Susan Schneider

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Dr. Susan Schneider

Susan Schneider is an American philosopher. She is a professor of philosophy and cognitive science at The University of Connecticut, a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and a faculty member in the Ethics and Technology Group at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University.

Academic areas[edit]

Schneider's main focus is the nature of the self and mind. Within the fields of metaphysics and philosophy of mind, much of her work explores the nature of thought, especially in light of discoveries in cognitive science and work in contemporary metaphysics. She has argued that the brain is computational, and has developed a new version of the language of thought ("LOT") position. But while supporting computationalism about the brain, she is a critic of physicalism about the nature of the mind, arguing physicalism is ill-conceived.[1][2]

She is also actively engaged in debates over artificial intelligence (including superintelligence) and brain enhancement (see mind uploading) and uses ideas from contemporary metaphysics, ethics and cognitive science, interlaced with science fiction thought experiments, to illustrate flaws in positions.[1][3] In an article for a NASA publication she argues that the most intelligent beings in the universe are likely to be superintelligent robots.[4]

Discussions of her work have appeared in The New York Times, Wired Magazine, Humanity+, Big Think, 3 Quarks Daily, Discover Magazine, Science Magazine, Motherboard, Slate (France), Popular Mechanics, and more.[1][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12]

Her work was recently the subject of a documentary TV episode.[2]


The Language of Thought

Schneider has framed a new version of the language of thought (“LOT”) approach.[13][14][15] According to the LOT approach, humans and even non-human animals think in a “language of thought” - an inner mental language that is not equivalent to any natural language. This mental language is computational, for thinking is regarded as the algorithmic manipulation of mental symbols, where the algorithm is to be identified through research in cognitive science.[16] The “Classical Computational Theory of Mind” holds that part or all of the brain is computational in this algorithmic sense.[17]

In her book on LOT, Schneider contrasts the LOT approach to its chief foe, the connectionist or neural network approach, urging that both approaches are insightful. She holds that the brain is probably a hybrid system — being both a symbol processing engine, and having neural networks. In particular, deliberative, conscious thought is symbolic, but it is implemented by neural networks.[13][14][15]

LOT’s chief philosophical architect, Jerry Fodor, has argued the cognitive mind is likely non-computational.[18][19] Schneider argues against Fodor’s pessimism, illustrating that the development of sophisticated computational theories of cognition, as well as artificial general intelligence ("AGI"), are on the horizon.[13][19]

Schneider also defends a view of the nature of the mental symbols (where such are the basic vocabulary items in the language of thought). She then used this conception of symbols, together with certain work on the nature of meaning, to construct a theory of the nature of concepts.[20] The basic theory of concepts is intended to be ecumenical, having a version that applying in the case of connectionism, as well as versions that apply to both the prototype theory and definitions view of concepts.[13][21]

The Metaphysics of Mind

Physicalism holds that everything is made up of entities that physics says are fundamental, such as particles, fields or strings. Schneider urges that the success of computationalism does not require physicalism to be correct.

Schneider claims some of the most popular versions of physicalism are at odds with commonly accepted positions about substance and properties in the related field of metaphysics.[1][8][22][23][24][25] Further, the mathematical nature of fundamental physical theories undermines physicalism itself. Fundamental physical entities are defined mathematically, and the physicalist must consider what makes mathematical statements true. This is an issue dealt with in the field of philosophy of mathematics.[2][26] The most viable theories in that domain, when combined with a physicalist approach, yield unworkable versions of physicalism. At best, physicalism becomes a form of dualism – a dualism of the abstract and concrete. And it fares as poorly as substance and property dualism with respect to explaining mental causation. Physicalism, thus understood, loses its customary advantages over competing theories.[1][8][27]

Astrobiology and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)

Schneider is among those researchers who believe that the most intelligent alien beings we encounter will be "postbiological in nature", being forms of artificial intelligence. (See also Paul Davies, Steven J. Dick, Martin Rees and Seth Shostak.) She is the first to contend that they would be superintelligent, and that we can predict the shape of some of these superintelligences would be like.[4][9][28]

Their reason for the claim that the most intelligent aliens will be "postbiological" is called the "short window observation.” This holds that by the time any society learns to transmit radio signals, they're likely just a few hundred years from upgrading their own biology.[4][9][28] As Elon Musk puts it biological beings would be just a "biological boot loader for digital superintelligence."[29]

Schneider poses two questions: first, how can we understand the thinking of superintelligences? And, second, if this is the direction intelligence is going, will these superintelligent beings even be conscious? She poses a "hard problem of AI consciousness" that is similar in some respects to David Chalmers hard problem of consciousness, which concerns the human case.[30] The problem is: how can we know that silicon is the right sort of medium for conscious experience?[2][4][28]

Drawing from work in cognitive science, Schneider identifies ways that humans might understand the advanced thought patterns of certain kinds of superintelligences – namely, those that are modeled after the biological beings that created them. And she urges that under the right circumstances the A.I. may be conscious.[9][28]

Uploading, Cognitive Enhancement and the Singularity

Transhumanism is a philosophical, cultural, and political movement that holds that the human species is only now in a comparatively early phase and that its very evolution will be altered by developing technologies.[31]

