I had an interesting experience recently with the fourth grade students I’m teaching this year at John Muir Elementary. I read them the story “Double Trouble” by Philip Cam. A kind of retelling of the “Ship of Theseus,” the story is about a robot whose parts have been replaced, one after another, until he no longer has any of his original parts, and a new robot has been built using all of the old parts. Which one is the “real” Algernon (the robot’s name)?
I have used this story for years and it has virtually always inspired a discussion about the standard questions of personal identity and persistence over time. (I wrote about such a conversation last year in this post.) In this session, however, the students took the discussion in an entirely different direction. They voted to start with one of their questions about whether in this story robots were only owned by rich people or whether everyone had robots. This led to the question about whether robots were things, and a couple of students asserted that robots (or at least the ones in the story) were people. How do we know what makes someone a person? The students suggested that having names, or being able to talk and move independently, were possible criteria. Then several students noted that while the robots seemed to have feelings, they were probably programmed to have them, and that this is what made them different from people.
Several of my undergraduate students were present that day, and one commented, “Sometimes I feel things I would like to choose not to feel, but I feel them anyway. Is it possible that I’m programmed?”
One of the most interesting features of the conversation that ensued in that fourth grade classroom was how closely it resembled a similar conversation I had with college students not too long ago. The students went from being sure they were not programmed to speculating about the possibility that, as one child put it, “there are beings out there somewhere who are a lot bigger than us and they are totally controlling what we do.”
“That could be,” another student responded. “But at the same time, I feel like what goes on inside me is really me, that it can’t be controlled by anyone else. Maybe someone could be controlling what I do, but I don’t think they could be controlling what I feel.”
The discussion went on for over an hour and at the end we talked about how complex these questions were, and how sometimes in philosophy the questions seemed even more puzzling after talking about them than they had originally.