Monday, December 29, 2014

"The Tyrant's Headache" in Sci Phi Journal

According to a broad class of materialist views, conscious experiences -- such as the experience of pain -- do not supervene on the local physical state of the being who is having those conscious experiences. Rather, they depend in part on the past evolutionary or learning history of the organism (Fred Dretske) or on what is "normal" for members of its group (David Lewis). These dependencies are not just causal but metaphysical: The very same (locally defined) brain state might be experienced as pain by one organism as as non-pain by another organism, in virtue of differences in the organisms' past history or group membership, even if the two organisms are molecule-for-molecule identical at the moment in question.

Donald Davidson's Swampman example is typically used to make this point vivid: You visit a swamp. Lightning strikes, killing you. Simultaneously, through incredibly-low-odds freak quantum chance, a being who is molecule-for-molecule identical to you emerges from the swamp. Does this randomly-congealed Swampman, who lacks any learning history or evolutionary history, experience pain when it stubs its toe? Many people seem to have the hunch or intuition, that yes, it would; but any externalist who thinks that consciousness requires a history will have to say no. Dretske makes clear in his 1995 book that he is quite willing to accept this consequence. Swampman feels no pain.

But Swampman cases are only the start of it! If pain depends, for example, on what is normal for your species, then one ought to be able to relieve a headache by altering your conspecifics -- for example, by killing enough of them to change what is "normal" for your species: anaesthesia by genocide. And in general, any view that denies local supervenience while allowing the presence or absence of pain to depend on other currently ongoing events (rather than only on events in the past) should allow that there will be conditions under which one can end one's own pain by changing other people even without any changes in one's own locally-defined material configuration.

To explore this issue further, I invented a tyrant with the headache, who will do anything to other people to end his headache, without changing any of his own relevant internally-defined brain states.

"The Tyrant's Headache" is a hybrid between a science fiction story and an extended philosophical thought experiment. It has just come out in Sci Phi Journal -- a new journal that publishes both science fiction stories and philosophical essays about science fiction. The story/essay is behind a paywall for now ($3.99 at Amazon or Castalia House). But consider buying! Your $3.99 will support a very cool new journal, and it will get you, in addition to my chronicle of the Tyrant's efforts to end his headache (also featuring David K. Lewis in magician's robes), three philosophical essays about science fiction, eight science fiction stories that explore other philosophical themes, part of a continuing serial, and a review. $3.99 well spent, I hope, and dedicated to strengthening the bridge between science fiction and philosophy.

[See also Anaesthesia by Genocide, David Lewis, and a Materialistic Trilemma]

(image source)

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Moral World of Dreidel

I used to think dreidel was a poorly designed game of luck. Now I realize that its "bugs" are really features! Dreidel is the moral world in minature.

Primer for goys: You sit in a circle with friends or relatives and take turns spinning a wobbly top (the dreidel). In the center of the circle is a pot of several foil-wrapped chocolate coins. If the four-sided top lands on the Hebrew letter gimmel, you take the whole pot and everyone needs to contribute to the pot again. If it lands on hey, you take half the pot. If it lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on shin, you put a coin in. Then the next player takes a turn.

It all sounds very straightforward, until you actually start to play the game.

First off: Some coins are big, others little. If the game were fair, all the coins would be the same size, or at least there would be clear rules about tradeoffs or about when you're supposed to contribute your big coins and little coins. Also, there's never just one driedel, and the dreidels all seem to be uneven and biased. (This past Hannukah, my daughter Kate and I spun a sample of dreidels 40 times each. One in particular landed on shin an incredible 27/40 spins. [Yes, p < .001, highly significant, even with a Bonferroni correction.]) No one agrees whether you should round up or round down with hey; no one agrees when the game should end or how low the pot should be before you all have to contribute again. (You could look at various alleged authorities on the internet, but people prefer to argue and employ varying house rules.) No one agrees whether you should let someone borrow coins if they run out, or how many coins to start with. Some people hoard their coins; others slowly unwrap and eat them while playing, then beg and borrow from their wealthy neighbors.

You can, if you want, always push things to your advantage: Always contribute the smallest coins you can, always withdraw the biggest coins you can, insist on using what seems to be the "best" dreidel, always argue for rule-interpretations in your favor, eat your big coins and use that as a further excuse to only contribute little ones, etc. You could do all this without ever once breaking the rules, and you'd probably end up with the most chocolate as a result.

But here's the brilliant part: The chocolate isn't very good. After eating a few coins, the pleasure gained from further coins is pretty minimal. As a result, almost all the children learn that they would rather enjoy being kind and generous than they would enjoy hoarding up more coins. The pleasure of the chocolate doesn't outweigh the yucky feeling of being a stingy, argumentative jerk. After a few turns of maybe pushing only small coins into the pot, you decide you should put a big coin in next time, even though the rules don't demand it -- just to be fair to others, and to be perceived as fair by them.

Of course, it also feels bad always to be the most generous one -- always to put in big, take out small, always to let others win the rules-arguments, etc., to play the sucker or self-sacrificing saint. Dreidel is a practical lesson in discovering the value of fairness both to oneself and others, in a context where proper interpretation of the rules is unclear, and where there are norm violations that aren't rule violations, and where both norms and rules are negotiable, varying from occasion to occasion -- just like life itself, but with only mediocre chocolate at stake.

(image source)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nussbaum on the Moral Bright Side of Literature

In Poetic Justice, her classic defense of the moral value of the "literary imagination", Martha Nussbaum writes about the children's song "Twinkle, twinkle little star" that:

the fact is that the nursery song itself, like other such songs, nourishes the ascription of humanity, and the prospect of friendship, rather than paranoid sentiments of being persecuted by a hateful being in the sky. It tells the child to regard the star as "like a diamond," not like a missile of destruction, and also not like a machine good only for production and consumption. In this sense, the birth of fancy is non-neutral and does, as Dickens indicates, nourish a generous construction of the seen (p. 39).
Nussbaum also argues that the literary imagination favors the oppressed over the aristocracy:
Whitman calls his poet-judge an "equalizer." What does he mean? Why should the literary imagination be any more connected with equality than with inequality, or with democratic rather than aristocratic ideals?... When we read [the Dickens novel] Hard Times as sympathetic participants, our attention has a special focus. Since the sufferings and anxieties of the characters are among the central bonds between reader and work, our attention is drawn in particular to those characters who suffer and fear. Characters who are not facing any adversity simply do not hook us in as readers (p. 90).
Does listening to nursery rhymes and reading literature cultivate generous and sympathetic friendship, across class and ethic divides, as Nussbaum seems to think it does? Maybe so! But the evidence isn't really in yet. Nursery rhymes can also be dark and unsympathetic -- "Rock-a-Bye Baby", "Jack and Jill" -- and I must say that it seems to me that aristocrats are over-represented in literature, the more common targets of our sympathies, than are the poor. We sympathize with Odysseus, with Hamlet, with the brave knight, with the wealthy characters in Eliot, James, and Fitzgerald, and we tend to overlook the servants around them, except in works intentionally written (as Hard Times was) to turn our eyes toward the working class. True, if these characters had no adversities, they wouldn't engage us; but Hamlet suffers adversity enough to capture sympathy despite ample wealth.

Children's literature (especially pre-Disney) mocks and chuckles and laughs callously at suffering as much as it expresses the ideals of wonder and friendship. Children's literature represents the full moral range of human impulses, for good and bad; it would be surprising if that were not so. The same with movies, novels, television, every medium. And "fancy" -- that is, the metaphorical imagination (p. 38) -- can be quite dark and paranoid (especially at night), and sadistic, and sexual, and vengeful, and narcissistic. Fancy is as morally mixed as those who do the fancying.

One might even argue, contra Nussbaum, that there is an aristocratic impulse in literature, a default tendency to present as its focal figures people of great social power, since the socially powerful are typically the ones who do the most exciting things on which the future of their worlds depends. The literary eye is drawn to Lincoln and Caesar and their equivalents, more than to the ordinary farmer who never leaves his land. It takes an egalitarian effort to excite the reader equally about the non-great. And although we are sympathetic with focal figures, the death of non-focal figures (e.g., foes in battle) might tend to excite less sympathy in literature than in real life.

Nussbaum has cherry picked her sample. She might be right that, on balance, we are morally improved by a broad consumption of literature. (Or at least by "good" literature? But let's be careful about what we build into "good" here, lest we argue in a circle.) But if so, I don't think the case can be made on the grounds that literature tends, overall, to be anti-aristocratic and broadly sympathetic. Nor do I think there is much direct empirical evidence on this question, such as longitudinal studies comparing the moral behavior and attitudes those extensively exposed to literature to those not so exposed. (Impressionistically, I'd say literature professors don't seem much morally better, for all their exposure, than others of similar education and social background with less exposure; but the study has never been done.)

It's an interesting and important issue, what are the moral effects of reading literature -- but in my mind, wide open.

[Image source]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Moral Order and Immanent Justice

Let's say the world is morally ordered if good things come to those who act morally well and bad things come to those who act morally badly.

Moral order admits of degrees. We might say that the world is perfectly morally ordered if everyone gets exactly what they morally deserve, perfectly immorally ordered if everyone gets the opposite of what they morally deserve, and has no moral order if there's no relationship between what one deserves and what one gets.

Moral order might vary by subgroup of individuals considered. Perhaps the world is better morally ordered in 21st century Sweden than it was in 1930s Russia. Perhaps the world is better morally ordered among some ethnicities or social classes than among others. Class differences highlight the different ways in which moral order can fail: Moral order can fail among the privileged if they do not suffer for acting badly, can fail among the disadvantaged if they do not benefit from acting well.

