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Manjula Menon

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

Science Fiction And The Shaping Of Belief

by Manjula Menon

The editors most responsible for shaping what we now call the genre of ‘science-fiction’ were, arguably, Hugo Gernsback, who in 1926 published the first American science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, and John W. Campbell, who took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1937. In this essay, I’ll look at how these influential editors construed the science in the science-fiction stories they published, stories that for legions of fans served as steppingstones to belief in the truths revealed to them by the magazines’ writer-prophets.

Gernsback’s Amazing Stories was subtitled The Magazine of Scientification, and the magazine’s motto ‘Extravagant Fiction Today — Cold Fact Tomorrow’ was emblazoned prominently as a first-page banner. In his very first editorial for Amazing Stories in April 1926, titled A New Sort of Magazine, Gernsback defined ‘scientification’ as ‘the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story— a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.’[i] Gernsback had coined the neologism ‘scientification’ back in 1916, and was already publishing such stories in the other magazines he edited, like Science and Invention and Radio News. In subsequent editorials, Gernsback often vigorously focused on defending the magazine against ‘certain class of Amazing Stories scientification readers … ready to tear and claw at any author who comes along with a new idea which, for the time being, may be contrary to fact, although it may still lie within the realm of science.’[ii]

One of Gernsback’s aims was to better disseminate the work of non-American writers. The very first story that appeared in Amazing Stories was the Frenchman Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet (“Hector Servadac”), in which Captain Servadac experiences a cataclysmic event that appears to have altered the Algerian coast he’d been stationed at. Servadac sets sail on a yacht owned by the Russian Count Timascheff, to explore his new environs, an adventure that has them sailing through storms and ice; jibs are raised, mainsails adjusted, helms righted, yawls ingeniously refitted to skate over ice. They eventually discover that the Algerian coast they’d been on had been picked up apiece, air and water included, by a comet that had suddenly collided with Earth. This fantastic scenario is obviously far from being scientification; Gernsback himself says in his introduction to Off on a Comet, that it belongs ‘in the realm of fairyland’.[iii]

Off on a Comet is, however, meticulous in showing how characters methodically calculate solutions to ongoing problems.  After the cataclysmic event, Servadac observes that it takes longer for water to boil at the same outside temperature and deduces that there is less atmosphere above him. He observes that days are shorter, gravity is weaker, and that it is the star Vega in the constellation Lyra, and not the pole star, that is the fixed point around which constellations revolve. While the stars remain fixed in size and luminosity, he observes that the planet Venus gets larger and brighter, from which he deduces that he was on a collision course with the Cytherean body. When he observes Venus getting smaller and smaller, he deduces that the planes of the two planets’ orbits didn’t meet, and the catastrophic collision had been averted. He deduces from the observation that the magnetic needle of his compass had not deviated in angle from the north pole, that north and south remained the same, but that east and west had apparently changed places given sunrise and sunset position. Smooth and angular land formations jut up from the sea, and when they lower sounding-lines, they discover that the seabed is bereft of any marine life, uniformly deep, and composed of a strange iridescent metallic dust, from which they conclude that a subterranean event has lifted parts of that strange seabed to the surface. Once they understand that they are no longer on Earth but on a celestial body they name Gallia, they deduce that it is in an elliptical orbit, because the planet’s rate of speed diminishes in proportion to the distance receded from the sun. Far away from the sun, the temperature drops, and the Gallian seas begin to freeze. Off on a Comet is not just a thrilling sea adventure, but also a study of how the characters use tools, observations, and calculations to make deductions about the nature of the mystifying world they find themselves in.

In one scene, a solitary point of light observed from the schooner leads the party to a tomb deep within an abandoned mosque. Above the tomb, they discover a large, silver lamp, the source of the light, and on the corner of the tomb, an open French prayer-book. Servadac then has a revelation, that the tomb was that of the Crusader king Louis IX, canonized as Saint Louis; ‘The lamp that had been kindled at the memorial shrine of a saint was now in all probability the only beacon that threw a light across the waters of the Mediterranean, and even this ere long must itself expire.’ After making a ‘reverential obeisance to the venerated monument’,[iv] the party continue their exploration. Later, when the schooner appears certain to smash into those strange, smooth Gallian cliffs, Count Timascheff intones, ‘Let us, then, commend ourselves to the providence of Him to Whom nothing is impossible.’[v]

