Does the S&M Robot Feel Guilty?

PresentersWesley Buckwalter, The Graduate Center, CUNY & Mark Phelan, Lawrence University

Commentator: Justin Sytsma, East Tennessee State University



  1. Dear Justin, Wesley and Mark,

    I found your discussion fascinating, and would like to make two brief comments (1(a) and 1(b)) and one more substantive comment (2).

    1a) I was left wondering why the robot Jimmy in the original study and the follow-up paper was not described as having nociceptors. Merely describing him as having an array of sensors seems to be insufficient for having the necessary hardware to even ‘detect’ noxious stimuli.

    (1b) I believe one lesson to be learned from this exchange is the difficulty in describing the scenarios. Wesley’s & Mark’s second experiment (friend vs. tool) is fascinating but I was not convinced whether there aren’t other associations triggered in people’s minds. What really is the function of a friend? What do I associate with the concept ‘friend’? Is it not likely that people give different responses when they are told that the robot is not called ‘Jimmy’ but rather ‘X2y459’ ?

    (2) My main point gets back to the original experiment that is supposed to support the negative thesis from Justin and Edouard. Justin and Edouard discuss but dismiss the possibility that the data [strong difference in non-philosophers between ascribing ‘feeling pain’ and ‘seeing colours’ to the robot] can be explained by the fact that people mainly have a different concept of ‘seeing’ – a purely ‘discriminative’ one. First, I don’t find the reasons why they dismiss this possibility convincing. Second, I accept the challenge that without giving reasons for this possibility, it seems ad hoc, so here are two reasons for why we could claim that the philosopher’s view is distorted by their idiosyncratic education.

    A: Young children use words like ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ long before they grasp the idea of what it means to have an experience. Thus, children can merely refer to the act of detecting objects with their eyes when they say that they can see something. Although older children learn that seeing entails having a visual experience, why should we suppose that the primary meaning of ‘seeing’ changes to include the having of a visual experience?

    B: There does not seem to be a single philosopher who claims that statements like ‘watching TV’ or ‘looking at him’ are examples of ascriptions of experiences too. However, (a) English textbooks do not explain the difference between ‘seeing’, ‘looking’ and ‘watching’ as a matter of having an experience, but rather as a matter of intensity and intent; (b) there are languages that do not differentiate between ‘watching’, ‘seeing’ and ‘looking’, so how are they supposed to make this conceptual difference? We might therefore conclude that it is likely that philosophers through their philosophical education associate ‘having an experience’ with ‘seeing’, but that this association is non-standard.

    My points don’t undermine Justin’s and Edouard’s negative thesis. I merely give a different explanation for their data.



  2. Hey Kevin, thanks for kicking things off!

    On 1a-1b. I think that you’re right that describing the robot without nociceptors (or just more complexity generally regarding pain detecting technology) in that first experiment you mention might be playing some role here. After all, it’s possible that in S&M’s first experiment, people think this particular simple robot just isn’t complex enough of an entity to feel pain (quite independently of what they think about mental states). For instance, I don’t think my record player can feel pain, but not because I do or don’t sort mental states like philosophers. Now, about our manipulation in experiment 2. We describe the robot’s function as “designed to be a friend to the elderly by interpreting and responding to their emotional needs.” Maybe there is lots of stuff going on there, so it might have been better to run a multiple stage experiment to get at what people think about friend functions first (though the basic idea was simply to specify a case where feeling the relevant emotion would be somehow functionally useful to the object of attribution, and then show that people will attribute those states in such cases, which is what happened here). Also, I would predict that you’re completely correct that naming (‘Jimmy’ but rather ‘X2y459′) might get an effect generally, though if anything, that people would be more likely to ascribe pain in S&M not less! So it’s tough to see how the name could explain these particular findings.

    On 2. One might argue that if you’re correct—that the differences between philosophers and non-philosophers in ascribing ‘feeling pain’ and ‘seeing colors’ is explained by these different sense of ‘seeing’—than this might well work to undermine S&M’s negative thesis. If true, we’d have to know more about that sense of ‘seeing’ to be able to tell if it still supports the claim that people have a different concept of subjective experience than philosophers do. For instance, if people’s sense of ‘seeing red’ is ‘detecting red’ than data showing that non-philosophers (but not philosophers) attribute seeing red doesn’t do much for the claim that people aren’t sorting the relevant states based on phenomenal character.


  3. Hi Wesley,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I think you are right that if it is true that non-philosophers use a sense of seeing that is purely discriminative then the negative thesis does not follow from the original data. So why not conduct an experiment in which people are asked whether they think that Jimmy ‘experiences red’ or whether ‘it appears red to him’? Likewise I would be very interested if the wording regarding the pain state has an effect on whether people attribute pain to Jimmy: the supposed lack of an appearance-reality distinction of pain might not be shared by non-philosophers, i.e. asking people whether Jimmy was hurt by the electric shock, or whether he has a pain (instead of feeling pain) might yield different results.

    Best, Kevin

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