Moral order might vary by action type. Sexual immorality might more regularly invite disaster than financial immorality, or vice versa. Kindness to those you know well might precipitate deserved benefits or undeserved losses more dependably than kindness to strangers.

Moral order can be immanent or transcendent. Transcendent moral order is ensured by an afterlife. Immanent moral order eschews the afterlife and is either magical (mystical attraction of good or bad fortune) or natural.

Some possible natural mechanisms of immanent moral order:

* A just society. Obviously.

* A natural attraction to morality of the sort Mencius finds in us. Our hearts are delighted, Mencius says, when we see people do what's plainly good and revolted when we see people do what's plainly wrong. Even if this impulse is weak, it might create a constant pressure to reward people for doing the right and revile them for doing the wrong; and it might add pleasure to one's own personal choices of the right over the wrong.

* The Dostoyevskian and Shakespearian psychological reactions to crime. Crime might generate fear of punishment or exposure, including exaggerated fear; it might lead to a loss of intimacy with others if one must hide one's criminal side from them; and it might encourage further crimes, accumulating risk.

* Shaping our preferences toward noncompetitive goods over competitive ones. If you aim to be richer than your neighbors, or more famous, or triumphant in physical, intellectual, or social battle, then you put your happiness at competitive risk. The competition might encourage morally bad choices; and maybe success in such aims is poorly morally ordered or even negatively morally ordered. Desires for non-competitive goods -- the pleasures of shared friendship and a good book -- seem less of a threat to the moral order (though books and leisure time are not free, and so subject to some competitive pressures). And if it's the case that we can find as much or more happiness in easily obtainable non-competitive goods, then even if wealth goes to the jerks, the world might be better morally ordered than it at first seems.

How morally ordered is the world? Do we live in a world where the knaves flourish while the sweethearts are crushed underfoot? Or do people's moral choices tend to come back around to them in the long run? No question, I think, is more central to one's general vision of the world, that is, to one's philosophy in the broad and and proper sense of "philosophy". All thoughtful people have at least implicit opinions about the matter, I think -- probably explicit opinions, too.

Yet few contemporary philosophers address the issue in print. We seem happy to leave the question to writers of fiction.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Knowing Something That You Think Is Probably False

I know where my car is parked. It's in the student lot on the other side of the freeway, Lot 30. How confident am I that my car is parked there? Well, bracketing radically skeptical doubts, I'd say about 99.9% confident. I seem to have a specific memory of parking this morning, but maybe that specific memory is wrong; or maybe the car has been stolen or towed or borrowed by my wife due to some weird emergency. Maybe about once in every three years of parking, something like that will happen. Let's assume (from a god's-eye perspective) that no such thing has happened. I know, but I'm not 100% confident.

Justified degree of confidence doesn't align neatly with the presence or absence of knowledge, at least if we assume that it's true that I know where my car is parked (with 99.9% confidence) but false that I know that my lottery ticket will lose (despite 99.9999% confidence it will lose). (For puzzles about such cases, see Hawthorne 2004 and subsequent discussion.) My question for this post is, how far can this go? In particular, can I know something about which I'm less than 50% confident?

"I know that my car is parked in Lot 30; I'm 99.9% confident it's there." -- although that might sound a little jarring to some ears (if I'm only 99.9% confident, maybe I don't really know?), it sounds fine to me, perhaps partly because I've soaked so long in fallibilist epistemology. "I know that my car is parked in Lot 30; I'm 80% confident it's there." -- this sounds a bit odder, though perhaps not intolerably peculiar. Maybe "I'm pretty sure" would be better than "I know"? But "I know that my car is parked in Lot 30; I'm 40% confident it's there." -- that just sounds like a bizarre mistake.

On the other hand, Blake Myers-Schulz and I have argued that we can know things that we don't believe (or about which we are in an indeterminate state between believing and failing to believe). Maybe some of our cases constitute knowledge of some proposition simultaneously with < 50% confidence in that proposition?

I see at least three types of cases that might fit: self-deception cases, temporary doubt cases, and mistaken dogma cases.

Self-deception. Gernot knows that 250 pounds is an unhealthy weight for him. He's unhappy about his weight; he starts half-hearted programs to lose weight; he is disposed to agree when the doctor tells him that he's too heavy. He has seen and regretted the effects of excessive weight on his health. Nonetheless he is disposed, in most circumstances, to say to himself that he's approximately on the fence about whether 250 pounds is too heavy, that he's 60% confident that 250 is a healthy weight for him and 40% confident he's too heavy.

Temporary doubt. Kate studied hard for her test. She knows that Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, and that's what she writes on her exam. But in the moment of writing, due to anxiety, she feels like she's only guessing, and she thinks it's probably false that Elizabeth died in 1603. 1603 is just her best guess -- a guess about which she feels only 40% confident (more confident than about any other year).

Mistaken dogma. Kaipeng knows (as do we all) that death is bad. But he has read some Stoic works arguing that death is not bad. He feels somewhat convinced by the Stoic arguments. He'd (right now, if asked) sincerely say that he has only a 40% credence that death is bad; and yet he'd (right now, if transported) tremble on the battlefield, regret a friend's death, etc. Alternatively: Karen was raised a religious geocentrist. She takes an astronomy class in college and learns that the Earth goes around the sun, answering correctly (and in detail) when tested about the material. She now knows that the Earth goes around the sun, though she feels only 40% confident that it does and retains 60% confidence in her religious geocentrism.

The examples -- mostly adapted from Schwitzgebel 2010, Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel 2013, and Murray, Sytsma, and Livengood 2013 -- require fleshing out and perhaps also a bit of theory to be convincing. I offer a variety because I suspect different examples will resonate with different readers. I aim only for an existence claim: As long as there is a way of fleshing out one of these examples so that the subject knows a proposition toward which she has only 40% confidence, I'll consider it success.

As I just said, it might help to have a bit of theory here. So consider this model of knowledge and confidence:

You know some proposition P if you have it -- metaphorically! -- stored in your memory and available for retrieval in such a way that we can rightly hold you responsible for acting or not acting on account of it (and P is true, justified, etc.).

You're confident about some proposition P just in case you'd wager on it, and endorse it, and have a certain feeling of confidence in doing so. (If the wagering, expressing, and feeling come apart, it's a non-canonical, in-between case.)

There will be cases where a known proposition -- because it is unpleasant, or momentarily doubted, or in conflict with something else one wants to endorse -- does not effectively guide how you would wager or govern how you feel. But we can accuse you. We can say, "You know that! Come on!"

So why won't you say "I know that P but I'm only 40% confident in P"? Because such utterances, as explicit endorsements, reflect one's feelings of confidence -- exactly what comes apart from knowledge in these types of cases.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

"I Think There's About a 99.8% Chance That You Exist" Said the Skeptic

Alone in my office, it can seem reasonable to me to have only about a 99% to 99.9% credence that the world is more or less how I think it is, while reserving the remaining 0.1% to 1% credence for the possibility that some radically skeptical scenario obtains (such as that this is a dream or that I'm in a short term sim).

But in public... hm. It seems an odd thing to say aloud to someone else! The question rises acutely as I prepare to give a talk on 1% Skepticism at University of Miami this Friday. Can I face an audience and say, "Well, I think there's a small chance that I'm dreaming right now"? Such an utterance seems even stranger than the run-of-the-mill strangeness of dream skepticism in solitary moments.

I've tried it on my teenage son. He knows my arguments for 1% skepticism. One day, driving him to school, a propos of nothing, I said, "I'm almost certain that you exist." A joke, of course. How could he have heard it, or how could I have meant it, in any other way?

One possible source of strangeness is this: My audience knows that they are not just my dream-figures. So it's tempting to say that in some sense they know that my doubts are misplaced.

But in non-skeptical cases, we can view people as reasonable in having non-zero credence in propositions we know to be false, if we recognize an informational asymmetry. The blackjack dealer who knows she has a 20 doesn't think the player a fool for standing on a 19. Even if the dealer sincerely tells the player she has a 20, she might think the player reasonable to say he has some doubt about the truth of the dealer's testimony. So why do radically skeptical cases seem different?

One possible clue is this: It doesn't seem wrong in quite the same way to say "I think that we might all be part of a short-term sim". Being together in skeptical doubt seems fine -- in the right context, it might even be kind of friendly, kind of fun.

Maybe, then, the issue is a matter of respect -- a matter of treating one's interlocutor as an equal partner, metaphysically and epistemically? There's something offensive, perhaps, or inegalitarian, or oppressive, or silencing, about saying "I know for sure that I exist, but I have some doubts about whether you do".

I feel the problem most keenly in the presence of the people I love. I can't doubt that we are in this world together. It seems wrong -- merely a pose, possibly an offensive pose -- to say to my seriously ill father, in seeming sincerity at the end of a philosophical discussion about death and God, "I think there's a 99.8% chance that you exist". It throws a wall up between us.

Or can it be done in a different way? Maybe I could say: "Here, you should doubt me. And I too will doubt you, just a tiny bit, so we are doubting together. Very likely, the world exists just as we think it does; or even if it doesn't, even if nothing exists beyond this room, still I am more sure of you than I am of almost anything else."

There is a risk in radical skepticism, a risk that I will doubt others dismissively or disrespectfully, alienating myself from them. But I believe that this risk can be managed, maybe even reversed: In confessing my skepticism to you, I make myself vulnerable. I show you my weird, nerdy doubts, which you might laugh at, or dismiss, or join me in. If you join me, or even just engage me seriously, we will have connected in a way that I treasure.

