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  • Writer's pictureMark Legg

Science fiction is philosophy (a love letter)

From Isaac Asimov's Robot Visions

I’ve been re-listening to the immense Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, a science fiction series set 20,000 years into the future. I remember reading his books on robots when I was younger, which undoubtedly inspired my ravenous love of science fiction and certainly helped fuel my love of philosophy (his books provided the inspiration for “I, Robot”). Isaac Asimov is one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. Here are some of the others that share that pedestal in my heart: Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead), Herbert Spencer (Dune), H.G Wells (War of the Worlds), Jules Verne (twenty thousand leagues under the sea), and Philip K. Dick (Man in the High Castle).

These authors push wonderfully beyond unknown boundaries. Science fiction reflects philosophy, for it explores ideas and truth through the medium of postulates—of “what ifs.” Instead of constructing strictly structured arguments, it employs imagination and creativity. Fiction allows us to push and pull on notions of all kinds about metaphysics, morality, and epistemology, all the while drawing us into stories. Science Fiction stimulates the imagination of readers (like my own as a kid), it inspires inventors as well as philosophers.

Instead of predicting the future, science fiction should be aimed at exploring consequences and ideas of possible futures, or even impossible ones. Why? Because predicting the future is a fool’s errand, and anyone claiming to predict very far into the future is probably a charlatan. The truths learned in that space of unfettered creativity allow us to consider problems we face in the present and how to develop toward ideals (or more often than not, what ideals not to pursue). Science fiction may provide cautionary tales, and that serves a critical purpose, but it’s more than that… it can instill a genuine, awe-inspiring exploration.

A Brave New World is an excellent example of contextual fiction that explores questions of freedom, tyranny, pleasure, psychotropic drugs, eugenics, and human nature. In the ’60s during the rise of psychedelic drugs and the East’s emphasis on experience, the people of the time could reference a work that laid out an exploration of those ideals. In the realm of intellectual thought, stories like A Brave New World help people question whether we really want a utopia built around artificially induced pleasure and the Pavlovian effect. Huxley himself experimented with psychedelic drugs, was closely associated with Vedanta Hinduism, and I think did believe in a utopia. But see, that’s exactly the point, he is exploring those ideas through his novel, and therein lies the wonder of Science Fiction.

In fact, we can construe science fiction as a kind of philosophy, because science fiction so fundamentally deals with assumptions. In philosophy, we’re in the business of challenging assumptions. In science fiction, we can invent assumptions and consider in reverse what might be true following those assumptions. That often leads to challenging the present preconceptions we live in. Instead of predicting the future, science fiction predicts what would happen given certain assumptions.

Some of the details will certainly be false, hilariously so in hindsight (if we take them as predictions). Humans are bad at predicting the future development of technology. The Jetsons cartoon that aired in the ’60s reflected a conceived future that featured the most minor inconveniences solved through elaborate robotic solutions. There are jetpacks, anti-gravity machines, and a floor that moves underneath you. In this show, society entirely revolves around convenience. And, of course, people smoke cigarettes. Notice also in that portrayal, as in all others in that time, there are a lot numerous analog buttons and almost no screens, and certainly no touch screen. Voice activation is common in these movies, but for now, at least, there are few things that work well with voice activation. It’s entirely possible that those things are in our future still, maybe we will return to analog buttons more, who knows. The point is that we don’t know.

In But What if We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman writes, “[T]here are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder. It’s good to view reality as beyond our understanding, because it is.” (253)

What makes fiction about possible futures excellent is when the author builds from their own assumptions well—"playing by their own rules.” Simultaneously, those invented assumptions must be original and creative. The more creative the assumptions, the more difficult it is to wrap our brains around, and the more difficult for the author to “play by the rules.” But excellent science fiction must creatively craft those assumptions. Some, like 20,000 leagues under the sea, do not supply many interesting assumptions, but that is in part because it was written in 1870. That work follows a group that lives independently on a massive submarine. When you consider that there were essentially no functioning submarines at the time, you can appreciate the work more. Even electricity was relatively new, and Verne considers the possibility of electricity powering everything to create a self-sustaining society underwater, free from government control. The story accounts their adventures facing monsters in the depths of the sea. It's fun and swept my childish mind into its tale. It's not particularly philosophical, but it's certainly enjoyable and makes us wonder what's possible.

