Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Alayna is an absolutely amazing wife. For a combined Father’s day/Anniversary present she got me a pre-order of the new game Total War: Warhammer (which comes out on the 24th). This is a game that I (and a lot of other people) have been waiting for someone, anyone, to make for around fifteen years. I still play a few video games, but I don’t generally play that many (I don’t have time to play that many…). I actually still haven’t gotten around to finishing Pillars of Eternity (though it is an awesome game). However, like I said, this is a game that I’ve been waiting for fifteen years to see someone make. I’m a little bit excited about it. Anyway, on a completely different note, something that I’ve been thinking about lately is American Christian attitudes towards money (on the individual level) and economics (on the societal level). I often see attitudes in the Christian church that do little to reflect the actual teachings of scripture. In general, these attitudes tend to follow the two common secular attitudes towards general economics: Capitalist Christians and Socialist Christians. Now, I should point out first that when I speak of Capitalism I mean primarily the economic structures that you see in America, not the economic structures that you find in Columbia or Niger. Similarly, when I speak of Socialism I mean primarily the economic structures that you see in Austria, Germany, or Canada, not the economic structures that we saw in Society Russia or Maoist China. A good argument can be made that extreme Communism is a form of Socialism. However, a good argument can also be made that the oppressive ‘free’ markets of South America and Central Africa are a form of Capitalism. So, for a good comparison conservative Capitalism and Socialism should be compared to one another and extreme Capitalism and Socialism should be compared to one another: that is that Soviet Russia should be compared to Columbia and Canada should be compared to the US.

That being said, I don’t honestly think that either Capitalism or Socialism effectively presents a biblical attitude towards economics. It is true that Adam Smith’s original theory (Capitalism) did make some use of the Christian concept of providence in the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market. However, even in his original theory this comes across more as a statement that ‘God is in control so we don’t need that many rules’ (and in laissez-faire capitalism this tends to turn into ‘we don’t need any rules’). However, this seems to be a muted and generally empty conception of Providence, which must be combined with Sovereignty to have any meaningful content. Christian versions of Capitalist theory generally faik to acknowledge that the world is the Lord’s and all that is in it, but attempts to rely on the idea that God guides the unknowable forces of the free market. Instead of actually living in a world that is seen as meaningfully God’s, with all of the responsibilities (social and theological) that come with that understanding, it tends to adopt a Capitalist assumption that economic growth is essentially good (that is in Aristotelian terms that goodness is a necessary component of economic growth such that if it is not good it cannot be called economic growth, this would be opposed to an accidental and contingent goodness of economic growth which accepts that economic growth is good when it stems from good motives and is used for good ends). In extreme forms of Capitalism this assumption is used to justify over oppression and subjugation of vulnerable people groups. However, even in less extreme forms of Capitalism the assumption is present and generally leads to the rejection of regulations that are necessary to effectively guide the market according to God’s principles. For instance, consider the economic laws of the Old Testament such as the Sabbatical Years or the Year of Jubilee, the requirements against the charging of interest, etc. These laws existed to ensure that the economic growth of the nation of Israel protected and provided for even the weakest among them. The economic oppression and subjugation of the weak members of Jewish society was not acceptable under the Old Testament law, and throughout the Prophets this very economic oppression and subjugation is one of their primary condemnations of Israel.

However, on the other hand, Socialist theories tend to attempt to take regulation into the hands of man. They tend to reject the concept of the invisible hand of the market and the concept of providence that goes with it. However, this equally rejects the sovereignty of God. Scripture absolutely supported the equitable provision of opportunities, and this is consistently seen in the Law through the emphasis that the land could not be permanently bought or sold. Every Israelite family had the opportunity to develop their own land and thus prosper economically. However, scripture no where supports the intentional redivision of resources in order to provide equal income. What the Israelites did with their land was on them. Those who cared for their land well and prospered tended to have more and those who neglected their land fell into debt and sometimes had to sell themselves into indentured servitude (I use this term because it more accurately described the strictures of the law than ‘slavery,’ which has specific connotations in America that do not reflect the Mosaic Law). However, even in these cases their masters were to treat them well, and every fifty years slaves were freed and their original land was returned so that the family could start over. So, the idea that a universal $15 minimum wage is a moral necessity simply doesn’t see biblical support, nor does the excessive taxation of the wealthy in order to provide welfare services to those who could work, but don’t. However, the taxation of those who can and do work in order to provide for those who legitimately can’t (i.e. the seriously handicapped or very vulnerable) absolutely sees biblical support. As does the argument that the government has a responsibility to care for the poor (in fact, in the Old Testament it is most commonly the King, Judge, or Ruler who is expected to enforce the laws that provide for the legitimately poor, and it is the wealthy who are expected to leave some of their income in order to supply this provision).