Monday, November 24, 2014

More Philosophical SF Recommendations

Regular readers of The Splintered Mind will remember the recent series of posts offering 36 professional philosophers' recommendations of works of science fiction or speculative fiction (SF) -- compiled here. Since then, I've accumulated a few more lists and recommendations.


a list of movies from the Philo-Teach discussion list started in 1996,
which Bruce Janz has kindly reposted -- movies that philosophers have found useful to show students for teaching purposes. Some good SF on there (but also lots of non-SF).

And here's

a list of science fiction about death
compiled for John M. Fischer in 1993 by John's and my late colleague George Slusser, the visionary science fiction scholar whose vast knowledge of the genre was central to developing UC Riverside's Eaton Collection into the largest publicly available collection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world.

Below are three new SF lists in the standard format I am using for list contributions (ten recommendations with brief pitches).

Further contributions are welcome. Official list contributors should be "professional philosophers" (by which I mean something like PhD and a teaching or research job in philosophy) or SF writers with graduate training in philosophy and at least one "pro" sale. And as always, all readers' further thoughts and recommendations are welcomed in the comments section!


List from Simon Fokt (Teaching Fellow in Philosophy, University of Leeds), Polish SF from Lem and Dukaj:

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961; trans. 1970) Lem explores issues related to limitations of knowledge and communication, philosophy of mind and the structure of radically different minds.

Stanisław Lem, Fiasco (novel, 1986; trans. 1987) Another novel exploring the linguistic and cognitive limitations on understanding and communicating with truly different, alien life forms.

Stanisław Lem, Golem XIV (novel, 1981; trans. 1985) A story from the point of view of an AI which achieves consciousness, raises issues in philosophy of mind, and questions human ethics.

Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress (novel, 1971; trans. 1974) On distinguishing reality from hallucination; scepticism and issues in knowledge acquisition and justification.

Stanisław Lem, Return from the Stars (novel, 1961; trans. 1980) Can humans live in a utopian society? What is the value of suffering, danger and risk, and what can happen if they are removed?

Stanisław Lem, Wizja lokalna (Local Vision) (novel, 1982 – Polish, not translated) Raises moral issues related to artificial intelligences and immortality.

Jacek Dukaj, Inne Pieśni (Other Songs) (novel, 2003 – Polish, not translated) An alternative history, starting from Alexander the Great’s times, in which Aristotle's physics is actually true. There are five elements, form and matter, etc., and some people have the power to will form onto matter. Basically, what would the world be like if Aristotle were right?

Jacek Dukaj, Lód (Ice) (novel, 2007 – Polish, not translated) The Tunguska Meteorite creates the Ice which freezes history and laws of logic in a part of the world. Under the Ice logic has only two-values, while outside it's many-valued. Issues in logic, rationality and cognition.

Jacek Dukaj, Czarne oceany (Black Oceans) (novel, 2001 – Polish, not translated) Jacek Dukaj, Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość (An Ideal Imperfection) (novel, 2004 – Polish, not translated) Both novels explore post-humanism, the limits of human cognition and self, personal identity and persistence in the context of technology advanced enough to permit multiple physical realizations of a single consciousness, and blurring the lines between several simultaneous streams of thought and communication.

Simon adds: "Sadly, Dukaj’s work isn’t likely to be translated any time soon, which is unfortunate. Not because it’s not worth it, but because of the difficulty – he’s very interested in linguistic manipulations and neologisms, including not only making up new words, but making up entire grammar structures (e.g. some post-human-beings have no gender or location, so he creates an entirely new type of declination which is used when speaking about them). It must be a great challenge to translate that! Hopefully someone will, sooner or later."


List from David John Baker (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan):

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (novel, 1989) The best science fiction novel I've ever read, a treasure of the genre. It isn't philosophical throughout, but the chapter titled "The Scholar's Tale" contains a lot of interesting philosophy of religion.

C.J. Cherryh, Cyteen (novel, 1988) Nature/nurture and personal identity questions are central to an absorbing plot.

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (novel, 1972) Revolves around a fascinating question at the border between philosophy and psychology. Revealing the question would spoil the plot.

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (and sequels The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence) (novels 2002-2003) A well-thought-out posthuman libertarian utopia. (Also a deeply sexist novel, I'm afraid.)

Stephen Baxter, Manifold Time (novel, 1999) The plot of this book revolves around the doomsday argument! Also features some interesting detail about time and quantum physics, although much of it is distorted for fictional effect.

John Varley, The Ophiuchi Hotline (novel, 1977) Hinges on some wonderful thought experiments about personal identity, free will and the nature of intelligence.

John Kessel, "Stories for Men" (short story, 2002) Fascinating piece about gender. Examines a civilization in which women are privileged in something like the way our civilization privileges men.

Ted Chiang, "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" (short story, 2013) One of Chiang's most philosophical stories, which is saying a lot. Examines the unreliability of memory. If I had more room for a longer list, at least half of Chiang's stories would be on it.

Ariel Djanikian, The Office of Mercy (novel, 2013) Recent novel by a first-time author. A utilitarian civilization ruthlessly acts out its principles on a grand scale. Hard to say if this is a utopia or a dystopia.

Greg Bear, Queen of Angels (and sequel Slant) (novels, 1990 and 1997) Another morally ambiguous utopia. A civilization which treats violent deviants with therapy rather than punishment.


List from Christy Mag Uidhir (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Houston):

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (novel, 1972) A novella composed of three short stories that addresses the issue of personal identity through the Colonialist lens.

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (novels, 1980-1987) Four novels and a coda. Modern masterpiece of literature, science-fiction or otherwise. Difficult and at times seems impenetrably dense but, like much of Wolfe’s work, the rewards for the careful reader are endless.

Walter Miller, Jr., Canticle for Leibowitz (novel, 1959) A powerful tale both beautiful and tragic of Humanity and the light of knowledge.

Stanisław Lem, The Cyberiad (story collection, 1965; trans. 1974) A collection of philosophically-themed short stories about the adventures of constructor engineers Trurl and Klapaucius trying to out do one another.

Frederick Pohl, Gateway (novel, 1977) How time doesn’t heal all wounds; some it leaves freshly open and raw forever.

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (novel, 1975) Haldeman’s sci-fi Vietnam masterpiece. What war at relativistic speeds means for soldiers going home.

Jack Vance, The Dying Earth (novel, 1950) Set millions of years in the future against the backdrop of a dying sun where mathematics has become magic and Earth a thing of terrible beauty.

Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress (novel, 1971; trans. 1974) It’s The Matrix on drugs (literally) but better written and utterly hilarious.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (novel, 1998) A thoroughly enjoyable time-travel romp with a surprisingly philosophically sophisticated ending.

Mike Resnick, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge (novel, 1994) Novella that uses stories from a single geographic location across time to weave together a portrait of humanity (and the rise and fall thereof) as an essentially ruthless and thoroughly evil blight upon the universe.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Schindler's Truck

Today I'm thinking about Schindler's truck and what it suggests about the moral psychology of one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.

Here's a portrayal of the truck, in the background of a famous scene from Schindler's List:

[image source]

Oskar Schindler, as you probably know, saved over a thousand Jews from death under the Nazis by spending vast sums of money to hire them in his factories, where they were protected. Near the end of Spielberg's movie about him, the script suggests that Schindler is broke -- that he has spent the last of his wartime slave-labor profits to save his Jewish workers, just on the very eve of German surrender:

Stern: Do you have any money hidden away someplace that I don't know about?
Schindler: No. Am I broke?
Stern: Uh, well...

Then there's the surrender, Schindler's speech to the factory workers, and preparations for Schindler's escape (as a hunted profiteer of slave labor).

Seeing the film, you might briefly think, what's with the truck that caravans off with Schindler? But the truck gets no emphasis in the film.

Thomas Keneally's 1982 book Schindler's Ark (on which Spielberg's 1993 film was based) tells us more about the truck:

Emilie, Oskar, and a driver were meant to occupy the Mercedes. [Seven] others would follow in a truck loaded with food and cigarettes and liquor for barter (p. 375).
In one of the factory garages that afternoon, two prisoners were engaged in removing the upholstery from the ceiling and inner doors of Oskar's Mercedes, inserting small sacks of the Herr Direktor's diamonds... (p. 368).
So, on Keneally's telling, Schindler drove off with a truck full of barter goods and small sacks of diamonds hidden in the upholstery -- hardly broke. On reflection, too, you might think the timing is too cinematic, the story suspiciously tidy, if Schindler goes broke just at the moment of German surrender.

Part of me wants Schindler to have gone broke, or at least not to have driven off with sacks of diamonds. A fully thoughtful Schindler would have realized, perhaps, that he was in fact a profiteer of slave labor, despite the admiration he rightly deserves for the risks he took and his enormous expenditures of (most of!) his ill-gotten profits. On this way of thinking, the wealth generated by Schindler's factories more rightly belonged to the Jews than to Schindler. I picture an alternative Schindler who realizes that and who thus retains only enough money to ensure his escape.

But another part of me thinks this is too much to hope for, that the thought "Of course I deserve to keep some of these diamonds" is so natural that no merely human Schindler would fail to have it; that in wanting Schindler not to have that thought, I am wanting an angel rather than a person.

We don't really know, though, what Schindler fled with. David M. Crowe writes:

It is hard to imagine that he still had a collection of diamonds so large that it would fill the door and ceiling cavities of a Mercedes. [N.B.: This is an uncharitable reading of Keneally's version] Emilie [Schindler's wife] totally discounted the idea that the two of them left Bruennlitz with a "fortune in diamonds," though she later admitted that Oskar did have a "huge diamond" hidden in the glove compartment (2004, p. 455).
By all accounts, Schindler's remaining wealth was gone, probably stolen, by the time he surrendered to the Americans.

