I Compute, Therefore I Am

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | October 22, 2009 6:06 pm
Science-fiction has long tackled the biggest questions about the human condition: What is reality? What makes us human? What is consciousness?
So to Susan Schneider, [http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~sls/index.html] 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?”
Also, with science fiction rapidly becoming science fact, many of these questions have practical implications.
In her new book, Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence (Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009), [http://www.amazon.com/Science-Fiction-Philosophy-Travel-Superintelligence/dp/1405149078/ref=ed_oe_p] 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.”

sci-fi-losophy225Science fiction has long tackled the biggest questions about the human condition: What is reality? What makes us human? What is consciousness?

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.”

— Guest-blogger Susan Karlin

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Philosophy, Time Travel

Comments (22)

  1. Interesting! I think I will read it. I’ve talked in my podcast about the relationship between science and science fiction (Arabic podcast). It’s interesting to see how science fiction relates to philosophy.

    I especially like the idea of the human computational thinking.

  2. Dennis Homo Sapiens Nilsson

    @Mohamed Qasem
    I’s great that you inform about science and science fiction in arabic. Possible your work could inspire some youngsters and great minds in the arabic world to work with science, and for mankinds bests.

  3. I’m trying my best. Science is missing from the Arab world. Unfortunately, the number of science podcasts can be counted on one hand (with 2 fingers chopped off). It’s ridiculous! I feel like I’m dropping a pebble in the ocean. I’m creating small insignificant ripples. My podcast’s effect is that of particles in the quantum world.

    Thanks for the encouragement

  4. Some of sci-fi’s most interesting examinations of such issues emerge in the moments when creators decide that they are not going to tackle seemingly philosophical questions.

    Asimov, as the best example, decided that the ‘beware your creation’ story was hackneyed and offered no new ideas and vowed never to write one. The challenge for him then became writing robot stories in an entirely different vein, which he did with great virtuosity.

  5. Paul

    Take a look at The Philsopher at the End of the Universe by Mark Rowlands. Very good introduction to Philosophy explained through science fiction movies.

  6. NewEnglandBob

    tap. tap, tap. Is this thing on?

    Anyone home here?

    Did it all turn fiction?

  7. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Hey, Bob. Actually we’re re-loading SNF for a re-birth. Lots more stuff to come.

  8. NewEnglandBob

    OK, I was just curious. Thanks

  9. NewEnglandBob

    Burtenshaw, apparently communicating in proper English is not one of your strong points. Why would anyone hire the barely literate?

  10. Stanley H. Tweedle

    Science Not fiction, you haven’t posted a new entry for some time right now!

    What’s happening?

  11. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @Stanley: See my above comment. We’re working on SNF 2.0.

  12. Stanley H. Tweedle

    OK, when can I expect it to be launched?

  13. Thanks for sharing the information, can’t wait the SNF 2.0 then. Just curious for that things :)

  14. Joe Jance

    I just put down Science Fiction and Philosophy after getting about 1/2 way through. Its a decent read, but rehashes a lot of previous works I had already read.

    If you have read any philosophy, or read works by Dan Dennett, Ray Kurzweil or other futurists, you will probably get bored. Sections of this book are simply excerpts from those authors’ books. However, if you are new to a lot of these concepts then you might really enjoy this book.

  15. so nicely written about Science Fiction and Philosophy :) Computer is everything nowadays…

  16. I think this article is interesting. I enjoy philosophy and technology. I have not heard about this book before, but it sounds like something I might go out and get. This has really peaked my interest.
    I really need to learn more about Cognitive Science.

  17. Hunty

    I just put down Science Fiction and Philosophy after getting about 1/2 way through. Its a decent read, but rehashes a lot of previous works I had already read. the tudors season 4 episode 6 | brothers and sisters season 4 episode 23

  18. NewEnglandBob

    Hmmm, October 22, 2009; now June 5, 2010: SNF 2.0 is taking a whole lotta planning.

  19. Anyone know where i can buy this book?

  20. CA

    Science-fiction literature could indeed be regarded as a thinking tool, but it could also help to build some sort of collective reflexivity and responsibility towards the future.
    For some complementary thoughts in a political theory perspective, see also: http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2009/07/31/science-fiction-and-social-theory/

  21. It helps to if you have some article spinning tools I have been using Spinner Chief, and why not its free and it has great little options on it like auto identify synonms and it replaces them for you on the fly. Bad a$$! Article Rewrite Software

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