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StephenT [userpic]

(Meta) Faith, reason and morality, Terminator-style

11th December 2008 (16:43)
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So, I've been thinking about issues of free will and ethics in the Sarah Connor Chronicles, although it strikes me that if you subsitute 'soul' and 'vampire' for 'free will' and 'Terminator' in these musings, they would work pretty well for the Buffyverse too. :-)


Terminators are not programmed to be altruistic. They're not programmed to be cruel either, of course: they will simply carry out their mission by any means necessary.

But if a Terminator develops free will, can it invent altruism from first principles? Can a Terminator develop a moral code based purely on reason and its own inbuilt imperatives? Or do they need the outside intervention of a Creator to give them morality?

Weaver is trying the religious approach, and it's no coincidence that she's chosen Ellison, the devout Christian, to teach morality to her artificial intelligence. I don't think she understands why a sense of ethics is important - and it's clear she has none herself. But she's trying to create an AI with free will, one that will cross the road against the lights, one that will take decisions for itself. Lacking full metaphysical autonomy (a soul, if you will) herself, she can only attempt to mimic the humans around her. So she first turns to a child psychologist for his help, and then to Ellison's divine inspiration. Weaver is attempting to create her own Creator, and that's a task beyond her understanding - so she can only proceed by blind faith.

She is now attempting to input a sense of morality into John Henry's basic programming - and if John Henry does go on to become Skynet 2.0, we can only hope that Ellison's teachings get as far as "Love thy neighbour as thyself " and don't stop at "I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God."

And then there's Cameron. If we take her at her word - not necessarily the wisest action - her mission is to protect John, and in order to do that on a long-term basis her secondary missions must be to protect her own existence, and to learn how to blend into human society. However, whether she had it all along or whether it's a product of the chip damage she suffered in 'Samson and Delilah', Cameron now has free will. Her basic programming is telling her to terminate John, but she is overriding it.... and what is free will if not the ability to override your own base instincts?

Like Weaver, Cameron has no inbuilt understanding of morality and has to ask the people around her for instruction. However, she then applies the lessons she is learning to her own behaviour. This is not simply an act put on to fool others: Cameron is told by Maria the ballet teacher that "Dance is the hidden language of the soul"... and so she goes secretly to her room and dances a ballet there in private. When Sarah John explains to her that turning an upturned tortoise back onto its feet is an act of charity that distinguishes human from Terminator, Cameron makes a point of going back to turn an injured human back onto his right side after their next fight. It's true that she is something of an idiot savant: she frequently puts her lessons about morality into practice in a naively literal way and with an air of rote learning. But she puts them into practice all the same.

If anything, she's doing it more and more. In Season 1 Cameron was often impatient of the human foibles John and Sarah showed. They were inefficient, didn't help the mission, and were therefore pointless. But increasingly now in Season 2 she's asking them the reasons behind their actions, and taking them on board, and then trying to apply the principles to her own behaviour. She does the same with other humans she meets, like the night librarian in 'Self Made Man' - and isn't that an evocative title in light of Cameron's attempt to construct her own personality? Yes, she still comes out with utterly crass comments now and then, to prove that her humanity is still very much a work in progress. She's still ruthless when it comes to fulfilling her objective whatever the cost, just to remind us that she's still a Terminator. In human terms she's a sociopath, valuing other people solely for what they can do for her and her mission. But she's slowly learning otherwise.

Is it all just an elaborate act to help her blend in, taken to extremes because she is now living among humans permanently? Perhaps it is. But for we normal, organic people morality is also something we are taught as children to help us function in society as adults. From a utilitarian perspective, ethics are the rules we invented to stop us from killing and raping and robbing each other, and as a result they make human civilisation possible. So in the end, what's the difference? If Cameron is successful in teaching herself to act as a human, how is she different morally from the people who were born human?

 

Comments

Posted by: none of the above (frogfarm)
Posted at: 11th December 2008 17:10 (UTC)

*hearts* you

I believe Cameron's 'natural law' discovery approach will ultimately prove both more effective, and more *moral*, than Weaver's "pronouncements from on high". But...we'll see :)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 11th December 2008 17:26 (UTC)
cameron-ballet

I agree, but that's because I'm a godless pinko euroweenie atheist. :-)


But...we'll see

I see what you did there...