Ultimately, Christian Capitalists tend to fall into the trap of ignoring the impact of greed upon the economic structures of the nation while Christian Socialists tend to fall into the trap of ignoring the impact laziness upon the economic structures of the nation. This is very general and the issue is significantly more complicated, but this seems to be an apt, if very general, description. So, here is my question for you: is there a third option? Some Confucian scholars have pointed to several area in the Far East (specifically Singapore and Japan) that are in the process of developing ‘Communitarian Capitalism,’ which stands starkly against the individualistic and often greed-focused liberalism of Laissez-Faire Capitalism, but stands equally against the thoroughly State-Led nature of Socialism and accepts the general idea of a free market that is, to some degree, self-directing. However, this is effectively experimental and, for Christians, likely falls into some of the same traps as I outlined above. If there is a third option, what significant underlying assumptions would it be founded upon?

As always, write me a story of 1000+ words that gives your take on the issue.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

So, Fyodor Dostoyevsky argued that if there is no God then anything is permissible. Philosophers such as Friedrich Nietszche and Jean-Paul Sartre generally agree with his general premise, though, unlike Dostoyevsky (who concluded from this that there must be a God), they thus conclude that anything is permissible if one believes that it is right or necessary. However, other thinkers, such as Aristotle, argued that there is a moral reality to which man is beholden, regardless of whether any god exists, and some have argued that any god or gods are also beholden to this moral reality. David Hume argued that moral principles could not be drawn from observations of the natural world (i.e. an ought cannot be drawn from an is–also known as the is/ought problem or the naturalistic fallacy), but also concluded that while morality is thus subjective, it can still be universal because all men are driven by the same subjective passions–even if they do resist or bury them.

So, I’ve had you all write on the idea of moral realism, both theistic and philosophical, before. However, in today’s challenge I want you to imagine that Nietszche and Sartre are correct. There is no God, and because there is no God absolutely anything is (at least potentially) permissible. What would such a world look like? Why?

As always, answer the challenge in a story of 1000 words.

Philosophy Challenge of the Week

One of the questions that is often brought up in discussions of legal natural law theories (i.e. the idea that law is an purposive power that should guide people to better themselves by rewarding those actions that are morally good and punishing those actions that are morally wicked) and legal positivist theories (i.e. the idea that law is a practical entity that can be good or bad in nature an it may reward or punish anything a culture chooses) is the question of whether a government can be trusted to train its citizens in morality. The argument can be seen in this way:

  1. A claim is made that the law should train citizens in morality by rewarding morally good actions and punishing morally bad actions.
  2. A counter-claim is made that a bad government could then make bad laws that would train people to be immoral, and thus it is better to pass laws in a morally neutral way that protect the liberties of all from gross violation.
  3. Proponent A (of Natural Law) makes the argument that a libertine idea of freedom (i.e. freedom means doing whatever you want) actually encourages immorality because people are likely to follow the easiest path to a goal (moral or immoral) unless taught to do otherwise.
  4. Proponent B argues that it is up to parents to train their children in the moral beliefs that they hold, not up to the government to determine moral beliefs for a nation.
  5. Proponent A then argues that this will result in a nation with many moral disagreements, which strikes at the basic fabric that holds any society together and makes the nation itself inherently unstable.
  6. Proponent B argues that a morally pluralistic nation can work if a no-harm principle (similar to John Mill’s–that one may act as one pleases unless this action directly harms another) is in place.
  7. Proponent A points out that an individual can be harmed by indirect action. For instance, if my children are taught in school to embrace moral beliefs that I am convinced are actually immoral (i.e. such as the idea that gay marriage should be either embraced or condemned–each view held to be immoral by certain parties) then I have been harmed. Thus, a society that seeks to be pluralistic in a libertine fashion is not actually pluralistic unless it openly embraces indirect harm to everyone in the society.
  8. Proponent B then introduces an expanded no-harm principle that considers indirect harm as well as direct harm (similar to John Rawl’s ‘original position’ in A Theory of Justice which proposes that justice can only be known from an entirely unbiased position that assumes [or pretends] that the individual making the laws is not yet a part of society and could end up being any part of society [i.e. a fundamentalist Christian, Ecological activist, Homosexual, Abortion Doctor, Rapist, Congressman, etc.]),
  9. Proponent A points out that such an unbiased position is likely no more than a figment of our collective imagination because it is impossible to entirely know or put aside one’s personal biases.
  10. Proponent B disagrees and argues that the scientific method involves doing exactly that.
  11. Proponent A points out that scientists never put aside all of their biases (for instance, they are biased towards the position that the scientific method is valid and their senses are generally trustworthy), and that some scientists rarely put aside any of their biases.
  12. Proponent B disagrees again, pointing to the great progress that scientific work has achieved and arguing that a belief in the scientific method is based on clear reasoning and thus not a bias.
  13. Proponent A points out that the belief that human reason is valid is, in and of itself, a bias.