Schneider observes that when one considers whether to enhance in the radical ways the transhumanists advocate (e.g., uploading, adding silicon brain parts for new cognitive capacities, or to enhance existing ones), one must ask, "Will this radically enhanced creature still be me?" If not, then, on the assumption that one key factor in a decision to enhance oneself is one's own personal development, we should regard the enhancement in question as undesirable. For when you choose to enhance in these radical ways, the enhancement does not really enhance you.[1][5][8][32] In this vein, Schneider contends that one cannot really "upload" their brain, transferring their consciousness to a computer. At best, uploading will merely create a computational copy of youl.[2][5][6][33]

Enhancement decisions will require deep deliberation about metaphysical and ethical questions that are controversial and difficult to solve: questions that will require reflection about both personal identity and the nature of mind.[33] At best, a pluralistic society should recognize the diversity of different views on these matters, and not assume that science itself can answer questions about whether radical forms of brain enhancement are a form of survival.[32]



  1. ^ a b c d e f "3quarksdaily: Mental Lives and Fodor's Lot". Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "AI, Transhumanism & Merging with Superintelligence, Plus Singularity Explained". 
  3. ^ Schneider, Susan (2009). Science Fiction and Philosophy: from Time Travel to Superintelligence. Wiley. 
  4. ^ a b c d Stone, Maddie. "The Dominant Life Form in the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots". Motherboard. Vice. Retrieved 26 June 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c "The Philosophy of 'Her'". Opinionator. Retrieved 2015-10-14. 
  6. ^ a b "Don't Want to Die? Just Upload Your Brain | Big Think". Big Think. Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  7. ^ "Can Humanism Survive the Coming Transhumanist Revolution?". Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  8. ^ a b c d "Mind & Self in the Transhumanist Age". Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  9. ^ a b c d "If we ever meet aliens, they'll probably be robots". Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  10. ^ "I Compute, Therefore I Am - Science Not Fiction". Science Not Fiction. Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  11. ^ "La forme dominante de vie dans le cosmos est probablement celle de super robots". (in French). Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  12. ^ "The Dominant Life Form in the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots". Motherboard. Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  13. ^ a b c d Schneider, Susan (2011). The Language of Thought: a New Philosophical Direction. MIT Press. 
  14. ^ a b Figdor, Carrie. "Susan Schneider, "The Language of Thought: A New Philosophical Direction" (MIT Press, 2011)". Retrieved 2015-10-26. 
  15. ^ a b "Rethinking the language of thought - WIREs Cognitive Science". Retrieved 2015-10-26. 
  16. ^ The Language of Thought (1 ed.). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 1980-01-22. ISBN 9780674510302. 
  17. ^ Rescorla, Michael (2015-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Computational Theory of Mind (Winter 2015 ed.). 
  18. ^ Fodor, Jerry A. (2001-09-01). The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology (1 ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: A Bradford Book. ISBN 9780262561464. 
  19. ^ a b The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: A Bradford Book / MIT Press. 1983-04-06. ISBN 9780262560252. 
  20. ^ Rupert, Robert D. (2008-03-01). "Frege's puzzle and Frege cases: Defending a quasi-syntactic solution". Cognitive Systems Research. Perspectives on Social Cognition. 9 (1–2): 76–91. doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2007.07.003. 
  21. ^ Figdor, Carrie. "Susan Schneider, "The Language of Thought: A New Philosophical Direction" (MIT Press, 2011)". Retrieved 2015-10-26. 
  22. ^ Schneider, Susan (2011). "Non-reductive Physicalism and the Mind Problem" (PDF). Nous. 
  23. ^ Schneider, Susan (2011). "Nonreductive Physicalism Cannot Appeal to Token Identity" (PDF). Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 
  24. ^ Schneider, Susan (Sep 2010). "Why property dualists must reject substance physicalism" (PDF). Philosophical Studies. 157: 61–76. doi:10.1007/s11098-010-9618-9. 
  25. ^ Yang, Eric (2015-03-12). "The Compatibility of Property Dualism and Substance Materialism". Philosophical Studies. doi:10.1007/s11098-015-0465-6. 
  26. ^ "Philosophy of Mathematics". 
  27. ^ Schneider, Susan (2016). "Does the Mathematical Nature of Physics Undermine Physicalism?" (PDF). Journal of Consciousness Studies. 
  28. ^ a b c d Schneider, Susan (2015). "Alien Minds" (PDF). The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth, Steven Dick (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107109988. 
  29. ^ "Elon Musk on Twitter". Twitter. Retrieved 2015-10-17. 
  30. ^ "The Puzzle of Conscious Experience". Retrieved 2015-10-26. 
  31. ^ "Tranhumanism: Frequently Asked Questions". 
  32. ^ a b Schneider, Susan. Science Fiction and Philosophy. Wiley. ISBN 978-1-4051-4906-8. 
  33. ^ a b "Wiley: Intelligence Unbound: The Future of Uploaded and Machine Minds - Russell Blackford, Damien Broderick". Retrieved 2015-10-17. 

External links[edit]