Humanism In SF: A Natural Thing For The Curious To Know And Understand Through Empathy Machines, Or Just Lazy Mysticism?

by Mina

My husband expressed some frustration recently that most articles don’t define humanism properly. So I will begin with as clear a definition as I can, as humanism is a term that has been much (ab)used. In fact, I am only looking at a very narrow use of it that completely ignores its historical roots and usage in Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy and nineteenth-century Germany. I am focusing on how it is mostly understood in SF today: as summarised by Humanists UK, this version of humanism is “a combination of attitudes”:

“Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.”

Thus, humanists trust science and reason above all else to explain the universe; they have no holy book, deity or spiritual leader (usually considering themselves agnostic or atheist). They make decisions based on reason and empathy and, as they don’t believe in an afterlife or in a divine purpose to the universe, they believe that “human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.”

A criticism often levelled at humanism is that it is a religion, not just a philosophy, only with humans taking the place of gods. In an article in The New Statesman about humanist values, Andrew Copson refutes this, telling us that humanism is not a religion, not even a “creed”:

“Science defeats religion’ – that is what many people assume to be a humanist creed. I use the word creed advisedly, since the people who level this charge are frequently also those who level the bogus charge that humanism is itself just another religion. I am not a scientist – though of course I look to scientists for answers to the questions they are qualified to answer and to which religion gives far less satisfactory answers – and it is not the science in science fiction stories that appeals to me so much as the stories.”

I appreciate Copson restoring the “fiction” to science fiction. We are after all seeking dreams, fantasy and escapism in SF, just like in any other literary genre. There may even be some real science involved, or speculative science, or even bad science, but it is still a stage filled with humans (or aliens) and their stories. Copson gives Star Trek (in particular the original series and The Next Generation) as an example of a humanist utopia:

“… one in which mankind has united around shared human values, joined in a common endeavour to reach the stars, and happily left religion behind on the way… Starship crews explore a cosmos that is full of beauty and wonder and they respond with awe and appreciation. This wonder does not overawe them, because ultimately the universe, and its billions of stars and planets, is a natural thing which the curious can know and understand.”

He stresses that he sees it as a non-extreme (non-dogmatic) form of humanism, where there is room for humanity (as in the quality of kindness and benevolence) and warmth:

“A Starfleet crew values cooperation and liberality. They value the equality of persons and the dignity of life. Although rank is respected, the views of all are given fair airing. When the crew encounter new peoples there is an assumption of peace, but they defend themselves robustly when attacked (no bellicosity, but no turning of the other cheek here either), and although the men and women of this future cultivate an internal life through meditation or the arts, they accept reason and science as the means by which they can know the universe they explore.”

I would agree with Copson’s arguments that humanism is not a religion, but there are grounds for seeing it as a philosophy or way of life. For, although it emphasises that it is an ethical way of life, it doesn’t have a code of ethics like the Christian Ten Commandments (reduced to two by Jesus in the New Testament) or the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path.

Andrew Copson goes on to give Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman as examples of proponents of humanism in SF and fantasy. It is worth spending a moment on Pullman, as he clearly considers himself a humanist crusader against authors like Tolkien and CS Lewis, who he feels are sacrificing the “story” to Christian assumptions, staid thinking and brainwashing. However, I do agree with Tony Watkin’s article that Pullman’s critique of Lewis reads more like a rant (especially against the Narnia books) than a well-thought out literary analysis or philosophical discourse; or like a missed opportunity to engage in a fruitful discussion about humanism and religion (as opposed to humanism versus religion). Watkins states that Pullman seeks to avoid the prejudices he felt Lewis was guilty of, but instead is “monumentally disparaging” and intolerant of religion. Watkins does concede that the work of Lewis has its flaws, but he stresses that the main issue for Pullman is that it “expresses and argues for a worldview completely antithetical to Pullman’s”.

