Circuitry Or Soul? Philosophy Department Explores Sentience With Star Trek

(Benjamin Amos/The Independent)

Philosophy; a literary frontier. Its continuing mission: to challenge ethics and the natural order; to boldly push the fringe of reality; to conceptualize theories and explore the consequences.

Clark’s philosophy department will screen an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” followed by a discussion and Q&A at its Philosophy and Film event 6 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 9 in Hanna Hall 118.

Philosophy instructor Chris Nelson, who said she attended similar events as a student, planned Philosophy and Film with fellow instructor Michael Pankrast.

“The show brings up some questions about sentience,” Pankrast said. “And when a machine is actually a person; what the concept of a person is; should machines have rights?”

The episode, “Measure of Man” from season two, follows Lt. Commander Data — an android — on the starship Enterprise. Data is called into a tribunal where Starfleet officials question his sentience and individuality.  

“Philosophy often happens on the edges of possibility and by extending the possibility by postulating some rational crew that discovers these odd situations,” Nelson said. “It’s sort of like being able to do any thought experiment that you want.”

If the event succeeds, Pankrast said, the department will replicate it with screenings of shows like “Black Mirror” or films like “Blade Runner.”

“Chris and I have been talking about starting a philosophy club on campus,” Pankrast said. “This event will allow us to gauge the students interest.”

Nelson said over the past year the philosophy department has grown both in size and student interest.

“When I was the only one around we were limited to the number of classes I could teach, which was only three a term, and they always had big waitlist,” she said.

Nelson said that interest gave the department the resources not only to present Philosophy and Film, but to hire Pankrast and instructor Sacha Greer, who has experience teaching “Star Trek” and philosophy.

“Popular culture is where we explore our fears, our hopes, our obsessions,” said English instructor Kathryn Scrivener, who also teaches a class on popculture.

Scrivener argued that Data’s sophisticated intellect gives him human rights and that if other characters don’t recognize that it makes him a slave.

“We are capable of slavery if something is convenient for us,” she said. “We don’t care if it’s inconvenient for others.”

Pankrast said that humans will reach a point where we have to question if machines have a sense of self-worth.

“We’re going to have to start wondering whether making these machines work for us is actually a form of unjust slavery,” he said. “Or whether these machines or sophisticated enough to have rights.”

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