Interview: Science Fiction and Philosophy – From Time Travel to Superintelligence

Susan Schneider is an assistant professor of philosophy (University of Pennsylvania), and the author of Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence. As well having an avid interest in science fiction since her college days, she is now a faculty member in UPenn’s Center for Neuroscience and Society, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN) and the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science (IRCS). In this interview, Susan talks about why her students respond so well to the use of science fiction to illustrate philosophical ideas, and why she finds the crossover so fertile.

Philosopher’s Eye: Why did you decide to write Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence?

Susan Schneider: I was teaching a class called “Science Fiction and Philosophy” that used science fiction films and writings as a route into philosophical puzzles involving the nature of the self and the nature of ultimate reality. For example, I assigned Isaac Asimov’s robots stories as a means to inspire interest in philosophical issues surrounding AI and robotics. We then moved from this to the issue of whether our minds are computational, a major issue in contemporary philosophy of mind.  And we viewed a time travel film, Twelve Monkies, as a route into the Grandfather Paradox. The students loved it. By the end of the course I found that I already had a table of contents for an anthology on this topic.

PE: What’s the central concern of the book, and why is it important?

SS: The book uses science fiction thought experiments to fire the philosophical imagination. I play close attention to the convergence between science fiction and science fact, so that many of the thought experiments raised are (at least arguably) technologically possible. For instance, the reader is challenged to determine whether she would enhance her brain, becoming a ‘cyborg’, and whether we are in fact in a computer simulation, as Nick Bostrom urges in his piece for the volume.  Each section develops a theme that is built upon by subsequent sections, so that one discovers more and more about the philosophical questions raised in the beginning of the book. For instance, we begin with a section on external world scepticism, turning then to the nature of persons, including whether they have free will. This naturally raises the question of the fundamental nature of mind, and especially the idea that the self or person is a computational being. From this, we turn to the field of applied ethics, investigating neuroethics and also, ethical issues concerning advanced AI and robotics.

Throughout the book, the articles, science fiction stories, and actual world examples make the traditional philosophical topics “come alive” for newcomers to the field, especially. And of course I include a section on space and time, in which a time travel story is used to inspire the reader to investigate the nature of space and time. Here, I wanted the reader to feel a sense of bewilderment in the face of how we actually know about space and time.

PE: And what is it that draws you to this topic?

SS: In college I was a sci fi buff, as well as a futurist. Professionally, I work in the subfields of philosophy of mind/cognitive science and metaphysics. I also dabble in philosophy of science and applied ethics. I’ve always found the dialogue between these subfields and science fiction to be very rich.

PE: What sort of reaction do you hope it will get?

SS: I want the reader to be immersed in the issues, feeling that the traditional philosophical topics are gripping, and in many cases, connect with futuristic– and quite surprising– technologies under way. An example of this is the section on external world scepticism, which reaches back to Plato and Descartes, but also discusses Bostrom’s aforementioned position that we are, in fact, in a simulation. In the context of considering the traditional “brain in a vat” scenario, I raise the case of Thomas DeMarse’s  early version of a “brain in a vat.” It is constructed from rat cortical tissue, connected to a supercomputer, and flies a flight simulator over at the University of Florida.

The book has been out for about a year now, and I was thrilled to learn the book is being translated into two languages. And it was adopted in philosophy courses ranging from introduction to philosophy to philosophy and film. I was also thrilled to hear from science fiction writers who enjoyed the book, including my favorite sci fi writer, Robert Sawyer, who discussed it on his blog. I actually got to chat with him recently – it turns out that the same sort of philosophical issues concern him.

PE: What sort of audience did you have in mind when you wrote it?

SS: I wanted it to be accessible to students of philosophy as well as laypersons who enjoy science fiction, but also, I wanted it to be of interest to professional philosophers. In this vein, I tried to include pieces which I thought were very insightful on classic topics, but which philosophers may not have read yet. For example, I wanted to introduce philosophers to some papers in the transhumanist tradition (see the chapters by myself, Bostrom and Kurzweil), as I believe they inform a variety of important philosophical topics.  Also, each section of the book builds upon earlier ones.

See the related lecture ‘Living in a Neurosociety: A Neuroethics Overview’ by Dr. Martha Farah, professor of natural sciences and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Penn.

PE: Is there another book you wish you could claim credit for?

SS: I’m quite tied to most of Nietzsche’s books, but I’d rather he had the credit for them 🙂

PE: What’s your current project? What’s next?

SS: I’m just finishing a book called The Language of Thought: a New Philosophical Direction (MIT Press) that rethinks one major approach to the computational nature of mind. I urge that the language of thought program must draw heavily from neuroscience, and I develop a computational approach to higher cognitive function.  And I refashion LOT’s theory of symbols, modes of presentation, and concepts.

I am also currently writing a book called The Mind Body Problem: Rethinking Solution Space that reworks the currently popular solutions to the mind-body problem, arguing that many of these solutions have failed to come to terms with the metaphysical categories of substance and properties. The views either fail or need to be significantly rethought in light of object and property natures. Naturalistic property dualism, for instance, becomes a species of substance dualism. The only viable physicalism is one in which fundamental reality consists in a spatiotemporal mosaic of tropes having causal natures.

Author: Mr Cooper

I am a teacher. I love THINGS. THINGS are the doorway into knowledge and understanding.

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