Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Book Review ~ 'Can A Robot Be Human?'

POSTED IN:  ~ PhilosophyPuzzles Religion ~ Reviews    

Can A Robot Be Human?
Peter Cave
Oneworld Publications 2007
ISBN 9781851685318

'If it doesn't make you think, you are probably dead already' is the first quote on the back cover, and there's no mistaking it: if you like philosophical puzzles then get a copy of this book forthwith. Or sooner.

I'm currently reading a couple in bed before I turn out the light, and I have to tell you that my bedtimes are getting later and later.

In fact, you'll see where I've been stealing, errr, borrowing some ideas from for my philosophical puzzles recently. So I'm repaying my moral debt here by saying immediately and unequivocally: buy 'Can a Robot be Human?' You'll love it.

The blurb on the back continues with the intriguing questions as follows:
  • How unique are you?
  • What does it really mean to be in love?
  • Can you believe anyone who says 'I'm telling the truth'?
  •  Can a murderer be innocent?
  • What is the difference between a saint, a sinner, and a suicide bomber?
Now look folks, be gentle with me; this is my first stab at tackling this sort of publication, so excuse my wonder at these questions. Someone told me recently that they didn't have much time for philosophy because it just tended to be a bunch of people talking about stuff, much of it interesting, admittedly, but not actually getting much done.

Well I nodded and 'hmmm'ed in some sort of agreement, not really knowing what he was talking about. But be that as it may, you'll probably find yourself falling into this book and having problems pulling yourself out. These 'problems', if we can call them that, relate to our every day lives. Which is exactly what makes them so interesting. Sure, we're on a different level of thinking to that needed for every day activities. But nevertheless, there's great satisfaction in filling your head with this stuff, as opposed to watching videos of people killing each other or even the depressing daily ritual of reading or watching the news and... learning about how many people had killed each other that day.
The puzzles themselves cover all sorts of things. I've just dipped into the book at random and found a discussion on where our morals come from. Religious people, it is said, derive their ideas of right and wrong from their faith and its teachings. The puzzle suggests two twins who were somehow separated at birth, one growing up in a devoutly Catholic family and the other in a Muslim family. It also wonders what the two women's morals would be if they had been 'swapped' at birth and brought up in the opposite religion. Holds aren't barred and mentions of suicide bombers and horrific Catholic witch burning are invoked to bring the conundrum home.

Less scary, on a viceral level at least, is the puzzle of when a sandcastle in a breeze stops being a sandcastle. If we can tell no difference between  a fully fledged sandcastle, and the same sandcastle minus one grain of sand, then logically if we carried on doing that we would still be claiming it was a sandcastle when it was only a slight mound of sand.

And what about the incredible thought experiment when we try to work out why we cry or get angry or scared during films and plays, and even when listening to music. Are those emotions real or not? I real, we should be running up to the stage to help the woman in the play being attacked, shouldn't we? But if we know it's just a bunch of actors surrounded by directors and lighting technicians and so on, why do we emote at all. Brilliant.

Well, that's just a taster, and I'll show you the pictures, which are from the book, by a great artist called Jolyon Troscianko, who also researches into avian cognition, to whet your appetite for the rest. And as I said: buy 'Can a Robot be Human?'. You won't regret it. Having said that, would it really, logically, not be the biggest waste of time ever to regret something you haven't done... oh dear :-( I think I'm hooked on philosophical puzzles. I don't think this is the last time I'll be mentioning Mr.Cave and his philosophy puzzles.
See you in the gene pool

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