What Sci Phi Is All About: Treating Science Fiction as Philosophy

in Fact & Opinion

by David Kyle Johnson

Readers of the Sci Phi Journal already know that there is a deep connection between philosophy and science fiction. But what exactly does that connection entail, and why are philosophy and science fiction so well suited for one another? In short, what exactly is Sci Phi all about?

How Philosophers Use Science Fiction

Well, for one, science is directly related to philosophy. Indeed, it was birthed from it. Philosophy just means “love of wisdom,” and as the study of all things, originally philosophy was the only thing that one could study. Science came to be because certain philosophers developed methods of thinking and investigation that could guard against the biases of our senses and natural reasoning to discover the way the world actually is. It began with Aristotle, of course, but the revolution happened thanks to philosophers like Francis Bacon, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, William Whewell, and C.S. Peirce. Indeed, the first scientists were called “natural philosophers.” Their methods were simply so successful that the employment of those methods eventually became its own discipline (“science”) and those that employed them went by a new name (“scientists”).

This is true of pretty much every discipline that exists today. Medicine, mathematics, economics, political science, education—everything is an offshoot of philosophy. When people study the founding and influential thinkers in their fields, they are studying the work of philosophers—like Hypocrites, Descartes, Adam Smith, Plato, Dewey—who discovered methods and answers so groundbreaking and important that they spawned their own discipline. This is why philosophy has the (inaccurate) reputation of being a discipline about unanswerable questions. In reality, philosophers find answers to questions all the time! It’s just that when they do, the answers are so groundbreaking that they spawn new disciplines that get new names—and the people still dealing with the questions that have yet to be  answered are still called philosophers.

But to answer them, philosophers often turn to thought experiments—made up scenarios that reveal our beliefs and intuitions that can also be used to make arguments. I can reveal your intuitions about, for example, whether overall happiness is the only good by imagining a situation where an entire society is made blissful by continually torturing one small child. If you don’t think such a thing is morally justified, the thought experiment should convince you that “the most happiness for the most people” is not the only metric by which to gage the morality of actions. 

And that’s where science fiction comes in, and why it’s so useful to philosophers. Indeed, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” describes just such a society and is used by philosophers to show that our moral intuitions often don’t align with the moral theory of utilitarianism. Because science fiction can be set in a future time, distant planet, or alternate world, and can involve advanced technologies and alien beings, science fiction is an ideal place for philosophers to go to find the thought experiments they need.

Sometimes philosophers are inspired by science fiction to make up their own. Modern philosopher Robert Nozick imagined a sci fi like virtual reality generator he called an “experience machine” to argue against a philosophical view called hedonism. (Since most people wouldn’t trade a virtual world of happiness and satisfaction for real life, happiness and satisfaction must not be the only thing that is valuable.) Derick Parfit used thought experiments with Star Trek like transporters to make an argument about what philosophers call “personal identity.” (Is a “reassembled Spock” still Spock? Are your you-now and your eight-year-old self the same object? )

Sometimes philosophers inspire science fiction stories. Plato’s Cave Allegory which he used (among other things) to argue against willing ignorance later inspired The Matrix. Rene Descartes thought experiment about not being able to tell dreams from reality inspired Inception. (The list goes on and on.)

And sometimes, philosophers simply use existing science fiction to explain philosophy. Indeed, there are two “Philosophy and Popular Culture” books series—one by Wiley-Blackwell and the other by Open Court, but both started by my colleague William Irwin—that do exactly that with popular culture in general. Not surprisingly, some of the best books in both series are on science fiction. They use it as a thought experiment to explain and make philosophical arguments. And this has been going on for almost 20 years.

Science Fiction Before Science Fiction

But something that often goes unappreciated is something that’s been happening for longer—about 2000 years longer. Science fiction authors have been doing philosophy. Since before science or science fiction was even labeled or identified as a field or genre, authors have been writing stories that today we would call science fiction to make philosophical points and arguments.

Don’t believe me?

