Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

There’s always been more fiction than explicit philosophy on this blog and, in C.S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, he puts his finger on why I like sidling up on meaning of life questions in this way.  Lewis is discussing various subtypes of science fiction — starting with the ones where plot and character take a back seat to the author showing you a clever engineering problem and ending up here:

In all these the impossibility is, as I have said, a postulate. Something to be granted before the story gets going. Within that frame we inhabit the known world and are as realistic as anyone else. But, in the next type (and the last I shall deal with) the marvellous is in the grain of the whole work. We are, throughout, in another world. What makes the world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvellous either for comic effect (as in Baron Munchausen and sometimes in Ariosto and Boiardo) or for mere astonishment (as, I think, in the worst of the Arabian Nights or in some children’s stories), but it’s quality, it’s flavour. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort are (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experiences. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ — which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us.

One of the reasons I’ve always liked science fiction is that it took human nature and tried to figure out which parts of it were needed for us to still recognise each other as human.  How much of our current idea of being human is tied too tightly to current trends and culture   How would we behave if we were exposed to different stresses?  What could we give up or augment before being too alien to still belong to our tradition?

Fiction doesn’t just give us the opportunity to think new thoughts, it gives us the chance to do it with training wheels on.  It’s a lot easier to think about Javert, notice problems, and notice that I share them than it is to just introspect and expect to come up with true beliefs on a subject where I have a lot of bias.  Fiction (like my LARPing strategy) lets us encounter possibly threatening ideas without setting off our defenses.

And, for me, anyway, it’s also been a way of encountering ordinary, no-LEDs-in-eyebrows people without setting off defences.  Fiction helps make it clear that people (even people who disagree with you) usually act in ways that feel intellectually consistent from the inside.  So it was fiction that helped me start to catch on to the typical mind fallacy.  The most tempting thing to do is to just treat other people like they’re speaking French, and make sure I’m translating, but getting first or third person limited views of other people’s minds helps make me curious about what it would be like to try on a different disposition and what I might lose or gain.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • stanz2reason

    It seems that this self-reflection & self-examination via a projection on characters can come from any sort of well told story, science-fiction, non-fiction or otherwise, though the sci-fi / fantasy genre might take it one step further by making the character an alien or a robot further reducing your own bias with the greater difficulty in immediately identifying with that character. I’m thinking along the lines of District 9.

    • Randy Gritter

      I was thinking even broader. Especially with this part:

      good stories of this sort are (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we
      never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible
      experiences.

      That can include non-fiction for sure. It can also include many other forms of art. Actually in Les Miserables I was much more touched by the music than the story. The way some of the songs made me experience a spiritual reality. Javert didn’t really do much for me.

      I don’t even know that it is sidling on the questions of life. It is approaching it from an angle other than that of skepticism but who is to say what angle is more direct? Maybe our intellect is a less direct an approach to God than our art.

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  • Magdalen Dobson

    I absolutely agree! I love to read sci-fi like Ender’s Game, Foundation, Fahrenheit 451, and all the classic dystopia, because the “what makes us human” question is still so pertinent and fascinating right now. Another thing that gives them such appeal is that the language isn’t archaic or elevated, they aren’t generally 4000 pages long, and they present deep philosophy in succinct, down-to-earth style.

  • Iota

    A) Now that the comments have migrated to Disqus I might be actually able to post comments. Let’s see…

    B) Thank you very mush for that cover image up there. You just made my day a little bit better.

    C) I highly recommend other genres & forms of literature, to expand your horizon of “thinking new thoughts”.

    - historical literature (diaries, documents, fiction)
    - myth and fables, specifically the really exotic kind
    - any literature written in a foreign language (if possible, read in the original language)

    Every literary culture and every genre has certain conventions, some of which may never even be explicitly stated anywhere, so reading only a very specific subset of literature (say, contemporary Anglophone SF) might lead to getting stuck on those conventions. Expanding your reading across genres, time periods and cultural spheres helps with that. And reverse-engineering the thought processes of actual people who lived, say, a thousand years ago on the other hemisphere, comes with its own special pleasures, that deconstructing fictional characters just doesn’t give, IMO.

    Admittedly, all of the things listed above are harder reading than standard SF…

  • grok87

    “One of the reasons I’ve always liked science fiction is that it took human nature and tried to figure out which parts of it were needed for us to still recognise each other as human. … What could we give up or augment before being too alien to still belong to our tradition?”

    Today’s reading from Acts recounts the struggle in the early church on whether Christians had to adhere to Mosaic laws and practices.

    http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050113.cfm

    Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers,
    “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice,
    you cannot be saved.” Because there arose no little dissension and debate
    by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters
    about this question. …When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the Church, as well as by the Apostles and the presbyters, and they reported what God had done with them. But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them
    and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”

    If the reference to Pharisees becoming Christians seems jarring, remember there is a school of thought that Jesus was a Pharisee!

    One possible clue to all this is that it may be those who were formerly the most orthodox defenders of the old ways who may be the ones to lead as things change. Saul/Paul for example. And as the saying goes, “Only Nixon could go to China…”

  • Michael Haycock

    Yup! I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    On that note, you might be interested in this post and the comments on it: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2013/04/another-post-about-mormons-and-science-fiction/

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I actually consider them more philosophy or fantasy than science fiction. I found the science of the Elohim to be utterly incomprehensible and not related to science at all. Especially the political decision to quarantine Earth, which seemed to me to be a mistake that no God should ever make.

    • Fr.Sean

      I see your point, but i felt the dialogues in paralandra, as well as the philosophy with some of the scientists in That Hideous Strength to be almost prophetic. It showed how they appeared to be good, appeared to be concerned about the welfare of humanity but they were really seeking their own ends. Don’t get me wrong, i know that most of scientists are good and seek the betterment of humanity, but there are exceptions that are directed towards their own interests. Nevertheless, I so think the books are intriguing.

      • adrianratnapala

        I think C.S. Lewis was reacting to the extreme scientific progressivism of the early 20th century with all its eugenicists and other horrors. So in a way it was not prophetic, because neither Lewis dictorship-of-N.I.C.E. nor the utopias that it was meant to mock came to pass.

        • Fr.Sean

          well, it’s been a while since i read them but i think in “that Hideous Strength” Lewis did describe the scientific group in similar terms we hear from today, science promising everything, but meanwhile they had other motives. i’ve also read a little as of late about emotions or the moral right and wrong as simply being “chemical reactions in the brain,” or something to that effect, which was also in the book.

          • mickey

            Father Sean, what book was that about the emotions?

          • Fr.Sean

            Mickey,
            That “Hideous Strength” had an excerpt towards the end of the book. I would read all three, but if you don’t want to the last two (Paralandra and That Hideous Strength) particularly really good. in the last book, one of the scientists pondered for a moment that perhaps he was wrong, perhaps he should have had a sense of responsibility, that love, and responsibility to his fellow man were real things, previously he had subscribed to the idea that love, emotions or a compulsion to do write were nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain.

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  • adrianratnapala

    That helps explain why I never really enjoyed any of Asimov’s long stories.

    Sci-fi doesn’t have to rely on detailed characters. Inner journeys need not be the point; but then something else must excite. Foundation, however isn’t about technical marvels or alien mysteries. It is about the minds of people.

    And it really, doesn’t have anything worth-while to say on the topic.

    • Maureen O’Brien

      No, it’s not about “the minds of people.” It’s about rewriting The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, except with robots and spaceships and puzzles.


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