When I told my grandmother that I intended to major in philosophy at the University of Washington, she paused. And then asked me what sort of job I could get with that.
Grandma was 90 at the time. She came of age during the great depression, graduating from the UW in 1933. She was a Rosie the Riveter during the second World War. She was part of what is now called the greatest generation. You probably know someone like that, or at least you get the picture. They don’t make em tough like that anymore.
She once told me that for the entire duration of college she never had two dimes to rub together. That is a nice phrase we use now to intone how broke we are, but she was being literal. She actually never had more than 20 cents to her name all at once. So you can understand why she was concerned about my work prospects.
And she was right. When I studied philosophy, way back in the good old days of 2009, it was interesting, but not a practical field of study. And it hadn’t been for nearly a century.
In the early days of philosophy, which literally translates as love of wisdom, it was science. It was everything. It was utterly practical. The individuals who really started us down the path of understanding and shaping our physical world were called philosophers then, but today we would call them inventors and scientists and entrepreneurs and much more.
But over time the pile of knowledge humans were collecting started to get big. Quite big. So, to borrow a phrase from computer development, it forked. Branches of specialization emerged. Physics, math, biology, chemistry; suddenly there was less and less subject matter for the mere philosophers.
So they turned to the things that were less quantifiable. Metaphysics — the study of reality, or epistemology, the study of knowledge itself. Or ethics. And for the next several thousand years, philosophy was arcane. It concerned itself with problems that rarely impacted everyday affairs. With the exception of logic in the early to mid 1900s, which laid the foundation for computers, nothing philosophy touched mattered to the average human. Ok, I suppose you could count the political revolutions of the enlightenment as stemming from political philosophy. But that is about it.
And then the years 2016 and 2017 happened.
Suddenly, philosophy is everywhere. It is in real world discussions about things that matter. Like, stuff that really matters. Suddenly, it is an applied field. How so? Let’s look at just a few examples.
Long before social media was flooded with imitation news sources and Donald Trump labeled any fact that stood in the way of his goals fake, philosophy was very concerned with how to define knowledge. In fact, this is one of the major branches of philosophy, and it is known as epistemology. The study of knowledge.
It goes all the way back to Plato, and runs through the ages. If you have ever heard the phrase, “I think therefore I am”, you have touched up against epistemology (that phrase comes from Descartes, and it was all that was left standing after he decided to doubt everything — it was the only thing he could find that would be true even if doubted, but I digress).
It turns out that defining truth is exceptionally difficult. And we just entered an era where, thanks to the internet, it has become easy to create bubbles of coherent, alternative views of reality. And then someone called it what it is, Fake News, and just like that the entire country, perhaps the world, was launched into having an epistemic discussion.
How do we know what is a fact? What sources of information can we trust and how do we determine that? Do opinions and facts carry equal weight? As a nation, we used to argue over the right course of action moving forward, but we more or less agreed on the facts as they existed. Now, we can’t even talk about the best policy to enact, because we can’t even agree on the foundation. It’s like we no longer live in the same reality, and that is a failure of epistemic alignment.
The Trolley Problem
It goes beyond politics, though. 2016 also brought philosophy into the utterly practical world of engineering. And it all began with the death of Joshua Brown on May 7th. He was riding in his Tesla Model S, which was driving itself on autopilot, when it slammed into a truck crossing the road. He is the first known individual to have died as the result of an error with a self driving car.
This sparked a national debate on the safety of these vehicles. While the evidence seems pretty clear that these vehicles are much more safe than human drivers, some thorny issues emerged. For example, if a collision is imminent and unavoidable, what will the car be programmed to do? Will it take the course of action that it statistically believes will lead to the least amount of total human death/injury, or will it do everything it can to preserve the safety of its own occupants?
Congratulations, we are now actually forced to write the code that solves for the trolley problem.
Not familiar with the Trolley problem? Imagine a trolley is speeding down its tracks. The conductor yells out to you that his brakes are broken and he cannot stop. You look down the tracks in the direction the trolley is headed and you see 5 individuals tied up and on the track. Never mind how anyone got there. They are going to die. You look around you and discover a lever. The instructions show that the lever switches the tracks and will send the out-of-control trolley down another path. But looking at that new path, you see there is one individual tied up and laying on that track. Again, never mind how they got there, except to say that this over the top assortment of far fetched scenarios is exactly why this problem was always considered a thought experiment. And it is why it is so incredible that it is now a real world problem.
Flipping the lever means saving five, but killing the one. Doing nothing kills the five, saving just the one. Its a god awful choice, but most people would flip the lever. Five is less than one, after all.
Now imagine five people lying in a hospital, each dying of a different type of organ failure. In walks a healthy universal donor. By the same logic, should we not kill the one and harvest the organs to save the five? But in this case, the situation seems much more immoral. Most people would not kill the one and harvest the organs, despite the fact that, logically, its the same.
