Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Can A Robot Be Human? - Peter Cave

   2007; 196 pages.  Full Title : Can A Robot Be Human?  33 Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Philosophy; Non-Fiction.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    Question : What do the following phrases have in common?  "Wolves, Whistles, and Women".  "The Dangers of Health".  "Don’t Tell Him, Pike".  "Don’t Read This Notice".  "Therapy for Tortoises".

    Answer :  They’re all titles of chapters in Peter Cave’s book of almost three dozen pieces of philosophical musing, Can A Robot Be Human?

    If you are intrigued by those titles and are itching for something to challenge your Situational Ethics, Logic Systems, and Outlook on Life, then run down to your library (or log on to Amazon) and get this book.  Especially if, like me, you are the kind of person who finds most Philosophy books to be eminently boring.

What’s To Like...
     Structure-wise, Can A Robot Be Human? is identical to the other Peter Cave book I read a few months back, Do Llamas Fall In Love? (reviewed here).  So most of my comments in that review apply here as well.

    The chapters are short (usually 5 paperback pages); there are some amusing cartoons interspersed throughout the chapters; and for the most part, the writing is witty and thought-provoking. A wide variety of themes are dealt with, and the author lists the two main ones in the header of each chapter.  Don’t like a given chapter’s subject matter?  No problem; the next one is guaranteed to be on something completely different.

    Peter Cave won't give you the answers to life's mysteries, of course.  No philosopher ever does.  But he will give you lots of points to muse upon.   

    Some examples of the themes addressed in the book : The Emotions, Feminism, Metaphysics, Free Will, The Arts, Politics, Language, Rational Action, Religion, Space & Time, Selves, God, Good & Evil.

    These translate into questions such as : Can you trust a liar?  What makes you “you”?  How would you know if you’re dreaming?  Can you ever truly do a selfless act of goodness?  And the titular : How would you know if you’re a robot?

    Kafka gets cited; that’s always a personal plus.  And the Monty Hall enigma, “should you switch doors?”, is examined, which is both remarkably simple and incredibly complex; and which generated oodles of heated debate a few years ago in Marilyn vos Savant’s newspaper column.  The answer, without explanation, is given in the comments.

    YMMV, but my favorite chapters were :

    03) Sympathy for the Devil  (is the Creator good or evil?)
    07) The Innocent Murderer : A Nobody Dunit  (Define “murder”)
    17) Girl, Cage, Chimp  (Animal Rights)
    21) Saints, Sinners, and Suicide Bombers  (Religious Blind Faith)
    23) Uniquely Who?  (What makes you “You”?)
    33) Is This All There Is?  (What is the point of life?)

     Those who believe in an all-powerful figure that created and designed the universe need to explain why they are convinced he is all good rather than all bad – or, indeed, something in between.  Is it not most likely that there are at least two distinct and powerful powers, one evil and one good?  Zoroastrianism is typically taken as proclaiming such a duality.  Is it the only sensible religion?  Paradoxically, that could explain why hardly anyone believes in it.  (pg. 17)

    “What is it like to be a bat?”  That question is one way of raising the difficulty.  However much we humans learn about the behaviour and neural structures of bats, however much crazed philosophers hang upside down from church towers, flapping their arms, is there not something that we miss – namely, how bats experience the world?  Plausibly, we should answer ‘yes’.  (pg. 170)

“Down with the mini skirt!”.  (pg.  66)
    ANAICT, Can A Robot Be Human? was Peter Cave’s debut book.  I am relying on the Amazon listings since there isn’t even a Wikipedia entry for him.  While it was overall entertaining, witty, and full of contemplatibles, for me it also had a couple slow spots.  Some of the logic topics seemed too easy to disprove, and I’ve already pondered René Descartes question about how to know if you exist, and concluded (unlike M. Descartes and his “Cogito Ergo Sum”) that it was a pointless waste of time and thought.

     It’s also possible that reading two Philosophy books in less than 4 months was too much for my lowbrow literary palate.  Or that Peter Cave’s writing became much more polished and interest-generating with time.  Let’s be clear – this is still a worthwhile read, and a smart and delightful choice if/when your English teacher says you have to do a book report on Philosophy.

    But honestly now, which title tickles your fancy more?  Can A Robot Be Human?  or Do Llamas Fall In Love?  7½ Stars.

Anecdotal Postscript...
    One of the chapters deals with the mathematical concept of “limits”, which Peter Cave cleverly turns into a Logic puzzle.  Here is the way I first heard it, years ago :

    A frog is 10 feet from a wall.  With every hop, he covers half the (remaining) distance to it.  So, his first jump is 5 feet.  And since he is now only 5 feet away, his second jump is 2½ feet.  And so on.  Question :  When does he finally bump into the wall?  (Answer in the comments)

    This was a recurring poser that we used to spring upon new hires at work (we had a high turnover rate).  The answers, after some cogitation, were amusingly varied.  Two, three, five, ten, etc.

    But the best answer came one day as a coworker and I were working outside.  He abruptly announced he needed to do something inside for a bit, went in, came out 2-3 minutes later, and told me he knew the answer.

    “22!” sez he, with smug glee.
    I was nonplussed. “How did you arrive at that answer?” sez I.
    “I cheated.  I did it on the calculator.”
    Turns out he entered “10” into the 8-place calculator we had in the lab, then kept dividing by 2 until the readout was all zeroes.  You gotta admire his resourcefulness.  March on, O Theoretical Math!


Hamilcar Barca said...

The Monty Hall enigma : Once you choose one of the three doors, and Monty opens another door, reveals it to be a dud, and asks if you want to stay with your choice; YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SWITCH DOORS!

Trust me (and Marilyn) on this.

Hamilcar Barca said...

Re the jumping frog : No matter how many times he jumps, he never reaches the wall.