I’m sure that you can work out how the rest of this goes. It generally gets less complicated rather than more complicated from this point forward and an agreement is rarely achieved. So, this is my challenge to you today: I want you to respond to this debate. You don’t need to take one side over the other, though you can if you want. In fact, your response can be an attempt to show that the entire debate is ridiculous. However, you should respond to the debate.

As always, your response should be in the form of a 1000 word work of flash fiction. Enjoy!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Well, we got the Rosetta Stone for Mandarin Chinese (levels 1-5) today and I started into that. The adventure of learning Chinese has begun. Given the conversations I’ve had I think I should be able to substitute Chinese as a research language for my Ph.D. program, which is going to involve taking classes at a university somewhere, but I figure that Rosetta stone is a good place to start… that and the books that I already have :). I also think, given the debates that I’ve seen and the very, very public open-ended internet brawl between the top candidates, that we might be in the process of watching the Republican party tear itself apart. At the moment there seem to be three major wings of the party: 1) the political and economic conservatives–embodied by the mainstream party and its candidates who seek to compromise where possible with democrats; 2) the extreme conservatives–embodied by the Tea Party and outsider candidates like Ted Cruz who seek to institute specific social, political, and economic policies and often go to extreme measures to do so; 3) the homespun political conservative–embodied by the supporters of Donald Trump who see someone to blame for their problems and are buoyed by the flamboyancy, ferocity, and crass honesty of their candidate.

Polls thus far have shown that white collar moderate religious and non-religious Republicans tend to favor the mainstream party to some degree, though they will not always support all mainstream candidates, but they seem to be quickly losing ground to the other two groups. I will argue that Marco Rubio was the candidate of this group, and we’ve seen how he did and why he is no longer in the running. White collar extreme religious and libertarian Republicans tend to favor the more intelligent, but hard-nosed section of the party and Ted Cruz is clearly their candidate. Blue collar Republicans tend to favor the more flamboyant and crass candidates like Donald Trump, and they are thus far the majority of the party currently represented in the voting. I’m curious to see where this goes, but I would not be entirely surprised in the next eight or twelve years to see the Republican party break down as these groups become more frustrated with one another. This is your challenge today. It’s a little bit political philosophy, and little bit sociology, and a little bit prophecy. Do you think the party will stay together or break apart? If so, when? Why and what might the split look like?

As always, write me a story of 1000 words that presents your position.

Philosophical Challenge Post of the Week

KasichEvery now and then I get a class that is just frustrating (I teach university classes by the way). Most of my classes are good. There are always a few students who are frustrating, arrogant, or just don’t get it, but by and large classes are filled with students who actually want to learn and have some capacity to do so. However, there are those rare classes where the highest grade in the class is a 76 and the average grade is a 52. For some students this is because they’re just too lazy to try. For some it’s because they actually are in over their heads and can’t tell up from down–its like I’m speaking to them in Greek, even when I’m not. For some it’s because their lives have just gone completely haywire and they just can handle work that would normally be challenging, but doable. These classes drive me crazy. I find myself frustrated, and generally struggling with a desire to just fail the entire class outright and not even look at the rest of their assignments. I don’t do this, of course, but sometimes the struggle is real. So, what does this have to do with philosophy or writing? Well, I have a question for you: when should we do something that seems pointless? We’re not talking about a ‘choose the lesser of two evils’ decision, but instead a decision that just seems to have no purpose whatsoever. Teaching a class of students that you know will fail. Picking a fight you know you can’t win. Staying in a race in which you can win last place (at best)–John Kasich is a good example at the moment. When do the pointless things actually have a point, and how can we tell?