Verne had been raised Catholic, but other than brief nods to the faith of his youth as in the passage referenced above, he makes almost no reference to Christianity, and is commonly claimed by both deists and atheists as one of their own. Indeed, Saint Louis is brought up later in Off on a Comet, when the party encounter a supercilious English major who refers to the tomb as that of a French monarch, only to be vociferously corrected by Servadac that Louis IX was not merely a monarch, but a saint. Thus, the saint’s role in Off on a Comet appears to be to highlight verbal sparring between agents of rival colonial powers, rather than to make any kind of spiritual point. Indeed, none of the nineteenth-century Europeans who find themselves so mysteriously transplanted onto a comet hurling its way through the solar system consider that the event might have been a miracle, the work of God.

Verne similarly dropped non-Christian religious traditions into his stories. For example, in his adventure novel, Around the World in Eighty Days (“Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours”), the enigmatic, exacting, and iron-willed Englishman, Phileas Fogg, and his excitable, impressionable, and sentimental French valet, Passepartout set out to traverse the world in eighty days on a wager. They soon arrive in India, where in Bombay, Passepartout encounters a Parsi festival where the ‘descendants of the sect of Zoroaster…were celebrating a sort of religious carnival, with processions and shows, in the midst of which Indian dancing-girls, clothed in rose-coloured gauze, looped up with gold and silver, danced airily, but with perfect modesty, to the sound of viols and the clanging of tambourines.’[vi] Later, when their pre-planned train ride comes to an abrupt end, they hire a Parsi as mahout to a partially trained war-elephant they purchase to complete the journey, they soon find themselves in a little-traveled region ‘inhabited by a fanatical population, hardened in the most horrible practices of the Hindu faith’,[vii] where they encounter a procession carrying the corpse of a dead Rajah, accompanied by his beautiful, young Parsi widow, Aouda, who is to be ritually sacrificed in his funeral pyre. This horrific scene serves as impetus to a rescue mission, replete with daring deeds and suspenseful, last-minute turnarounds. Aouda and Phileas Fogg fall in love over the course of the novel, indeed the final scenes concern a marriage proposal. Once again, Verne uses religious traditions not with spirituality in mind but in the service of story, in the case of India, to serve as backdrop for spectacle, romance and adventure. Also like Off on a Comet, Verne is meticulous in Around the World in Eighty Days as to showing how the characters calculate solutions to ongoing problems, famously detailing how local time changes with changes in latitude, at a time before the international date line had been established. Metaphysical questions about the nature of reality or the existence of a higher power does not play any role in Verne’s stories, but religious traditions make occasional appearances, usually in service of other story elements.

The second story Gernsback picked for Amazing Stories was also a republication: The New Accelerator by the Englishman, H.G.Wells. It is perhaps worth noting here that it is these three men, Wells, Verne, and Gernsback, who are now commonly referred to as ‘the fathers of science fiction’. In The New Accelerator, the unnamed narrator agrees to imbibe an experimental drug concocted by Professor Gibberne, his neighbor and friend, who is world-renowned for making drugs that work on the human nervous system. The professor explains that the drug (named The New Accelerator), ‘is a stimulant that stimulates all round, that wakes you up for a time from the crown of your head to the tip of your great toe, and makes you go two — or even three to everybody else’s one.’[viii] Upon drinking the vial of green liquid offered, the narrator discovers to his amazement that he can now move so quickly that ordinary life appears to have come to a standstill. After the novelty of wandering through crowds of motionless people wears off, the narrator finds himself using the drug to achieve somewhat more prosaic aims: ‘I may mention, for example, that this story has been written at one sitting and without interruption, except for the nibbling of some chocolate, by its means. I began at 6:25, and my watch is now very nearly at the minute past the half-hour. The convenience of securing a long, uninterrupted spell of work in the midst of a day full of engagements cannot be exaggerated.’[ix]

In addition to fine-tuning The Accelerator so it can work for the masses, Professor Gibberne is also at work on another potion he calls The Retarder, which ‘should enable the patient to spread a few seconds over many hours of ordinary time, and so to maintain an apathetic inaction, a glacier-like absence of alacrity, amidst the most animated or irritating surroundings.’[x] Details as to the science behind the time-altering drugs are scant to non-existent. Instead, Wells is interested in the idea that our experience of time relates to the speed at which our bodily functions work.