Welcome to the trolley problem. Never before in human history have we had to codify our morality a priori (fancy Latin word meaning before the experience). Our laws are written to deal with the aftermath of actions. Our morals describe actions we ought to take, in the first person. But now we are required to write third person moral code. To predetermine the life and death of people who may not even be born yet.
The Trolley problem used to be the epitome of a hypothetical example from philosophy that would never have any real world application. It was a pure thought experiment. Now engineers are writing the app, insurers are trying to figure out who is at fault (the driver, the other driver, the software company that wrote the code?), and car executives are trying to decide if anyone will ever buy a car that is programmed to kill them under the right circumstances.
The Ring of Gyges
Ok, this one is maybe not unique to this year. It’s been building for some time now, but in the last year or so it has really come into focus.
In Plato’s Republic, the Ring of Gyges was a magical ring that granted invisibility to the wearer. The bearer of the ring could go about all sorts of tasks without being discovered. A character named Glaucon (Plato’s brother, actually), wondered if wearing such a ring would cause a good person to do bad things. He wondered what people would choose to do if they knew they could get away with it.
In other words, Glaucon was suggesting that morality was a social construct. We only do good because we know there are consequences for doing bad. But what if there were no consequences?
Well, the internet has more or less settled that question, in the form of Trolls. A Troll, in internet parlance, is someone who sows discord. Usually this takes the form of inappropriate comments and posts on social media. And as the old saying goes, on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.
Anonymity is backed into the soul of the internet. And trolls have always been there. But recently they have become a much bigger problem, and a vexing one for very capable companies. Instagram, Twitter, and other sites are having a lot of trouble discerning what is abusive language and filtering it out. Beause there is a lot of it. Far too much for a team of humans to manually flag and respond to in timely manner. And because speech is so nuanced, it is exceptionally hard to battle programatically. Sure, you can easily find and filter choice words, but we all know its possible to belittle someone without using a single f-bomb.
Interestingly, Facebook does not really have this problem. And that’s where we circle back to the Ring of Gyges. On Facebook, you’re behavior is linked to your real identity, and that behavior is shown to your friends, families, co workers, and acquaintances. In other words, anonymous sites like Reddit are testing out our innate behavior when we know our actions will not reflect back on us, while Facebook acts as a control.
That is not to say that people do not say or post stupid, mean, or hurtful things on Facebook. It’s just more consistent with people’s behavior in real life, and they clearly do it more, and more harshly, on anonymous platforms. And so, Glaucon’s thought experiment from over two thousand years ago is now a real world engineering problem at cutting edge social media platforms.
Bonus: Coming Soon, the Soul
Much further in the future, historians will likely look back at this time as the moment that artificial intelligence turned a corner. Alpha Go beat the best human masters at Go, a notoriously complex board game. Neural networks became mainstream and started work on all sort of problems, from language processing to driving cars. They have even started passing the Turing Test, a demarcation line thought up by computer science legend Alan Turing where a machine can fool a human into thinking it is having a conversation with a real human. Go find a chat-bot if you’re not convinced.
All of these are incredibly momentous feats of engineering. But, for all of that, we do not have a true, general AI. We do not have a robot that thinks for itself entirely and considers itself alive. AI is not yet aware, it’s just really, really good at more and more things.
We still do not even know for sure that a true, general AI is possible. If we continue to struggle to get AI to become alive, in the admittedly imprecise manner by which we humans consider ourselves alive, we may be unintentionally proving the existence of the soul. It may be the case that the reason we can’t make AI is because there is this other thing that needs to be there. And so, yet again, engineering is turning what was a purely philosophical and theological question, is there a soul, and [potentially] making it a software problem.
Of course, it does not follow that the absence of general AI necessitates the existence of a soul, it is certainly a significant piece of supporting evidence that life is somehow more than just a really complex machine.
Needless to say, it’s been quite the year for philosophy.
I am reminded how Paleontology seemed like a field that was drying up. After all, there is only so much you can learn about animals that existed tens of millions of years ago. Then advances in DNA and biochemistry opened up new insights, allowing us to sequence and analyze organic matter from long dead animals, and suddenly the field was vibrant all over again.
Philosophy has this sort of feel to it now. There is a buzz that was not there just a decade ago. Rampant inequality has us looking at political systems with renewed vigor. Even those patently uninterested in philosophy are engaging in epistemic debates that would not have been out of place in my senior level courses at University. And every day we seem to invent our way into the hypothetical.
All the while, both sides of the political spectrum bemoan the lack of critical thinking available in this country. If you did not grow up studying philosophy, or you dismissed it early on as too divorced from the real world, maybe its time you took another look. Whether you like it or not, philosophy has become an applied field.
Written by Page Russell.
Follow me while I complain about stuff on twitter: @pagerussell