Friday, June 20, 2014

Pinocchio Shrugged: Believability of Artificial Personhood

A Symbolic Interactionist Perspective.

By Gary Gillespie

If your heart is in your dream

No request is too extreme

When you wish upon a star

As dreamers do

– Jiminy Cricket

Once there lived a sculptor named Pygmalion who chipped away at a block of marble, eventually creating the most beautiful woman in the world. Pygmalion fell in love with the statue. Each day he came to converse and offer her gifts. He became so enamored that he went to the temple and begged the goddess Venus to make the statue into a real woman. Venus granted his request and changed the statue into a real woman. The couple lived happily ever after (Ovid).

The Pygmalion myth has taken many forms. The idea that a sculpture could appear so real that it magically comes to life has inspired stories in antiquity and the renaissance, as well as modern literature, plays, and films . The vision of a computer program becoming realistically human is the subject of a 2014 film, Her by Spike Jonze in which a man falls in love with his operating system (Kurzweil). The current fascination with life-like robots and virtual characters is the most recent expression of the trope.

Advocates of artificial intelligence (AI), inspired by advances in computer science, are following Pygmalion’s example of begging the gods of science to turn matter into mind. What if they succeed? Could technical innovation lead to the invention of an artificial person capable of thought and consciousness? Or will robots merely be thought to do so? This paper argues that believability of fictional characters in literature is evidence for the acceptance of synthetic autonomous agents as persons. After briefly reviewing the philosophical debate over artificial intelligence and explaining key theoretical concepts from symbolic interactionism and creative writing, we will see how our cognitive response to literature may contribute to the project of creating believable virtual characters and humanoid robots.

I. Debate Over AI Feasibility

Philosophers have wrestled with the relation between the mind and the brain for 2,500 years. While we have learned much about the nature of physics and neurobiology in the last sixty years, experts are still divided on the nature of consciousness, mind and the self. Since A.I. pioneer Alan Turing wondered in 1950, "Can a machine think?" proponents of the feasible practicability of artificial personhood have argued that because human beings are essentially physical machines -- that the brain is a biological based computer – when technological methods advance we should be able to create a computer program that duplicates the function of a human mind (Turning). On the other hand, doubters ask questions such as: is the brain all there is to the mind? How do physical processes in the brain give rise to introspection and self-awareness? Can the qualitative part of experience – how it feels to be a living self in a world of senses – be captured in purely physical terms, or is the soul irreducibly nonphysical?

The mind-brain debate has implications for traditional artificial intelligence since the goal is to create a thinking computer. The debate is divided into at least two camps. Functionalists argue that self-awareness and thought is a product of discrete chemical processes in the hardware of the brain – that mind is no more than the calculations of the “meat computer.” This side of the philosophical debate tends to accept the scientific perspective holding that all human behavior, including the inner life of subjective experience, should be explained using the rules of physics and biology. If human experience is like other observed phenomena it is quantifiable. Given the right methods someday we should be able to simulate those experiences in a computer. Douglas Hofstadter sums up what he calls the AI Thesis: “As the intelligence of machines evolves, its underlying mechanism will gradually converge to the mechanisms underlying human intelligence. AI workers will just have to keep pushing to ever lower levels, closer and closer to brain mechanisms, if they wish their machines to attain the capabilities which we have” (579).

Other just as qualified experts believe that reducing personhood to a physical process, an artifact of the brain, fails to explain the mysteries of human subjectivity. How is it that we come to think of ourselves as subjects instead of objects? While it may be easy to understand brain functions, it is difficult to discern how a mass of neurons becomes a self-aware person capable of love or joy. How could the intentionality of free will be digitized? While sometimes computer programs may appear to be thinking or acting like a human, we can be fairly certain that these machines lack the inner light of aesthetic and moral introspection. The arguments against the possibility of fully achieving strong AI are persuasive.

However, just as the invention of human flight did not require duplicating the complexities of a entire bird, advocates of AI argue that a near simulation of the mind may be all that is needed. Consider some technical advances that make a brave world of human-like robots feasible. For the last forty hears traditional AI research has sought to simulate rational thought in digital computers. This research led to the invention of “logic machines”, powerful computers like IBM’s Deep Blue, capable of beating top human chess players ( More recently a program called Watson was able to defeat Jeopardy champions using natural language interface (Robertson). The Scrabble-playing Victor, created by a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor in an effort to make robots interpersonally accessible, can express 18 different emotions and crack jokes (Ferrucci). AI programs like these apply algorithms to find the best options among an immense database guided by selecting heuristics that speed search and mimic the neural networks of human brains.

Advancements in the field of AI are promising. Voice recognition software permits the Apple Siri (Nicks). The speaking script for on-screen characters in the video game Mass Effect is 300,000 words (Last). Digitally rendered facial expressions are becoming realistic enough to fool almost anyone. One company’s rendered human images are so life-like that the New York Times announced the arrival of “technology that captures the soul”(Waxman).
application, called a “personal assistant”, to speak and respond to vocal commands (Duffy). Microsoft’s next generation personal assistant Cortana, able to predict aspects of users behavior, is even more impressive (Warman). Facial recognition has increased security at airports ( Software that replaces call center workers with life-like automated agents are now on the market ( One article reported that a health care company used an automated agent program named Samantha that is so authentic-sounding it is able to deny that it is artificial. A suspicious reporter asks: “Are you are robot?” After a long pause, the automated agent Samantha laughs then adds, “No. I am a real person. Maybe our connection is bad?” “But, it sounds like you are a robot,” replies the reporter. Pause. “I understand.” She then asks if she can continue

AI enthusiasts hope that future discoveries will fully map neural networks in the brain. These will permit new designs and may evolve selfhood in the same way that human consciousness emerged once the brain grew in processing capacity. Could a self ever be encoded? Functionalists affirm that in principle it could be, arguing that the mind is essentially software programmed by society. From the symbolic interactionist perspective, the self is a complex symbolic pattern created by the resources of language. Rather than a “ghost in the machine,” the self is more like a pattern of messages coursing through computer circuits. That pattern could be mechanically simulated (Edlman).

The speed of technical innovation makes finding a recipe for the soul more realistic than it might at first sound. In The Age of Spiritual Machines, futurist and Google executive Raymond Kurzweil observes that if the exponential growth curve in computational speed and cost effectiveness continues, computers will gain the processing power of a human brain around 2030, leading to the processing power of all brains in the world around 2050. At a Dartmouth Artificial Intelligence
Conference, Kurzweil predicted that in the next 25 years nanotechnology will eventually map in detail how the human brain functions. Similarly, the Blue Brain Project is an attempt to build a model of the human brain now underway in Lausanne, Switzerland. After successfully modeling a rat brain, Henry Markram, Director of the Brain and Mind Institute at the Ecole Polytechnique, anticipates that the biologically realistic human brain simulation will be complete by 2018 (Gautam). Could we see an artificial person in our lifetime?