These two stories, written by already very successful writers, typify what Gernsback liked to publish. For Gernsback, scientification, or science, appears to be broadly defined, as can be gathered by the implausibility of the underlying scenarios presented. As to what science was, how it differed from what came before, or how it intermingled with religious traditions that it existed alongside with, even as it ‘enters so intimately into all our lives today’[xi] as he put it, he expended almost no ink. Instead, as evinced by his eighty patents and numerous publications, Gernsback was passionate about technology, from the nitty-gritty mechanics of yet-to-be-invented machines to what grand societal changes were possible because of new technology.

While Gernsback appears to take scientification and science itself as ‘I know it when I see it’, the demarcation problem between science and pseudo-science has continued to vex philosophers for centuries. Although the word ‘science’ hadn’t been formulated yet, Aristotle in the 4th century BC held that a demarcation line existed between propositions that were ‘apodictically’, or necessarily, self-evidently, or demonstrably true, versus propositions arrived through the dialectic or reasoning process. Millenia later, the 1920s saw logical positivists associated with the Vienna Circle like Rudolf Carnap, A.J. Ayer, and Hans Hahn, focus on verifiability as the demarcation line, where the distinction is even more strongly drawn as being between meaningful and meaningless statements. Verificationists hold that a proposition is only meaningful if it can be empirically verified or if it expressed as a tautology that is logically true. However, using verifiability as demarcation leads to universally general statements like ‘all life on Earth is carbon-based’ being rendered meaningless as it cannot be verified, while existential statements like ’ghosts exist’ would be classified as meaningful, as it can be verified. In the 1930s, Karl Popper argued it should be falsifiability that should serve as the demarcation line, where only propositions that can be falsified should be considered scientific. In contrast to verifiability, under falsifiability, the sentence ‘all life on Earth is carbon-based’ would be considered scientific as it can be falsified, while ‘ghosts exist’ would not be considered scientific as it cannot be falsified. The American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn argued against falsifiability by observing that astrologers often provide precise predictions that could be falsified, which according to falsification would then render astrological predictions scientific. Kuhn argues instead that the demarcation line might not be as sharply defined, and that science was to be taken as merely a method of puzzle solving, in which the puzzle-solver works to correlate observation with theory. He pointed to what he called ‘extraordinary’ or ‘revolutionary’ science as the driver of forward scientific progress, rather than ‘ordinary’ science where the extraordinary science solves new problems in addition to the old problems solved by the paradigm it replaced. For Kuhn, these kind of paradigm shifts is what science is really about.

John W. Campbell, who became editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1937, was clearly interested in the question of what science was and how it came to be. For example, in a 1953 editorial for Astounding Science Fiction, titled The Scientist, Campbell observes that scientists believe ‘in the existence of a Supreme Authority in the Universe, an Authority they call “Natural Law.” They hold that that Authority is above and beyond the opinions and beliefs, the will or willfullness, of any human being. That that Authority can, moreover, be directly consulted by any man, at any time—and that every man is, at every time and in every place, directly and specifically obedient to that Authority, to Natural Law, whether he recognizes that fact or not.’[xii] He further posits that the scientist would claim ‘I have proven beyond doubt that there is Universal Law; I am not yet wise enough to know the nature of its source,’[xiii] in contrast to those who claim to know the source of Universal Law.

Later, in the 1954 editorial, Relatively Absolute, Campbell writes that science is ‘that method of learning that involves the equal interaction and cross-checking of philosophical-theoretical thought, and actual physical-reality experiments, done as a conscious process for the consciously stated purpose of increasing knowledge and understanding—that is, increasing data and relationship-of-data.’[xiv] He argues that science was ‘going to be a mighty unpopular philosophy in any culture; it has an absolutism about it that says, it makes no difference who you are, what you are, or what you want. Neither does it matter what your wealth is, or your political power. These are The Laws, obey them or suffer.’[xv] Arguing that religion was ‘by derivation, the study of the “Laws of Things” … or “Cosmology” in modern linguistic terms’[xvi] he concludes that science could therefore only be invented by ‘a culture that had already accepted the idea of an Absolute Power in the Universe’[xvii] and points to their many inventions, including alchemy and algebra, to nominate the Islamic civilization as the sole progenitor of science.

