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Miles Elliott '19 holds two virtual reality controllers

Miles Elliott '19 holds two virtual reality controllers

The Trolley Solution

How faculty and students in philosophy are using virtual reality to make thought experiments a little more real. 


Go into any intro to philosophy class and you’ll find a thought experiment that goes like this: A runaway trolley is headed for a group of five people stuck on a train track. Next to you is a lever that, if pulled, can divert the trolley to a different track. The dilemma: There’s one person caught on the other track, too. What do you do? Kill one person or five?

This thought experiment is called The Trolley Problem and it drives Erick Ramirez, assistant professor of philosophy, a little nuts. Not only is the premise bizarre, he argues, but it’s a hypothetical exercise that the participant has little chance of completing with any accuracy. 

“People stink at correctly simulating environments in our heads,” Ramirez says. “What we’re actually doing is we're trying to predict our behavior.” 

As a result, the exercise isn’t as valuable as it could be. Ramirez believes the solution lives, oddly enough, in video games. He and associate professor Scott LaBarge decided to recreate thought experiments like The Trolley Problem in virtual reality simulations and, with the help of Miles Elliott ’19, they’ve produced several virtual reality simulations that force people to make “real” choices.

“I think that’s more useful for talking about moral judgments or what philosophical theories ought to be given more weight,” Ramirez says.

Besides being a more genuine intellectual exercise, Ramirez thinks VR could help students understand thought experiments better and even aid in psychological research. Ramirez says there’s already evidence that suggests social experiments—such as Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments— recreated in virtual reality can garner similar results to the original.

With VR headsets, Ramirez could also track a variety of variables, like head movements to identify where people are looking when they make a decision. Also, he could control elements that could introduce bias. For example, in the traditional trolley problem, the physical makeup of the people on the track is up to the individual. In the VR simulation, it’s set. 

Video game depiction of train heading toward lumberjacks who are pinned to tracks.

What would you do? Virtual reality forces students to decide who they’d actually save from the runaway train in The Trolley Problem.

“Maybe I’m picturing all women. Maybe your men have red hair. Maybe the men I’d picture have blonde hair or something like that,” Elliott says. “There are all these details that you or I might not even think to talk about because we’re just not starting from the same place.”

Elliott, a philosophy major, has handled the heavy lifting on designing the game, which has been a hobby of his since his early teens. His goal throughout this project has been to make the game believable as a simulation. Anything that takes you out of the scenario can affect the reality of the subject’s reaction and quality of the results.

For The Trolley Problem, Elliott says the original premise doesn’t make sense in a modern context. So, they changed the trolley to a train in a lumber yard. The people on the tracks are lumberjacks who have been pinned by a fallen tree, rather than tied there by some unnamed villain.

In addition to The Trolley Problem, the team is working on a half dozen other simulations including Judith Jarvis Thomson’s The Violinist—where a person is kidnapped and required to spend nine months hooked up to a world-renowned violinist in a coma to keep him alive or unhook themselves and let the violinist die. The thought experiment is intended to defend abortion.

Elliott says he’s excited to be adding to the work of people he admires.

“The coolest part of this is Thomson did this really important philosophical work 40 years ago and now we can say, hey, instead of talking about your same experiment, we created it and here’s what we found people did,” Elliott says.

SCU has made these simulations available for researchers and faculty at other schools to download free of charge to expand the impact and collect data.

Support for this research comes in part from a partnership between Santa Clara University and Oculus Education. Oculus selected SCU as one of several institutions, including Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell, and other prestigious universities, to examine how virtual reality (VR) can impact learning outcomes.

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Miles Elliott ’19, a philosophy major, helped recreate thought experiments in virtual reality environments. The sticky notes behind him are part of an idea board for students in the Imaginarium.