Consciousness and pop stuff

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Brain+mind dualist by Trevor on April 24, 2016

The Avengers universe is surprisingly mystical for an ostensibly science fiction world.

Perhaps the producers, who are plugged closely into the emotional needs of their mainstream audience, don’t want to imply a worldview which is too atheistic; deep down the audience want to feel that there is something supernaturally special about the human soul, even in a world where robots outstrip us in every other sense.

On the other hand, now I remember reading the comics as a kid, the Marvel universe was always a bit kooky; there was always sort of magic things alongside scientific things. Being for kids it didn’t matter, inconsistency was ok. Thor the god with his supernatural hammer could rub shoulders with Reed Richards the Fantastic Four scientist, and no-one cared much. So perhaps it’s a bit too much to ask for cosmic consistency in the movies.

Still, it’s odd how skittish Hollywood can be on this topic. I wrote earlier about how the Transformers movies, despite the famous tagline “robots in disguise” doesn’t actually have any robots in it – the Transformers themselves are spiritual, dualist beings. And The Matrix movies also draw a strong distinction between the algorithmic program of the AIs and the free will of the humans.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is similarly supernatural. There are two points where a new conscious mind is created in the lab and the film-makers pretty much take the mystical route on both of them.

The first case is the creation of Ultron himself, the villain of the movie. It happens like this,  Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man) investigates the magic stone which was the source of the quasi-god Loki’s power in the previous Avengers movie. Inside it he finds something like a computer program, though he’s not sure exactly what it is.

He immediately decides that this is exactly what he needs to power his new earth defense system; he must extract the intelligent super-code, the instrument of evil in the previous film, and put it in charge of a powerful weapons array. What a great idea. I can’t see what could possibly go wrong there.


What the internet looks like to Ultron

The code is “too dense” to be downloaded so Stark plugs the stone directly into his systems, the internet, his automated manufacturing unit, everything. The code in the stone “wakes up” and, while Stark goes out to get ready for a party, it infuses itself into a robot body. Thus “Ultron” the super-intelligent baddie is begotten.

We know that Ultron is conscious because we see things from his point of view – especially in his first scene where he sees the internet from the point of view of … whatever he is. You can see the scene here – this is looking at the internet from Ultron’s subjective point-of-view.

So. Is Ultron an artificial intelligence? Or did something magical happen? It isn’t quite clear. His origins in a magic stone make him a bit mystical for mine. The fact that the stone is plugged into the hardware means it doesn’t have to be a machine intelligence. There’s enough wiggle room for a supernatural interpretation. So the verdict here is … maybe.

Thor's quasi-god powers

Thor’s godly special effects

So let’s go to the second case. This one is less ambiguous. It occurs when Stark tries to load his machine-intelligence personal assistant JARVIS (which stands for Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) into the quasi-plastic body which Ultron had fashioned for himself. Were this to success then it really would be a case of non-mystical machine intelligence being loaded into a robotic body.

But instead the writers take a mystical route. Various other Avengers question the wisdom of Stark’s activity and punch-up breaks out. During the kerfuffle someone cuts the power to the whole system. But somehow, mystically, without electricity or even a wire going from one system to the other, the JARVIS code is transported and transformed across a Sistinesque gap and into the plastic body. Then to seal the deal, godly Thor jumps up and blasts the whole setup with a big dose of magicky, hammer-glow-energy-effects. This completes the process and hence the character called The Vision is begotten.

The Vision looking

The Vision looking


Verdict here: supernatural substance dualism, bang to rights.


So there you have it – Brain+Mind Dualism in one case, and iffy-maybe magic-stone dualism in the other. So I’m calling it a Brain+Mnd Dualism verdict overall.

As I say, Hollywood science fiction can be surprisingly philosophically conservative. Not always. But more often than you’d think.



The Star Warses (1977-2005)

Posted in Brain+mind dualist by Trevor on November 16, 2009

Okay, I like Star Wars. You can sort of tell by looking at me really. And as far as it being a political allegory is concerned, I think it’s very clever – what with the republic being overthrown by power-hungry baddies who whip up a fake threat so they’ll be granted emergency powers. That’s all good.

As philosophy of mind though, it’s a bit confused. On the face of it, the Star Wars universe appears to be a Brain+Mind Dualist sort of place. The obvious example of this is the fact that living things can tap into The Force. “Luminous beings are we,” says Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, “Not this crude matter. The Force flows through all living things, blah blah blah, it binds us all together and flows between us and rocks or something.” (I might be paraphrasing a bit there.) Anyway the point is that The Force is something which living things can use but droids cannot.

The Force also allows you to live on after the death of your body, as a blue ghost.

Blue ghosts at the Ewok party

Jedi afterlife: Doesn't look very appealing.

The implication seems to be that this is what happens if you’re a “light-side-of-the-force” person. The dark-siders don’t get this perk. For all their Machiavellianism, the dark-siders aren’t interested in being blue ghosts for all eternity. Perhaps it’s a bit boring, doing nothing but hanging around the edges of Ewok parties.

BUT … despite all that, consciousness is actually a separate question. There isn’t any indication that it’s The Force that actually makes things sentient. There just seem to be many sentient things, some of which also use The Force.

So the question which sticks out is: are the droids sentient? If so, this would be a vote for the Consciousness-as-Property camp, as the droids are just mechanical devices. Of course, Exhibit A is C-3PO, the droid who appears to experience all the emotions from anxiety to fear. Is he sentient? I always thought he was. What do you think?