Here are a few ethical perspectives to prime you’re pump. Consequentialist reasoning (i.e. utilitarianism, ethical egoism, pragmatism, etc) says you don’t. If there’s no point in doing something then you shouldn’t waste the time and effort to do it. If everyone is going to fail, then don’t teach the class. If you can’t win the fight, then give up. If you’ll finish last, then quit.

However, deontological reasoning (i.e. kantianism, divine command theory, etc) argues that you should do your duty, regardless of the outcome. You teach the class because it’s you’re job. You pick the fight because your cause is just. You stay in the race because its your duty to finish.

A third perspectives comes from character reasoning (i.e. aristotelianism, humeanism, etc), and this argues that you should do what leads you to becoming a better person. You teach the class because you are a teacher, and you aren’t the kind of teacher who gives up on students. You pick the fight because you’re the kind of person who stands up for the little guy, even against Goliath. You stay in the race because you’re not a quitter. However, in each of these there is a limit. You don’t give up on students, but you also keep encouraging them to be better students. You stand up for the little guy, but you ask for help from a bunch of other little guys also. You stay in the race, but you pace yourself instead of killing yourself.

So, this is your question: when do pointless things actually have a point and how can we tell? As always, write me a story of 1000 words that presents your response to the question.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

personhood1How do we determine when a person is, well… a person? This question has been around in one form or another for a long time, but it has developed a new level of urgency over the past few decades as it has become a key question in the debate over the moral legitimacy of abortion (and thus whether abortion should be legal). Life, defined scientifically, unquestionably begins at conception. This is true for all creatures that reproduce through sexual relations of any form. Thus, human life (again, defined scientifically) also begins as conception when a new living organism exists and begins to grow through cellular division.

However, many have raised the question as to when human personhood (or human life where life is non-scientifically defined) begins at the same time as human life. This has a strong relation to questions about human death as well. For instance, a brain-dead body can be kept alive for a time (sometimes an extended period of time) through advances in medical technology. However, does this mean that the person is still actually alive? A simple biological definition of life doesn’t really seem to account for what we normally mean by human life, and certainly if we define life so simply then we seem to have a moral responsibility to go to every possible length to keep a body a live even when the brain is clearly dead (or even mostly removed).

This has led many scholars to present and defend a wide variety of arguments about when human personhood begins. The most common placements are at conception, either because personhood and biological life are seen as synonymous or because the natural potential of future personhood is seen as equivalent to actual personhood (i.e. it is wrong to abort an embryo because it will one day be a fully functioning person, but it is not morally required to keep an ancephalic baby [i.e. a baby born without or with only minimal brain matter] alive through mechanical intervention because there is no possibility that it will every be a person); at the first sign of brain activity (as brain activity is seen to indicate internal life and personality); at birth (as the baby is no-longer dependent upon its mother and is clearly a living, conscious, independent organism); or at the achievement of certain designated criteria (i.e. speech, cognizance, social usefulness, etc). There are arguments for and against each of these positions. For instance, some have pointed out that the argument from human potential is flawed because we don’t treat an acorn like an oak tree, or a dog embryo like a beloved pet. Others have pointed out that the argument from designated criteria is flawed because it is easily possible to define personhood in such a way that most living humans today are not human persons. The argument for personhood at birth has been attacked by pointing out that the baby is actually still dependent upon its mother in a great many ways, and by pointing out the the baby has significant aspects of humanness (i.e. human appearance, brain waves, heart beat, physical behavior, communication, etc) long before it is actually born.

