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The Science Fiction And Philosophy Society: An Introduction

by Anand Vaidya, Ethan Mills, and Manjula Menon

Writers of speculative fiction and philosophers share common attributes. First, there is the process itself. Science-fiction writers may use ‘what if’ scenarios to create their works, while philosophers often use thought experiments to draw out intuitions about philosophical insights. Consider the famous Trolley thought experiment, the first version of which was published as a survey question in 1906 by the American philosopher Frank Chapman Sharp as part of an empirical study. It asked the survey-taker to assume the role of a railway switchman who is faced with a terrible dilemma: he must choose between allowing a runaway train to run over and kill a group of strangers or to switch the train to a different track where it would run over and kill his own daughter. Sharp used the studies’ results to confirm that people are more likely to choose the scenario that adheres to the utilitarian ethical position that advocates for the maximization of well-being for the group, where the ethical solution is to sacrifice a single life to save the many. A modern version asks us to imagine how an artificial intelligence in control of guiding trains from track to track might behave if faced with a similar runaway train scenario: if it does nothing, the train will run over and kill a group of people, if it intervenes and switches tracks, it will kill one person. Would the AI, one that has presumably been trained in the deontological principle of not taking any action that would lead to the death of a human, instead take the consequentialist view that utilitarians like Sharp would advocate for and throw the switch? This is the kind of question a science-fiction writer might take as a ‘what-if’ scenario to build a story around: ‘F80-21a strained through millions of simulations in the split second it had to act, but all returned suboptimal results: one or more humans would have to die.’

The philosopher Hilary Putnam’s Twin-Earth thought experiment aims to draw out our intuitions about ‘meaning’. The thought experiment posits a planet that is exactly like Earth in all respects, except for one: whereas water on Earth is a compound with the chemical formula of H2O, Twin-Earth’s water, which behaves in exactly the same way as on Earth, is a compound with the chemical formula XYZ. The two earths are identical in every other way: every person, blade of grass or building on Earth has a twin on Twin-Earth that talks, behaves, and acts exactly the same. Putnam then asks if what is meant when a person says ‘water’ on Earth is the same as what is meant when the person’s twin on Twin-Earth says ‘water’. Most people answer in the negative, that what is meant by water on Earth is different from what is meant by water on Twin-Earth, since the underlying chemical formulas differ. Putnam used this thought experiment as part of an argument for semantic externalism, the thesis that holds that the meaning of a word is not just in the head but has some basis in factors external to the speaker. Note that since Putnam used water to run his thought experiment, all things comprised in part or in whole of water would also be compositionally different. Yet, humans on both Twin-Earth and Earth would think of themselves as humans whose bodies are composed mostly of water. If these two groups were to meet, then would there be any need to change the words to note the difference, for example, by referring to water on Twin-Earth as twin-water? Arguably, the more likely scenario is that the groups would continue to use the word water to describe the liquids on both earths, with the understanding that the word water refers to a liquid that is water-like. This same reasoning can be applied to the words used in science-fiction to describe aliens. For expediency, science fiction writers might describe an alien as ‘happy to see the color blue’, when what is meant by the words ‘happy’, ‘blue’, or ‘see’, might be more accurately described as happy-like, blue-like, or see-like.

The eminently quotable science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, once said, ‘I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.’ [1] Which points to another commonality between philosophers and science-fiction writers: curiosity.

Although formed under the auspices of the main professional organization for philosophers—the American Philosophical Association, the Science Fiction and Philosophy Society does not take itself too seriously, a fact easily verified with even the most cursory of visits to our website.  As to what the society will be up to, one view is that it will serve as a gathering spot for writers of science fiction and philosophers to cross-pollinate ideas for mutual edification. Another account holds that the society will help to explore the notion that science fiction can be considered ‘doing’ philosophy.

What counts as ‘doing’ philosophy has been debated for millennia. Plato, the fifth century BC Greek philosopher, separated the art of poetics that included dramatic narrative, from philosophy, which for him was a method to arrive at Truth through a process of reasoning and argument. Plato regarded the art of poetics as mimesis or an attempt to imitate the world around us, a world that for Plato was already a poor representation of the truth. For Plato, poetics was not just doomed but even dangerous, so much so that his vision of an ideal society as he laid out in The Republic was one in which not a single poet was allowed. Plato’s star pupil, Aristotle, while agreeing with Plato that it was only through logic that the truth could be discovered, allowed in Rhetoric for the evocation of pathos or emotion in an audience as a means of persuasion.

