Monday, November 10, 2014

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.]


Dave Baker said...

Seems likely that there is some philosophical value in examining possible ways of filling in the details usually left unspecified in a thought experiment.

For example, there are some problems about rational decision-making in time travel within a fixed timeline which are made very stark in the movie Timecrimes. I doubt these problems would've occurred to me without the movie's detailed narrative.

chinaphil said...

There is, however, a possible problem. Non-speculative fiction is constrained by the rules of the universe as we understand them, so it gives us an opportunity to work out how philosophical ideas might play out in concrete situations. But once you introduce the speculative element, what guarantee do you have of either the relevance or the coherence of your story/ideas?

In any kind of fiction, critics are generally unimpressed by a "deus ex machina"; but once you add in speculation, we cannot even tell whether a particular plot twist is a deus ex machina or not.

Just as an example: I went and read Octavia Butler's Bloodchild based on a recommendation in your lists. It posits a kind of uneasy acceptance between humans and an alien species with which we enter into a symbiotic relationship based on men carrying their eggs without real consent. Fine, fun idea, but is it realistic at all? Over human history, have there been cases of that kind of relationship? I'm not convinced. If indeed humans just aren't like that, and would not ever enter into such a relationship, then what philosophical value does the story have? (It may still have literary value, of course.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dave: I agree with that in general, though I don't know the movie. The vividness and concreteness of the example forces you to think things through that might not otherwise occur to you, if you considered the matter abstractly.

Chinaphil: Thanks for the pushback on that. That's a good issue. I don't know that particular story. There is more than one way to do philosophical SF, but there would be a certain value in the story if it's psychologically realistic given the premise -- if it reflects how things might well play out, if aliens actually did that to us, and in so doing it might reveal something about our implicit attitudes about gender roles -- but if it's not psychologically realistic, then it wouldn't have that particular type of value.

Here's one way to think about the deux ex machina objection: It's like antecedent and consequent. You want your SF weirdness in the antecedent and then you want the consequent to follow naturally from it. How exactly to cash this out, exactly, will be tricky. But the thought is that a certain type of value SF can have is *IF* things were like X, then what would naturally follow?

Simon Fokt said...

There is some interesting recent work in aesthetics and psychology on how we learn from fiction, and what is it that fiction can teach us that nothing can. It wouldn't apply wholesale to science-fiction, though - people claim that the main thing that fiction can teach us, specifically through engaging our emotions, is what it is like to be in a certain situation, or to be someone, or to think or feel in a certain way. But there seems to be something more to S-F, something that's perhaps present in other fiction, but not to the same degree: S-F could maybe teach us about what is possible or what are the likely connections (causal and other) between merely possible events.

These are similar to what we'd expect from philosophy, but perhaps this, linked with literature's general ability to teach us what it is like to actually be in this possible situation, can make it especially powerful as a philosophical tool.

There is also some literature in the psychology of learning that suggests that at least in some situations there might be some sort of qualitative difference. Students often experience a liminal stage in learning, a point before which they 'didn't get it', and after which it 'clicked' for them. Apparently fiction is particularly good in bringing about that 'click', and fictionalised versions of the same arguments produce more 'clicks' than their abstract versions.

I should really sit and find the references for all this. For now, I'll just say it's worth looking at the work of Stacie Friend and Raymond Mar, whom I heard speaking at the Leeds X-Phi forum.

clasqm said...

OK, we won't waste time on the first view. The second one is more interesting, because the philosophical imperialism is hidden a little better. The image of a continuum gives the appearance of the philosophy and science fiction being equal partners, but is that really so?

"science-fictional storytelling has philosophical merit in its own right"

Perhaps, but does philosophy have science-fictional merits? It comes down to what you believe philosophy to be. Does philosophy discover new truths which it then graciously allows lesser arts such as science-fiction writing to disseminate? Or is philosophy itself a reaction to the world out there, including the science fiction it contains?

Personally, I would say "both ... and neither." like the way observation and theorising form a continuous loop in Grounded Theory, fiction and philosophy are engaged in a continuous interaction. Egg, meet Chicken. Chicken, Egg. If there is a continuum, the ends loop over and meet somewhere in a space that, alas, contains more Continental than Analytic philosophers.

The common factor, I think, is biography. What stories the science fiction writer chooses to write, and what thoughts the philosopher chooses to pursue, it always comes back to who you are, were you come from, and where you think you'll be going.

But enough from me. There are a hundred exam papers glaring at me accusingly from the corner of the office.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful, interesting comments, Simon and Michel!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Simon: Yes, that all sounds right, and thanks for the pointers. I am aware of some of the literature (Nussbaum, Zunshine) and Tamar Gendler gave me a reading list on the topic. I really need to dig in and think about this literature. From what I've seen, I'm inclined to agree that the specific virtues of SF are not the target of much analysis.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michel: Yes I agree about the continuous interaction and in a certain respect about the lack of privilege. The remarks are pitched to someone who assumes that philosophy is worthwhile and is wondering about SF. I'd speak very differently to someone who takes the value of SF for granted and needs convincing of the value of philosophy!

My caveat is this: I favor a very broad view of philosophy, on which philosophy is reflection about the biggest, broadest issues on any topic; so on *my* definition lots of fiction already is philosophy, even if it is not classified as such in standard academic line-drawing. Maybe that's imperialism? Or maybe that's imperialism's opposite -- I can't tell.

Saoirse1916 said...

Ultimately the philosophical bona fides of sci-fi as well as narrative fiction in general and across various media (literature, film, theatre, etc.) hangs on establishing its capacity not just to make original or innovative philosophical contributions but to do so in paradigmatically medium (or perhaps even genre) specific ways (e.g., qua qua sci-fi, qua film, qua theatrical performance, etc.).

For a sharp defense of this view with respect to film, see Aaron Smuts' 2009 article "Film as Philosophy: In Defense of the Bold Thesis." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67.4: 409-420.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Christy -- thanks for the suggestion. Gotta put that on my list!

G.Samsa said...

Hi all
About the guarantee we have on relevance or the coherence of SF story/ideas once you introduce the speculative element (philosophy), it might not be a true issue to worry about.
As I see it, a SF story is just a proof of concept. It answers to the need of knowing “what happens if…” or “where does it drives to if…” we apply or introduce that speculative element in to a certain plot and circumstances”.
This way it speculation + story is a mental artifact. The guarantee of relevance and coherence depends on how far we stress whether the story, the ideas, or both. We reduce to absurd, or to its minimum truth. Many discursive lines are open to choose. All good opportunities to tell a story and speculate about what really matters.
Ultimate systematic thinking is hard to take to real world. Wrapping around philosophical speculations a good story is a precious way to see what happens. It’s a way to validate or reject them –as writer’s view–.
As all can be done with more or less magisterium so we have better or worse fiction writers and philosophers.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That sounds about right to me, G. I might add that sometimes even deliberate incoherence can be useful in SF -- some examples of that in Borges, perhaps.