An Unlikely Interview with Eric Schwitzgebel

The Dauphin’s Metaphysics explores a classic and very interesting question -- if you replicate a person’s experiences exactly, can you replicate the person? What makes a person who they are, nature or nurture? It’s a story about characters reinventing themselves in multiple ways. What drew you to this particular question, and to taking the approach to it that you did in this story?

I’d been thinking about “singularity upload” stories, like Greg Egan’s Diaspora, where characters destroy their biological bodies to have their mental patterns instantiated in a computational device. These stories raise fascinating questions about personal identity, but they have an air of unreality about them because they aren’t currently technologically possible, and who knows if they ever will be. (One of the best known skeptics about computer consciousness is John Searle, who was one of my PhD supervisors at Berkeley.)

So I wanted to write an upload story that didn’t require magic or future technology. My father was (among many other things) a licensed hypnotist, and there’s a large psychological literature on how easy it is to implant false childhood memories into people even without hypnosis, so that seemed a natural direction to develop the idea.

The center of the story is the Dauphin’s upload – but I thought it would be interesting to contrast the case of the Dauphin’s putatively being one person across two bodies with another case arguably interpretable as two different identities in a single body. Hence the story of Fu Hao’s radical break from her childhood self. Chemistry Professor Zeng, though not as fully explored, presents a more ordinary case of slow character change over time.

In your day job, you’re a Professor of Philosophy, and the Dauphin’s Metaphysics isn’t the first story you’ve written exploring philosophical questions. Are there new approaches that fiction allows you to take in thinking about these questions and concepts that you don’t find in your academic life? Does your fiction ever inform your academic work similar to the way it seems your academic work informs your fiction?

I got into writing fiction through writing detailed philosophical thought experiments, some on my philosophy blog, some in articles in philosophy journals. It seems to me that speculative fiction is the natural extension of the philosophical thought experiment. The human mind doesn’t work well when dealing with pure abstractions – we need to engage with specific examples to really work through our ideas, and the dry paragraph-long examples that philosophers tend to use in journal articles don’t very effectively engage the imagination and the emotions. If we want to reflect philosophically while using the human mind in several of its areas of strength – imagination, emotion, social thinking, concrete thinking – there is no better resource than fiction.

Historically, many philosophers have written fiction or fables – Plato, Zhuangzi, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Sartre, just to name a few. And writers of speculative fiction are often very philosophically interesting, for instance, Borges, Stapledon (who was also an academic philosopher), Dick, Le Guin, Egan, and Chiang. To me, it’s surprising and disappointing that there isn’t more interaction between professional philosophers and writers of speculative fiction.

The expository essay is only one way of doing philosophy. Fiction is another. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.

I find it interesting that you chose the title Dauphin for your title character (I can’t find it in me to call him either protagonist or antagonist, and no other readily available descriptor — love interest, partner, foil, etc. — seem to work properly either). ‘Dauphin’ is not only a very European term, its use as a royal title is quite specific to one country during a specific time period, all of which would pre-date (I _think_) the time period of this story. What made you choose this word over ‘Taizi’? There are some other hints in the story that indicate this is a world where history has played out differently. What does this particular linguistic import tell us about the larger world of your story?

I intended a world that mingles East and West, with some elements unambiguously Chinese – the characters’ names, the city of Beijing, the reference to Daoist poetry, the view of Russians as “barbarians” – and other elements very specifically European – the French “Dauphin” for the heir apparent, the English-style fox hunt, “High Table” from Oxford, and the peculiarly German academic ranking system in which “Ordinary” is higher than “Extraordinary”. The alternative history that I imagine is one in which centuries before Fu Hao, a European empire conquered China and seeded it with some European institutions, then collapsed.

I did this partly as a way to make the world clearly my own, while still being able to draw on some of the reader’s knowledge about Eastern and Western traditions. But also, the core ideas of Fu Hao’s philosophy are adapted from David Hume and Derek Parfit, who are sometimes regarded as having a Buddhist-influenced or quasi-Buddhist view of the self. Fu Hao’s book title Treatise on Human Nature is a near-miss of the title of Hume’s most important book, Treatise of Human Nature, written when he was similarly young. So I picture Fu Hao as a kind of female, Chinese, David Hume – though with the very different personality that women sometimes adopt as a way of coping with extremely sexist academic environments.

Twenty years is a geological microsecond, but is a vast stretch for a person, no matter how quickly it seems to slip away, and it can be interesting to think about what one’s characters might be doing twenty years in their futures. Do you see anything interesting in any of your character’s futures that you’d be willing to share with us?

In early drafts of “The Dauphin’s Metaphysics”, there was a final scene after Fu Hao drinks the hemlock: Fu Hao five years later, as a little girl, trying to make sense of who she is – a “great philosopher” who will “think and think and think about stuff” and who can’t quite keep track of whether Jisun Fei is her daddy or her husband. I imagine Fu Hao and Jisun Fei reincarnating in body after body over the centuries, sometimes parents to each other, sometimes intellectual partners, sometimes lovers.

What else are you working on or have coming up you want people to know about?

I’m so excited about my work – both expository philosophy and philosophical fiction! There just aren’t enough hours to do all the things I’m bursting to do. Here’s some of it:

Stories: My two favorite stories in draft are “THE TURING MACHINES OF BABEL” (all-caps sic), in which boy who lives in an infinite library follows a rabbit down into the stacks, hoping to discover the nature of his universe; and “Fafnir and Jackie”, in which a toy dragon repeatedly has his memory erased and starts anew, programmed to fall utterly in love with whoever he sees first upon waking.

I’ve also got stories in the works featuring a society’s singularity upload that goes wrong; the ethics of creating a robot who wants nothing more than to die on a mission to the sun; a giant alien who falls in love with the United States viewed as a group intelligence; a man given the choice between and ordinary life and a billion years of repetitive bliss on a seeming dance floor; and a bored superintelligence the size of the solar system.

Expository philosophy: For this, check out my academic website. I have forthcoming essays arguing that if we someday create human-grade AIs we will likely owe more to them than we owe to human strangers, because we would have parent-like or god-like responsibility for their existence and features; arguing that we shouldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility that the cosmos is radically different than we think it is (for example, that we might actually be AIs living in a small, simulated world); celebrating the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s contradictory views on death and self; and systematically exploring the moral behavior of ethics professors.

Editorial work: I’m working on a special issue of Midwest Studies in Philosophy on science fiction and philosophy, with essays from philosophers plus a couple of awesome new stories by prominent SF writers who’ve done graduate work in philosophy (Eric Linus Kaplan and R. Scott Bakker). I’ve also put together a list of 41 professional philosophers’ recommendations of “philosophical SF” – ten recommendations from each philosopher, along with brief pitches pointing to the interest of each work. (Full version here, abbreviated versions forthcoming in The Philosophers’ Magazine and Susan Schneider’s Science Fiction and Philosophy).

Blog: Readers might also want to check out my blog, The Splintered Mind, where I post at least weekly on issues in philosophy, psychology, and speculative fiction.

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