Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Philosophy as Science Fiction; Science Fiction as Philosophy

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.

Examined worlds

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).


  1. I enjoyed reading your first blog, Ethan. As far as distinctions go, which may be in an upcoming post (so I can be patient), I recall Dewey saying in a lecture that philosophy is primarily reactive. He said this during a lecture about ethics and World War II. My memory is foggy, but he was either commenting on a lack of commentary by philosophers generally before and during the war, or he was speaking about his own ethical views about the war, that they only took shape after its conclusion. Science fiction strikes me as much more frequently attempting to look ahead. You mentioned the creation of worlds substantially different than our own, and placing things well into the future is certainly one way to open up a space for the imagination. What are your thoughts? Am I missing philosophers who have used future-oriented thought experiments? Is my description of science fiction overly general? Thanks, and I'm already looking forward to the next post!

    1. Thanks, Joe, for writing the first comment on this blog! Here are a few thoughts in response.

      Philosophy certainly can be reactive in raising questions about what was wrong with the Holocaust, American slavery, etc. But I don't see that as a necessary aspect of philosophy. As a particularly good example, there are philosophers thinking about robot ethics on the assumption that robots in the future will be far more intelligent and able to form relationships with humans in the future. Other ethical quandaries like ticking bomb torture scenarios are also more forward-looking, although there's sadly a lot of backward-looking work to do on the morality of torture these days, too. Also, the average analytic philosophy thought experiment isn't particularly tied to any time, but the point is that it's often a world estranged from our own.

      As for science fiction, I don't think it's necessarily future-directed, although much of it is. There's plenty of present day science fiction (Jurassic Park is an obvious example), and there's the whole sub-genre of Steampunk that takes place in the past. Alternate history stories generally have at least one foot in the science fiction camp. I recently read a book called Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson that takes place about 30,000 years ago, but Robinson said somewhere that it's science fiction because he used recent scientific discoveries in paleoanthropology to write the book.

      All that said, I think you may be right generally speaking about philosophy as reactive and science fiction as future-directed, but there's nothing necessary about that. That said, I think the underlying similarity between the two is the tendency to think beyond presently accepted paradigms (or at least that's the science fiction and philosophy that I find interesting!).

      On that note, here's one of my favorite quotes from Bertrand Russell's The Value of Philosophy:
      "Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good."

  2. Looking forward to seeing where this goes. Personally I'd like to hear you ramble about Interstellar for a bit. o_O

    1. I'll get to Interstellar, don't worry! I may want to see it again before I do.