Unlike Watkins, Elizabeth Desimone does not feel that Pullman’s rejection of religion is necessarily a bad thing: “In a roundabout way, Pullman does Christians a service by writing his anti-Christian books. He reminds us, vividly and trenchantly, of what we do not want to be…” And Laura Miller again has a very different view of Pullman’s work:

His Dark Materials may be the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen. Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists. The series offers an extended celebration of the marvels of science: discoveries and theories from the outer reaches of cosmology—about dark matter and the possible existence of multiple universes—are threaded into the story.”

I myself first read CS Lewis’ Narnia books when I was ten and I totally missed the Christian symbolism that, as an adult, I do find heavy-handed and simplistic. But the books remain great adventure stories set in a magical universe for me. I read Pullman’s His Dark Materials as an adult and it did sometimes feel that the story was overshadowed by Pullman’s anti-organised-religion-and-God crusade. I find that a shame because it is a wonderfully imaginative and complex story, deeply rooted in Dante and Blake, blending adventure, philosophy, science and magic.

Moving firmly back to SF, Charlie Jane Anders asks the question:

“But is science fiction really humanist? Much of science fiction turns out to be about exploring our vast cosmos, and expanding our being. From this quest, one of two outcomes often arises: 1) We meet something greater than ourselves. 2) We become something greater than our current selves.”

Anders criticises what she considers a lazy answer, that of “transcendence” (or a vague mysticism) in SF using the examples of “Contact” and “2001”. Other uninspired answers in humanist SF are those of false gods and cyborgs. Particularly the latter concept suggests that humanity is lost by progressing to a point where the “Borg” takes over. Anders is also critical of space operas, where humans can only survive in the enormous callousness of space through modifications or enhancements. Again, by becoming not quite human:

“I guess in the end, it depends how you look at it — is our posthuman future the culmination of humanism’s promises? Or is it a transformation into something that’s no longer human, and makes humanism irrelevant? Or both?”

I thoroughly enjoyed Anders’ critique of humanism, which can often be turned into a rather vague or insipid plot device in SF. It is almost fashionable to criticise any plot development based on religion yet to accept large humanist loopholes without question. Surely unthinking dogmatism and intellectual laziness abound in humanist universes too?

Robert Repino takes a different approach by calling humanist films “empathy machines”:

“Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction is connected with humanism, which we can define as an ethical stance that emphasizes the rights, responsibilities, and ultimate value of people within a naturalistic framework—that is, a framework that does not rely on supernatural beliefs. Thus, a humanist film, if one could call it that, would depict people helping each other, or forging their own destiny, mainly through reason and compassion.”

He goes on to list the best nine humanist films in his opinion and not all are strictly speaking SF (e.g. The Truman Show and Groundhog Day). Some are more traditional SF (e.g. Star Trek: First Contact, The Martian and Contact) and some less so (High Life). The Martian is a fun look at one man’s survival against all odds (with the help of science and common sense), but I would add Moon onto Repino’s list, as that is a much more complex film about what it means to be human, as well as looking at identity, sacrifice and survival against all odds, finding hope and meaning in the struggle itself. The Martian is a great story, but Moon goes that step further, turning SF into sci-phi.

I would also add the German film, Ich bin dein Mensch (with the awful English title, I’m Your Man) to Repino’s list. This film investigates the premise – what if you could get an android tailored to be your perfect partner? The female protagonist comes to the conclusion that it is not good for us to get exactly what we want, with absolutely no challenges urging us to question, change or grow, no impetus to seek out the other and have a true dialogue or disagreement with that other. We need more than a reflection of our desires to be human: pleasant as it is to have an android who is there to meet her every whim, she knows it is only an extension of herself. She remains alone. Although the film is clear in its message, there is some ambiguity in that we never know quite how much autonomous thought the android has.

For me, humanism definitely has its place in SF plots and in sci-phi discussions, but I would join Anders in asking that it not be used as a lazy answer to complex questions. Surely the answer to life, the universe and everything cannot just be ourselves? Wouldn’t that be like some cosmic monologue where we never look beyond our human(ist) preconceptions?

~

Bio:

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

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