Are You Alive? Prove It!

Fans of the current Battlestar Galactica series will recognize the title of this blog entry as the first words of dialogue spoken on the miniseries that started it. The question is asked by an evolved cylon who poses the challenge to a human armistice officer. It was only today that the full significance of these words struck me, for some reason. The question is presumably one that had, at some point in the past, been asked by humans of the cylons. The machines evolved and became intelligent, and demanded rights. “So you claim you are alive and deserve rights?” they were asked. “Prove it!” The cylons, having evolved to the point where they resemble their creators, are to be viewed as posing this question back to their makers.

The troubling thing is that we cannot prove it. Even if we might make some attempt at proving we are alive, we confront the possibility that there may be (as the famous phrase from Star Trek put it) “life…but not as we know it”. If we wished to prove our sentience that would be altogether impossible – how can we prove a subjective experience?

There is an “obvious” lesson to take away from this, namely that if our “toasters” or any other appliances demand rights claiming they are living and/or sentient, we should take them at their word – and hope they take us at ours. Yet there is the broader question of other subjective experiences and how far we can press this analogy. What about those who claim to have achieved enlightenment, or experienced Jesus as alive? The difference, perhaps, is that each of us has an experience of consciousness, while not all of us have experienced either enlightenment or the risen Jesus. Being alive and conscious are in a category of their own – that which thinkers such as Descartes and Sankara have pointed to as impossible to deny without inherent self-contradiction. The issue posed by androids and aliens is that we attribute consciousness to other human beings through analogy with ourselves. Those instances where we can no longer proceed according to such analogies will represent an important test of our morals and ultimately our humanity.

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  • You should check out the dialogue “Can Animals and Machines Be Persons” by the UT Austin philosopher and science fiction writer Justin Leiber. I use it in my intro to phil class every semester, and it is always a big hit, and does a great job of introducing basic concepts in both ethics and the philosophy of mind.

  • Thanks for the suggestion! Our inter-library loan software was being upgraded so I’m just now requesting it, but I will read it and appreciate the recommendation. I’ll say more once I’ve had a chance to read it…