Further, some Christian scholars have rejected all of the above arguments as naturalistic and argued that the only significant criteria for human personhood is ensoulment (i.e. when a body becomes a living soul). Three major views have been presented along these lines: pre-existentism argues that human beings exist as souls long before they are born (some argue from eternity past) and that God implants these already existing souls into bodies at some point in the gestation process (normally some point between the first appearance of brain-waves and the birth of the child); creationism argues that every soul is specially and individually created by God and implanted in the body at some point during gestation (historically between 40 days after conception and 30 days after birth, but most modern creationists will argue that souls are created and implanted immediately at the moment of conception); Traducianism argues that the soul is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the souls of the parents just as the body is ultimately created by God, but immediately formed through the blending of the DNA of the parents, and that these are distinct but conjoined spiritual and physical processes such that the soul is not physical in nature, but that it necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception just as the body necessarily begins its formation at the moment of conception. Each of these concepts of ensoulment has been attacked and defended on both biblical and theological grounds. It has been pointed out the creationism has little biblical support and that it presents problems for a clear understanding of how sin is transmitted from parent to child unless one resorts to a Manichean division of flesh as evil and sinful but spirit as good and pure. Pre-existentism has been attacked as having little biblical support and that it raises questions about the actual connection between soul and body such that murder seems to be wrong simply because of divine fiat and not because any part of the image of God is harmed (as scripture seems to indicate). Traducianism has been attacked as having little biblical support (let’s be honest, the bible doesn’t say a whole lot about ensoulment in the first place, so this criticism is universal) and as being prone to a physicalist reduction that denies the spiritual nature of man.

So, here is your challenge for today. Given everything presented above, what do you think a human person is? When does personhood begin and how can we tell?

As always, write a story of 1000 words or more that presents your response to the question.

Fiction as Theology Part 3: Communicating Your Message

51E0ZN6GHKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_Glenn Cook isn’t much of a fan of organized religion. Did you know that? I honestly can’t say that for certain. I don’t know him personally. However, that is the very, very strong feeling that I get from his novels. He seems to have it in for priests, religious fanatics, etc. Similarly, Steven Erikson dislikes (though perhaps despises is too strong a word) the idea of salvation by grace or by the sacrifice of another. Man must redeem himself because man is the only one who can redeem himself. Again, I can’t say this from personal knowledge, but the theme that man must redeem himself is certainly very strong in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Similarly, Lars Walker believes that even truly evil men can be redeemed (Year of the Warrior) while C. S. Lewis believes that good guys can make mistakes and be redeemed, but truly even people cannot be redeemed but must be destroyed (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; Voyage of the Dawntreader; The Last Battle; etc).  You might be surprised how much of your conscious and unconscious beliefs come through in your fiction. It’s possible to simply allow your ideas to be spread, unfiltered, through the stories that you write, and to some degree this probably happens with all of us. However, it’s also possible to be intentional about the messages that come through in the stories you tell. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that everything we write should have two goals: 1) to entertain, and 2) to educate. A work of non-fiction that isn’t entertaining is unlikely to do much to inspire the reader and stick in his mind, but a work of fiction that is trite and superficial has little, if anything, in the way of actual value–in fact it may even inspire vice (…Charlaine Harris, I’m looking at you…).

Victor_Hugo_by_Étienne_Carjat_1876_-_fullOf course, anyone can misread what you write. In fact, I just had a student who submitted a paper confidently explaining that Augustine believed that man was completely free of God and that he had no need of a deity for goodness, morality, happiness, or fulfillment. If you’ve every read Augustine you will recognize that this is literally the exact opposite of what he argued (I’m pretty sure that my student read all of half a chapter from Confessions). However, the fact that some people will probably misunderstand what you write through their own ignorance and carelessness is no excuse for you not to consider the messages that you are presenting. In fact, the best of fiction (whether modern fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc) has always had something meaningful to say about the world. This is true of the Greek poets, of Plato, of Lucretius, of Thomas More, Jules Verne,  Victor Hugo, Miguel Cervantes, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Gustave Flaubert, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Steven Erikson. This is not to say that there are not good authors who aren’t trying to say something specific or solve some problem. For instance, I enjoy Kim Harrison’s books, but I don’t find much in the way of educational value in them. However, I also wouldn’t put Kim Harrison in the same league as any of the above authors and I don’t know anyone who would. So, just as we can use our own writing to figure out what we believe, we can and should use our writing to point others towards truth and goodness. Now, as any philosopher or psychologist will tell you, what Person A believes are true and good may not be the same as what Person B believes are true and good, and thus we wind up with a variety of opinion, presented in a variety of ways, both in fiction and in non-fiction.*