Still another part of me thinks: If anyone deserves diamonds, it's Schindler. It would have been justice served, not a failing, for him to keep a portion of his wealth.

These three parts of me are still at war.

Monday, November 10, 2014

My Reaction to David Chalmers's The Conscious Mind, 18 Years Later

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked me what book written in the last 30 years changed my mind. Instead of trying to be clever, I went with my somewhat boring best guess at the truth: David Chalmers's The Conscious Mind. It changed my mind not because I came to accept its conclusions, but rather because Chalmers so nicely shows that if you want to avoid the bizarreness of panpsychism, epiphenomenalism, and property dualism, you have to say something else that seems at least equally bizarre. I differ from Chalmers in lacking confidence that I have good basis for choosing among the various bizarre metaphysical alternatives.

These reflections brought me, then, to what I've been calling "crazyism": Something that seems crazy must be true, but we have no good way to know which among the crazy options is the right one. My article, "The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind", just published in Australasian Journal of Philosophy is, at root, my much-delayed answer to Chalmers's 1996 challenge to materialism.

Two Views of the Relationship Between Philosophy and Science Fiction

Consider two possible views of the relationship between philosophy and science fiction.

On the first view, science fiction simply illustrates, or makes more accessible, what could be said as well or better in a discursive philosophical essay. Those who can’t stomach purely abstract discussions on the nature of time, for example, might be drawn into an exciting story; but seasoned philosophers can ignore such entertainments and proceed directly to the abstract arguments that are the meat of the philosophical enterprise.

On the second view, science-fictional storytelling has philosophical merit in its own right that is not reducible to abstract argumentation. For at least some philosophical topics, one cannot substitute for the other, and a diet of only one type of writing risks leaving you philosophically malnourished.

One argument for the second view holds that examples and thought-experiments play an ineliminable role in philosophical thinking. If so, we might see the miniature examples and thought experiments in philosophical essays as midpoints on a continuum from purely abstract propositions on one end to novel-length narratives on the other. Whatever role short examples play in philosophical thinking, longer narratives might also play a similar role. Perhaps entirely abstract prose leaves the imagination and the emotions hungry; well-drawn thought experiments engage them a bit; and films and novels engage them more fully, bringing with them whatever cognitive benefits (and risks) flow from vividly engaging the imagination and emotions. Ordinary literary fiction engages imaginative and emotive cognition about possibilities within the ordinary run of human experience; speculative fiction engages imaginative and emotive cognition about possibilities outside the ordinary run of human experience. Both types of fiction potentially deserve a central role in philosophical reflection about such possibilities.

[from the intro of "Philosophers Recommend Science Fiction", forthcoming in Susan Schneider, ed., Science Fiction and Philosophy, 2nd ed.]

Monday, November 03, 2014

Philosophical SF: Thirty-Six Philosophers' Recommendations

... here!

This mega-list of about 360 recommendations is compiled from the lists I've been rolling out over the past several weeks. Thirty-four professional philosophers and two prominent science fiction / speculative fiction (SF) authors with graduate training in philosophy each contributed a list of ten personal favorite "philosophically interesting" SF works, with brief "pitches" for each recommended work.

I have compiled two mega-lists, organized differently. One mega-list is organized by contributor, so that you can see all of Scott Bakker's recommendations, then all of Sara Bernstein's recommendations, etc. It might be useful to skim through to see whose tastes you seem to share and then look at what other works that person recommends.

The other mega-list is organized by author (or director or TV series), to highlight authors (directors / TV shows) who were most often recommended by the list contributors.

The most recommended authors were:

Recommended by 11 contributors:

  • Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended by 8:
  • Philip K. Dick
Recommended by 7:
  • Ted Chiang
  • Greg Egan
Recommended by 5:
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Robert A. Heinlein
  • China Miéville
  • Charles Stross
Recommended by 4:
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Ray Bradbury
  • P. D. James
  • Neal Stephenson
Recommended by 3:
  • Edwin Abbott
  • Douglas Adams
  • Margaret Atwood
  • R. Scott Bakker
  • Iain M. Banks
  • Octavia Butler
  • William Gibson
  • Stanisław Lem
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Larry Niven
  • George Orwell (Eric A. Blair)
  • Kurt Vonnegut
The most recommended directors / TV shows were:

Recommended by 7:

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
Recommended by 5:
  • Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Batman: The Dark Knight, Inception)
Recommended by 4:
  • Ridley Scott (Blade Runner)
Recommended by 3:
  • Futurama
  • Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code)
  • Andrew Niccol (Gattaca)
  • Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers)
  • Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix and sequels)
Reactions, corrections, and futher suggestions welcome (as always) in the comments section.

[image source]

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why I Will Be Contributing Rankings to the Gourmet Report

I have been asked to be an evaluator for the 2014-2015 edition of the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Contrary to what seems to be a widespread sentiment in the philosophical blogosphere, I support the rankings and will participate.

The PGR rankings have at least three related downsides:

1. They perpetuate privilege, including the privilege of people with social power in the discipline, the privilege of people in PhD-granting institutions over other types of institutions, and the general privilege of Anglophone philosophy and philosophers.
2. They reinforce mainstream ("Gourmet ecology") valuations of topics and approaches, in a discipline where the mainstream needs no help and it would probably be productive to push against the mainstream.
3. They risk blurring the distinction between second-hand impressions about reputation (especially outside evaluators' own subareas) and genuine quality.

In light of these downsides, I understand people's hesitation to support the enterprise.

I view the rankings as an exercise in the sociology of philosophy. The rankings are valuable insofar as they reveal sociological facts about how departments, and to some extent individuals (especially in the specialty rankings) are viewed by the social elite in Anglophone philosophy -- by the people who publish articles in journals like Nous and Philosophical Review, by the people who write and are written about in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries, by the people who teach at renowned British and U.S. universities like Oxford, Harvard, and Berkeley. As a part-time sociologist of philosophy interested in patterns of esteem, I am curious how people in this social group view the field, and I regard the PGR as an important source of data.

The PGR is thus valuable in part because sociological and historical knowledge about academia in general is valuable. It is sociologically interesting, and of historical interest, to know what sort of esteem Australian universities have in mainstream Anglophone philosophy. It is sociologically interesting, and of historical interest, to see the shifting patterns of social power among Ivy League universities and large public U.S. universities that are able to hire renowned professors.

The PGR is also practically valuable because knowledge of the centers of social power is practically valuable. To the extent a student wishes to tap into the centers of social power to increase her likelihood of finding a research-oriented job, she should know where those centers of power are; and students and their advisors who are not currently near centers of power might not find it at all obvious where those centers are. By empowering outsiders with knowledge -- especially the knowledge that renowned universities like Harvard, Oxford, and Yale might not be the best universities in their subfield -- the PGR to some extent works against the perpetuation of privilege, despite the fact that it reinforces privilege in other ways. Also, to the extent one wishes to fight against mainstream perceptions of the discipline, it is of interest to track what those perceptions are and how they are changing over time -- though if this were one's primary motivation, one would probably oppose the PGR. Finally, to the extent one respects the judgment of philosophers in the Anglophone philosophy mainstream, one might infer differences in real quality from differences in reputation.

On the last point: If you think that Anglophone philosophy mainstream judgment is grossly erroneous in general, you might reasonably infer that the PGR does more harm than good; but I don't hold that view myself. In philosophy of mind, for example -- my own specialty -- I think that the best-regarded philosophers tend in fact to be excellent philosophers who deserve their good reputations.

One area in which I think mainstream philosophical judgment is ill-tuned is in its disregard of non-Western traditions. However, I believe that the PGR has the potential to be progressive on this issue. For example, in treating Chinese philosophy as an area worth special remark, despite the small number of PhD-granting philosophy departments in Anglophone countries who have specialists in the area, it gives the subarea more visibility than it otherwise would have. And were there sufficient hiring in other non-Western traditions, I suspect the PGR would adapt to reflect that.

Despite my support of the PGR rankings, I think it is important that the rankings be viewed critically, as a rough tool for revealing certain sociological patterns in the discipline. I would very much like to see other approaches to evaluation, which would help put the PGR rankings in context as only one way to think about the social structures that drive academic philosophy.

[Cross-posted at New APPS.]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Philosophical SF: Ninth Batch of Lists (Nichols, Wittkower, Brophy, and Yap)

A couple of months ago, I started asking professional philosophers for their recommendations of some personal favorites among philosophically interesting science fiction or "speculative fiction" (SF) more broadly construed. Every contributor was to list ten works along with brief "pitches" pointing toward the works' interest. Thirty-six philosophers have sent in their lists, which I've been spinning out four at a time. This is the ninth and final list. (Or rather I should say, final for now. If more contributions come in, I will post them in small batches.)

Soon, I'll merge everything into a "mega-list", adding a bit of quantitative analysis.

The number of contributors, the range of works recommended, and the recommenders' enthusiasm and knowledge, all substantially exceeded my expectations. A hearty thanks to all of them! I'm looking forward to years of awesome reading and viewing.

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

Fifth set: Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider.

Sixth set: Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs.

Seventh set: Roy-Faderman, Clark, Schwitzgebel, Killoren & Brophy.

Eighth set: Sullivan, Clarke, Oppenheimer, Bernstein.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute their own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Ryan Nichols (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Cal State Fullerton):

Mike Resnick, "Kirinyaga" (short story, 1988). The best and most fêted story — one dealing a deft touch to issues of race and gender, justice and moral relativism — from an author who needs to hire someone to carry around his treasure trove of awards.

