On Philosophy

June 18, 2006

The Philosophy of Commander Data

Filed under: Mind,Perception,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:08 am

As you probably already know Data is a character from the Star Trek TV series. Data is an android (an artificially intelligent robot that looks like a person), who talks and acts much in the way a biological person might. There are some important differences between Data and the rest of us however, he is faster, smarter, and more interestingly unable to experience emotion (at least most of the time). Data is an interesting subject for philosophical discussions of all sorts, but here I will focus on emotion.

Although Data doesn’t experience emotion (or at least so he says) we might think that he has them anyways. For example Data often acts in ways that seem motivated by his friendship and compassion towards other people. Data’s actions don’t seem explainable as results of pure reason; only human emotion seems sufficient. Yet, even when this is pointed out to him, Data says that he does not feel emotion. Is it possible then for Data, or anyone, to have emotions without feeling them?

To answer this we have to define what an emotion is. Instead of trying to quantify our subjective feeling of emotion I will define it first by examining its effects on us and its structure. We might define an emotion then as a disposition towards certain action or actions. For example if you are sad then you are disposed to act in ways that are associated with sadness, for example tears, lethargy, ect. Of course it is not just our actions that emotions effect, but our mental states as well, yielding the improved definition that emotion is a disposition towards certain actions and mental states not based on reason. I have added the phrase “not based on reason”, to distinguish emotion from our normal thoughts and mental states. This phrase may sound slightly vague, so to be more specific I would say that the emotion itself is motivational and that the emotion’s existence is not necessarily contingent on reasons for it existing, although obviously there are causes of emotion. The directly motivating part seems obvious, when we jump for joy we are not jumping because something good happened, we are jumping because we feel joyful. Emotion’s independence of reasons may seem less obvious. Clearly there are reasons that a person enters into an emotional state, whether they be unconscious or conscious, but I would maintain that the continuation of an emotion is not dependant on the reasons that caused it to exist in the first place. For example let us say that you feel sad upon hearing of the death of your friend. Fortunately, for you and your friend, some time later another source informs you that it was all a mistake, and that your friend is fine. Even though you have no reason to feel sad anymore the emotion may remain for some time, thus demonstrating that the emotion is not dependant on the reason that caused it, namely the belief that your friend is dead.

Is this all there is to emotion? What about how emotion feels to us? How do we account for that? I would argue that our feeling of emotional states is part of the perception of emotion. Just as our perception of visual information feels visual so our perception of emotion feels emotional. If this is true then we should expect that is possible for emotion to occur without perception, resulting in unconscious emotions. And indeed unconscious emotions do exist. For example on a day where you feel perfectly normal someone might inform you that you have been acting grumpy. You don’t feel grumpy, but when you think about it more closely you realize that you have indeed been acting grumpy, and in fact, now that you are looking for it, you realize that you do feel grumpy after all. Thus an unconscious emotion that has been affecting your behavior has been made conscious (and now “feels” like emotion), all because you now perceive it directly where previously you were unaware of it.

From this analysis then I would conclude that Data does have at least some emotions, they are just unconscious. Although they may motivate his actions he has no perception of them, and thus has no “feeling” of emotion. In later episodes Data acquires an “emotion chip” which allows him to experience emotion. I would consider it possible that the chip doesn’t give him emotions, but simply allows him to perceive his preexisting emotions that are unconscious without the aid of the chip.

If you are curious about consciousness in general, and whether an artificial creation like Data could be conscious, I suggest you visit the category in this blog with the same name.

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