Science Fiction and Philosophy

Philosopher Susan Schneider's new book examines age-old philosophical puzzles through the lens of science fiction.
September 1, 2009

Imagine you inhabit a world, three centuries from now, in which advances in biology and technology allow human beings to ‘upgrade’ their brains to become superintelligent beings. You choose to resist these neural enhancements, but you are conflicted about your decision. You cannot understand the thoughts of enhanced humans without undergoing the upgrades yourself, but you are also plagued by the possibility that their way of thinking could be flawed.

Susan Schneider, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, poses this conundrum in the introduction to her new edited volume, Science Fiction and Philosophy. She writes, “Is there some sort of neutral vantage point or at least a set of plausible principles with which to guide you in framing a response to such a challenge?” The scenario is one of many presented by the readings in Schneider’s book that challenge readers to engage in thought experiments—hypothetical situations that often exceed the bounds of physical reality but can be philosophically enlightening.

Many of the philosophical questions addressed in Science Fiction and Philosophy are age-old—the nature of knowledge, of the external world, of personhood—but they are approached through thought experiments borrowed from the world of science fiction. Schneider believes that the perspectives science fiction brings to bear on philosophical questions grow increasingly relevant as advances in areas like neuroscience and technology add to and complicate our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us.

“What is the nature of the mind if the physical brain extends to encompass things we don’t traditionally think of as part of our brain but become seamlessly interwoven with us?” - Susan Schneider

“As cognitive science began to develop,” she says, “a lot of science fiction seemed to veer into science fact with respect to the brain. The same is true in physics—physicists talk about time travel in the context of relativity theory for example. It’s interesting to consider these issues in the context of science fiction thought experiments that also provoke thought about where the future is going.”

To examine the reality of the external world, for example, Science Fiction and Philosophy offers not only Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but also an essay by David Chalmers about the science fiction blockbuster The Matrix. Ideas of free will and the nature of persons are considered in the context of the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM)—the proposition, based in cognitive science, that one’s mind is essentially a program running on the hardware of the brain. The book also explores artificial intelligence, the nature of space and time, and the new ethical and political questions generated by our changing understanding of these issues.

In her own essay for the book, “Mindscan: Transcending and Enhancing the Human Brain,” Schneider draws from her work in the philosophy of mind, which explores how the mind relates to the world that science uncovers. She considers whether CTM supports the case for radical human enhancement through technology.

“Suppose that one day we can have working memory enhancements or artificial connections to the internet inserted in our retinas,” Schneider speculates. “What is the nature of the mind if the physical brain extends to encompass things we don’t traditionally think of as part of our brain but become seamlessly interwoven with us?” These up and coming realities, Schneider explains, seem to favor CTM, which proposes that individuals are informational patterns and that the medium—artificial or organic—on which these patterns are instantiated does not play a part in defining personhood.


Schneider’s essay interrogates the plausibility of this theory by using, as a thought experiment, Robert Sawyer’s science fiction novel Mindscan. She ponders questions such as, if persons are patterns, might enhancements that cause radical shifts to these patterns be tantamount to suicide? Or, if people’s patterns are duplicated and uploaded onto artificial brains, such as that of an android, how do they remain individuals, unique and separate from their replications?

Schneider believes that a synthesis between cognitive science and philosophy is necessary to achieve an understanding of the mind that is complete enough to address such quandaries. “My own view on the nature of personhood and mind is that the conception put forth by cognitive science needs a lot of philosophical work,” she says, “and I’m reworking the philosophical commitments of CTM to address what I see as some of the problems.”

At Penn, Schneider is a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, and the newly established Center for Neuroscience and Society, which plays an important role in facilitating cross-disciplinary research that addresses the impact neuroscience makes on society.

“The new center,” Schneider says, “will be an important venue for interdisciplinary debates on what neuroscience says about timeless philosophical questions concerning the nature of persons and their minds, and relatedly, whether we should enhance our mental lives via neurotechnologies. It’s extraordinarily important to think now about these issues because scientific innovations and discoveries concerning the brain and artificial intelligence exponentially increase and complicate the ethical questions that we will face in the future.”