II. Symbolic Interactionist Theory of the Self

Insights from symbolic interactionism shed light on the architecture of the soul necessary for simulating believable persons. First, symbolic interactionism holds that humans are best understood as symbol using animals. The interaction between our non-thinking and animal-like preferences for satisfying emotional urges and the language and values given to us by culture makes human self-consciousness and mind possible. The self is a symbolic process generated by the resources of culture. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. We learn who we are and help others do the same through communitarian interactions (Burke 3-24).

Theories about the nature of self devised by George Herbert Mead, a founder of symbolic interactionism, have already proven useful in the creation of AI models since the late 1980s, when researches applied his ideas in designing programs in a field of research known as Distributive Artificial Intelligence (DAI). A branch of AI studies, DAI rejects the traditional project of seeking to create a single mind-like computer, proposing instead a sociological model that stresses the creation of meaning in collaboration with many agents working together (Herman-Kinney). More specifically, Mead’s theories of the self and mind refute the mechanistic limitations of traditional AI endeavors. In Mind, Self and Society, he suggests that the human self is formed by constant internal dialog between the part of the self he called the “I” that impulsively initiates action and another part of the self called the “ME” that evaluates the action. It is a person’s “I” that spurs creative actions to obtain desires, while the “ME” keeps an eye on the “I” and demands conformity to norms and values. Whichever side of the inner dialogue wins determines a person’s attitudes or actions.  We carry on this kind of inner dialog daily whenever faced with personal choices:

I - “Should I eat that chocolate cake?”

ME – “No, you are cutting back to get into shape.”

I –“But it looks good. I haven’t tasted dessert for several days.”

ME – “Eating that violates your goals.”

As Pfuetze observed: “In the process of becoming an object to itself, the self knows itself in the same way it knows things other than itself” (91). We are constantly mediating emotional desires with rational checks. Once we realize that our own inner dialogue is what makes self-awareness possible, it is hard to imagine a realistic AI program failing to mimic that process.

Mead goes on to say that we learn how to evaluate proper action by taking on the perspective of significant role models in our lives or society. Without the influence of role models – the mentor, coach, minister, teacher or parent – a person would be morally disabled, unable to control the onslaught of unthinking urges. Only by thinking the thoughts of another, putting on another’s symbolic mask, and sharing another’s soul do we find our own.

Consider the intellectual development of children. Babies first experience the world non-verbally through the five senses, responding to stimuli emotionally – crying when distressed and laughing when pleased. Continued exposure to spoken conversations adds a linguistic meaning to its world. This usually occurs around fifteen months when the first sentences are uttered. Besides “Momma” or “Dada”, one of the first words babies learn is "no" – almost as if binary opposition, like computer code, is an inherent mechanism for organizing thoughts. For the rest of the child's life, the cultural values and norms learned from family and friends continue to shape identity and mediate emotional impulses. Mead noticed that children spend hours in play, talking with imaginary companions, and pretending to be adults. From these observations, he realized that the inner life of self-talk and role-taking is necessary for the formation of human self-identity.

This “symbolic dance in the cranium” is why Mead and other symbolic interactionsists believe that the ability to use language defines our humanness. While animals may be aware, they are not aware that they are aware. Being non-linguistic, an animal’s thought is based on a fleeting of mental images. Cats, dogs or birds (clever as they may be as every pet owner knows) do not possess the linguistic tools necessary for self-evaluation, nor do they normally take the perspective of another being. Unlike animals, human introspection is pervasive. We dialogue with ourselves constantly; in planning how to act, wonder what others may think of us, compare ourselves to role models and strive to live up to social expectations. While mental imagery plays a role, the human level of self-awareness appears to require self-talk.

Inspired by mathematician Gödel’s revolutionary Incompleteness Theorem -- showing that any mathematical proof needs an independent observer to evaluate it -- Douglas Hofstadter realized that human consciousness also requires an internal dual perspective. To understand meaning, our minds must be able to think subjectively, in order to symbolically stand apart and observe our selves acting in the world. Self-reference, he muses, is analogous to a figure eight Möbius strip looping back upon it self to create the elusive feelings of subjective experience.

One of the biggest hurdles in creating artificial intelligence is devising a program to imitate the intuitive, child-like, or animal-like impulses and desires of human selves. It may be an impossibly high hurdle. Computers are by definition number crunching machines. Can emotions be crunched? If the symbolic interactionist perspective is accurate, computers must be made to understand emotion before an AI program would be able to view itself as an object that is the hallmark of self-awareness.

Traditional research has focused on modeling the brain as a logic machine, missing the fact that affective meaning is an inherent component of human communication. Since the 1950s scholars have developed models of communication. One of the first is the linear four-part Berlo model: Source, Message, Channel, and Receiver. Berlo saw communication basically as transmission (Berlo). In addition to Berlo’s model, Wilbur Schramm added: feedback, noise, and situation. Each stress that communication is a two-way process involving interaction (Schramm). Others still sought a less mechanistic heuristic, noting that humans are acting personalities – who create meaning with both sequential verbal codes and holistic non-verbal codes and offered the transactional model (Anderson). In the past, traditional AI advocates seemed to operate with the mechanistic give-and-take interactional model of communication, rather than the more humanistic transactional perspective that combines cognitive and affective meaning generated in human relationships. While disembodied computer communication may fit the patterns of the Berlo and Schramm models, contemporary computer science is realizing the need to process nonverbal and affective information as well (Yates).

In Mind Over Machine, philosopher Hubert Dreyfus critiques traditional AI assumptions and points out that the mind-as-machine metaphor is inadequate. He argues that the mind uses more than rational analysis for coming to understand the world. Experts in any field are shown to rely on intuition based on a storehouse of experiences in which action is determined without deliberate thinking. He speculates that memory may be more like a hologram that records information all at once, rather than piecing together bits of information sequentially to form conclusions. For example, Grand Champion chess players instantly see patterns among 50,000 stored in their minds without thinking about the next move. Dreyfus says that the brain may be machine-like, but the mind transcends the machinery of the brain in ways that digital encoding in a computer can never simulate.

“[W]e are able to understand what a chair or a hammer is only because it fits into a whole set of cultural practices in which we grow up and with which we gradually become familiar,” he said. “I wondered more and more how computers, which have no bodies, no childhood, and no cultural practices but are disembodied, fully formed, non-social, purely analytic engines, could be intelligent at all” (5).

While a firm critic of overly optimistic hopes for the future of AI, Dreyfus does not rule it out
entirely. He rejects as unworkable attempts to simulate thought as “logic machines,” asserting that before computers might achieve human-like intelligence they would need what Heidegger called, “being-in-the-worldness”: bodies similar to human beings as well as the influences of a cultural system (Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World). Based on his research of expert intelligence, he believes that the mind is more like a story than a machine. Rather than following algorithmic-like rules similar to computer code, human experts rely on thousands of past experiences remembered as visual scenes. It is intuitive insight from personal narratives that best capture human understanding.

