Thursday, May 23, 2019

Science Fiction as Philosophy

Ploddingly detailed expository arguments deserve a central role in academic philosophy. Yay for boring stuff![*] But emotionally engaging fiction can be philosophy too. And science fiction or "speculative fiction" has a special philosophical value that is insufficiently appreciated by mainstream philosophers.

I am inspired to write this after having organized and chaired a session on Science Fiction as Philosophy at the SFWA Nebula conference last weekend. (SFWA is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the main professional organization of SF writers in the U.S.)

Canonically recognized Western philosophers have often worked through fiction: Sartre's plays, Camus's stories, Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Rousseau's Emile and Heloise, to some extent Plato's dialogues, and (a personal favorite) Voltaire's Candide. My favorite non-Western philosopher, Zhuangzi, often uses brief parables or goofy stories (such as his famous butterfly dream). And I would argue that great works of fiction are often philosophical in the sense that they inspire, or become the medium of, potentially transformative reflection on the human condition -- even if those works aren't normally treated as "works of philosophy". In the Western literary tradition, for example: Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Faulkner.

What is philosophy? I reject the idea that philosophy is argument. If philosophy is argument, then Confucius's Analects is not philosophy, and the pre-Socratics' fragments are not philosophy, and the aphorisms of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are not philosophy. I say, instead: If an essay, or a parable, or a dialogue, or an aphorism, or a movie engages the reader toward new reflections on fundamental questions about meaning, value, the human condition, the nature of knowledge or art or morality or love or mentality, pushing us out of our settled and conventional ways of thinking, challenging us to explore and reconsider -- that's philosophy. Most real philosophy, as experienced by most people, takes the form of fiction.

Although expository essays have many virtues, they also have limitations. Compared to fictions, expository essays tend to lack imaginative specificity and emotional power. Philosophy looks different through the lens of imagination and emotion. It's one thing to consider, wholly abstractly, some principle like "in an emergency, you should act to maximize the expected number of lives saved". Maybe it sounds pretty good in the abstract (perhaps with some modifications to consider quality of life or expected remaining life years). But it's hard really to evaluate an abstract claim without trying some thought experiments. For example, if the only way to save five innocent people in a hideout would be to kill a noisily crying baby, ought you do it, as the abstract principle says you should?

Our philosophical evaluations are dry and empty if we don't challenge ourselves to emotionally engage with imaginatively vivid scenarios and consequences. We needn't always judge that overall the best thing to do is the thing that's most emotionally attractive when vividly imagined, but we should at least think through how it might really feel to live one way or another. Philosophers' paragraph-long thought experiments start us down the path. But more vivid, richly imagined fictions take us farther. Fiction and abstract expository argument have complementary roles to play in philosophy. Each needs the other.

Science fiction or speculative fiction deserves a special role. "Literary fiction" imagines scenarios that are broadly within the normal run of human experience. Speculative fiction, as I define it, imagines scenarios beyond the normal run of human experience. Speculative fiction can pull apart things that normally go together, can highlight and exaggerate one aspect of life so that we can see it better, can imagine possible transformations of our world and society. Speculative fiction, when written with philosophical purpose, is philosophical thought experiment with blood and bones.

Consider George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", great philosophical SF movies like The Matrix and Her, great philosophical TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation or Black Mirror. All of them imagine a way the world could be, or a helpfully simplified and cartooned world with certain aspects exaggerated, and they challenge us to think better about fundamental questions of human value and the human condition -- and they do so in a way that no abstract essay could.

Today in my upper-division class Philosophy of Mind I will teach Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode on whether the robot Data deserves human rights, alongside expository prose by John Searle and Daniel Dennett's famous philosophical story "Where Am I?". Terrific philosophy, all -- one no less than the others.

[image source]


[*] Though see also Trusting Your Sense of Fun (Jan 2, 2013).


Eric Campbell said...