Ted Chiang, "Liking What You See: A Documentary" (short story, 2002). In the same vein as Vonnegut's 1961 "Harrison Bergeron," here Chiang offers us a brilliant semi-story in which a campus community takes seriously a pervasive but undiscussed bias — lookism.

Daniel Suarez, Influx (novel, 2014). Justly compared to Crichton, Suarez's page-turning plotting does not come at the expense of intelligent protagonists and antagonists, thank God; but make no mistake, this exciting but thoughtful book is much more than aisle-seat fodder.

Timons Esaias, "Norbert and the System" (short story, 1993). Imagine an app, dropped into the head of a Homer Simpson-like character, that uses an algorithm to instruct him — with microsecond speed — that if he wants her to like him, for example, he ought to tilt his head a bit more to the left and use the words "I feel" in the next sentence he utters. Written with wit and humor, this meditation on free will and compatibilism is more than the sum of its parts and foreshadows the increasing lack of empathy of facebooking millenials.

Greg Egan, "Reasons to be Cheerful" (short story, 1997). Egan, in my pantheon of hard sf writers, plays with the psychology and philosophy of happiness with a protagonist, narrated in the first person, who of necessity gains the ability to adjust his mental well-being moment by moment.

Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy &c (various media, 1978-2005). This book and the series still delivers Mona Lisa-like smiles (and laughs) to thinking readers from the moment Arthur's first grabs a towel — and a pint — to the moment when Zaphod asks to "meet the meat" at the Restaurant.

Johann Kepler, "Somnium" (novel, 1608). An incredible story by one of the most important scientists in world history, Kepler (1571-1630) represents a trip to the moon according to extrapolation from his then-current, accurate, and highly non-standard scientific knowledge. (The real-life story behind "Somnium" and what it cost Kepler personally is more gripping.)

Michael Moorcock, "Pale Roses" (short story, 1974). While we think that post-humanity will override most of our base evolutionary motivations, this literary story raises profound questions about the meaning of a human life through a setting in which human-like characters are virtually immortal and have nearly limitless powers... but still desperately want to be invited to parties.

Kij Johnson, "Spar" (short story, 2009). I fucking dare you.

Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (novel, 2010). If we plot ideas-per-page on the x-axis and quality of writing on the y, Banks' novels exist in an upper-right-corner world of their own, and this probing novel about punishment, religion and the state is no exception.


List from Dylan Wittkower (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Old Dominion University):

Philip K. Dick, “Autofac” (short story, 1955). A short story about the grey goo problem in nanotech, which is, um, a pretty interesting thing to find someone writing about in the '50s. Relevant to the difficulty of acting responsibly with regard to complex systems whose effects are hard to predict, and about the questionable value of autonomy when you don’t have any particular rational determination of values that would guide what you would do with that autonomy.

Philip K. Dick, “The Defenders” (short story, 1953). It forms a great counterpoint to “Autofac.” In “Autofac,” the machines mindlessly consume the planet to create consumer goods. In “The Defenders,” -- spoiler alert -- the machines realize that the humans’ mindless destruction of the planet (through war, this time, rather than production) is irrational, and instead they just fake massive destruction to placate the humans.

Nancy Kress, “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (short story, 2006). Nano destroys scarcity, work is no longer necessary, society falls apart.

Pamela Zoline, “The Heat Death of the Universe” (short story, 1967). Avant-garde writing, and genre-challenging, since it does not have most (any?) of the usual marks of science fiction. Concerns the uselessness of scientific knowledge in the face of existential despair and the experience of meaninglessness.

J.G. Ballard, “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (short story, 1962). A man drives his wife to kill him, also inadvertently (but foreseeably) programming his “psychotropic” house to later attempt to kill its new owners. Each chapter of the Vermillion Sands collection (which this is from) uses science fiction to explore a different art form — this is the chapter on architecture.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (novel, 1968). There’s the moral isolation from others through an “experience-machine”-like self-programming of emotional states, contrasted with Mercer as a kind of Levinasian Other; animal ethics, especially as connected to consumerism and environmentalism; AI stuff; etc. Wonderfully complicated, deep, and wacky — all of which will be surprising if you’ve only heard of it by way of Blade Runner. I’ll also go ahead and plug one of my edited volumes, Philip K. Dick and Philosophy (2011), which has chapters on philosophical issues in a good number of Dick novels and films.

R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath and the Prince of Nothing trilogy (novels, 2004-2008). Very philosophically informed. Neuropath is grounded in serious research in neuroscience and philosophy of mind. Prince of Nothing is high fantasy in the spirit, but not the style, of Tolkien, indebted to both Thucydides and Camus.

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (novel, 1985). Issues include embodiment and phenomenology, philosophy of education, lying and consequentialism, just war theory, and virtue ethics. See my 2013 anthology, Ender's Game and Philosophy.

M.T. Anderson, Feed (novel, 2002). Issues include extended cognition, transhumanism, and the internet of things.


List from Matthew Brophy (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, High Point University):

Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon (novel, 2002): A deceased mercenary is “uploaded” into a technologically augmented body to solve a mystery, 500 years in the future.

Richard K. Morgan, Thirteen (novel, 2007): A genetically enhanced soldier is tasked with hunting down renegade “thirteens” like himself.

Christopher Nolan, The Prestige (movie, 2006): Dueling magicians each make the ultimate sacrifice to perfect an astounding trick.

Robert Venditti, Surrogates (comic book, 2005-2006): When android avatars, remotely controlled by human users, start to be mysteriously murdered, one detective must unplug in order to stop a societal genocide of surrogates and humans alike.

James Cameron, Avatar (movie, 2009): A wheelchair-bound marine finds new freedom and identity as a bio-engineered alien.

Christopher Nolan, Inception (movie, 2010): A con-man transverses through layers of shared dreams in this mind-bending “heist” movie.

Rian Johnson, Looper (movie, 2012): A hit-man for the mob “terminates” other contract-killers, who are sent back in time when their contract is up.

Duncan Jones, Source Code (movie, 2012): A soldier repeatedly awakens on a train, as another man who has mere minutes to find and defuse a time-bomb that will kill them all.

Mike Cahill, Another Earth (movie, 2011): The appearance of a duplicate earth brings hope to a promising young student that a tragic accident she’s caused may have been averted on the twin earth.


List from Audrey Yap (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Victoria):

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (novel, 1998). This book has everything you didn’t know you wanted in a book: three generations of kickass women, post-apocalyptic Toronto, and some Afro-Caribbean magic. That’s all I need to tell you, now go read it immediately. I think it’s one of the best and most underrated works of feminist speculative fiction out there.

Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (short stories, collected 1950). Classic short stories in this book, having to do with the relationship between humans and non-human intelligences. It’s not as utopian about technology as a lot of Asimov’s other work, but despite several incidents of robots behaving badly, it’s not all Skynet and doom either.

Red Dwarf, "Justice" (TV show, 1991). The Justice Field makes it physically impossible for injustice to be committed!

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (short stories, collected 2002). Short stories following through on the consequences of various ideas. What if arithmetic actually was inconsistent? What if we did live in a system of celestial spheres?

Robert J. Sawyer, Hominids (novel, 2002; also Humans and Hybrids, 2003). Hominids is the first book in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, in which a doorway to a parallel universe opens up in Sudbury, Ontario. Yes, Sudbury. In the parallel universe, Neanderthals became dominant rather than us. It’s interesting thinking through the differences in the family culture of each group, since Neanderthals in the other universe have two partners, one male and one female.

Christopher Nolan, The Prestige (movie, 2010). It’s hard to describe what makes this movie philosophically interesting without giving away the big plot twist at the end. But there are two very distinct explorations of personal identity. My personal favourite is the one that has to do with social identity.

Jorge Luis Borges, "On Rigor in Science" (short story, 1946). I want to use this one-paragraph short story in a paper on idealization. It brings up an empire in which map-making has “advanced” such that the only acceptable map of the empire is one of the exact same scale as the empire itself.

Futurama, "Mars University" (TV show, 1999). Gunther is a monkey who becomes super-intelligent but can then no longer fit in with his monkey community. Could we be better off ignorant if it means we can then enjoy the company of others?

Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark (novel, 2002). The protagonist is a scientist with autism in a near-future world in which there may be a “cure” for his condition. The quotation marks are there because one of the central issues has to do with whether autism is a condition that in fact needs curing. I don’t think I’d heard of the idea of neurodiversity when I read this, but it strikes me as exactly the idea under consideration.


Soon I will present a compilation of all of the approximately 360 SF recommendations included these nine posts, sorted in a few different ways.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Philosophical SF: Eighth Batch of Lists (Sullivan, Clarke, Oppenheimer, Bernstein)

Here is the eighth set of science fiction / speculative fiction recommendations from professional philosophers, out of a projected nine sets. If all goes according to plan, I should have the final list up next Monday, and then I'll start merging them into a mega-list and doing some analysis.

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

Fifth set: Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider.

Sixth set: Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs.

Seventh set: Roy-Faderman, Clark, Schwitzgebel, Killoren & Brophy.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute their own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Meghan Sullivan (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Notre Dame):

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (novel, 1996). Jesuits in space! The main theme of the book concerns the protagonist's crisis of faith, but I much preferred the supporting characters, each of whom had a fascinating backstory which revealed quite a bit about the Earth culture in the novel.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (novel, 2006). Deeply moving story about the lengths a father will go to in order to preserve a sense of hope in his young son, even as the world around them crumbles. The greatest apocalyptic novel ever written.

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (short stories, collected 2002). A collection of scifi short stories exploring diverse philosophical themes -- the problem of evil, the relationship between language and time, the ethics of beauty. Most of the stories offer an original and highly creative take on the issue at hand.