C-3PO: Perpetually looks a bit surprised

C-3PO: Perpetually looks a bit surprised

It turns out that this question has been debated quite a bit by the Star-Wars-loving multitudes. A great many supporters think they are sentient which has led many to question whether it’s ethical to destroy them wholesale, as the “good guys” often do. As one forum plaintiff said: “one might argue that they are only droids, but the seem kinda sentient to me with each having a quite difrent personality, so it is realy o.k. to just kill them all the time?”

And even better: “I’d like think that these personality quirks are just programming effects, otherwise it means that there’s some pretty brutal slavery even by the goodguys in Star Wars.” See the discussion here.

Generally the consensus seems to be that the droids probably are sentient and so should have political rights. However, in the Star Wars universe, they don’t.

I looked into this and – in the vast literature that makes up the “expanded Star Wars universe” – it turns out that there was a thing called the “Rights of Sentience” in the Old Republic (i.e. the political system which the evil emperor and Darth Vader overthrow). This says that all sentient beings have equal rights and cannot be made slaves. The article that describes these rights coyly says: “It is not known how the Old Republic determined which species were sentient.”

However it’s also mentioned that the Rights of Sentience were not extended to droids, leading to several droid revolutions. One of these is described in a short story enticingly entitled “Therefore I am”, referring to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” AKA the cogito. The cogito can be read as a statement of one’s own sentience – and I think it should be – but it isn’t always. If you want to get into that debate, go for it. Come back in a few years, when you’re done.

The gist of the story is that the bounty hunter droid IG-88, who plays a walk-on role in Empire Strikes Back (in fact, not even that, it’s just a stand-at-the-back role), is actually sentient. He hatches a plot to kill all the inferior biological lifeforms so droids can take over. He nearly succeeds but is unfortunately foiled by some pesky kids.

One of the notable things about IG-88 is that the writers always talk about how fearsome and dangerous he is. This is partly because he’s obviously made out of old car parts, and looks like he’d blow over in a stiff breeze so they have to big him up. I strongly suspect the designers spent all their time on the Boba Fett outfit – the best outfit in all of science fiction – and then threw IG-88 together 10 mins before filming that day.


IG-88: Supposed to be very dangerous but looks a bit stiff and top-heavy for mine. Good poker face though.

But the other notable thing-point is that IG-88 is sentient. He can even quote Descartes. And according to Wookiepedia there are a number of other Star Wars stories which are told from the droid’s point-of-view. So given that they can be sentient, why were they never granted the Rights of Sentience under the Old Republic? This keeps me awake at night sometimes.

On the other hand, there’s also Obi-Wan’s passing comment in Attack of the Clones: “If droids could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?” Is this supposed to be a denial of droid sentience? Not necessarily, I would say.

Hmmm (stroke beard here), deep waters. There’s no answer of course, because it’s all made up. But marvellously, the Star Wars fan multitudes debate this sort of question quite often. And some of it is smarter than some of the painful palaver which has passed for academic debate over the years (in my slightly-arrogant opinion).

So what’s the verdict? If the droids are sentient, which generally people think they are, this would make Star Wars a Consciousness-as-Property sort of world. And would also make the Jedi a bunch of bad guys.

However, based on the movies, I think the writers just forgot about the droid sentience question. Given the overwhelming mysticism of the Star Wars universe, I’m gonna say that it’s Brain+Mind Dualist.

But it’s a debatable point (if you’ve really got nothing else to do). Which of these offends us more? That Threepio has no feelings, or that the Jedi are evil slavers? Think carefully, young padawan, much depends on your answer …

Transformers: The Movie (2007)

Posted in Brain+mind dualist by Trevor on October 13, 2009

Mostly I don’t go to movies thinking “Hmmm, I wonder how this will reflect on popular attitudes to the mind-body problem?” But in this case, I did. I seriously went to the cinema to get an idea of whether people were okay with the idea of talking, thinking, emoting robots. In a non-children’s film, would viewers accept robots that were righteously angry? Evil? Sentimentally loyal?

Also the movie has a bunch of big robots punching each other. What’s not to like about that? I love robots. I want to be a robot when I grow up. Though perhaps not a Roomba.

Anyway, I didn’t really grow up watching the Transformer cartoon, so I didn’t know a lot about the Transformers universe. So I went in with all these questions about sentimental robots still unanswered, and ready to pose to my movie-watching self.

I needn’t have bothered. Right out of the blocks, the very first seconds of the movie, even before the credits I think, an important-sounding voice intones: “Before time began …” (what could that possibly mean?) and goes on to tell the story of the “All Spark”. The All Spark is a little grey box which is the magical source of all Transformer life. Its existence preceded the universe itself. Its actual nature is left unexplained, it’s as mysterious as God. The Transformers are not human-made, they come from a distant planet, but they were originally formed when the All Spark’s ancient power was imparted into dead matter.

In other words, despite the famous tagline “Robots in disguise”, the Transformers aren’t robots at all. They’re dualistic beings with metal bodies and this mysterious, metaphysical, All Spark energy-soul.

Optimus Prime: Not-a-robot in disguise

Optimus Prime: Not-a-robot in disguise

I did a bit of research – i.e. I buggerised around on youtube when I was supposed to be working one day. And I found out that the All Spark isn’t really part of the original TV show. There was a similar sort of thing that lives in Optimus Prime’s chest called the “Matrix of Leadership”, but that’s more a sort of battery / backup drive as far as I can tell.

So there you go. The writers of Transformers movie perhaps found it too difficult to accept the idea that these characters could just be just material, mechanical devices; they had to add in the All-spark to give them life. The Transformers are, in fact, not robots at all.

The Consciousness Verdict:
Transformers is Brain+Mind Dualist.