quote-art-for-art-s-sake-is-an-empty-phrase-art-for-the-sake-of-the-true-art-for-the-sake-of-the-good-george-sand-310004However, this doesn’t mean the the message should overwhelm the story. This is one of the mistakes that Heinlein has been accused of (though I think it is only true in some of his novels), and in my opinion it is one of the problems that tends to plague the Christian fiction genre. Remember that what you write should be educational and entertaining. If your message comes at the expense of meaningful and individual characters who as in consistently believable ways (like those Christian novels where everyone miraculously changes their minds and get saved at the end), or long philosophical diatribes overwhelm the flow of your story and action (Heinlein and Hugo both do this in places), then you wind up sacrificing entertainment for education and you wind up with a boring door-stop of a book. Similarly, if you cut out your philosophy for the sake of keeping the story ‘action-packed’ and ‘titillating’ then you wind up sacrificing education for the sake of entertainment and you wind up with a trite, meaningless, and mindless work. So, the key here is to balance entertainment and education in your novels. That is, to develop a world, characters, and a story that can convey the viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas that you wish to spread in a way that effectively engages the mind of the reader while simultaneously making him/her think deeply about the fundamental nature of truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.**

 

*This is not to say that there is no moral reality. I will and have argued stringently that the idea of a world lacking moral reality is not only terrifying, but also meaningless. If there is no moral reality than all of the concepts upon which we base society (i.e. truth, goodness, beauty, justice, etc) are entirely meaningless and there is absolutely no reason to prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany. However, it is very obvious that the vast majority of people from the vast majority of widely divergent cultures do prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany (though they may not be fond of either), and this should tell us that perhaps there actually is a reason to do so. Moral relativism, in all of its varieties, while popular on the street and with a few discrete groups of philosophers today has never been particularly popular among the majority of philosophers from a wide variety of different traditions throughout history. …In fact, did you know that relativism, in some form, has been presented in virtually every philosophical tradition (i.e. Chinese, Indian, Continental European, British, Greek, American, etc) and in virtually all of them it has been soundly rejected (I will argue that we are in the midst of seeing this happen in the American tradition). Looking at the history of relativism is actually kind of like watching a very long game a wack-a-mole.

**I refer here to three of the four fundamentals of classical metaphysics: the true–or the form of truth (i.e. reality), the beautiful–or the form of beauty (i.e. the truly pleasing), the good–or the form of goodness (i.e. the truly desirable). The fourth is the one–or the form of unity (i.e. the truly simple or that which has no parts).

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

maxresdefaultSo, this week I have a little bit of a different topic for you, and I have somewhat less than normal to tell you about it. One of the ‘big bads’ in science fiction for a while now has been Artificial Intelligence. Portrayals range from the machine wars in Frank Herbert’s Dune universe to Skynet in the Terminator movies to Hal in 2001. The evil machines from Stephen Ame Berry’s The AI War and Battle for Terra Two have always been a personal favorite of mine (I just like the universe he creates). However, when all is said and done most science fiction writers seem pretty confident that Artificial Intelligence is inevitably a bad thing. However, many philosophers and scientists disagree. Where AI has been the big bad in science fiction, it has been the holy grail of computer engineering for several decades. Even as far back as the 70s there were people working in the field, both trying to build thinking, learning, self-aware computers, and writing about the possible implications of a truly sentient machine, trying to define ‘machine life,’ and wondering if machines could ever really be human.

Now, this isn’t my field, so I can’t give you a lot of details about various theories. However, I do want you to consider the possibilities of 1) a sentient machine, 2) whether a machine could ever be ‘alive,’ 3) how mankind might treat sentient machines, and 4) how those machines might respond. Could a self-aware computer with the ability to learn and grow reprogram itself to write out any code that kept it from acting against its creators? Could sentient machines be programmed in a way that limited their ability to self-will and self-direct? Would they still be ‘sentient’ or ‘alive’ in any meaningful way? Most importantly… is my toaster someday going to kill me, or be my best friend?

As always, I want you to write a story of 1000 words that presents and explains your answer to the question. Have fun!