The existence of intelligent aliens provides one prominent example of wonder. Interestingly, the question in science right now is not “are there aliens?” but actually "why haven’t we communicated with them yet?" Why aren’t there aliens is what science is grappling with, we should see their activity all over the galaxy, statistically. Even this concept is now an exploration of science fiction.

In the part where I’m reading in the Foundation and Earth, the protagonist is searching for Earth. It’s been 20,000 years since humans have expanded across the Milky Way Galaxy. In the series, several quadrillion humans are estimated to exist across millions of worlds. Thus, because of the time gap and a mysterious entity removing its records, no accounts except for scant myths and legends about earth exist. No one knows where it is.

Not to spoil too much, the adventurers run into a world of telekinetic hermaphrodites who almost kill them. Through centuries of genetic engineering and selective breeding, this species of “humans” exists in extreme isolation and in a kind of utopia. Each individual lives by themselves self-sufficiently in hundreds of square miles (called their “estate”), and through telekinetic power that harnesses the second law of thermodynamics and the sun, run thousands of robots as a workforce. As hermaphrodites, they each produce one child in their lifetime that takes over their estate when their parent dies. These utopian humans then decide when to die. They kill any “off worlders” who come to mess with their “freedom.”

Several concepts are explored in this. The idea of genetics, for example. But perhaps more importantly, it explores the idea of “freedom.” Their absolute ideal is freedom on the planet. They may do exactly as they please, not “hindered” in their freedom by having to have another “half-human” help them produce young. The more they pursue absolute freedom as a society, the less contact they want to have with others of their kind, and they even dread talking to each other. In their pursuit of absolute freedom, they evolved to become as isolated as possible. Only 1,200 of these “humans” exist on the planet in perfect equilibrium.

In sharp contrast is another utopian world that is one massive, interconnected super-conscience. In this world, the humans are connected to the rocks, the trees, the rain, and each other, so that everything works perfectly for the greater utilitarian good while producing minimal suffering. Everything is perfectly balanced. Even walls “feel happy” if they are “well built.” Humans experience the joy of every other thing. If a couple has sex, their ecstasy permeates every being, so everything feels a small sliver of that sexual experience.

Both worlds are utopian. One centers around absolute shared interconnectedness, the other around absolute individual freedom. Both seem to possess their own happinesses, and each possesses their own version of moral “law” (though both utopias don’t really require laws).

Maybe you could argue that these ideas are “unrealistic.” I have two responses.

1: Hypothetically, pretend you have to explain the internet to someone four generations ago. Only four. Would they believe you? Think of how truly amazing the concept of the internet is. Or better, think five hundred years back. With the amount of fundamental change in society in only 500 years, try and project forward 20,000 years. Consider the history of the earth, its billions of years, how small the sliver of humanity exists in the relative history of the universe. So, in other words, curb your certainty.

2: How unrealistic is it? For a second, repackage it without space travel and robots.

Consider the individualistic world bent on freedom that, when it pursues freedom at the cost of all else, arrives at hermaphroditism. Isn’t that where our society drives forward to? We can already isolate sperm, fertilize in vitro, and genetically modify humans. With continual advances in genetics and our present state, why not arrive at more permanent hermaphroditism in pursuit of hyper individual freedom? Why not stimulate ourselves sexually? Why depend on another human for sex? Why wait on someone else “wanting to?” Doesn’t that precisely sound like language used in our postmodern, freely sexual world? Doesn’t all of that language sound strikingly familiar?

The point is, though the physics in science fiction can be dubious, good science fiction prepares thinkers for the future burden of reality we cannot know and causes us to critically reflect on our state now. It intersects creativity and rationality in a stimulating and essential way. The areas I think should gravitate our attention includes artificial intelligence and genetics (especially as Christians, we better have some rigorous answers in the moral realm if we’re to be taken as credible now and in the future).

I have some very surface, preliminary thoughts on artificial intelligence. There are a couple of things to note. First, as Max Tegmark notes in Life 3.0, we already have artificial intelligence. It’s embedded in our lives as we intertwine our existence with Google, YouTube, social media (especially Tik Tok), and Amazon. All of these use sets of algorithms that learn. They learn with goals in mind, some pursue screen time, others licks, and others purchases. They, and the companies, are using you. I realize I’m sounding cliché, and eighty billion people have made this point.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, wow, you’re so smart Mark! You’ve watched the Social Dilemma? You’re IQ be massive, amazing how ground-breaking your ideas are! You’re so woke!" Yeah OK, I get it. Positing that AI is already in everything we do online is not exactly a revolutionary thought—in fact, it’s common knowledge.

