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 Continue reading “Interview: Science Fiction and Philosophy – From Time Travel to Superintelligence”

Philosophy and LOST

Now that LOST has officially ended after six seasons, the question being asked is “was this a ‘long con?'”  Those of us who have been there since the beginning and stayed until the end are likely to have mixed feelings following this week’s finale, though the fact that there remain unanswered questions cannot be too much of a surprise.  Lost is well known for its elaborate and suggestive use of Eastern and Western mythologies, and for characters named after philosophers from the obvious (Bentham, Hume Locke, Rousseau) to the cleverly concealed (Bakunin, Burke, Godwin, C. S. Lewis) and the downright obscure (De Groot, Baba Ram Dass).  In addition, many scientific theories – including quantum mechanics, time travel, atomic energy and electromagnetism – all play an central part in the plot of the show alongside more fundamental philosophical questions about truth, identity, memory and morality.

Given the range and complexity of the ideas that make an appearance, and compounded by the temporal dislocation which serves as the show’s leitmotif, it’s no wonder that casual viewers started to feel increasingly ‘lost’ with a show  which finally ran to more than 90 hours. But it is undoubtedly the complexity and openness to interpretation which is woven into the narrative structure of the show that makes it such a flexible forum for exploring philosophical themes in a pop culture context. Continue reading “Philosophy and LOST”

Boundaries and Control

You probably know that traveling back in time to kill your grandfather is not only unethical, it’s also prohibited by the laws of nature.  This isn’t because the laws prohibit travel to the past (in fact, there are several speculative models of current physics that allow for it) but because killing someone who fathered your father means you aren’t born (and thus not in a position to travel back in time and do the dirty deed).  What you may not know is why this restriction on your action seems especially onerous.  In a recent Discover article, CalTech physicist Sean Carroll argues that the difference can be explained by an appeal to boundary conditions.

Why should boundary conditions matter?  The clearest answer is provided by Continue reading “Boundaries and Control”

Science, Santa Claus, and Philosophy

If you are one of those Santa-skeptics (you know–the kind who thinks Mom and Dad are responsible for all those presents under your Christmas tree) then there’s a book written just for you: The Truth About Santa, by Gregory Mone.  This book is for readers who respect science enough to know that the traditional story of Santa Claus faces serious and familiar challenges.  For instance, according to animal physiologists, reindeer can’t fly; a thorough study of satellite images fails to reveal a workshop at the North Pole; and rudimentary mathematical skills are enough to confirm that a journey to two-hundred-million chimneys takes 190 years (not one night) if each stop lasts only thirty seconds.

How, according to Mone, does Santa do it?  Simple: Continue reading “Science, Santa Claus, and Philosophy”