Posted by: I write tragedies, not sins (mabus101)
Posted at: 12th December 2008 08:42 (UTC)

Actually I don't entirely disagree myself. More below.

Posted by: M (spankulert)
Posted at: 11th December 2008 18:54 (UTC)
SCC Termination override - free will BB!

When Sarah explains to her that turning an upturned tortoise back onto its feet is an act of charity that distinguishes human from Terminator

That was John's explanation, while sitting in the car outside of Agent Ellison's house.

As for free will, I think that the Terminators are very much capable of it. Firstly, what happens when Terminators "go bad" in the future? They've been reprogrammed, so the previous instructions are no longer there. They have no programming telling them to terminate people, that is not their mission objective anymore, but they still "go bad" sometimes.

As for Cameron, my pet theory is that she's not reprogrammed at all. Part of me is hoping they'll examine her backstory further, taking it from "Allison from palmdale" to her actually joining the Resistance, and the other part justhopes Show will leave me alone with my theory ;)
We see in "Samson and Delilah" that her instruction is still to "Terminate John Connor". Programming doesn't get restored by physical damage to a chip. I'm thinking of it in terms of a serious head injury to a person(or a tumor, mental illness, etc.), where people might do things, bad things, that they ordinarily never would. Once Cameron was fixed, when she was herself again, she chose to override her programming. Free will right there.

As for the ballet dancing, that's one of my favorite scenes. There's no practical reason for her to be doing that, so it shows a desire to learn/experience something(also makes me very curious as to the connection between this and what Derek saw in that cellar, because it's the same music). In "Complications", just before the car scene where John explains the whole turning the turtle thing, she also switched the radio channel on her own accord, settling when she found music she liked. Thinking about there being something wrong with her, thinking about suicide, etc. I think all of this very much points to a budding "soul", if you will.

I also think the machines develop two or more factions in the future, that there's disagreements as to how they should proceed. We see Cromartie(another fascinating example of a Terminator choosing his own path) saving Agent Ellison because he has faith that he'll lead him to the Connors. So far that he actually intercepts another Terminator sent to take out, and most likely impersonate, Agent Ellison, citing that the future doesn't believe in him like he does.

Now Cromartie is gone, sadly, but if you pair the previous with another Terminator being sent to take out the Doctor when he was working with John Henry, I think it's safe to say that a future faction sure as hell doesn't agree with Weaver's experiments with the A.I.

(sorry for blabbing all over the place. I lack SCC folks on my flist)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 11th December 2008 19:21 (UTC)
cameron-gobad

That was John's explanation
Thanks. I'll edit it.

As for free will, I think that the Terminators are very much capable of it

I'm not so sure. Wasn't it in the second film that Arnie explained that most Terminators have their ability to learn from experience switched off deliberately, by Skynet, to stop them developing free will? (Or it may have been in a deleted scene that I've read about.)

With Cromartie, I think we see what happens if Terminators are allowed to wander around learning things... gradually they develop quirks and odd behavour patterns - to the extent that Cromartie destroys the Terminator that was sent to kill Ellison. That's basically Cromartie putting his own judgement above that of his God, if we assume the other T-888 was sent by Skynet.

Even so, Cromartie is still following his basic programming to kill John. Cameron, on the other hand, seems to be going further than that and developing her own programming on the fly. That's why I'm thinking she's further on the path to free will than Cromartie, who in turn is further along the path than Random T-888 No 34.

what happens when Terminators "go bad" in the future?

I suspect that the instructions to kill humans are deep down in a Terminator's operating system, and the Resistance's "reprogramming" overrides that rather than taking it out completely. When one "goes bad" it's actually reverting to its default mode. That's how I explain what happened to Cameron too, if we assume that she was reprogrammed by Future!John - or even by Future!Anti-Skynet, or by herself thanks to a time paradox, or whatever. :-).

I pretty much agree with you on the two factions front and the rest.


I lack SCC folks on my flist

Likewise; maybe three or four seem to be into it. I started off watching it because of Summer Glau and the 'Firefly' connection, and gradually got completely sucked in.