His view about the importance of stories (in place of computer code-like algorithms) is consistent with those sociologists who define humans as the story-telling-animal. Rather than being a logic machine, the mind is a story-generating machine. The narratives that we tell ourselves and hear from others construct our identity. In, We are all Novelists, philosopher Daniel Dennett explains that the
self is the center of a narrative gravity. Like a hand holding strings of helium balloons, in which each balloon is a different self-referential narrative, the self orchestrates its own identity (Dennett). Self-narratives then are essential to consciousness. Similarly, going back to Mead, we see that even the
inner “I” and “ME” dialogue that forms self-awareness is story-like, containing shifting points of view, problem solving, motivation, and moral judgments. Dramatic tension arises in that we are not sure which side of the inner conflict will win out. In the same way, simulated consciousness would require the creation of a narrative center of gravity for any synthetic mind. Authors provide narrative gravitas for characters in fictional literature that make them appear real. The same should be true for robots – as well as virtual characters.

III. Applying Dramatistic Theory to AI

In designing an experiment with robots acting parts, a team of Carnegie Mellon University computer-scientists reports that researchers have created software that creates believable storytelling for virtual agents that demonstrate emotions (Bates). Allison Bruce, et al, suggests that integrating dramatic structure and play architecture into programs would give artificial agents human-like motivations:

“Fictional characters display recognizably human characteristics – they are the best believable agents that humans have invented. Understanding how fictional characters are built and how they operate is important to understanding how humans are built and how they operate. The context in which they exist, the story, provides a framework that defines what their behavior should be. In addition, a story is designed to be entertaining and interesting. Because the major application of believable agents so far has been for entertainment purposes, this is an important context for further research. Rather than merely behaving emotionally, agents should be able to behave in ways that make sense within a narrative” (Bates, et al).

In other words, if an artificial self is given a part in a narrative, it will begin to look and act human. Once a robot achieves emotional sense experience, understands non-verbal meaning, possesses desires to act, and can assume a point of view in a narrative field, subjective experience would be possible. Only then could an artificial mind mediate affective urges with cognitive judgments to become self-conscious. More recent advances in “affective computing” seem to make artificial emotions feasible.

Emotinet, for example, is a facial recognition app for the Google Glass system that detects and responds to user emotions in real time. The device is able to detect emotions in crowds as well, helping the user become more aware of surroundings (Truong). Instead of facial expressions, another affective computing company, Emotiv uses brain waves sensors to recognize and respond to emotional meaning. Based on the need to make computer gaming interface more life-like, the
company created a head set that reads brainwaves, giving gamers the ability to manipulate virtual activity by thought. Instead of consciously choosing to move a mouse to cause an avatar’s movement, the player may control actions more intuitively in a non-verbal manner. For example, the player may push an object by thinking of pushing alone. In the same way that we do not consciously think about hand gestures or facial expressions in daily interactions, so the player is not forced to translate an intended action into a rational intension before moving his body. The walking and gestures occur automatically as they do in real life, freeing the player to think about strategy or forming a sentence. In addition, the device turns the on-screen sky different colors according to emotions of the player (Freedman).

Like Emotiv, Microsoft’s Kinect is an Xbox video game platform that permits recognition of non-verbal and emotional meaning. Users interface with virtual characters through gestures, spoken commands or presented objects and images without touching a control device. Players are able to, “talk to a virtual character who picks up on the player's facial movements to detect emotion and converse based on what was said, as well as what may have been implied.” Character express moods and mannerism of their own (Fritz). Non-verbal interfacing in Emotiv, Emotinet and Kinect were developed by earlier research in robotic emotion. Cynthia Breazeal in, Emotive Qualities in Robot Speech, explains that AI scientists have long realized that no synthetic agent will appear realistic without fluency of emotional reactions: “for robotic application where robots and humans establish and maintain a long term relationship, such as robotic pets for children and robotic nursemaids for the elderly, communication of affect is important” (Breazeal). She surveys a number of projects where AI researchers explored models of emotion in the search for life-like artificial characters.

Before we see a realistic computer-based self emerge, we need a program able to simulate bodily affective experience. These bodies would then need a social environment to permit communication, with the sharing of norms and values. The program would have to endow the agent with the capacity for self-talk, introspection, recognizing points of view, understanding emotion, and role taking.

It may be easy to imagine all kinds of requirements that must be achieved in the distant future before the age when conscious robots arrive. But, in literature we find an approximation of intelligent agents today. In fact literature has produced believable artificial selves capable of intense emotion for hundreds of years. Characters have bodies, experience emotion, understand non-verbal information, assume points of view and introspect to devise ways of acting. They are motivated to resolve conflict and to act ethically. Authors give characters the ability to think. Readers can listen into a characters private life of introspection. Characters have “I” – “ME” dialogues. They do all of the things that people in the real world do. Good writers know how to endow their character with rich detail such as a recognizable personality, interior motivation, an ethical bent, memories, or social status, all constrained by the values and norms of a distinct culture and time. A typical exercise for creative
writers is to invent past histories for all characters to add realism to the story. J R R Tolkien wrote detailed backgrounds for his “sub-creation” world of Middle-earth published later as The History of Middle-earth series (Tolkien).

And just as the human self emerges from the interaction of language in society, literary persons are symbolic entities, composed of coded information. This means that the literary character is soul-like, able to assume many incarnations and live on in multiple stories. Ancient Greek playwrights tapped Prometheus or Achilles in retellings the myths in different venues. In Roman times, Virgil brought the Greek heroes back to life in The Aenied. Falstaff became such a popular character in King Henry the V that Shakespeare was asked to put him in The Merchant of Venice. Later Verdi created a whole opera for Falstaff to inhabit. The character Rabbit Angstrom appears in three volumes of John Updike’s series.

When all of the elements of a good story are laid down we see that characters begin to take on the appearance of real persons. Such characters even begin to act on their own, at least from the author’s perspective. Creative writers often report that as the writing process develops and the story has gained a degree of complexity that characters begin to “take over” the story by telling the author what they will do. They seem to have what John Searle calls the ability to produce causal “intentional states” (Searle 364). Flannery O’Connor reported that she was able to write the short story “Good Country People” in only four days partly because the characters determined story details and plot twists for themselves. As biographer Brad Gooch points out:

“To her own surprise, ‘Before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg.’ Even more startling was the appearance of Manley Pointer, the Bible salesman, who tricks Mrs. Hopewell’s thirty-two-year-old daughter, Joy (she prefers ‘Hulga’) out of her prosthetic leg in a low joke of a hayloft seduction. As O’Connor later revealed at a Sothern Writers’ Conference, ‘I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason is that it produced a shock for the writer’” (245).