A quick note: the difference between narrow AI and strong AI (or artificial general intelligence) is that while narrow AI learns, strong AI can operate broadly like human intelligence, and could tackle multiple problems with creativity. As of now, narrow AI can only do specific tasks, though it can learn and outpace humans in some areas.

Here’s the biggest miss of science fiction in the past century: that the idea of technological takeover and humanity's existential crisis would primarily involve physical robots. The Matrix, The Terminator, etc., certainly touched on an interesting vein. Yet it seems less and less likely that any AI takeover would require robots. For instance, America has experienced an influx of Cyber Ware attacks from lone criminals mostly based in Russia and Eastern Europe. It’s become a full-fledged business. In fact, Ransomware services are now a major industry. Cybercriminals have sleek branding and help desks. (Again, I'm taking myself with a grain of salt).

Supposing a strong AI was activated, even without the public’s knowledge, it could easily hold industries for ransom in a similar way. Would it be impervious? I don’t know, but I doubt it. It would need to be “stored” somewhere and could be tracked down—I think. The main point is this: to destroy or undermine society, general AI would not need an Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque alloy body to overcome humanity, it would only need access to the internet to strike at society’s most vulnerable arteries.

OK, I’ll stop with the Social Dilemma doom and gloom.

If you think science fiction doesn’t sway the broader culture, barring a handful of nerds, think again. Just like through philosophy, most of the general population won’t be directly influenced by it; rather it is through the diffusion of the arts, culture, politics, and intermediaries, it will change the moral zeitgeist and human history. Some of the most popular movies (like I, Robot) and shows (like Star Trek) draw from these science fiction works directly or do their own reflections (my namesake and uncle, Mark Hansard, is actually writing a book on Christian reflections on philosophy Star Trek). Think: people still make fun of companies for being “Skynet.” When they do, the laugh retains a residual of fear and disquiet. That low, soft voice of sane, cautious conscience can be attributed to the blessing of science fiction.

Think: if no science fiction existed, if no movies or TV shows or books on the ideas existed, no one would be unconsciously afraid every time they see robots evolving. Naturally, I'm not opposed to technological advancement, but I am opposed to unfettered progress. The caution can slow our idiocy at least a little bit, even it sometimes impedes progress in unhelpful ways.

Consider the list of movies based on Philip K. Dick short stories alone: Minority Report with Tom Cruise, Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Blade Runner with Harrison Ford, and The Adjustment with Matt Damon. As I mentioned, I Robot, Ender’s Game, and the new Dune movie coming out in 2021 (I hope), all similarly have their roots in books of science fiction.

Some of the greatest science fiction, though undoubtedly inspired by books, is actually an original TV show. The show is vulgar, shockingly violent, and disturbing to the core, yet so, so necessary for the coming generations. You know what I'm talking about: Black Mirror.

The show beautifully illustrates my points about science fiction. Admittedly, they only briefly explore concepts in an almost moralistic way. Nonetheless, the shows are truly fascinating and well-produced, and better: it's widely watched. I highly recommend them (though discretion is advised).

I remain open to the idea that human-created intelligence could entail a mind, and along with it, experience, and along with that, somehow carrying the image of God. Perhaps. Perhaps, if we can think in “levels” of existence, using Francis Schaeffer's ideas from Pollution and the Death of Man, we could categorize A.I. with animals. Who knows?

One final “food for thought” is something I want to explore more in-depth at some point: that is a comparison of angelology and A.I. Why? Because theoretically, angels and AI could possess a similar nature of existence, being both “intangible” and “non-sensory,” while also maintaining perception and a mind, presumably with free will. Obviously, systematic theology concerning angels is extremely conjectural already, one could argue more so even than science fiction. Nonetheless, a couple of years ago that thought entered my head, and I couldn’t shake some kind of connection. Maybe I’ll delve more into it soon.

I haven’t written in a while, so I’ll probably write my next blog next week. I want to write on Nietszchie as I'm reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Thanks for reading my love letter to science fiction this week.

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