So to Susan Schneider, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, sci-fi seemed a logical way to illustrate some of the existential conundrums of philosophers over the ages, from Plato to René Descartes to David Chalmers.
“Science fiction fires the imagination and can get across conceptual ideas and thought experiments, or scenarios, that test philosophical theories,” she says. “Consider Isaac Asimov and his stories about robots and what happens if they become conscious. What does that tell us about the notion of a person?”
In her new book, Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence (Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009), Schneider mines time travel, artificial intelligence, robot rights, teleportation, and genetic modification to discuss the nature of space and time, free will, transhumanism, the self, neuroethics, and reality.
Each chapter tackles a different philosophical question via essays by Schneider and academic colleagues with titles like “Could I be in a Matrix or a Computer Simulation?” and “Free Will and Determinism in the World of Minority Report.” These discussions draw parallels between such sci-fi stalwarts as Star Trek, Blade Runner, and Brave New World, and philosophical classics like Plato’s The Republic and Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy.
The book sprang from a 2007 undergraduate Penn course of the same name, which she plans to resume in the 2010-2011 school year. The course grew of out of Schneider’s quest for a compelling way to introduce students to philosophy, plus her own research on the nexus of philosophy and cognitive science.
“Cognitive science regards thinking as computational. I examine how it shapes our understanding of the mind, the self, and consciousness,” says Schneider. “If both computers and humans arrive at answers in a computational manner, then how much of a difference is there between us and them? Not all philosophical questions involve cognitive science. But the area of philosophy I’m most interested in—the nature of our minds and thinking—is in constant dialogue with cognitive science.”