Welcome to Examined Worlds: Philosophy and Science Fiction! This blog will consist mainly of my ruminations and explorations concerning two of my favorite things: philosophy and science fiction.
A little about me
I have been seriously studying philosophy for almost twenty years, and my career path has led me to graduate school in philosophy and eventually becoming a philosophy professor. My specialization is in the philosophical traditions of classical India, but I’m also interested in lots of other areas, including ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, early modern European philosophy, contemporary epistemology, philosophy of religion, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of science.
I’ve been a science fiction fan as long as I can remember, even before I remember asking philosophical questions! Some of my earliest memories are of Buck Rogers, Star Wars, and the original Battlestar Galactica. I still enjoy a lot of science fiction TV and movies. In my teens, I started seriously reading science fiction literature and never looked back.
Plato and Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder. This blog began in wonder, too. Since I teach philosophy for a living and spend a lot of time reading and watching science fiction, I’ve wondered if there’s some overlap between philosophy and science fiction that draws me to these two things.
What are philosophy and science fiction?
“Philosophy” is notoriously difficult to define, and I won’t try to do so. The English word, “philosophy” comes from ancient Greek and means “love of wisdom.” Note that this doesn’t imply the possession of wisdom, which I think illustrates the intellectual humility philosophers ought to have. In Sanskrit, there are at least two words that could be translated as “philosophy”: darśana (literally, “view” or “vision”) and ānvīkṣikī (“examination”). Darśana is more the sense of having a philosophy or adhering to a philosophical system, whereas ānvīkṣikī is the sense of the activity of doing philosophy.
“Science fiction” is also difficult to define, but my favorite attempt comes from the literary theorist Darko Suvin, who says that science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement.” Science fiction is “cognitive” in that it represents a world that could happen without “non-cognitive” means such as magic or wishful thinking. This is what distinguishes science fiction from fantasy, although you might wonder whether some common science fiction tropes such as psychic powers or faster-than-light travel are really possible (my sense is that it’s okay as long as there’s some attempt at explanation beyond “It’s magic!"). Yet science fiction represents an estrangement from our world (or the world we think we live in, anyway!). It’s not clear how estranged a story has to be to count as science fiction as opposed to “mainstream.” Even a mainstream film or literary work usually takes places in a world that differs from our own in one crucial way: that film or literary work itself doesn’t exist. Holden Caulfield can’t read The Catcher in the Rye – although authors can have some self-referential fun by ignoring this provision (nerd that I am, the only examples I can only think of off hand are Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story and Philip K. Dick’s VALIS). Still, most science fiction stories take place in worlds that differ from our world in several more ways (alien contact, super-intelligent AIs, genetic mutations, time travel, a virus that kills 90% of humanity … take your pick).
Philosophy as science fiction
Philosophy is science fiction in that it asks questions out of wonder and explores those questions using cognitive means such as logic and argumentation. Some philosophers even talk about possible worlds (a classic science fiction trope!) and use thought experiments. What is science fiction but a series of thought experiments – what if this happened…? Philosophers, like science fiction authors, create worlds that are fun and interesting to inhabit for awhile; the conceptually beautiful metaphysical edifices of Spinoza, Leibniz, or Śaṅkara may or may not be true, but they are – at least to a certain kind of person – as fun and as interesting to spend time in as the universes of Star Trek, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, or Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
Science fiction as philosophy
Science fiction is philosophy in that it utilizes imagination to create possibilities and visions of worlds hitherto unknown and unexplored, worlds that can expand our minds and our sense of what’s possible for human beings (and, of course, for robots, aliens, animals, multi-dimensional super-beings, etc.). Science fiction creates spaces where the big questions – What is real? What can we know? What is moral? What is six times seven? – can be explored through dramatic narratives constructed over a framework of logical and scientific possibility. Good science fiction, like good philosophy, is primarily about ideas (although good science fiction also requires stuff like interesting characters and engaging plots). Neither science fiction nor philosophy are the bullshit escapism their critics take them to be; both are exercises in thinking that can expand our minds and inspire real change. Many facets of contemporary life such as democratic ideals, human rights, modern science, genetic engineering, satellite communication, computers, the internet, etc. were dreamed up by philosophers and/or science fiction writers.
Socrates said, “… the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Plato’s Apology, 38a). In this blog, I hope to examine, not just lives, but strange new worlds, to seek out new ideas and new juxtapositions, to boldly think where no one has thought before! (Or at least to have a bit of fun).