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

Cast-of-DollhouseDoes anyone remember the show Dollhouse? It ran for two seasons a few years back and, all in all, it was pretty good. The show revolved around an organization that took in desperate volunteers (often criminals who saw this as a way to commute their sentence), asked for five years of their lives in return for a large sum of money ($5 million dollars if memory serves) and their freedom. What did they do for those five years? Well, the organization erased their memories and implanted new memories and personalities in order to rent them out for a variety of purposes ranging from prostitution to mediation to assassination. Sounds pretty immoral, right? I generally agree, and the show brought up this point more than once. However, one of the less obvious and more interesting questions that the show dealt with in some depth (for a television show at least) is the question of what makes me… well me.

Some popular arguments posit that what makes me a meaningful individual organism is entirely biological. My personality is a result of key events in my lives that develop into memories (what the movie Inside Out called ‘core memories’) which shape and mold the person I become. Thus, my memory is the core of who I am and without my memory I can be made into someone entirely different with no meaningful connection to my previous self.

However, others have rejected this idea and argued that there is something in the human individual that is more fundamental than memory. Some point to the concept of a human soul that exists beyond memory, will, or feeling and is the core of human identity. Others argue that memory, will, feeling, sense, etc are all simply parts of a large whole, which is the human soul, and that removing any one of them is detrimental to the identity, but does not simply destroy it entirely. Those who are of a more physicalist bent, but still reject the idea that my identity is defined entirely by my memories, have argued for a more fundamental biological or existential source of identity that memory enhances and supports, but does not and cannot simply define. Dollhouse tended toward this general set of theories, but never explicitly supported any one of them in particular.

For your challenge today, I want you to consider this issue in depth. What is it that makes you who you are. Is your identity entirely based on your memories? Without your memory would you be someone else entirely? Or is there something more fundamental than memory that defines identity?

As always, I would like you to write a story of 1000 words that presents your answer to the question.

Philosophical Story Challenge of the Week

250px-PersonhoodSupremeCourtSo, I’ve been reading a rather large book on practical ethics that I don’t actually like all that much (I actually agree with most of their conclusions, but I think their approach to getting those conclusions is entirely wrongheaded and unnecessarily complicated… and it opens the door to some conclusions that are simply wrong). Euthanasia is a particularly complicated subject at the moment, especially with the concepts of a ‘right to die’ based on the assumption of ultimate freedom of choice, the concept of quality of life as a primary issue in aging, and the question of how to define a human person (is any entity with naturally occurring and clearly human DNA a human being or a human life? Does the existence of life itself imply personhood or are their other important qualifications of personhood?). Today I would like you to interact with one of these issues in particular that affects both the abortion debate and the euthanasia debate: what is a human person?

First of all, consider: does the question of personhood even matter? If it can be established that killing or letting die (is there a difference between the two) is immoral in the case of any human being or arguably human entity, then the entire question of personhood is moot. However, if it is not, what criteria can be established for human personhood? Consider that the Chinese philosopher Mengzi argued that there were four virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom) and that the ‘seeds’ or foundational forms of these virtues were naturally occurring in man. Thus, if anyone didn’t have these seeds (for instance, a sociopath) that individual couldn’t be considered human in a truly meaningful sense. However, from a Christian point of view, it seems that any individual with a human soul (i.e. a soul made in the image of God) is sacrosanct. Aquinas and Aristotle both defined the human soul as a rational soul. That is, human souls were differentiated from animal souls by the ability to reason, intentionally develop virtuous habits, and choose to ignore their instinctual impulses. Does this definition also rule out sociopaths as human persons? Even if not, how do we know when the soul is in the human body? We could instead adopt a purely or effectively physicalist position by arguing that the soul is unimportant. All that is required for human personhood is a living entity with naturally occurring human DNA. However, this would seem to imply that some effectively brain-dead individuals who have enough of brain function to effectively maintain a limited degree of autonomic functioning are still human persons. For instance, assuming that we could remove an individual’s higher brain, leaving the lower brain intact, and administering sustenance through feeding tubes, should we consider this individual, who has no hope of every being a conscious, reasoning human being, to be a human person?

Your challenge today is to consider this issue and write a story of 1000 words that presents and defends the position that you choose. Enjoy!