George Saunders, Tenth of December (short stories, collected 2013). Like Chiang, Saunders offers highly original takes on philosophical problems---the best stories in this volume deal with the nature of conscious experience and subjugation.

Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game (novel, 1985). I've re-read this book easily a dozen times. Kids in military school in space, learning to fight the war to end all alien wars. Totalitarian governments. Xenophobia. Military tactics. Blogging... What more could you want?

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (novel, 2004). There is a distinctive Mitchell-style---complex worlds where everything is secretly interconnected and paranoia is completely justified. Cloud Atlas is his best, especially in the middle chapters when he essentially invests a new dialect to describe life in a catastrophic time.

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove (short stories, collected 2013). A collection of beautiful short stories, with elements of fantasy and horror used to draw out insights about very real emotions. The first two stories are fascinating. The last one, devastating.

Stephen King, The Stand (novel, 1978) The world has been ravaged by a disastrous plague called Captain Trips. The novel charts the path of various survivors who must choose sides in an apocalyptic battle. But the description doesn't do justice to King's richly imagined characters and twisty plot.

Justin Cronin, The Passage (novel, 2010). OK, I just never get sick of apocalyptic science fiction. The main character, Amy, is probably my all-time favorite protagonist in fiction. Is it a virus book? A monster book? A book about dystopian communities? A book about immortality? There are several great plot twists that it would be a shame to spoil, so I will rest the description there.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (novel, 1968). I read this for the first time in middle school, never having heard of Blade Runner. The android vs detective plot is great, and of course the book is an excellent meditation on human nature. But the best part of the story, I think, is the dark, dystopian society Dick portrays in the background of the novel.


List from Ellen Clarke (Postdoctoral Fellow of Philosophy, Oxford):

Octavia Butler, Blood Child (short story, 1995). Men are forced to bear the progeny of aliens in a gory and powerfully emotional analogy of motherhood, portrayed as a paradoxically enjoyable form of abuse.

John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (novel, 1951). Giant deadly shrubs ambulate around a London riven by a plague of blindness. Moody, scary, tense, dark. An early pioneer of biological scifi, Wyndham reminds us that plants can be evil too.

Larry Niven, A Hole in Space (short stories, collected 1974). The master of 'soft' (sociological) sci fi, Niven was visionary at thinking through the human consequences of new technologies. Teleportation here acts as social lighter fluid, enabling the formation of dangerously volatile 'flash mobs', as well as adding new depths a to murder mystery challenge.

Philip K Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (novel, 1974). If Dick doesn't make you paranoid you're probably not real. Here he explores celebrity and identity via a drug which snatches the targets of a users thoughts into a parallel reality.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). Noble savage meets techno-enhanced scientific rational future and comes off badly.

George Orwell, 1984 (novel, 1949). A vivid polemic on the human cost of political authoritarianism, whose original ideas and phrases - Big Brother, Room 101 - are now firmly in the mainstream.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (novel, 1953). State-administered book burning, anaesthetised life, an eloquent hymn to the power of the written idea.

Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan (novel, 1959). A starkly beautiful spiral through loneliness, omniscience and the meaning of life.

J G Ballard, The Disaster Area (short stories, collected 1967). A masterpiece of unsettling darkness. What happens if we switch off sleep? How does it feel to live in a towerblock of infinite height and breadth? What would life look like in reverse?

Raccoona Shelton, "The Screw Fly Solution" (short story, 1977). We succumb to aliens as screw flies succumb to our biological controls.....a pitchblack feminist nightmare.


List from Paul Oppenheimer (Assistant Editor, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

Edwin Abbott Abbott (writing pseudonymously as “A Square”), Flatland (novel, 1884). Conceptualization and visualization; imaginability, conceivability, and possibility; social class and gender structure.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (Peter S. Beagle, screenplay), “Sarek” (TV episode, 1990). Dementia, social role, telepathy, telempathy, Stoicism, pietas, duty, honor.

Peter S. Beagle, The Innkeeper’s Song (novel, 1993). Gender, gender swap, revenants, romantic love, nature of true love, laws of magic and costs of performing magic; do things and people have essential natures? Loyalty and power.

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961). Communication with aliens. What, if anything, is real? Politics of science and exploration. (Andrei Tarkovsky. 1972. film.)

Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (novel, 1974). Anarcho-syndicalism vs capitalism; scarcity and abundance; co-operation and competition; sclerosis of a revolution.

Doris Lessing, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (novel, 1980). Gender: are gender characteristics inherent?; gender essentialism; communication among genders. (Philip Glass. 1997. Opera.)

Paul M.A. Linebarger (writing as Cordwainer Smith), “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” (short story, 1962). Sex work, multiple grades of citizenship, civil rights, animal-human spectrum.

China Miéville, Embassytown (novel, 2011). Philosophy of language! semiotics! impossibility of falsehood! simile vs metaphor!

Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005). Uploaded minds; post-humanism; the singularity. What is a person, anyway?

A.E. van Vogt, Slan (novel, 1940). Transhumanity/superhumanity, telepathy, genocide. Meta: fandom: “Fans are slans.” The other. Mutual contempt and fear.


List from Sara Bernstein (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Duke University):

Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud (novel, 1957). Begins as an impending-disaster-for-earth story, but introduces a twist: the giant cloud approaching earth is conscious and is surprised to find other conscious beings in the universe. Consciousness, multiple realizability, the works.

Catherynne Valente, Palimpsest (novel, 1959). A city is transmitted through physical touch and is only able to be visited by those who have been infected. Physicalism.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Changing Planes (short stories, collected 2003). Airports are not just places for transportation between spatial locations; they also host people who want to change dimensions in between changing flights. Traveler stops over in several other exotic dimensions, including one in which everything unnecessary for human life has been removed ("The Nna Mmoy Language"). Possible worlds with foreign-yet-familiar features.

K.W. Jeter, Noir (novel, 1998). The dead can be brought back to life if they don't meet their financial obligations, and must work to pay them off. Capitalism, ethics.

Italo Calvino, "All at One Point" from Cosmicomics (1968). Everything exists at one spacetime point. Extended simples, conceivability, possibility.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (novel, 1975). Four women living in different times and places cross over to each other's worlds and are startled by gender roles and assumptions of worlds that at not their own. Feminist philosophy, philosophy of gender.

Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (novel, 1985). Narrator wanders around in his mind. Consciousness, physicalism.

The Walking Dead (TV series, 2010-). Survivors of zombie apocalypse live out central questions of political philosophy in a Hobbesian state of nature: from whence does authority originate? Is it better to band together for protection and subject ourselves to a ruling power? Is remaining on one's own a fundamental right?

Jac Schaeffer, Timer (movie, 2009). Almost every person is outfitted with a device that counts down to the minute the wearer will meet his or her soulmate. (Not as cheesy as it sounds.) Some choose not to have timers, where others rebel and have relationships with people known to contradict their timers. Fatalism, free will, utilitarianism.

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). Future society infused with pre-birth genetic engineering stratifies into genetically unlucky and genetically. Genetically unlucky rebel trades places with genetically lucky man to live out his dream of going to space. Bioethics, free will.


Ninth batch of lists here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Why Is It So Fun to Condemn People on Facebook?

I'm not hatin' on hatin'. I want to be clear about that up front. Condemning rotten behavior is a crucial moral activity, and Facebook is a powerful means of doing so. My friends' Facebook condemnations of sexism and racism and ableism, for example, have increased my awareness of those issues.

And yet... condemning people's bad behavior on Facebook is almost too fun, in a way that niggles at me somehow. Why is it so fun, and what do its pleasures reveal about it?

Clearly part of the fun is that you're on a team. You and your friends get to be on the team of the righteous, aligned together against the target of your condemnatory passions, the person (and more broadly the people like them) who have done that stupid/awful/foolish thing! -- the stupid/awful/foolish thing that you (of course?) would never do. One of the great pleasures in life is building solidarity with like-minded folks in condemning others outside of your group, triumphing over them at least in imagination if not in reality. It's a moral pleasure as well as a social one, and when your condemnation is morally correct and epistemically defensible, it can be entirely good and justified.

Also crucial to the fun, I suspect, is that you receive no genuinely negative feedback for your condemnation. Your Facebook friends are probably like-minded. And if they're not, they're probably quiet. And even if they're not quiet, you can hide their posts or at least, by not "liking" their posts, make their posts less likely to appear at the top of your feed. There's a "like" button, but no "dislike" or "disagree". Now, if you condemn something that is controversial among your friends, you might get some pushback in the comments, but since that's not what we seem usually to want from Facebook condemnations, the activity works most smoothly when we condemn something safe, something we know our friends will also condemn or at least not rise to defend.

Another part of the fun, I think, is a kind of depersonalization of the target of the condemnation. You are condemning a person, yes, but almost always you are condemning a single act, or maybe a few acts of a similar type. The target of condemnation is seen only through one or a few quotations or photographs which might reflect a single moment's poor choice in a complicated life, but which come implicitly, through stasis and repetition, to signify some enduring and central trait in the condemned. You do not see how the person reacts to the condemnation; you do not see the context of the condemned action; you do not see the person attempting to apologize and reform -- or if you do see the person's apology, because the apology is inept (as most attempted apologies and reforms are), it becomes a fresh target for a new round of condemnation, itself again held static and repeated. Maybe one difference between sadism and its lighter cousin schadenfreude is that sadism revels in power over a flesh and blood victim, while schadenfreude (of a certain type) laughs at only a slice of someone, intentionally not gazing upon the target's full humanity. The pleasures of Facebook condemnation are in part schadenfreudist.