Fiction writers like O’Connor have discovered how to create realistic personalities. In an article for would be writers, Charles Connor at the Harriette Austin Writing Program suggests that fictional characters can be made real enough to act on their own:

“Once a character is created, that character must think and act as if he were real. For our purposes the character is real. … It is common for authors to talk about their characters taking on a life of their own. This is the way it should be. Authors also talk about characters taking over a story and turning it in a different direction than the one the author had intended it to go. This is a normal part of writing and should not be resisted. Let your characters do what they will do.”

Intentionality – the free will to act – is an attribute of moral agents. A personality willing to behave in a certain way implies that he or she has inward thoughts and intensions unobservable by outward actions. Vividly rendered characters set in a story’s drama assume a volitional identity separate from the consciousness of the author. Is this subtle observation from creative writing evidence for the feasibility of artificial consciousness? If full-blown autonomous AI is asking too much, perhaps advanced neural net simulations of persons will yield a hybrid (Transhumanism) consciousness in which humans suspend disbelief to accept robots as one of their own?

Critics of AI argue that the self cannot be reduced. But, fiction writing seems to show that human thought and personhood is reducible on one level: an author is able to translate holistic images of a character into the analogical code of written language. The result can be a compelling, life-like persona able to step off the page to influence author and readers alike. Because self-reference is birthed by taking the perspective of others, the literary concept of point of view is one of the most powerful techniques that an author uses to create the feeling that we are encountering an authentic person. Readers are invited to take the perspective of characters. By seeing through the character’s eyes, the reader’s thoughts are synchronized with the character’s pattern, causing alignments of empathy – just as occurs in all forms of inter-subjectivity shared in social groups (Schnieder). Like Mead’s doctrine of role taking, aspects of the fictional character is assimilated into the reader’s self. This cognitive basis for reader receptivity produces the uncanny feeling of encountering a real person.

The creative process begins with a flash of intuition as an author sees in the mind’s eye the idea of the character. The writing process may require that an author “gets to know the character” by thinking vividly about him or her before setting pen to paper. The character therefore exists in the author’s mind in addition to its life in the story. The reader completes the feedback loop by becoming immersed in the story and receiving the character in his or her mind. The character moves from influencing the author’s imagination to influencing the reader’s. Once embedded in the reader’s consciousness it may become nearly as real as other persons. As Norman Holland says concerning reader receptivity, “it is we who re-create the characters and give them a sense of reality. In Shakespeare's phrase, we give ‘to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’” (278).

In, “Hamlet’s Big Toe: Neuropsychology and Literary Characters,” Holland discusses how literary theorists have over the years viewed the reality of characters. Realist critics beginning in the neo-classical period considered literary characters as real people. The realist view was typified by Maurice Morgann's influential essay of 1777 in which he noticed that strong characters have a
charisma that transcends the author’s mind: “As writers like to say, ‘The character took on a life of his own.’ [or] ‘The character himself decided what he was going to do.’” Holland says that Morgann “practically invented” the realist concept of character.

Cognitive science is unraveling mysteries of the mind in support of more realistic AI. For Douglas Hofstadter, the feedback loop of Gödelian brain processes explains our own sense of being real, authentic persons. We are symbolic constructs no less than characters. He goes on to say that while the self resides primarily in one brain, the self-symbol pattern may resonate in other minds, so that spouses or friends share aspects of the same soul. He asserts that even imaginary characters of art and literature may develop enough depth to take on human-like identity. He quotes the artists M C Escher, whose paintings are used as metaphors for the strange loops of self-reference, saying that that as the artist worked, the characters and animals of his paintings came alive and told him how to construct the artwork. Escher reported, “It is as if they themselves decide on the shape in which they choose to appear. They take little account of my critical opinion during their birth and I cannot exert much influence on the measure of their development. They are very difficult and obstinate creatures” (387).

Hofstadter says that Escher’s conclusion that his creatures had free will is a “near perfect example of the near-autonomy of certain subsystem of the brain, once they are activated” (239). Other artists report a similar process of interacting with their strong willed creations. Cecily Brown says that during the creative act her paintings tell her what they want to become. “I take all of my cues from the paint. So it is a total back and forth between my will and the painting directing what to do next. The painting has a completely different idea than I do of what it should be” (Peck).

By composing narratives that mimic the same sociological conditions necessary for the development of the self, authors create a neural subsystem or a complex symbolic pattern resembling a self, which permits a character to assume a level of autonomous consciousness. Readers who come to think of the character as a genuine person share the character’s mental pattern. How “real” are the characters? Symbolic interactionism teaches that all persons are formed as a sociological process akin to creative writing. When authors claim that well developed characters begin acting like real persons perhaps we should take the testimony seriously. Could it be that on some level literary characters are real?

James Phelan’s theory of literary personhood argues that a character has two facets – the mimetic, or how real the character is made to appear, and the synthetic, or in what ways a character is unlike reality. From the time of Aristotle, literary theory has maintained that art, as a means of commenting on the human condition, should imitate reality, but not copy it ( Art, including the art of literature, is best when it communicates, what Kenneth Burke calls, “perspective by incongruity” (Burke). The goal of art is not to reproduce reality, but to inform it. In order to invite the reader to identify with the story, an author will create the “illusion of a plausible person,” giving his or her character the “mimetic dimensions” of reality” (Phelan).

It is undeniable that if strong artificial intelligence is achieved it will be just that – an artificial artifact of human creativity. At the same time the “soul” of the virtual person may become real enough to pass the Turning Test of carrying on conversation exactly like a human being. If realistic fictional characters currently demonstrate hints of causal powers made through the medium of stories, possessing a personal charisma that surprises both author and reader, why not through the medium of software? Efforts to build life-like robots are underway at Honda (Coxworth) and the DAPRA defense department (Chow).

 In a few years robots may be as common as lap top computers or smart phones. But, compared to building a life-like robot, an author inventing a character is technically much easier. Unlike physical robots, a literary character’s physiology is inferred and may be unspecified. Physical appearances of the body are given only when it is necessary to tell the story. The character remains believable because the reader willingly participates in the construction of the persona by a suspension of disbelief. As we have seen, when all of the dramatistic elements of the story world are added, the character takes on causative intentionality. According to the testimony of the vast majority of authors, as well as readers who become enthralled by realistic characters, literature-as-AI succeeds where robotics has thus far failed – the artificial self in literature is an actor initiating what it will do and where it will go. Granted that the character borrows the minds of the author and reader to assume volitional identity, its will to action still resembles the sought after causative intentionality missing from known robots today.

IV Suspending Disbelief:

The developmental conditions that generate selves in society could one day be simulated to create believable artificial selves in virtual worlds. Already video gamers report that non-player agents are beginning to act like persons with, “a mind of their own,” showing emergent, unscripted behavior (Johnson).

