Interview with Susan Schneider

Susan Schneider is an associate professor of philosophy and cognitive science at the University of Connecticut. Previously she was on the faculty of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Her earlier books include The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, Science Fiction and Philosophy, and The Language of Thought: a New Philosophical Direction.

Josh Mauldin: You’ve been involved as a CTI member in the Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology both in the first year and continuing this year. How has this work influenced the trajectory of your research in philosophy and cognitive science? 

Susan Schneider: Astrobiology has definitely given me a new perspective on the nature of life, and I’ve learned of rich and perplexing problems involving how to find life elsewhere, if it is truly different from life on Earth. I’ve also been thinking about the nature of intelligent life throughout the universe, and whether there are general constraints on intelligent systems, and whether the greatest intelligences might be artificial intelligences.

JM: What led to your interest in philosophy? 

SS: Living behind the Iron Curtain. I spent my junior year abroad in Budapest, Hungary, which was then communist, or more accurately, an authoritarian dictatorship. I read Michel Foucault’s work on disciplinary institutions, and I was mesmerized by the way Foucault’s work mirrored the political situation that I was living under. Amazingly, that year I saw the Russians leave Hungary. When I returned to UC Berkeley – another communist hub — I took a course with Donald Davidson. His systematic theorizing drew me in. I was hooked.

JM: What do you see as some of the societal implications of astrobiology, whether in terms of the practice of the science itself or in terms of possible discoveries?

SS: There are so many; I don’t know where to start. The richest issue, for me, involves the question: what would be the impact of discovering life elsewhere in the universe? To answer this question we have to consider different cases: (i) a situation in which we find microbial life on a planet near us, like Mars, and it is related to life on Earth; (2) a situation where we find microbial life unrelated to life on Earth; and (3) finding alien intelligence.

JM: Working in philosophy, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence, you’re no stranger to interdisciplinary inquiry. Has working in astrobiology and its societal implications further stretched your interdisciplinary work?

SS: Much of the work I do is with kindred spirits interested in consciousness and awareness who come from all sorts of disciplines: philosophy, physics, astrobiology, neuroscience, etc.  My work at CTI has introduced me to people who are now my colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study and YHouse in NYC, where we continue to ponder issues involving intelligence in the universe, new methods of ultra-fast space travel, and especially, the nature of artificial intelligence. You can learn of some of these issues in my new piece in Nautilus. 

JM: As someone who regularly publishes articles and essays aimed at a general public, what do you see as the public role of philosophy and science, including astrobiology?

SS: Too much philosophy consists in writing highly technical journal articles that only a handful of specialists read. But the issues are often of interest to a wide audience, involving topics like the nature of the self,the existence of God, the nature of truth, the relation between science and value, and more. It is important to share our insights, and to dialogue with others from backgrounds we can learn from, who aren’t trained in “insider” language. Further, given that I am currently interested in topics like AI, brain enhancement, the nature of the self, and so on, it is important to inform the public, and to engage in dialogue with scientists and policy makers. If my work is inaccessible to them, this can’t happen.