The Continuation of Philosophy by Other Means

A post on science fiction and religion? Don’t mind if I do! (And how apropos to find this on the day when, according to Amazon, my new copy of Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim is out for delivery).

Long story short, Steve Davidson of Grasping for the Wind wrote a post explaining why he thinks that “Religion, at its core, is a concept antithetical to the core concepts of science fiction.” He gives a fuller explanation at the site, complete with examples, but I’ve tried to capture the gist of it in the blockquote below:

Science fiction – all of it – is founded on the premise that science (observation, fact, hypothesis and theory) is the fundamental underpinning of all that is and all that ever will be.

Religion on the other hand, putting the best possible face on it, wants us to believe that science has its place (is even useful at times) but is subordinate to some higher power that can flaunt science’s reason and logic whenever and wherever it so chooses, without requiring explanation.

How can these two NOT be at odds within works that begin with the premise that science works?

…If you dig deep enough in any work of science fiction that includes religious elements, you will find that where the two interact, religion always comes off second best, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

Science fiction is the expression of the triumph of reason, logic and the tenets of the scientific method over a mysterious and little understood universe.

At its core, religion holds the view that there IS an answer to everything (no matter how convoluted or dissatisfying the answer may be ).

As a scifi fan in good standing, I don’t buy this definition.  To begin with, science fiction is not conventionally understood to be about charting the unambiguous success of science.  If it were, Dresden Codak’s “Caveman Science Fiction” cartoon (excerpted at top) wouldn’t be so instantly recognizable and so funny.  Science fiction can be about human limitations and, yes, even about the limitations of logic and reason.  I can wait here while you try Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Three Worlds Collide.

I don’t think of science fiction as the victory lap of the geeks.  To me, it’s fascinating because it’s the continuation of philosophy by other means.  Science fiction takes humans (or reasoning beings sufficiently close for some sense of kinship) and puts them under strange new stresses.  Science fiction (and fantasy) take us out of ourselves.  They let us think about our relationships with others, our duties, what telos we have in an environment with the power to jolt us out of our cached thoughts.

Admittedly, some examples of the genre don’t make the best use of the powers at their disposal

Fiction, generally, can do this, too — letting us approximate a different frame of reference.  One thing that strikes me as unique about science fiction and fantasy, though, is that they let us do this in a very low-stakes setting.  Because the worlds we’re exploring are so alien, we have to make an effort to carry back any new ideas to our day-to-day life.  That distance lowers the threat and terror of new, heterodox ideas.  We can go farther with our gedankenexperiments when we’re far enough removed from their consequences that we can comfortably noodle around without being scared of what we’re exploring.

Unlike some highly abstract philosophy thought experiments, science fiction is pitched to be accessible and challenging to everyone.  And unlike the philosophy-for-the-public types of trolleyology problem, the problems of science fiction are compelling and fiercely urgent once they suck us in.  (In fact they’re so mentally sticky, they can induce new kinds of bias, but Yudkowsky’s already written that post).

So I’m not surprised to see that science fiction leads some authors to work over the questions they’re exploring in their theology or metaphysics.  (And I recommend “The Way of Cross and Dragon” if you can find it in an anthology).  Religion is part of the answer to how people deal with uncertainty, as well as ethics, as well as problems of external moral order.  If you want scifi that tackles those problems, expect some characters to be at least quasi-religious (or a really good bit of backstory from the author explaining how they died out).  Cause if you strip out those problems entirely, you’re probably only leaving in the robots and explosions.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

**I’m sure someone wants to know how I differentiate between science fiction and fantasy, if I’m using the fantastical setting framework.  I was going to give an explanation here, but it started getting long, so I promise a full post on that next.  Feel free to share your own definitions in the comments.

"Well, I would love to know if you now believe that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered."

Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong ..."
"Any chance of you ever addressing the evidence that led you to accept the truth ..."

Letting Go of the Goal of ..."
""Wow, an unevidenced assertion from a religious dipshite. "Your quotes are the evidence and reason ..."

This is my last post for ..."
""Congrats on leaving your brain behind!"Comments like yours are why lots of atheists leave atheism. ..."

This is my last post for ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • The first paragraph you quoted doesn't even make much sense for those of us who see science as an epistemology, not an ontology.

  • Anonymous

    One word: Scientology.

  • Michael Haycock

    Thank you for this excellent post! I've always rejoiced when people have given me religion in their sci-fi, so long as it's not a caricature thereof (something that really irked me in Star Trek TNG).What you've pointed out is part of what I value in science fiction and fantasy: namely, being able to put people like us in situations in which we would NEVER find ourselves, and let us gain insights about human culture and experience from that simulated interaction. We will (probably) never encounter a planet of humans with contingently alternating sex as in LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness", but how much does it tell us about ourselves to imagine it! And as you've said, it gives us a "safe" environment in which to do so; any sort of non-sci-fi work that attempts to explore such issues immediately butts against the whole of history, philosophy, and culture, and is much more easily (and justifiably!) dismissed for its mere inaccuracy, losing its opportunity to teach to cause to question. (Of course, another part of my fascination has to deal with the equally human aspect of wonder, whether inspired by awesome landscapes or epic adventures.) Religion – or things like unto it – is one of those human universals that seeks to answer fundamental questions of life that no one can escape (even if their response is, "Eh, it doesn't matter.") As you say, sci-fi (and fantasy) without those questions just boil down to "robots and explosions" dressed up in the raiment of sufficiently advanced technology or magic.

  • By the "caricature" in STNG I would guess that you mean "Who Watches the Watchers". It didn't really bother me. I would have expected them to pound much more heavily on the "chariots of the gods" angle. ("Perhaps the stories about the Overseer started when people like us visited your world…") And I think Riker had a point about the problem with trying to appease a deity. How do you know he DOESN'T want nice fresh hearts?

  • Eve

    It's also worth noting that genre boundaries–maybe especially the boundaries of fantasy–are drawn based on often-questionable assumptions. Like how "magical realism" sometimes seems to mean "fantasy by brown people." Or, in this case, how a novel is often considered fantasy if gods appear and act, even when it has many of the other trappings of sf.

  • Well, coming at it “from the other side” as it were, Tolkien I think has a lot of good ideas on this especially in his essay “on fairy stories”. He argues that fantasy (both the “magical” and “sci-fi” variety) are similar in that they explore the human desire to, say, fly, converse with other species, explore the depths of time and space, etc. which are fully present in both good sci-fi and fantasy works.

    Also, one likes to point our that not only is the effect of sufficiently advanced technology similar to magic, but its motivation is similar. High Technology is separate from scientific inquiry in it self in that technology uses scientific knowledge to invent machines or processes to manipulate the material world – which is the same purpose which much “magic” attempts to serve. In fact, the only reason why we have one and not the other is that one works, and the other does not.

    At any rate, science fiction is not at all at odds with religious or theologically philosophical (redundant?) fantasy, since Philosophy is in fact inescapable when science is explored, and we do have excellent sci-fi which deal with questions of theological and philosophical import (i.e. Ender’s Game and Dune series).