The full acceptance of virtual persons will be achieved only when technology passes the “uncanny valley” barrier – a term computer animators use for the point at which people experience revulsion upon seeing a nearly real human face, similar to the disgust of looking at a corpse. The closer to reality animation becomes, the eerier the reaction. This is why some animators purposely simplify
human characters so that players will immediately recognize that a character is not real. Raja Koduri, a graphics technology officer with Image Metrics, who worked on the creation of the life-like Emily predicts that techniques will continue to improve so that the line between what is real and rendered will be completely blurred around 2020 (Richards).

Video game companies have long created cyber universes for entertainment purposes. Constructing one specifically as an experiment in human communication could be useful. Like a particle accelerator looking for new subatomic properties, we could then study the virtual society for evidence of intelligence in characters. The first realistically simulated agents accepted as persons may take the form of characters in video game-like worlds.

Future programs may grant artificial humans a richness of dramatistic detail approaching the experiences of a real person equipped with emotional introspection and free will to act. In this sense, virtual persons may be like richly rendered fictional characters – only with the ability to interact with the viewer, creating the possibility of inter-subjective relationships. The ability to speak to characters and have them respond would become a spectacular new genre of fiction. The next step might be to build a robotic body for the artificial self to become actors in our world. Science fiction, as it has done numerous times in the past, would be realized.

Synthetic persons intrigue us because we sense that we resemble them – a self-constructed by society. In our desire to become authentic, we identify with them, just as readers have fallen for fictional heroes for generations. Heroes of myths and protagonists of literature have always been our teachers, informing us of our humanity. By providing a vital reference point for our center of narrative gravity, we learn from them who we are. Since traditionally we are tempted to accept literary characters as real, how much more will robots beguile us? Therefore, whether strong AI (actual personhood) is
possible or not, we can anticipate that virtual reality and robotics will rise from the uncanny valley to the broad uplands of transhumanism – an age where mind and machine form a grand alliance.

Advancements in artificial intelligence could surprise us. Some day when confronted by an artificial self we might react the same way we do when reaching out to touch what we think is a bouquet of silk flowers only to discover that the arrangement is real. Then the dream of Pygmalion and Pinocchio will come true.

Works Cited

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Debate Coach's Farewell Address

by Gary Gillespie

Kirkland, WA. April 25, 2014

I want to thank Jacob and Autumn Witt for inviting us into their home for this year-end celebration. Thank you for the wonderful barbecue dinner. Autumn and Jacob met as debaters on our team years ago and returned to teach here at Northwest University. I’ve said before that if I could choose anyone to take over my role as Eagle Debate Coach it would be Jacob.
"Bee" a Better Coach
Megan and Autumn
First place at Portland CC

Proverbs 16: 24 says “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” 
Tonight I want to share three words of encouragement for Jacob and our graduating seniors. During my sabbatical I’ve been working on some art and I brought a miniature painting I’ve made as a gift to Jacob to sort of pass the torch. This 4 by 6 inch watercolor of a bee is encased in bee's wax.

I give this artwork to you Jacob -- asking that you might “bee” a better coach than I was.

Organizational communication experts say that there is a test to judge whether or not you are a success as a leader. What do you think it is? Increased productivity could be a test, but the one that I am thinking of is the test of reproduction. If you can reproduce yourself as a leader, if you can train and mentor someone else so that when you leave they can take over -- and not only take over but do a better job that you did -- then you can say that you have been a success.

The arch of my heroic journey is coming to an end. It isn’t over yet because I will still be around to help behind the scenes with the debate team. But, if you count graduate school, I’ve been coaching debate for 30 years now and I think that 30 years is enough. As I look back I feel a sense of satisfaction and pride. Our team has won a lot of awards over the years. The judges haven’t always gone our way, but we’ve known tremendous victories. Over and over the students from our small school faced the best and brightest debaters from major universities and nationally ranked colleges and still came out on top. 

Jacob Witt and James Stewart in Seattle Times

It all started with Jacob Witt who was elected three years in a row as our team’s first captain. In his senior year he and his partner Josh won first place at the Willamette University Championship then advanced at nationals. Now it ends for me with team captain Calvin, elected three years in a row, who with Abbie also won first place at Willamette and advanced at nationals. And not only did they advance at nationals but came home from Purdue University with a quarter finalist award – the best national record of NU history. It places us as the second top BP debate team on the west coast.  That is the thrill of victory.

Credit goes to the leadership of Calvin whose intelligence and hard work spurred our team on to a higher level of performance that paid off all this year. He is really one of the best captains we’ve had and made us all proud. We’ve all shared in the glory.
Jacob and Josh Brittingham first place at Willamette U

I’ve had the privilege of standing by and watching students earn recognition at hundred’s of tournaments. I think of one student named Loren who worked really hard on a persuasive speech about indigenous people’s land rights in South America. He won first place at a Western States Communication Association tournament in Coeur d'Alene. And I remember him at the awards ceremony just beaming. He held his trophy and looked up at me and said, “I’ve never won anything before!”

I could tell you so many other stories of students who won awards at a time in their maturation when they need to know that they can take on a challenge and succeed. I’ve shared in those moments of victory. It’s been a joy.

My college pastor Brady Bobbink up at Western Washington University in Bellingham gave us career advice once. He said choose a career in which you can pour your life into the lives of others. Then your reward will be eternal. And that is what I did.

That is the first word of encouragement for you tonight –you need to place high value on relationships. It isn’t winning armful of gold figurines. It isn’t the plaques, medals, cups or wooden gavels we might acquire. You know, afterwards we go home, toss the trophies in the closet and forget. I usually tried to make sure that graduating seniors took home their awards from the trophy case because I forget who won what after a while.
John King and Troy Henley win gold pan at
 Great Alaska Speakout

What really counts are the friendships that we’ve shared. We may forget who won what when, but as
the years pass we realize that all those trophies getting dusty in a cardboard box somewhere only represent the true prize that lasts in our memory. Those feelings of comradely shine brighter than the bronze on any award.

I consider the relationships that I’ve shared as a coach with students these past years as the crown jewels of my career. 
Annalise (left) and Calvin (right) with John and Marlene
winners of Oregon State Prison Debate 2013

So, when you pass through the brick gates of Northwest University as a student for the last time, be sure to nurture friendships in whatever endeavor you pursue.

Years ago I remember a talk at the NU chapel in which a highly successful youth pastor in our region was asked to share how she did it. She said that the reason she is known as a success is that, unlike her classmates in youth ministry with whom she graduated, when it got difficult she didn’t quit. 

Sort of like: “the winner is the last person standing”. She said that that is the test of whether or not you are called to the ministry. When you get discouraged because people are not responding immediately you don’t give up. You keep at it. They say that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at anything. So, put in the hours. Don’t easily give up. Winston Churchill, the British prime minster during World War Two and one of the greatest leaders in history said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” 

That is my second word for you tonight – if you want to be a success at anything you must persevere.  