In the 2nd century, Syrian philosopher Lucian of Samosata wrote a story about a ship that sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules and was whisked away by a whirlwind to the moon called “A True History.” The crew finds it inhabited by cloud centaurs, giant birds, and an all-male society embroiled in a war with the inhabitants of the sun over the colonization of The Morning Star. The work was intended as a criticism of the sophists and the religious myths of the time, and even as a satire of some philosophers. The name itself mirrors Socrates’ profession of ignorance. In the Apology, Socrates argues that no one really has knowledge; only those who (like him) admit their ignorance are truly wise. In the same way, most histories of Lucian’s time were complete myth. Only those that openly admitted to being false (which Lucian does in his introduction) were really “true.”

In the 1200’s, Islamic philosopher Ibn al-Nafis told a story about a spontaneously created man (named Kamil whose creation envisioned something like cloning) called “The Theologus Autodidactus.” Kamil proceeds from the island out into the world and, through empirical observation alone, reaches all the same conclusions as the Islamic scholars. The point was to suggest that what Islam revealed or professed could be discovered by reason.

In 1515, the philosopher Thomas More coined a term by writing a story about an ideal society on the fictional island of Utopia (which, interestingly, is Greek for both “The Good Place” and “No Place”). In Utopia, Hythloday (which is Greek for “speaker of nonsense”) recounts his visit to the crescent-shaped Island of Utopia, which is protected from outside invasion because its inner bay contains hidden ship sinking rocks that only the Utopians know how to avoid. It’s a seemingly perfect society—very intellectual, totally communistic (all property is held in common and everyone works)—and completely superior to the European society in which More found himself. And, of course, that’s the point; it’s a philosophical argument for improvements which could be made to European society. 

About a century later, Francis Bacon made a similar argument in a similar way with The New Atlantis—a story about a utopian society, on the Island of Bensalem, with devices like submarines and microscopes, that is ruled by science. Indeed, the story could be seen as an argument for Bacon’s method of doing science—and for the idea that science and religion are compatible (since Bacon takes time to make clear that religion also plays a role in this scientific community).

And in 1705, Daniel Defoe used his work The Consolidator to poke fun at the politics and religion of his day. In it, the protagonist visits the moon in a feathered-covered Chinese rocket ship called “The Consolidator.” With special magnifying glasses that enable them to observe the Earth, the Lunarians reveal the iniquities and absurdities of the humans’ lives and governments. It’s kind of a story version of Carl Sagan’s we all just live on a “pale blue dot” observation, to try to get people to see the absurdity of our disagreements and war.

All of this is before Frankenstein, which is usually considered the first work of science fiction, which itself is a philosophical argument about the dangers of “playing God,” “science gone too far,” and makes a host of other philosophical points that others have pontificated about in length.[i] Writers have been using science fiction to make philosophical arguments before “science fiction” was even a thing.

But, of course, it didn’t stop with Frankenstein. Since then, the efforts have just intensified. At first it was relegated to the written word, and other philosophers besides me have written on the plethora of science fiction short stories and novels that explore philosophical themes.[ii] But it eventually moved on to film and television. As Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine once put it on the SyFy Origin Stories podcast,

“the science fiction authors … of today … [are] the people who are really wrestling with the great what-if questions [and] grappling … not just with the political possibilities, but [questions like] ‘What does it mean to be human?’ [and] ‘Where do we fit in the cosmos?’ I think they are doing all the heavy lifting of the philosophical questions even as they’re doing chase scenes …”

That might be a bit overstated. Philosophers are doing philosophy too. But the point is well taken.

Science Fiction as Philosophy

With this in mind, imagine the moment The Teaching Company approaching me with the idea of doing one of their “Great Courses” on the intersection of philosophy and (what we might call) “moving picture science fiction” (film and television, as opposed to printed media science fiction). I was compelled to insist that we call it “Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy” (rather than, say, “the Philosophy of Science Fiction” or “Philosophy and Science Fiction”) because, although it’s all well and good to use science fiction to explore and explain philosophical topics, I wanted to identify and evaluate the philosophical arguments that the authors of moving picture science fiction are making.