Thank you for this post. I was recently talking with a new graduate student who I had as a (very promising) undergraduate student. He was telling me that he might want to quit because argument isn't a very good way to get people to change their minds. That might be true, and it is also true that in graduate school it makes a lot of sense to require people to develop the ability to craft and defend arguments, but philosophy is not the same thing as argument, and recognizing that basic fact is very important. It is the love of wisdom, and it seems to me as clear as anything can be that wisdom and argument are not the same thing.

And though there are arguments in Nietzsche, there is also, as you suggest, a great deal of philosophical insight delivered nonargumentatively!

That is a great episode of Star Trek! Another movie I find valuable in phil mind: Ex Machina.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, Eric -- I've been thinking a lot about the extent to which philosophical arguments can change people's minds, and under what conditions. With Chris McVey, I've been thinking about the extent to which narrative might be more powerful as a mind-changer.

chinaphil said...

I think you can break it down into creation and argumentation. Philosophy does stuff with ideas, either figuring out how they fit together (argumentation) or making new ones (creation). And the creating of new ideas can be done in a lot of different ways, of course including narrative.

I wonder if the problem with argumentation for changing minds is that most people actually know the arguments. They may not know how to explain or express their disagreement with certain arguments (because it's difficult!), but they have heard and processed them. It takes a genuinely new idea (which might come from a story, movie, experience, dream, or philosophy book) to rearrange what they think.

Anonymous said...

The real problem lies with rationality. Rationality is a discrete binary system wherein the multiplicity of the appearances which make up our phenomenal realm are contrasted against each other to formulate meaning of some kind. When a new idea is presented, rationality takes that unknown and contrasts it against what it already known to see how it conforms to the current paradigm. The current model is therefore the reference point by which anything new is contrasted against. If a new ideas does not correspond to the current model of how one perceives the world, there is no other reference point with which to make a correlation, so things that are new and unknown are easily dismissed.

Fictional narratives provide more of a benign environment where the new idea, which is an unknown is at least entertained, wherein dialectic is a more hostile environment. Neither platform is an effective venue unless one is at least willing to entertain a new, otherwise unknown concept. Entertainment and fantasy opens an otherwise closed and extremely defensive mind to new, otherwise unknown concepts.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. If you have not already read it, Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life is an amazingly thought-provoking short story on Free Will, Determinism, Causation and the perception of time. I can't think of a better piece of sci-fi to start students thinking about some of these topics.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

chinaphil: That seems like a helpful way of thinking -- though maybe things are somewhat less tidy underneath, since fiction can also be a kind of argumentative or quasi-argumentative persuasion, yes?

Lee: I'm not sure about the characterization of rationality as binary and discrete, but I like your thought that in both explicit argumentation and fiction the new idea is evaluated against a background of what is already known (or assumed) -- and that fiction usually is somewhat friendlier, in a way, to ideas that contrast with that background.

Anon: Yes! Ted Chiang is one of my favorite writers!

Anonymous said...

" I'm not sure about the characterization of rationality as binary and discrete..."

I think you conflate reasoning and rationality as being the same thing. Maybe you should do a post on it someday. There is an ontological distinction separating reasoning from rationality, and it's a big one. In short, I liken rationality to the famous phrase: The pen is mightier than the sword, and I liken reasoning to the phrase: The pencil is mightier than the pen because it has an erasure.

Reasoning is a continuous linear system that is passive, and that passivity it what makes it linear. As soon as reasoning reaches a conclusion and rules on that decision, it is no longer passive reasoning, it becomes rationality, because that active action of ruling creates an intellectual construct which has a beginning, i.e. discreteness. Because reasoning is a linear continuous system reasoning can be understood as power, and the discrete binary system of rationality is the expression of that power.

Bence Nanay said...

Eric, this is a big topic in aesthetics (can literature count as genuine philosophy) - see my own contribution to that debate here:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Bence! I’ve read a bit on this (esp Nussbaum) but I plan to read more this summer as I get ready to write the intro to an anthology I’m co-editing with Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt, Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories. Your article looks right up my alley.