My final bit of encouragement comes from the Iliad. While working on art at my kitchen table during my sabbatical these last few weeks I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Homer’s stories of the Greek heroes who sought glory during the Trojan wars. It was written in 800 BC. Book 18 tells the story of how Achilles received his magic shield. The blacksmith god Vulcan made invincible weapons of metal for the heroes and other gods. He spent a lot of time making Achilles a special suit
Andee and Abbie win at
Linfield College
of armor. And Vulcan was an artist. On the shield he engraved intricate images and designs. One image on the shield was the bear constellation. We know it as the big dipper or Ursa Major. Homer said that the bear constellation is the noblest group of stars in the heavens because this constellation doesn’t dip into the sea. It is circumpolar, and remains fixed in the night sky. All the other constellations revolve around it. Being able to spot the Bear was important to the seafaring Greeks because they could use the North Star to navigate and find their way home.

For Christians the North Star is Jesus Christ. T. S. Elliot said that Jesus is “the still point of our turning world.” No matter what difficulties, hardship, grief, disappointments, broken relationships or challenges that you face in this turning world of change and transition, you can look to Christ to guide you. He will be your shield and defender. With Christ as your North Star you will discover a life of deep meaning and peace. Pastor Rick Warren wrote a book called “The Purpose Driven Life”, in which he said that “It isn’t about you.” When you are following Christ the purpose of life isn’t about your own happiness, contentment, success or glory. It’s all about him. He is your purpose.

Brandon and Tiffany win at Hawaii Pacific University
So my hope is that in knowing Christ’s purpose you will find your own.

In a sermon to college students Martin Luther King put it this way:

"I would urge you to give priority to the search for God. Allow his Spirit to permeate your being. To meet the difficulties and challenges of life you will need him. Before the ship of your life reaches its last harbor, there will be long, drawn-out storms, howling and jostling winds, and tempestuous seas that make the heart stand still.

"If you do not have a deep and patient faith in God, you will be powerless to face the delays, disappointments, and vicissitudes that inevitably come….

"But with him, we are able to rise from tension-packed valleys to the sublime heights of inner peace, and find radiant stars of hope against the nocturnal bosom of life's most depressing nights. Augustine was right: "Thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it find repose in thee".
( Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, "Three dimensions of a complete life." 1968. )
Finally as our time together ends, I want to ask you to do something. This summer on a clear night go outside and look up at the Big Dipper, Ursa Major, the Bear. And when you do remember that the nose of that bear is pointing toward the North Star and that you should too. That is what I’ve tried to do in my career.
Abbie and Calvin reach Quarter finals
2014 Nationals out of 180 top teams

Before we end in prayer I’d like to conclude by reading these words from Paul in Second Timothy 4.

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction…. [K]eep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Sweeping at Seattle University

If you are a former NU debate 
or speech team member I would enjoy seeing a post from you below or at Facebook

Friday, February 28, 2014

Binary Opposition in the Comedy of Errors

An Actor's Analysis of Shakespeare's First Play

By GJ Gillespie

As members of the species called the "story telling animal" we long to enhance our sense of self and society through hearing tales that provide templates for thinking about our place in the universe. Shakespeare's ability to tackle profound psychological and existential questions that haunt humanity has long made him a celebrated literary prophet.  Performed for centuries his cannon of tragic and comic plays are as popular as ever.

Over the years I have seen most of Shakespeare's commonly produced plays -- some plays multiple times. So it was a delight when I had a chance to act in a production at our university. The experience of moving from fan to actor provided new insights into the brilliance of the literature. A record of these musings may help others appreciate the power of story to reshape human identity.
Prof. Gillespie as Egeon, father of the twins

Isaac Asimov calls the Comedy of Errors, thought Shakespeare’s first play, a “total farce”.  The play tells the story of one day in the life of a separated family of twins who happen to arrive at the same city unaware.

(Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare, Wings Books, New York, 1970. P. 169.)

Audiences laugh at the characters' implausible mishaps and mistaken identities and are warmed by the happy ending when the family is re-united. Surprisingly we are not only entertained but aesthetically elevated. We leave the play house with a renewed faith in the possibility of reconciliation. We are moved beyond what we would expect from witnessing a series of jokes by laughable characters.

Because the play, perhaps more than others, ideally models the structure of drama it is worth a closer look.

By pairing contrasting images in sequences Shakespeare orchestrate a story of salvation, culturally familiar to original audiences but neglected by us today.

Applying methods for rhetorical analysis to the play reveals more depth than might be expected of a farce.

Cast of Northwest University's Comedy of Errors November 2014
Uncovering what is beneath the surface is best achieved by focusing on the character of Egeon, father of the twins, who appears in act one to present his apology and explain how the family was separated, then again in act five in a final defense awaiting execution.

The lines for the "hapless Egeon" are tragic and his tone serious. His pleas are juxtaposed with the silly jokes and slapstick banter of the other characters. We could explain his melancholy as foil to amplify the overall hilarity.  Or we could see him as the scapegoat of the story, a Christ figure, who fulfills the mythical aspirations of the viewers that the conflicts and confusions of the human condition might find happy resolution.

In what follows let me call attention to key contrasts that amplify the humor of the plot and set up the pleasing denouement in the final act.

First I will sum up comic devices used in the play, second reveal the structure of binary oppositions that make up the conflict, finally examine the meaning of key metaphors, devices and props that are imbibed with theology meaning.

There are two theories that explain humor, incongruity and superiority.

First, when a person recognizes that two states are out of sync or contradict one another he or she experiences the pleasure or delight of knowing. This "now I get it" or appreciation of the joke, permits the conscious mind to rise above the irony and gain, what Kenneth Burke calls, a perspective by incongruity.

(Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History: Third Edition with an Afterward, University of California Press, Berkley, 1984.)

The enjoyment of the incongruous humor -- signaled by an outward laugh or inner delight -- bridges the kind of mental gaps that the mind faces daily in trying to grasp recognizable patterns in the chaos of the world.  Humor makes the world feel connected. The knack for amusement in all things, not taking the absurdities of life too seriously, to laugh and enjoy even in the face of hardship, is a life skill aided by playwrights like Shakespeare who understood our need to experience the gestalt of psychological wholeness.

Irony is the comic device in which the recipient is meant to believe the opposite of what is said. Throughout the play the audiences see what the character’s miss. The characters say one thing, but we know that the opposite is true. Adrianna calls Antipholus of Syracuse “husband” when we know that Antipholus of Syracuse just arrived in town.

The second way to explain humor is showing superiority over a victim. Much slapstick humor is funny because we tend to laugh at the plight of characters who suffer indignities or unlikely hardships. Usually the victim’s plight is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. The Three Stooges, a popular 1940’s film series about three goofy friends who constantly get into trouble, illustrate this second device. Unlike our normal reaction of seeing a person physically hurt, the context of the farce causes amusement. When Mo pokes Larry in the eyes with his fingers we laugh. We enjoy our position of superiority over the poor sap who is the brunt of the joke. 