Campbell is, at best, careless with the demarcation line, and whether one agrees with him or not about how and who ‘invented’ science, it seems indisputable that science-fiction, like science, did not wink into existence from out of the void, but rather emerged from a milieu.

For Darwin, it was inevitable that Homo-sapiens evolved to be philosophical. Writing in The Descent of Man Darwin says, ‘As soon as the faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, along with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally crave to understand what was passing around him, and would have vaguely speculated on his own existence.’[xviii]

Observations of what cause produced which effect was put to use to increase survival rate, while the human aptitude for symbolic behavior gave rise to language and allowed for the social cohesion necessary to form complex societies. When there were gaps in connecting cause with effect, our ancestors spun narratives that often imbued consciousness and agency to everything from stars to storms. These narratives were then often tied to belief structures, allowing for societal coalescence. Religious and sacred storytelling were, perhaps, inevitable outcroppings of the cognitive capacities of the human mind.

William James in his 1897 essay, ‘The Will to Believe’ says he wrote the essay ‘in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.’[xix] He argues that a proposed hypothesis will present as either live or dead to the mind: ‘A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature, — it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As a hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Mahdi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker.’[xx] To the hypothesis offered being ‘live’,  James adds the perceived prestige of the source of the hypothesis which together make ‘the spark shoot from them and light up our sleeping magazines of faith.’[xxi] Given the right imprimatur then, stories of science-fiction could rise to become part of some future canonical belief: Extravagant Fiction Today —— Cold Fact Tomorrow?

Indeed, Campbell later became a proponent of L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, and wrote approvingly about the existence of psi, or extra-sensory powers and perception, in humans, publishing multiple stories in Astounding based on psi. As James said about our quest for scientific truth, ‘Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case. Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, — what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?’[xxii]

The editors most influential in shaping science-fiction as we know it today published stories that featured the speculative hypotheses they favored, thereby advancing these hypotheses into James’s ‘live’ category in the minds of their readers. Gernsback and Campbell published stories that not only evoked wonder and awe in their readers, but also provided the imprimatur of science that allowed their readers to shape belief in what might yet be revealed to have been prophetic truth.

[i] Gernsback, H. (1926, April). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 3

[ii] Gernsback, H. (1926, May). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 2(9), 825

[iii] Gernsback, H. (1926, April). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 1

[iv] Verne, J. (1926, April). Off on a Comet. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 24

[v] Verne, J. (1926, April). Off on a Comet. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 28

[vi] Verne, J. Translated by Towle, G. (1872). Around the World in Eighty Days. Standard Ebooks edition, 49

[vii] Verne, J. Translated by Towle, G. (1872). Around the World in Eighty Days. Standard Ebooks edition, 62

[viii] Wells, H. (1926, April). The New Accelerator. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 58

[ix] Wells, H.G (1926, April). The New Accelerator. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 96

[x] Wells, H.G (1926, April). The New Accelerator. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 97

[xi] Gernsback, H. (1926, April). A New Sort of Magazine. Amazing Stories, 1(1), 20

[xii] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 69

[xiii] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 72,73

[xiv] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 78

[xv] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 79

[xvi] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 78

[xvii] Campbell, J.W. Collected Editorials from analog selected by Harry Harrison, Doubleday and Company, 1966, 79

[xviii] Darwin, C. Descent of Man, Second Edition, 143

[xix] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books,, 1

[xx] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books,, 1

[xxi] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books,, 4

[xxii] James, W. The Will to Believe, Internet Archive Books,, 4



Manjula Menon once worked as an electrical engineer in Brussels. This is her second essay in Sci Phi Journal after her “homecoming of sorts” in our previous issue. A list of her other publications can be found at

‘Truth Embedded In A Tale’: Stories Of Utopia From Philosophers Of The Early Modern Period

by Manjula Menon

Evolutionary biologists continue to disagree about the extent to which we differ from our primate cousins, chimps, and bonobos, but they do agree that there is something special about the species, Homo sapiens. Skills we thought made us stand apart, like the ability to pass the mirror reflection test or our capacity for language or abstract thought, are all behaviors that we now know other species are capable of. Arguably, what makes the difference is our desire for answers to fundamental questions about the nature of the world we find ourselves in. Or to put it another way, humans are different because we do philosophy.