I don't think the practice should end. We must laugh at and also more seriously condemn people who do foolish and immoral things; and sharing this laughter and condemnation reinforces community norms. We can't always feel sympathetic pain and embarrassment on behalf of those who go wrong. Yet scrolling down through my Facebook feed that mixes shared indignation and laughter at foolishness in roughly equal proportions with cute kittens and talent shows, I feel that something human is missing -- the perpetrator, as a full person, before and after, with color and nuance and a suite of other traits, sometimes enough to earn forgiveness or forgetting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sci Phi Journal Call for Papers

Jason Rennie at Sci Phi Journal writes:

I'm looking for articles and short fiction for upcoming issues of Sci Phi Journal. The papers need to be at a relativly popular level and need to connect with or explore philosophy through the lens of science fiction or fantasy. I pay 5c a word for submissions that are published and there is a bonus 5c a word if the issue gets to 5000 sales. The articles or stories should be in the 2 – 4k word range but that isn't a strict limit. I do buy reprints but at a lower rate. There is no deadline for submissions, but for any particular issue the deadline is 30 days before publication, which happens on the first of the month. Issue #2 will be out soon and Issue #3 will be published in January 2015.
If you have, or would like to write, a short philosophical essay that discusses either a particular work of science fiction or themes in science fiction in general, I encourage you to consider this new venue!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Philosophical SF: Seventh Batch of Lists (Roy-Faderman, Clark, Schwitzgebel, and Killoren & Murphy)

More philosophical SF lists!

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

Fifth set: Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider.

Sixth set: Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute their own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Ina Roy-Faderman (Instructor of Philosophy, Oregon State University, and poet):

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). Biotech isn't automatically a "good" or an "evil" for people and society. What are the repercussions of engineering people with enhanced and reduced capacities? Both positive and negative?

William Gibson, "Johnny Mnemonic" (short story, 1981). What are the pros and cons of biomodifying humans and other intelligent organisms? How if at all should such practices be regulated? Is it even possible to regulate new technologies fully?

Theodore Sturgeon, Venus Plus X (novel, 1960). What is gender? Is gender necessarily a binary? Why?

Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid's Tale (novel, 1985). How does the role and treatment of women in our society affect society? What problems are there with persons of either gender being limited to reproductive purposes?

Connie Willis, The Doomsday Book (novel, 1992). How does disease affect society and culture, particularly with respect to our moral and ethical standards? How do we understand the impact of our small actions on the future, and what effect should potential impact have on our current behavior?

Ray Bradbury, "A Sound of Thunder" (short story, 1952). A start to looking at utilitarian analyses of possible consequences of our smallest actions. What are our obligations with regard to possible future consequences of our actions?

Kurt Vonnegut, "Welcome to the Monkey House" (short story, 1968). What are reasonable responses to a population issue? In what situation, if any, is assisted suicide ethically allowable? What are the consequences of different attitudes towards sex and sexuality?

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). How important is how we're made to our personhood? What guidelines should there be to using reproductive technologies? What should the limits of these uses be, if any?

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (short story 1958, novel 1966). What are our obligations to organisms that are not human? is intelligence a good thing? What are/should be our responsibilities to persons who do are not neurotypical?

John Chu, "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" (short story, 2013). Uses a strange phenomenon to make visible and concrete the emotional difficulties of coming out. A great way to start discussing what our obligations are to our family and what the importance is, if any, of genetics.


List from Stephen Clark (Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Liverpool):

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (novels, 2002-2003). Set in a very far future capitalist utopia, about to be threatened by a very different form of society. Questions about identity, humanity, social control are implicit, and there are even clear and fairly compelling arguments, mostly drawn from Stoic sources, about the rational roots of ethics.

C. J. Cherryh, Cyteen (novel, 1988). Issues about identity, cloning, slavery, enacted in part of Cherryh's Alliance/Union universe.

C. J. Cherryh, Chanur sequence (novels, 1981-1992). Issues about biological or cultural roots of behaviour, represented through several well-imagined intelligent species in an interstellar, multi-species compact.

Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan sequence (novels, 1986-2012), especially Memory (1996). Importance of memory for stable identity, dealing with temptation, social structures.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End (novel, 1953). The price of utopia, evolutionary leaps. Could an unchanged humanity be at home in the cosmos?

C. S. Lewis, Ransom trilogy (novels, 1938-1945), especially That Hideous Strength (1945), which explores some of the ideas in his The Abolition of Man. Roots of morality, social pressures and wickedness.

Philip K. Dick, Time out of Joint (novel, 1958) Not his best, nor yet his most disturbed, fantasy, but a neat demonstration of what it would be like to discover that one's entire life and surroundings are fake!

Clifford Simak, City (novel, 1952). Tales told about humanity by posthuman dogs - conflicting values of individual and collective; robot intelligence; cross-species compassion.

George Effinger, When Gravity Fails (novel, 1986). What would it be like to be able to load new characters or new talents via computer add-ons, set in a future dominated by Muslim (and mostly criminal) culture. There were two sequels, continuing the story, but without any final resolution.

Ruthanna Emrys, “The Litany of Earth” (short story, 2014). Set in Lovecraft's cosmos - but turning Lovecraft's racism round entirely so that the followers of Cthulhu et al. are a persecuted minority who know and accept that humanity is transient. 


List from Eric Schwitzgebel (Professor of Philosophy, University of California at Riverside):

Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (esp. “Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius”, “The Library of Babel”, and “The Circular Ruins”, short stories, mostly 1940-1949). Every story is philosophically weird and interesting in multiple ways, with repeating themes of infinitude, temporality, repetition, and metaphysical idealism.

Greg Egan, Diaspora / Permutation City (novels, 1994, 1997). If we could upload our minds into giant computers, including duplicating ourselves, backing ourselves up, radically altering our sensory experiences and personalities, what would be the consequences for personal identity and the meaning of life?

Vernor Vinge, A Fire upon the Deep / Children of the Sky (novels 1992, 2011). Features small packs of doglike creatures who communicate constantly through high-frequency sound; only together do they have sophisticated intelligence.

Olaf Stapledon, Sirius (novel, 1944). A dog endowed with human intelligence struggles to make sense of love, human irrationality, and the meaning of life.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Ship in a Bottle” (TV show, 1993). A character from the virtual-reality “Holodeck” attempts to take over the starship, resulting in confusion between simulation and reality, and raising the question of whether the difference matters.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (novels, 1865, 1871). Logic and metaphysics turn topsy turvy (time stops, memory runs backwards, Alice is only a figure in the king’s dream, etc.) while social conventions (tea time, croquet, the monarchy) continue unabated but bizarrely transformed.

Linda Nagata, The Bohr Maker (novel, 1995). Duplicates of your mind can be sent to segregated subportions of others’ minds, reaching independent decisions before merging back into you (cf. Brin’s Kiln People).

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (stories, 1990-2002). One story features aliens whose language is visual and non-linear instead of linear and temporal; another features people who disable the part of their brain that makes beauty judgments about other people.

Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005). Cyberpunk packed tight with wild technological and social ideas, especially regarding self-enhancement, duplication, reincarnation, and human inferiority to AI.


List from David Killoren (Ethics Fellow, Coastal Carolina University) & Derrick Murphy (Graduate Student, University of Wisconsin at Madison):
Philosophically interesting episodes of The Twilight Zone (original series)

"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" (S1:E4, 1959). What is the ontological status of fictional worlds? Is it logically possible for an individual to move from the actual world to a fictional world?

"The Lonely" (S1:E7, 1959). How can we know whether others have minds? What would an android need to do (or to be) in order to be a member of the moral community?

"Long Live Walter Jameson" (S1:E24, 1960). Is immortality worth having? What moral obligations come with being an immortal who has to interact with mortals?

"The Eye of the Beholder" (S2:E6, 1960). Is beauty a matter of stance-independent fact, or a social construction, or merely an illusion, or something else altogether? If a person is regarded as ugly by everyone in her society (including herself), does this mean that she really isn't beautiful?

"Shadowplay" (S2:E26, 1961). What would I have to do to convince you that I am dreaming and that you're a figment of my imagination?

"Nothing in the Dark" (S3:E16, 1962). Why fear death? What would death personified look like?

"Person or Persons Unknown" (S3:E27, 1962). Is your identity in part constituted by others' knowledge of your life? If everyone forgets who you are, can you continue to be the same person?

"Four O'Clock" (S3:E29, 1962). Is it evil to obsess about others' evils?

"The Old Man in the Cave" (S5:E7, 1963). Do humans need to have a religion (whether that religion is true or not) in order to rein in our self-destructive impulses?

"Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (S5:E18, 1964). Is homogeneity an aesthetic defect? Would a hedonistic utopia, in which pleasure levels are high and pain levels are low, really be all that great?


More lists soon!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Philosophical SF: Sixth Batch of Lists (Campbell, Cameron, Easwaran, Briggs)

Here’s still another set of four lists of recommended philosophical science fiction / speculative fiction, contributed by professional philosophers. One striking thing to me is that although there are definitely some overlapping works among the lists, there’s quite a bit that doesn’t overlap, and some works that seem to me eminently worthy of inclusion but have not yet appeared among any of the 240 listings, nor in the comments section. There's really an amazing amount out there, when you think about it!

A general description of the project, plus the first four lists, from Dever, Powell, Kind, and Horst.

Second set: Mandik, E. Kaplan, Evnine, De Cruz.

Third set: De Smedt, Bakker, J. Kaplan, Weinberg.

Fourth set: Frankish, Blumson, Cash, Keeley.

Fifth set: Jollimore, Chalmers, Palma, Schneider.