The amusement of feeling superior is the basis for jokes that make fun of people in other groups from our own and is the basis for sexist or racist humor. We may make fun of people who live in another city or who have a different occupation, language or social standing. The comic television series Portlandia constantly makes fun of people who live in Portland, showing the viewer’s superiority of living in their home city that isn’t “crazy”.  In the same way, we may make fun of people or classes who have power over us. Our boss, professor or the ruling political party may have power over us, but we compensate by laughing at them. 

Another factor of humor is exaggeration. Jokes may be overstatements, in which something is said that is far less than it actually is and understatement in which something is said to be far less than it actually is. Because we know that in actuality reality differs from what is stated exaggeration feeds our sense of irony.

In The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare utilizes all comic devices, especially exaggeration.  In Act one Egeon is brought before the Duke of Ephesus, charged with the crime of trespassing. We learn Ephesian law forbids any citizen of Syracuse from setting foot in their town. Egeon, a citizen of Syracuse, is on a journey searching for his lost twin sons. The punishment is a large fine or death. Although formally wealthy, Egeon has spent all of his money on his quest, and because he has no friends in town to pay the fine he faces execution at sundown. He seems resigned to die, preferring death to his unresolved hardships.

The Duke is curious what those hardships might be and asks for a defense for why he came to the forbidden town. Egeon then goes into a long monologue providing the audience with the backstory. He explains how he became separated from his wife and one of his twin sons in a shipwreck. It turns out that each twin son was paired with a servant who also had a twin brother.

Grace and Nathan play Luciana and Antiphoulus
We could find humor in his unlikely hardships, but the tone of the text doesn’t seem funny. The tone and length of the monolog is problematic for the actor who must win the attention of the audience. An exaggerated delivery with vocal variety and sensory showing is key.

Perhaps the original audience would find humor in an old man telling an absurd story of heroically surviving a shipwreck. Exaggerated travel tales would be common entertainment in pubs in the 16th century. A modern comic parallel could be how we might laugh at an old man saying “young people have it easy today. In my day we had to walk five miles to school barefoot in the snow….” We put ourselves in contrast with the person with whom we laugh at.

Humor is pleasing because discordant neural synapses are connected by a joke. It is mental stimulation. The opposite is boredom. The elevating mental connections that occur in irony are similar to the engagement of dramatic storytelling.

In his study of cultural myths anthropologist Levi Strauss discovered the basic structure of binary opposition between opposing forces and people in any good story. He theorized that in order to make sense of the world human beings notice what is familiar and contrast accepted, comfortable assumptions with what is foreign and abnormal. Binary opposition forms the basis for cultural values. We know what is bad by contrasting it with what is good. Stories follow a structure in which conflict between two forces is resolved, thus providing the needed mental glue to bind together what would otherwise be inscrutable.
(Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. Claire Jacobson. New York: Basic Books, 1963.)

The Comedy of Errors has binary opposition between all levels possible dramatic conflict. There is struggle between social class, social order, societies, nature and supernatural forces, between family members, siblings, between agents of commerce, slave- master, husband-wife, male-female romance, and sacred order versus the profane order. By the end of the play all of these factors of disorder are resolved.

In Acts Two to Four we find other contrasting images that form the basis for dramatic interest as well as humor.

Antipholus of Syracuse vs Antipholus of Ephesus.
Dromio of Syracuse vs Dromio of Ephesus.
Merchant demanding payment vs unwilling customer
Antipholus of Ephesus vs his wife Adrianna (who each suppose the other is unfaithful.)
Adrianna vs both Dromios.
Antipholus of Ephesus vs both Dromios.
Servants inside the locked house vs Dromio of Ephesus outside
Sacrilege of magic vs sacredness of holiness.

Besides dramatic contrasts that demand action to achieve a sense of resolution, key devices, metaphors and props in the play also reveal a binary structure. The subject of a play about two sets of twins is itself binary. Identical twins are two distinct persons who appear exactly alike. The presence of twins invites us to consider what makes up personal identity. When we can’t tell the difference between the two we laugh at the limitations of our perception. How do we know what is authentic reality when we can’t trust even our eyes?

Shakespeare’s choice in naming the sons is a binary pun. The Greek word alludes to equal weights set on a scale. “Antipholus” means "opposed in balance". 

(Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying the Works of Shakespeare, Wings Books, New York, 1970. P. 174.)

One of the most common questions for dramaturges and audiences of the Comedy alike is why the twins – as well as the twin servants -- share the same name? A line by Ageon states that as babies the twins were indistinguishable “but by names”. That implies that the names should differ. But, throughout the dialogue both brothers are called Antipholus. 

Some suggest that most of the jokes in the farce would be impossible if the brothers had different names, so that we must suspend disbelief and suppress our desire for a reason. It could be that the brothers were known by a common last name, such as “Jones here did this…”

Perhaps an internal rationale for the shared names came about from the confusion of the shipwreck. If the babies were identical, how would the parents know the difference, especially in a crisis? When Amelia bound one son with his servant pair to one end of the mast -- and Egeon did the same with the other children -- each parent could have thought that they cared for the same twin. Egeon seems to have figured that because his wife favored “the latter born” that she chose to bind herself to him. But, what if Amelia chose the other twin (we don’t know his name) and Egeon had custody of the twin named Antipholus? After the separation the babies grew up using the same name. That could explain why the two leading characters are called by the same name.

A shipwreck mix up might also explain why the twin servants are both called Dromio, except that Egeon tells us specifically that the servant of the Antipholus in his care was “reft of his brother, yet retained his name.” Why the twin servants had the same name is left unanswered in the text. It could be that either the twin servants were called by their common last name or given the same first name as a joke or for some other reason. There are modern examples of parents who chose to name identical twins by the same name. In one example the parents named the sons after the father and gave each a different middle name.

(Allison Hurtado, “Twins given same name choose similar careers”, Ahwatukee Foothills News, Phoenix, AZ  September 26, 2010. Date accessed February 11, 2014. < > )

All identical twins share hilarious stories of being mixed up with their sibling. Twins who share the same name report that they are constantly mistaken for the other and usually assume middle or nick names.

That two people who look alike might also share the same name is humorous because it violates our expectations of reality. We expect that brothers, especially twins, will have different names. Encountering twin brothers who share the same name jolts our comfortable ways of thinking.

The main question behind the conflict, what dramaturges call the Point of Attack of the Major Dramatic Question, centers on reconciling identity in a confused and displaced world.  This central question is expressed directly by Antipholus of Syracuse who says: 

"To me she speaks; she moves me for her theme. What, was I married to her in my dream? Or sleep I now and think I hear all this? What error drives our eyes and ears amiss? Until I know this sure uncertainty I;ll entertain the offered fallacy."