As a public philosopher well known for my life-long obsession with science fiction, this was kind of the part I was born to play—or, I guess, the course I was destined to teach. Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Matrix—the hours and hours I had spent watching science fiction in my youth was finally about to pay off! But I didn’t want to just concentrate on my favorites or popular titles; the course had to have variety. It had to have both the old and the new, the fun and the depressing, hard science fiction and soft, and both popular and obscure titles. And of course, everything had to be making a philosophical argument.

The popular stuff was easy. Star Wars is about the difference between good and evil. Star Trek’s prime directive is an argument against colonialism. I used Doctor Who to talk about the possibility of time travel, and The Doctor’s pacifism to talk about violence and just war. The Matrix’s thesis? Ignorance isn’t bliss. The Matrix Sequels? Free will exists.

The obscure stuff was fun. For example, I used a British Sci-fi show from the late 70/early 80’s called Blake’s 7 to talk about justified political rebellion. Most who see it think it’s just “British Star Trek” (because it has transporters called “teleports”), but I suggest that it’s actually a precursor to Firefly. Indeed, although Joss Whedon denies it, it looks like that’s where he got the idea for Firefly. They both are stories about politically rebellious crews of 7 roaming the galaxy in ships with “glowing bug butts” for engines. (Seriously, google it.)[iii] I asked which crew’s approach to political rebellion was better.

The hardest science fiction (in terms of scientific accuracy) was probably Carl Sagan’s Contact or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Contact is undeniably a film that argues for the compatibility of science and religious belief, something that Sagan argued for many times publicly. I examine the argument the film presents. Kubrick’s 2001 was considered by many to be “the first Nietzschean” film. (Indeed, that famous opening music is named “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” after Nietzsche’s book of the same name.) I close the course by arguing that Kubrick got Nietzsche wrong.

The softest science fiction I covered is something that others might argue isn’t science fiction at all: Margret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because I utilized Damon Knight’s definition: “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it,” I was able to justify having it in the course. Soft sci fi often involves speculative dystopian societies (think 1984 and Brave New World); since the world of The Handmaid’s Tale certainly qualifies as dystopian (unless, according to Michele Wolf, you are Mike Pence), some people certainly call it sci fi. But I wanted to include it because it seems obvious to me to be an argument for feminism, and yet Attwood herself has said explicitly that it’s not. I tried to figure out whether she is right. (Keep in mind, in the first lecture, I use Inception to argue that authorial intent can’t determine the meaning of a work of art.)

The most depressing lecture was on Snowpiercer; the movie itself is really good, but I took it to be an argument for a position on climate change called “lukewarmism” which suggests that global warming isn’t going to have the catastrophic effect that many suppose. The philosophical issue is how non-experts should draw conclusions on such issues; unfortunately, given the evidence, it seems that we should conclude that the effects of global warming are likely going to be worse than we have supposed, not better. Indeed, our prospects look even bleaker since I recorded the lecture just a year ago. 

The most fun (in my opinion) was Starship Troopers, which on its face is a shallow, poorly acted shoot-’em-up about sexy teenagers killin’ space bugs and getting it on. But it turns out that it was screenwriter Edward Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven’s expressly stated intention for Starship Troopers to satirize nationalism and fascism—something they thought that America was in danger of embracing. (And that was back in the 90s! One wonders what kind of film they would make today.) The fact that American audiences largely didn’t catch the satire indicates that Ed and Paul were probably on to something; those being satirized often don’t recognize that they are being satirized.

Speaking of fascists…The oldest film I talked about was Metropolis, a silent film from the 20s, which was written by someone who eventually became a Nazi: the director Friz Lang’s later ex-wife Thea von Harbou. Ironically, Metropolis was praised by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, but then edited by American studio director Alfred Hugenberg for American audiences to cut out its “inappropriate” communist subtext. (Keep in mind, the communist were America’s allies against the Nazi’s in WWII.) In reality, Metropolis is just an argument in favor of labor unions. “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD [the owner] AND HANDS [the workers] MUST BE THE HEART [the union president].”