Plato’s sharp distinction between poetics and philosophy held for thousands of years, even as what counts as ‘doing’ philosophy has changed. For example, when Isaac Newton published his seminal Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687, it was considered the product of doing natural philosophy. Science, the glamorous daughter of natural philosophy, has since proved fantastically successful in building theories that explain and accurately predict how the world works. These discoveries have been harnessed to provide a more easeful life for humans, one not as subservient to the vagaries of disease, starvation, or the natural elements. However, unsettling questions remain, including the question of why, after over five decades of dedicated and diligent searching, not one bio or techno-marker has been found that would indicate the presence of technologically advanced aliens. Or the many questions swirling around the nature of consciousness.

Science fiction writers have dived into these gaps. For example, novels like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 Childhood’s End, explored theories of mind by positing a vast cosmic consciousness, one devoid of any material attributes, that humanity would one day merge with. Iain M. Banks’s 1987 novel, Consider Phlebas, posited ‘Minds’, artificial intelligences whose abilities so surpassed human cognition that they effectively became humanity’s benevolent rulers. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, considered to be the father of space exploration, wrote the 1928 novel The Will of the Universe: The Unknown Intelligence, in which he makes a case for panpsychism.

Likewise, the battle between the forces of good and evil has inspired countless science-fiction works, perhaps echoing the scripture of the Abrahamic religious traditions. Non-western philosophical traditions also have ‘what if’ scenarios that could interest science-fiction writers. What if the universe really is dualist, where the demarcation line is not where Descartes drew it as between mind and matter, but as the Indian Samkhya tradition has it between Prakriti and Purusha? What would society look like if the Confucian ideals of junzi and dao were encoded into law? What if Jainism is right and the universe really is composed of six eternal substances?

Even if we were to allow that such works of fiction can be ‘doing’ philosophy, is fiction a flexible enough medium to support the rigorous argumentation that is the bedrock of philosophical accounts?

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s biographer, Norman Malcolm, Wittgenstein once said ‘A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.’[2] Satire, a literary form that uses humorous fiction to argue against some flavor of political philosophy was unlikely to have been what Wittgenstein was referring to. Instead, as an advocate of logical atomism, which is a view that holds that there are logical facts in the world that cannot be broken down further, it is more likely that Wittgenstein had something else in mind. Although the word ‘meme’ was a neologism coined in 1976 by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins almost three decades after Wittgenstein’s death, a ‘meme’ is an analogue of the ‘logical atom’ from logical atomism but applied to the cultural realm: a meme is a basic unit of cultural meaning that cannot be further broken down. Like their biological counterparts, the genes, these basic building blocks of cultural meaning could be strung together to construct complex ideas. Wittgenstein, as a logical atomist, might have been thinking along the lines of a philosophical work constructed entirely of humorous memes.

Typing ‘philosophy memes’ into a search engine brings up thousands of hits. There is one with the golden lab on a sandy beach looking contemplatively at a glorious sunset that is captioned ‘When your dog ate your philosophy homework.’ Or the one that makes use of a scene from the movie Babadook, where a mother driving a car twists back and screams, ‘Why can’t you just be normal?’ and the child in the backseat, whose face has been replaced with that of Socrates, screams in response, ‘Define Normal!’. If one could select and arrange the memes in the form of a thesis, supporting arguments, conclusions, objections to conclusions, and responses to objections, perhaps Wittgenstein could yet be proven correct.

The Society does not need to take a position on what was likely a casual remark of Wittgenstein to find interesting the notion that philosophy can be ‘done’ through fictional narratives, humorous or otherwise. In these explorations, we are grateful to have found fellow seekers: the team at Sci Phi Journal, to whom we are grateful for offering us this space to introduce ourselves to you, dear reader. If you’d like to get in touch, share ideas, or join our mailing list, you can do so here.



[2] Norman Malcolm. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir., 1966, 29