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UNESCO celebrates World Philosophy Day

Rodin's 'The Thinker'
Rodin's 'The Thinker' Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
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What makes you, you? Will AI ever be as real as a person? These are the questions proving why UNESCO World Philosophy Day matters.

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Happy World Philosophy Day! 

Celebrated on the third Thursday of November every year, World Philosophy Day is a UNESCO initiative to highlight the importance of the discipline.

UNESCO first created World Philosophy Day in 2002, when it was celebrated on the 21 November. UNESCO encourages its partners (from governments to schools) to engage with philosophy on the day through activities that encourage “free, reasoned and informed thinking on the major challenges of our time.”

It’s all quite a lovely idea, isn’t it? 

To celebrate World Philosophy Day, here’s Euronews Culture's quick lowdown on how philosophy is still important today.

What even is philosophy?

You might have heard someone refer to philosophy as the original academic discipline. In many ways that’s true. 

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek for a “love of knowledge” and in Ancient Greek societies, academics of all branches were often referred to as philosophers.

From Aristotle’s revolutions in medicine through to Zeno’s physics problems – all of it counted as philosophy in the ancient world. Back then, a philosophy was expected to be invested in all kinds of knowledge.

Today, being both an expert in ontology and ophthalmology at the same time is a bit too large an undertaking. As fields like medicine, physics and mathematics expanded, so too did the need for specialisation. 

The question is, what is left for philosophy to discuss?

The fun answer: Everything. Philosophy is sometimes reduced to being “thinking about thinking” and while that can be meant pejoratively, it’s also something to embrace. Philosophy classrooms are often places where topics of everyday life are analysed for its core components.

Here’s an example. What’s necessary to form our individual sense of self? It might sound like a pretty abstract question, but in today’s world, as AI becomes increasingly important to society, we will have to start asking questions about whether the AI is sentient and deserving of rights just as much as a human is.

How developed must artificial intelligence be before we have to start considering it as a sentient being? It’s a complex question, and one that few people agree upon. 

To give you a flavour of just how complicated the question is, here’s one you have to answer beforehand: What even is an individual person?

What makes you, you?

A neurologist could give a convincing answer. It all comes down to the particular design, and alignment of our brains. If you could feasibly create a perfect identical copy of your brain – and for argument’s sake the rest of your body – that copy would be identical to you. It’s believable that they’d have the same memories, the same thoughts, and mannerisms that you have.

Would the copy actually be you though?

It might sound like a trivial question, but it was a core point in British philosopher Derek Parfit’s seminal 1984 ethics book ‘Reasons and Persons’. For Parfit, the pertinence of working out what constituted the same person was related to working out what we owed strangers and our future selves in an ethical way.

Whether or not you want to apply Parfit’s ethical framework though, his thought experiment in the book is fascinating for striking up debate over personal identity.

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Parfit suggests a teletransporter, not unlike the ones featured in Star Trek transporters. The transporter scans you and communicates with another teletransporter to replicate every atom of your body in the same position. The only catch is, it obliterates the body that stepped into the transporter.

Here we have the situation the earlier neurologist described in reality and depicted by Star Trek. In the show, characters continue on with their lives as if they themselves have been transported. This is a view largely consistent with what’s called the psychological continuity theory of identity. If instead you think the transporter has just killed you and made an eerie copycat version, then maybe you subscribe to a view that cares about material continuity or the persistence of a non-physical element of consciousness like a soul.

Parfit puts a twist into the experiment. 

What if the transporter was improved and it could recreate you in the other machine without the need for obliterating the original. It’s this devilish twist that defines his approach to ethics. 

While we won’t go fully into that view here, if you believed the first transporter effectively transported you, has the improved transporter changed your mind?

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