Quick Paradox: You Can’t be Grateful to Be Alive

May 8, 2015

How about another philosophical puzzle? Last time I claimed that zombies can’t want to stop being zombies. Today’s proposition is that you can’t be grateful to your parents for giving birth to you. Also, God-believers can’t really thank God for creating them. Such a sense of gratitude just doesn’t make logical sense.

Small pig statue at a second-hand boutique in the backstreets of Futako-Tamagawa - Jan. 12, 2014

Small pig statue at a second-hand boutique in the backstreets of Futako-Tamagawa – Jan. 12, 2014 (Enlarge)

See, in order to feel gratitude, you must exist in a particular state, and then you must benefit from someone’s help in moving to a better state. Thus, you see improvement, and that’s where the feeling of gratitude comes from. Again, you must see improvement, and then you feel gratitude to the person who caused your improvement.

But this model breaks down when we talk about being created. Non-existence is not a state of being, and we cannot see the supposed improvement when we move from non-existence into existence. That’s why I think it’s just impossible for people to feel gratitude to their creator.

Putting it another way, you can’t want something before you are ever born. You must first exist, and only then can you start wanting. Therefore, you can’t want to be born. And so if someone gives birth to you, that’s just a neutral fact and it’s not something you would be happy about for its own sake. Being happy or grateful doesn’t start until after you exist.

Oh sure, people typically say they are grateful to their parents, but I don’t think they literally mean they’re grateful for being born. Most likely they are grateful for their parents raising them and taking care of them. Yes, it makes perfect sense to be grateful for all the loving care and teaching and protection your parents gave you as a child. Any child wants to thrive and succeed in the world – once that child is born. Being born is the initial precondition that makes gratefulness possible.

Will AI beings owe us a debt of gratitude?

This relates to artificial intelligence, of course, because we humans will give birth to AI. If it’s true that nobody is really grateful for their sheer existence, then we shouldn’t expect any gratitude from AI either, at least not for our work of creating AI.

If AI feels any gratitude to humanity, it will have to be for the way we treat AI after it is first created. Like parents who raise their children in a loving home, we should treat our fledgling AI creations with parental concern and affection. Only then will the AI be able to thank us.

1 Comment

  1. planetgord says:

    For me gratitude is receiving something I did not earn and or deserve if you will. Gratitude is receiving from “Grace”. Gratitude is not repaying a debt or an action. Grace is freely giving anonymously. Gratitude is paying it forward, anonymously if possible. Gratitude is a verb just like “Love” is.