Rod Serling's Twilight Zone was an outstanding TV series that ran from 1959-1964. The episode "The Lonely" aired in November, 1959. I have seen it several times, thanks to the semi-annual Sci Fi channel TZ marathons. There is one in progress as I write. One can extract quite a bit of philosophical juice from "The Lonely" as from most of the other TZ episodes. I'll begin with a synopsis.
James A. Corry is serving a 50-year term of solitary confinement on an asteroid nine million miles from earth. Supplies are flown in every three months. Captain Allenby, unlike the other two of the supply ship's crew members, feels pity for Corry, and on one of his supply runs brings him a female robot named 'Alicia' to alleviate his terrible loneliness. The robot is to all outer appearances a human female. At first, Corry rejects her as a mere robot, a machine, and thus "a lie." He feels he is being mocked. "Why didn't they build you to look like a machine?" But gradually Corry comes to ascribe personhood to Alicia. His loneliness vanishes. They play chess with a set he has constructed out of nuts and bolts. She takes delight in a Knight move, and Corry shares her delight. They beam at each other.
But then one day the supply ship returns with news that Corry's sentence has been commuted as part of a general abolition of punishment by banishment to asteroids. Allenby informs Corry that there is room on the ship only for him and 15 lbs of his personal effects. Alicia must be left behind. Corry is deeply distressed. "I'm not lonely any more. She's a woman!" Allenby replies, "She's a robot!" Finally, after some arguing back and forth, Allenby draws his sidearm and shoots Alicia in the face revealing her electronic innards. Corry's illusion of Alicia's personhood — if it is an illusion — dissipates and regretfully he boards the ship. The thirty minute episode ends with Serling's powerful closing narration:
On a microscopic piece of sand that floats through space is a fragment of a man's life. Left to rust is the place he lived in and the machines he used. Without use, they will disintegrate from the wind and the sand and the years that act upon them; all of Mr. Corry's machines — including the one made in his image, kept alive by love, but now obsolete — in the Twilight Zone.
The episode raises a number of philosophical questions. Here are just some of them.
Q1: Does personhood depend on what something is made of?
Corry is aware that Alicia, 'out of the box,' is a robot, a human artifact, and this knowledge inclines him to regard her at first as incapable of instantiating those attributes we associate with personhood: sentience, the ability to feel and express emotions, the ability to reason, and others. His thought is: She can't be a person because she is not made of flesh and blood. But why should personhood require any particular material constitution? Why couldn't personhood be realized in different sorts of stuff? Not just any kind of stuff, of course, but sufficiently well-organized stuff. (You can't make a valve-lifter out of sawdust and spit, or a Phoenix monument out of ice, but the valve-lifter function is realizable in a variety of different materials with the right sorts of properties.) In human beings such as Corry personhood is realized in a biologically human material substratum. But what is to stop personhood from being realized in some other sort of substratum, perhaps even a nonliving substratum? Is being biologically alive a necessary condition of personhood? (If I am not mistaken, John Searle would answer in the affirmative.)
When Allenby shoots Alicia in the head, revealing the electronic gadgetry inside, Corry's sense that Alicia is or was a person dissipates. But if someone had blown open a whole in Corry's skull, revealing brain matter, no one would take that as proof that Corry was not a person. Why is only one kind of material constitution capable of supporting consciousness, self-consciousness, and the rest of the attributes of personhood? Is personhood perhaps a functional notion?
Q2: If a person can be built, does this show that a person is purely material, or does the mind-body problem exist in this case as well?
Suppose that by the assembly of the right kind of material parts, one constructs a non-biologically-human but nonetheless full-fledged person. I don't mean what philosophers call a zombie, but a full-fledged person such as Alicia is portrayed as being in the TZ episode we are discussing. Thus the supposition is that this robotic person does in reality feel sensations and experience emotions. (Don't worry about how we would know this to be the case. After all, how do I know that my wife in reality feels sensations and experiences emotions? Not that doubt it for a second.)
The robotic person has a mind and a body. How then does the mere fact that the robotic person was constructed from material parts, indeed biologically inanimate material parts, show that she is purely material? Dualism, and perhaps even substance dualism, seems compatible with being constructed from material parts. Or does a person's having a material origin show that dualism is false?
Q3. Is mentality or personhood a matter of ascription? A matter of the taking up of Dennett's "intentional stance?"
As Corry interacts with Alicia, he gradually comes to accept her as a person and a friend. After pushing her away in one scene, he interprets her verbal report, "You hurt me," and her tears as evidence of personhood. Could it be maintained that personhood is not a matter of some 'inner' reality, but a matter of ascription from the point of view of one who takes up the "intentional stance" with respect to an object of interpretation? Could one say that Alicia is a person, but that her personhood is not intrinsic but ascribed from without? But then you would have to say the same thing about Corry. Is it coherent to think of Alicia and Corry alone on their asteroid ascribing personhood to each other, thereby constituting each other as persons? For more on Dennett's views and my critique of them, see my Dennett category.
Q4. Is personhood and the uniqueness essential to personhood engendered by love?
Alicia was made in man's image, and "kept alive by love" as Serling intones in his closing comment. Alicia's value to Corry has something to do with his perception of her as unique, as a Thou to his I, as an irreplaceable individual, and not merely as an interchangeable instance of properties. Personhood seems to include such notions as irreducible individuality, ipseity, interiority. These are not empirical attributes. How are they given? How constituted? Are they engendered by love? Josiah Royce had interesting things to say on this topic. Do we first become persons in a loving I-Thou relation? See Royce category; in particular, Royce Revisited: Individuality and Immortality.