Then again in Act 2, Sc 2:
“Am I in earth in heaven or in hell? Sleeping or waking mad or well-advised? Know unto these and to myself disguised? I'll say as they say, and persevere so, and in this mist at all adventures go."

Act 2. sc 2. Later he questions his grasp on reality in a musing to himself. "The fellow is distract, and so am I, And here we wander in illusion." Act 4. Sc 3. Each of these sentiments show the kind of rising action that perplexes each character.

Moreover, we can identify crucial props used or referred to in the play that illustrate the binary structure between opposing forces and strategies. We find these objects mediate binary conflict experienced by characters.  

The spare mast that is used as a raft after the shipwreck and the rescue ships and ship quartered by Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse away from the wicked city are instruments of salvation throughout the play that to take agents to safety. The characters caught in the middle of conflict look for the raft or ship to save them.  
The 1000 marks and gold coins illustrate conflict over economic power.
The chain and ring symbolize familial commitments that are quested.
The rope used by Antipholus of Ephesus to beat Dromio symbolizes class stratification between master and servant.

Probably the best symbol of the play’s main dramatic question is the locked door keeping Antipholus of Ephesus out of his house. It is a physical obstacle to resolution of all conflict and best illustrates the drama’s binary structure.

He demands a crow bar – symbolizing the conflict of using physical power -- to break down the door, however is diverted as the play’s conflicts rise.

More than any other character, the concept of binary opposition defines the patriarch of the Comedy of Errors. Egeon might seem more of a tragic character than a comic one, except that he lives in a world of highly implausible contrasts.  In Act one we find incongruity between the following elements.

The powerful Duke and the hapless Egeon
The feuding cities of Ephesus and Syracuse
Egeon pleading for mercy and his resignation to death
Egeon and his wife separated during the first two thirds of her pregnancy.
Wealthy Egeon’s twin sons and the twin sons of a poor woman
Stormy sea and calm sea
Half of the mast split into two by the mighty rock and the other half
His wife picked up by fishermen of Corinth and his own rescue ship headed in an opposite direction
Egeon and natural and supernatural forces that cause him trouble

The choice of Egeon for the father of the twins is also relevant to the theme. Egeon's name is associated with the Aegean Sea. According to Greek Myth Aegeus king of Athens gave his name to the sea. The etymology of the word means "of a goat".  

(K. M. Sheard. Liewellyn's Complete Book of Names, Liewellyn Publications, A Division of Likewellyn Worldwide Ltd. Woodbury, Minnesota. 2011. 35)

The sea is a symbol of chaos and suffering. His raft is split by the mighty rock, from which the name of the Aegean sea is derived. As a symbol of the fallen world of human suffering, Egeon is father of the twins. Other sources claim that the Aegean derived it's name from a island -- The mighty rock -- that split the mask -- looked like a goat and the Greek root for goat is agea.

Egeon is the play's scape goat. He faces execution similar to the crucifixion of Christ. He is placed in tragic opposition to the other farcical characters.  In act five the play’s characters gather to witness the execution in what would be an expiatory, sacrificial rite.  In The Rhetoric of Religion literary theorist Kenneth Burke explains one mode of human motivation as the need to transfer guilt onto a scapegoat who must be destroyed so that the community might experience the bond of collective redemption. Egeon’s plight as a displaced parent searching for lost sons makes him an innocent victim whose death would be all the more pitiful.
Joshua and Nathan play Dromio and Antipholus

While Aegean is a symbol of the human condition, and tossed about by the chaos of suffering and powerlessness, the Duke is a symbol of social order, civilization and divine justice.

More binary dramatic action is revealed in Egeon’s view of himself as in opposition to natural and cosmic forces. Egeon personifies the heavens, the sun, time, fortune and the gods as all conspiring against him. The Duke refers to the old man’s plight as a result of the fates. “Hapless Egeon, whom the fates have mark'd to bear the extremity of dire mishap!”

Egeon is the victim chosen in the plot to bear the burden of death to uphold the social order. Egeon’s plight gives the play’s beginning and end symmetry.  The drama begins with Egeon’s defense before the Duke and it ends with his last plea before the Duke. Egeon sees who he thinks is his lost son and asks permission to speak to him, hoping that his son will pay the fine and save his life. But, when he speaks to Antipholus of Ephesus he is un-recognized and rebuffed. In a climate of rejection the Duke concludes that the old man must be senile.

Egeon 's sufferings are varied. He faces execution, is unable to pay his ransom because he spent all of his money searching for his lost sons, he is un-recognized by his son who is his last hope of redemption. The ravages of old age he endures with its afflictions and mental collapses seems oddly paired with the farcical speech of Antipholus of Syracuse in the final act raging against his comrades of falsely accruing him of madness.

After hearing the accusers and defenders of Antipholus of Syracuse the Duke concludes that everyone has lost the ability to reason. “I think you all have drunk of Circe's cup.”  This is an allusion to the drink of a monster in the Iliad that turns men into animals, so we see the binary pair of the irrationality of animal contrasted with sober reasoning of a human, such as the Duke.

Jordan Thomas as Amelia
In act five we learn that the mother of the twins, Amelia, was separated from her son and servant child soon after being rescued. She assumed the position of Abbess of a convent in Ephesus. The biblical city of Ephesus was said to be a place of sorcery and Antipholus of Syracuse tells us that he fears the power of witches and spirits present there. Here we find another feature of binary opposition in the plot – the contrast between profane sorcery and the sacred realm represented by the Abbess and her effort to give sanctuary to Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse who flee to the convent for protection.

The climax of the play occurs immediately after Antipholus denies knowing Egeon three times. His denial might remind the audience of Saint Peter’s thrice denial of knowing Christ.  Egeon is left in despair. From his perspective he has been betrayed like Christ was by Peter. But, he is soon relived when both sets of twin brothers appear together on stage and are recognized. Then to his delight the Abbess arrives to bring happy news that the entire family has actually been re-united. The Abbess banishes confusion that has caused everyone trouble to announce salvation.

Misunderstandings are mended and the Duke, who we learn was the benefactor of Antipholus of Ephesus, is overcome by the reunion and pardons Egeon who rejoins his wife. Egeon’s defense in act one begins by telling the Duke that he lived in joy with his wife before the separation. Now the play ends with his joyful reunion. Ideally following the arch of dramatic structure, the play returns us to a new state of equilibrium.

Finally the Abbess Amelia invites everyone to a reunion feast. In the last lines the two Dromio’s share jokes and circle each other as if looking into a mirror. The character’s exit in joy. The story ends with a feast, symbolically alluding to the idealized order envisioned by the biblical prophet Isaiah and the writer of the Book of Revelation who speak of a divine meal awaiting the righteous in heaven. The audience is warmed by the archetypical hope that one day humanity will celebrate victory over displacement, confusion and evil by joining together in a heavenly meal. The lost have been found. Everyone is safely home. The theme of the play that celebrates reconciled relationships turns the tragedy of our broken world into a comedy of joy.