As always, readers should feel free to contribute your own recommendations to the comments section of this post or the earlier posts.


List from Joe Campbell (Professor of Philosophy, Washington State University):

Robert A. Heinlein, “—All You Zombies—” (short story, 1959). Classic sci-fi story that involves an especially interesting paradox of time travel.

Futurama, “Roswell That Ends Well” (TV episode, 2001). An explicit example of the grandfather paradox of time travel, with shades of Robert A. Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—.”

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko (movie, 2001). An example of the many-worlds interpretation of time travel, where time travel to the past requires travel to a different possible world that branches from the actual world. (See David Deutsch; J. Richard Gott; John Carroll et. al., A Time Travel Dialogue, 2014.)

Terry Gilliam, Twelve Monkeys (movie, 1995). An example of the no-change view of time travel, where people travel to the past but there are no alterations of past events. (See David Lewis, “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” (1976); J. Richard Gott; John Carroll et. al.)

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). Issues in bioethics, especially genetic determinism, free will, and moral responsibility.

Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange (movie, 1971). Great for discussions about free will, moral responsibility, and punishment. One of the few films that asks the question: Can you be praiseworthy if you could not have done otherwise?

Stephen Spielberg, Minority Report (movie, 2002). Covers the topic of pre-punishment: Can we punish people, or hold them morally responsible, for acts that they (arguably) will commit yet have not yet committed? (Based on the Philip K. Dick short story of the same name, 1956. See Saul Smilansky, “Determinism and Prepunishment: the Radical Nature of Compatibilism”, 2007.)

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Covers issues in philosophy of mind: consciousness and the possibility of artificial intelligence. Also, an illustration of film as philosophy (Mulhall, 2008). (Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. In On Film (2008, 2nd edition), Stephen Mulhall contends that there is a philosophical debate about the nature of mortality between Leon (a replicant) and Deckard (a blade runner hired to “retire” Leon), Ch. 20, Director’s Cut DVD. This is also discussed in the Philosophy Bites episode, “Stephen Mulhall on Film as Philosophy.”)

Andy & Lana Wachowski, The Matrix; The Matrix Reloaded; The Matrix Revolutions (movies, 1999 & 2003). Deal with a spectrum of philosophical issues, especially knowledge vs. skepticism, realism vs. antirealism, free will and determinism, and subjectivity vs. objectivity about meaning and value. (Compare Cypher’s choice from The Matrix DVD, Ch. 19, with Robert Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974).

Honorable mentions (knowledge vs. skepticism): Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990); The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998); Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001).


List from Ross Cameron (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Virginia):

Philip K Dick, Ubik (novel, 1969). As with many of Dick’s novels, his characters inhabit a disturbing world where appearances and reality seem to come apart, and out of multiple potential versions of reality, it’s not clear what is real, if anything.

Alan Moore, Watchmen (comic, 1986-87). An otherwise realistic world contains an almost omnipotent superhero. His perception of time raises questions about free will and evitability, and his presence raises difficult moral and political questions.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (novel, 1990). A sorcerous dictator keeps his political enemies subordinated by making it literally impossible for them to express their shared sense of cultural identity.

China Miéville, Embassytown (novel, 2011). An alien society that cannot speak falsely first learns from humans how to make similes, and ultimately learns how to lie, changing them irrevocably.

Robert Heinlein, “All You Zombies” (short story, 1958). In a world where time travellers are responsible for going back to ensure that history happens as it did, a potential recruit is forced to grapple with the problem of other minds.

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman: A Game of You (comic collection, 1993). A young woman encounters an imaginary character from her childhood, leading her and her female friends on a journey that causes them to examine their identity as friends and as women.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (novel, 1985). In a near future - and a very close possible world - a theocratic dictatorship has emerged in which women are severely repressed and must struggle to gain agency and community.

Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5 (TV series, 2000-01). Buffy goes from being an only child to having a teenage sister overnight. Various characters grapple with their own identity, and what to do when duty seems to pull you in one direction and acting according to your nature another.

Melinda Snodgrass (writer), Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of a Man” (TV episode, 1989). The artificial intelligence, Data, is forced to go on trial to prove that he has the right to self-determination and is not the property of Starfleet.

Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (movie, 1990). In a world where memories can be implanted and erased, a man struggles to know who he is and what is real.


List from Kenny Easwaran (Associate Professor of Philosophy, Texas A&M):

Charles Stross, Accelerando (novel, 2005) - how much computer enhancement and dissociation of the self is compatible with remaining human? what are the differences between a software algorithm, a legal system, an organism, and a religion, and can all of them potentially be conscious?

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008) - academics cut themselves off from causal contact with the world in order to develop theoretical knowledge independent of social and political fads. Trans-world communication plays an important role.

George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (series of novels, 1991-present) - the main plot content is not especially philosophical, but this series raises questions of the extent to which families rather than individuals are the units of action, in a world that is more economically and historically developed than most fantasy.

David Gerrold, The Man Who Folded Himself (novel, 1973) - how many roles can one person play in a time travel love story?

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002) - there is technology for creating clones that can live for a day, and which have most or all of the capacities of the individual. The novel investigates consequences for economics, privacy, politics, and health, in the midst of a noir set in future Los Angeles.

Greg Egan, Axiomatic (short story collection, 1995) - each story in this collection develops a strikingly original idea. In "The Hundred Light-Year Diary", a method for sending messages to the past is invented, and everyone learns future history as well as past history, and is issued their life-long diary as soon as they can read. Rather than investigating free will and fatalism, the story investigates the political role of information. Several stories investigate computational alteration or replacement of biological brains and their consequences for moral responsibility and personal survival and identity. Some are more comedic.

P.D. James / Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men (novel 1992, movie 2006) - centers on themes that have recently been explored by Sam Scheffler about the role of the ongoing existence of humanity in giving meaning to the life of an individual.

Christopher Nolan, Batman: The Dark Knight (movie, 2008) - classic puzzles from decision theory and ethics are given the twist of unreliability.

Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009) - explores issues of personal identity and the ethical issues of technology related to space travel for the purposes of dangerous work.

Christopher Priest / Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, The Prestige (novel 1995, movie 2006) - two different ways of performing the same magic trick raise very different worries about personal identity and one's moral obligations to oneself.


List from Rachael Briggs (Research Fellow in Philosophy, Australian National University and Griffith University):

James Tiptree Jr., “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (short story, 1973). A sentient arthropod contemplates free will, but everything he wills happens to match the typical life cycle of his species.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (novel, 2003). Brilliant genetic engineer Glenn ("Crake") is disgusted with human beings, their violence, and their environmental destructiveness. So he destroys the human race, and replaces it with a new species, the "Crakers", which he has designed as a superior replacement. The story is told by the last surviving human, who was Crake's best friend before the apocalypse.

Ryo Hanmura, “Tansu” (short story, 1997). A magical tansu, or chest of drawers, motivates people to sit on top of it all night, chanting mechanically. When asked, people transformed by the tansu unanimously describe the the activity as deeply fulfilling, yet the narrator finds something frightening in the idea of being transformed.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man (novel, 1975). A woman is introduced to her counterparts from three different possible worlds, in which feminism has taken three different historical courses.

Rattle issue #38, Tribute to Speculative Poetry (poetry journal, 2012). Poems that explore a wide variety of science fictional and philosophical themes, including the inner life of an android created to be a pleasing companion (“Elise as Android at the Japan! Culture + Hyperculture Festival” by Rebecca Hazelton), various kinds of transformative experience (“The Creature” by Aimee Parkison; “Stairs Appear in a Hole Outside of Town” by John Philip Johnson), the relationship between humans and their pets (“BLACKDOOG™” by Charles Harper Webb), and even the possibility of divine intervention in sports games (“One Possibility” by Marilee Richards).

Doctor Who, “The Aztecs” (TV serial, 4 episodes, 1964). The Doctor, a time-traveler, takes his companions Barbara, Ian, and Susan to the Aztec Empire in the 15th Century. Barbara is mistaken for the goddess Yetaxa, and immediately put in charge of the empire. She tries to use her power to stop the Aztecs' human sacrifice, despite the suspicion that this policy creates among her subjects, and the Doctor's warnings that her inconsistent approach to time travel could endanger the universe.

Dark Matter: A Century of Science Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas and Samuel R. Delany (short story collection, 2000). This varied collection of writing by black science fiction authors addresses the nature and ethics of race, but also explores a range of other philosophical questions, including: "How can a vampire live ethically, given her dietary needs?" ("Chicago 1967", by Jewelle Gomez); "What would it be to borrow someone's eyes and see from their perspective?" ("Can You Wear My Eyes", by Kalamu y Salam); "How can human beings construct dignified lives in the face of an incurable terminal illness?" ("The Evening and the Morning and the Night", by Octavia Butler) and "Who owns the rights to Santa Claus?" ("Future Christmas", by Ishmael Reed).

Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics (short story collection, 1968). Old man Qfwfq recounts the reader with stories of his youth, when he and his relatives witnessed the Big Bang, the formation of the galaxies, the time when the moon was so close to the earth you could jump from one to the other, the evolution of land animals, and other historic events.

Jose Saramago, “The Centaur” (short story, 1978, English translation by Nadine Gordimer, 2004). An old centaur, oppressed by the human population, and frustrated by the struggle between his horse part and his human part, returns home to the sea.

Alex Temple, Switch: A Science Fiction Micro-Opera (work of music, 2013, recorded in performance by the Cadillac Moon Ensemble). In a society that draws deep class distinctions between the left-handed and the right-handed, a group of “hand offenders” rebels against the social categories on offer.


Seventh batch of lists here!