolved creating an intense and dark reflection of the nature of identity and the soul. The fact that all this takes place in a genre, sci-fi, that was considered lowly, should not detract from the fact that Dick was one of the most thought-provoking writers of the last century.



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