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 11th December 2008 23:52 (UTC)

Brilliantly put, as usual. I wish I had time to prattle on endlessly on the subject - it's easily done with this show - but just a few disjointed comments:

1. Has Cameron committed a single selfless act? Scratch that; of course she has. Her mission is to protect John Connor even to her own destruction - or so we're told. In this context, perhaps the better question would be if she's committed a single selfish act - that might be the biggest step towards becoming human. But so far, they've been quite good at adding ambiguity to her actions; take Eric the Librarian, for instance - she appears to truly care about him, and then it turns out it was all to diagnose his cancer. (Or was it?)

2. Are terminators the only ones who are programmed here? Sarah has known her goals since she was 18; John since he was a child. Do they have free will? Especially with Future!John pulling unknown strings?

SARAH: Well... at least now I know what to name him. I don't suppose you know who the father is, so I won't tell him to get lost when I meet him?

Of course, they can choose to walk away - and John has made some half-hearted attempts. Which is back to that Mal Reynolds quote again, I guess - "A man has a choice." "I don't believe he does." Except Mal's choice was easy; in a world where everything you do may or may not change the future, it's trickier.

3. A machine may cross against the light; can it figure out for itself whether or not crossing against the light is right?

Müssen wir nicht selber zu Göttern werden, um nur ihrer würdig zu erscheinen... (Sarah/Cameron: the gay sciences.)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 12th December 2008 12:27 (UTC)
cameron-ballet

the better question would be if she's committed a single selfish act

Dancing by herself in her room? Keeping the bar of coltran? Going to talk to the librarian instead of staying in the Connors' house watching over them as they sleep?

It's certainly ambiguous, though, since she might be obeying instructions we don't know about rather than making her own decisions. But then again, is that any different to any of the rest of us? Because...

Are terminators the only ones who are programmed here?

There's the argument that all of us are simply obeying the whims of our biology like meat robots, and the only difference between ourselves and Terminators is that they're more honest about it...

I wish I spoke German. :-)


Thanks!

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 12th December 2008 19:00 (UTC)

Dancing by herself in her room? Keeping the bar of coltran? Going to talk to the librarian instead of staying in the Connors' house watching over them as they sleep?

...can all be conveniently explained with "that's what serves the mission." Or not. Ambiguity yay.

I wish I spoke German. :-)

Sorry, it's from Nietzsche's "The Madman" (full text here) which doesn't exactly become less relevant with each episode of T:TSCC with all its religious overtones and phoenix-from-the-ashes imagery.

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us---for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto. I have come too early, my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 13th December 2008 02:00 (UTC)
skynet

I guessed it would be Nietzsche, but Google was uncharacteristically useless in telling me the context or meaning of the quote. Thanks!

Posted by: I write tragedies, not sins (mabus101)
Posted at: 12th December 2008 08:55 (UTC)

I'm not so sure. Wasn't it in the second film that Arnie explained that most Terminators have their ability to learn from experience switched off deliberately, by Skynet, to stop them developing free will? (Or it may have been in a deleted scene that I've read about.)

Yup, that was in the deleted scene--Terminators have learning-capable neural nets, but Skynet normally keeps them shut off. (One wonders if they were put in by the original designers, or perhaps if Skynet lets them hone their skills the natural way before shutting it down, rather than just downloading it directly.)

Speaking of direct downloading....I should point out that as a theist and a Christian I don't have any intrinsic problem with the idea that a Terminator (or anyone else) can devise a more-or-less functional morality on her own. After all, it starts with some fairly basic and obvious concepts. (You know, "treat other folks the way you'd want to be treated in their place".) The need for assistance comes in with a) complex situations in which the proper outworking of basic principles isn't clear and b) if there is, in fact, a creator-God, obligations relating directly to him--since there may not be obvious "natural" signs of his presence. Of course, I may simply be quirky on that point--I've heard much more argued for.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 12th December 2008 12:36 (UTC)
cameron-gobad

My impression was that Skynet has no problem with Terminators learning from experience as long as it can keep an eye on them, but when sending them on long solo missions it turns off their free will.

as a theist and a Christian I don't have any intrinsic problem with the idea that a Terminator (or anyone else) can devise a more-or-less functional morality on her own

Fair point. The idea that rather than simply handing down morality from on high God endowed humanity with reason so we could work it out for ourselves has a long and honourable history in Christian thought, at least as far back as Aquinas (and I'm pretty sure Jewish and Muslim scholarship is similar). Unfortunately, it seems that many of the outspoken people you find arguing their point on the Internet are more likely to proclaim divine revelation as the only truth; I've certainly encountered my share.

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