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THE Moral Machine:

A Humanistic Approach to Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Lewis & Clark College, Fall 2020

Course Description


Our civilization is developing technologies related to Artificial Intelligence and Data Science at a rapid pace. From waging war to finding love, we are integrating these technologies into almost every aspect of our lives. Humanistic disciplines, like Philosophy, History and the Arts offer many resources for adapting and confronting these profound technological advancements. In this course, we study how philosophers think about AI and Big Data. We will move fluidly between theory and practice.


Each session focuses on an enduring philosophical topic that nearly every society has cared about, like knowledge. Part of the session will involve short lectures on recent philosophical work. Most of each session will involve participation. Our hope is that participants can begin to use the philosophical research to broaden their understanding of emerging technologies, develop their own ideas, and think seriously about solutions to profound problems.

How Will the Course Be Conducted?


Like any class at Lewis & Clark College, success depends on all of us connecting and communicating with each other. Each week, come prepared to listen to each other and be willing to try out your own ideas. There is a reading list for each week, but Dr. Martinez will not assume everyone has read the material. The class is designed so you can learn and contribute each week, even if you did not explore the readings beforehand. 


We will begin each class with an overview of the main ideas for the evening. Dr. Martinez will take 15-20 minutes to explain one or two important details about the main reading for that week. We will usually have discussion group sessions for 10-15 minutes so you can listen to others and talk about your own thoughts. The last hour of class will involve a mix of lecture and large group discussion.


We will leave class with some suggestions for how we might incorporate the philosophical work into our lives. 

What Is Philosophy?


Philosophy is defined as “The Love of Wisdom.” But, what is Wisdom? As you might guess, there are many different ways to think about wisdom. Religious traditions provide one source for how to understand wisdom. We also have common sense notions of wisdom that vary between societies. In addition, scientific practices provide another resource for thinking about wisdom. 


The History of Philosophy shows us how philosophers aspire to combine many key features of religion, common sense and science. This is because, historically, the vast majority of philosophers think of wisdom in an active way. Wise people do not passively observe the world, but are actively engaged with the world around them. Philosophy, the Love of Wisdom, is first and foremost an activity. 


The activity of Philosophy is, perhaps, best exemplified by Wilfred Sellers’ definition:


“The aim of Philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things, in the broadest sense of that term, hang together, in the broadest sense of that term.”

–W. Sellers 1962


Contemporary philosophers have one main goal:  To understand how the parts of the world are connected. The Philosophy of Science provides an excellent example. Scientific disciplines offer an account of, say, love. How does the scientific image of love connect to the human experience of love?  This is a philosophical question that requires one to study a scientific discipline, like neuroscience, and also study philosophical accounts of love. The philosopher must also reflect on their own experience of love. 


(Note: this activity does not rule out that the answer, in many cases, is that parts of the world are not connected.) 


For more on what Philosophy is, see the Google drive folder “What is Philosophy?” HERE

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