When science meets philosophy

An important tool of philosophy is what we call Gedankenexperiment, which literally translated would mean “thought experiment”. Such experiments are defined by Stanford’s philosophy encyclopedia as “imagination devices to comprehend the nature of things”.

Several of these experiments became known for being iconic within their respective fields, such as:

  • In quantum physics, Schrödinger’s cat experiment;
  • In thermodynamics, Maxwell’s demon;
  • In ethics, the trolley dilemma.

However, these experiments have never been thought over as problems that should be tested in field experiments. They were not stringently methodological and scientific research frameworks for the future, especially because they not always went over real possibilities.

Nevertheless, technology has evolved, and some of these experiments are now being discussed under a new viewpoint. And some of the dilemmas proposed are being solved.

XVII Century Irish philosopher William Molyneux proposed the following Gedankenexperiment:

If a man born blind, after touching and feeling cubes and spheres were suddenly able to see, would he be able to tell cubes from spheres only by using his eyesight?

The above question discusses whether there is a relation between the mental models we create when we use the touch as sensorial source, and the mental models that we have when we use our eyesight as sensorial source.

A study published in 2011 shows that the answer to this question is probably no. Five patients were submitted to a surgery, and 48 hours after gaining the ability to see they were tested over the capacity of connecting objects felt and objects seen. (Link of the article)

The question proposed by Molyneux took several centuries to be answered and has little consequences over every-day life; however, we see now another of these experiments being discussed with an air of concern, the trolley dilemma.

This problem was first introduced by Philippa Foot in 1967 and can be described as this:

“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?”

Within the ethics scope, this problem does not have easy solutions, although most of the people would probably decide for pulling the lever. However, today, as transportation technology has evolved, we have been facing the following discussion:

When programming my autonomous car, should I set up the program so as to avoid five people being killed in the middle of the road by making the car go over the curb and run over and kill only one person?

Or yet, when considering that the car has passengers:

When programming my autonomous car, should I set up the program so as to kill the passenger if such action could save the lives of five pedestrians?

What should the ethical decision be? What should the best decision be, economically speaking?

Researches have shown that people would rather have their cars programmed to kill the passengers instead, but they would never buy a car that could do that.

Different from Molyneux’s problem, the dilemma proposed by Foot has serious ethical implications, and these almost-40-year-discussions should be used to carry out the discussion of the autonomous car programming.