The newest sci fi I talked about was Seth MacFarlane’s new show on Fox: The Orville. As a kind of mashup of M*A*S*H and Star Trek, nearly every episode makes a philosophical point. Indeed, although I only mentioned one episode that makes a point about the dangers of social media (“Majority Rule”), I could have used the entire series to talk about the most effective way that science fiction makes philosophical arguments: something I call “cloaking bias to create cognitive dissonance” through what Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement.” By presenting us with a world unlike our own, science fiction forces us to leave our biases behind as we draw conclusions about it. Then, when we realize that the sci fi world is like our own after all, we’ll often find the conclusion we drew regarding it to be the opposite of one we have drawn about the real world. This cognitive dissonance forces us to recognize our bias and the fact that we should probably abandon it.

In the Orville episode “About a Girl,” for example, we conclude that Bortus—a member of an all-male race called The Moclans—is wrong when he wants to force his newborn daughter to undergo a sex change operation. But then we realize that what Bortis is doing is not unlike what many parents do with their gay children and Molcan biases against females are not unlike the biases that exist against transgendered people in the real world. Indeed, in the episode, cognitive dissonance through cognitive estrangement is what changes Bortus’ mind. He watches the claymation “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and realizes that what some consider a hinderance could actually turn out to be an asset. “Christmas would have been ruined,” Bortus observes, “if Rudolph had been euthanized at birth, as his father wished.” Like Bortus, when we are presented with a paradox—a contradiction in how we react to science fiction and the real world—we have the opportunity to realize our error and change our ways.

Perhaps Lucasfilm’s Chief Creative Officer John Knoll explained it better on the SyFy Origins podcast:  

“One of the big misconceptions about science fiction is that it’s … escapist entertainment for kids that [doesn’t] tackle any serious themes. [But] the best science fiction gives you an opportunity to explore philosophical and moral themes. There are often societal problems that are very emotionally loaded … [but] if you … recast them in a science fiction setting, [and are thus] looking at a more novel situation, then you can leave some of those preconceived notions behind and … reevaluat[e] it anew. [This] may cause you to rethink your position on the terrestrial version of that problem.”

Well said John, well said.

Conclusion

So, at least to me, that is what Sci Phi is about. It’s about not only how science fiction can be used to explain or illuminate philosophical arguments, but about how the authors of science fiction stories can use them to make philosophical arguments. They, of course, may not always be right. After all, the Starship Troopers book by Robert Heinlein on which the movie was based was overtly pro-fascist. But as authors of both fiction and non-fiction write for the Sci Phi Journal, I hope they keep in mind what Sci Phi can be.


[i] See Raymond Boisvert’s piece “Mary Shelley, Frankenstein & Moral Philosophy” in Philosophy Now (2018). https://philosophynow.org/issues/128/Mary_Shelley_Frankenstein_and_Moral_Philosophy

[ii] See Nick DiChario piece “Not So Strange Bedfellows: Philosophical Sci Fi Roundup” in Philosophy Now (2011). https://philosophynow.org/issues/85/Not_So_Strange_Bedfellows_Philosophical_Sci_Fi_Roundup

[iii] Or you can find pictures of the two ships side by side in this comparison of the two shows by “burrunjorsramblesandbabbles” at https://burrunjor.com/2014/09/28/blakes-7-vs-firefly/

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Bio

David Kyle Johnson is a professor of philosophy at King’s College (PA) who specializes in logic, scientific reasoning, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion. He also produces lecture series for The Great Courses, and his courses include Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy (2018), The Big Questions of Philosophy (2016) and Exploring Metaphysics (2014). He is the editor of Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream (2011), and the author of The Myths that Stole Christmas along with two blogs for Psychology Today (Plato on Pop and A Logical Take). Currently, he is editing Black Mirror and Philosophy.

1 Comment

  1. Great article, thanks!
    I always assumed “Starship Troopers” was a more subtle version of Harrison’s “Bill, the Galactic Hero”. It just seemed logical that Heinlein’s extreme libertarianism would naturally combine with anarcho-antimilitarism. How naive of me!

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