Before empiricism and the scientific methodology took hold, humans tried to assuage this desire to understand the world with the explanatory power of storytelling. Our ancestors told stories that explained the behavior of flora, fauna and celestial objects, sacred stories that explained how and why the world was formed, and how and why it was going to end. Stories were used as both a methodological device geared towards truth-seeking, as well as the object of truth-seeking, something that is arguably also true of philosophy.

The contemporary philosopher, Timothy Williamson, argues in his 2020 work, Suppose and Tell: The Semantics and Heuristics of Conditionals, that human cognition relies on the use of psychological heuristics for conditional thinking. Indeed, philosophers often try to understand the world by postulating a ‘what if’ scenario featuring a compelling thought-experiment to get to an intuition about how the cosmos, or some aspect of it, works. Such philosophical thought experiments may use counterfactual or counter-to-fact speculation, as in asking, what if A had happened, and not B? If that sounds familiar to science fiction writers, it should. Science fiction, more than any other genre, features stories that explore the way things might be, might become, or might have been. Science fiction is thought experiments writ-large, starring humans, in all our messy glory, or other beings who are necessarily similar or at least intelligible to us, given that they are thought up by human authors.

The dawn of the scientific era, when observational techniques began to challenge prevailing scholastic methods of syllogism and argumentation, was a period of violent upheaval in Europe. Philosophers of the time wrote stories about idealized, faraway lands, where societal conditions were optimal, and the good life was there for the taking. These types of stories are now called ‘Utopian fiction’. This essay will look at three Utopian works of fiction from English philosophers who lived and wrote at a time when science was being birthed and, consanguineously, so was science fiction.

The word ‘Utopia’ comes from the titular nation of Thomas More’s 1516 novel. More, posthumously elevated to sainthood by the Catholic church, was a proponent of ‘humanism’, which in 16th-century London meant using rhetoric to persuade society towards social betterment. The word Utopia comes from the Greek and means ‘a non-existent place that is described in great detail’. While it is unclear whether More was advocating for the Utopia he explored in the novel, the work often reads as a rhetorical exhortation in favor of the described Utopian practices. More, a statesman and lawyer, was executed by Henry VIII for not agreeing that the king’s authority stood over that of the papacy. Given More chose death rather than renounce his adherence to Catholic tenets, one might think that More’s Utopia would describe a Catholic state, but one would be wrong.

More’s novel begins with the narrator, none other than More himself, who one day after church, sees ‘a man well stricken in age, with a black Sunne-burned face, a long beard, and a cloake cast homely about his shoulders’. This person is revealed to be a Portuguese philosopher by the name of Raphael Hythloday, where Hythloday means ‘nonsense’ in Greek and Raphael is the messenger of God, thus, it could be read as ‘Speaker of Nonsense’. Hythloday, who says he is one of the twelve who sailed with the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, declares that ‘To find Citizens ruled by good and wholsome Lawes, that is an exceeding rare & hard thing’. Hythloday proceeds to describe just such a state he encountered during his travels, an island nation called Utopia, one that he favorably contrasts with the Europe of his time. It is possible that More, influenced by vague accounts circulating in England about the cultures of the Aztecs and Incas, had chosen a geographically adjacent setting to provide a sheen of verisimilitude for his island nation of Utopia.

In contrast to the teachings of the Catholic church of which More was an adherent, euthanasia and divorce are legal in Utopia, priests can marry, and women can become priests. Indeed, multiple religions are practiced, with none discriminated against by the state, except perhaps for the practice of atheism, which is merely tolerated. The Utopians only go to war if necessary, and this is contrasted favorably with the European monarchs of the day, who are described as being easily goaded into war if only to enlarge their dominions. Utopians live in clusters of extended families; clusters vote for a leader, and those leaders, in turn, vote for a supreme leader, who assumes the position for life. Women and men are educated in the same way, including being trained for war. While private property is not allowed, slavery is legal, indeed every cluster is assigned a couple of slaves, often prisoners of war or criminals. More presses Hythloday on why he does not take up a position in court as a counselor to a European king, given that with his vast experience and knowledge, he could be of great use to the public in this capacity. Hythloday argues that kings are either so wise they wouldn’t need his counsel, or so unwise that they would not listen to counsel even if he were to provide it. While the words are Hythloday’s, it seems likely that the views are the author’s. Yet, given so many of Utopia’s laws stand in direct contrast to More’s avowed Catholic beliefs, indeed beliefs he chose to die for rather than recant, perhaps More conceived of Utopia as a place that should exist, but cannot, given his understanding of human nature.

Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, said of the Aristotelean system of philosophy that it was ‘only strong for disputations and contentions, but barren of works for the benefit of man’. Bacon’s seminal work Novum Organum argued for a new logic, one that advocated for inductive, rather than deductive, reasoning to advance knowledge and learning, paving the way to modern scientific methodology. One might think that an empiricist like Bacon would not place much of a focus on religion when describing his Utopia, but once again, one would be wrong.

Bacon’s novel, posthumously published first in 1627, and then the Latin version in 1636, was titled New Atlantis, is the story of a ship whose crew, ‘finding ourselves in the midst of the greatest wilderness of waters in the world, without victuals, gave ourselves up as lost men, and prepared for death.’  The crew’s prayers are answered when they catch sight of land and sail into ‘the port of a fair city, not great indeed, but well built, and that gave a pleasant view from the sea.’ An elegantly dressed party, who after asking for and gaining confirmation that the crew members are Christian and not murderers or pirates, offer medical care for any sick among them. The island nation is called Bensalem, a portmanteau that combines the Hebrew word for son, ‘Ben’, with the Hebrew word for peace, ‘Salem’. Bensalem’s well-dressed inhabitants are mainly Christian, but also include a Jewish community, all of whom are deeply cautious about interacting with outsiders. Other than being told that Bensalem has a monarchial system of government, little else is shared about their laws and societal structures.

Once ashore, the importance of family in Bensalem is made clear with a scene that vividly describes a grand feast that the crew attends. The Feast of the Family is funded by the Bensalem state to honor any man with thirty or more living descendants above the age of three. Such feted men are called ‘tirsans’, and as one of them explain, “You shall understand that there is not under heaven, a nation so chaste as this of Bensalem.” Next, the crew become witness to a miraculous column of white light that appears in the sea under a celestial cross, a vision that moves a resident of Bensalem to cry out, ‘thou never workest miracles but to a divine and excellent end, for the laws of nature are thine own laws, and thou exceedest them not but upon good cause.’ 

The story thus proceeds to the raison d’être of the novel as per the prologue: the description of Solomon House. The Father of Solomon House, a man resplendently dressed in silks and velvets, informs the crew about the institution: ‘The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ The goal of Bacon’s Novum Organum could perhaps be described in the same way.

The Father of Solomon House describes to the visitors a few experiments currently in progress at the institution. The experiments all have firmly pragmatic aims, including the production of new drugs to defeat disease and to aid longevity, engines powerful enough to influence the weather, even new methods to provide nutrition to the body by the absorption of an engineered material dropped directly onto the back of a hand. He describes how sounds and scents can already be manufactured with fantastic precision, as can ultra-fast vehicles and ultra-precise clocks. Instruments of war being manufactured include houses of deceit that can produce realistic apparitions and illusions. 

Far from being instigators of war however, Bensalem motivations for building their powerful war machines are purely defensive. Indeed, they are so cautious that they sharply restrict their interactions with outsiders. The only external trade they engage in is the exchange of ‘light’, where ‘light’ stands for learning and understanding that is arrived at through the design, execution and verification of experiments. This trade in ‘light’ is conducted by twelve ‘merchants of light’ who sail under foreign names to other lands, to gather and return with new light. The imported light is subject to scrupulous scrutiny, till finally three men called ‘lamps’ contrive further experiments that aim to a higher light to penetrate even further into nature. Perhaps this is Bacon trying to evoke Genesis 1:3: ‘Let there be light” with knowledge derived from observational techniques. At the end of New Atlantis, when the sick have mended, the ship has been repaired and stocks replenished, the crew are granted permission to disseminate all they have learned from their visit, thereby becoming perhaps ‘merchants of light’ themselves. The isolationism of New Atlantis are interestingly parallel to the policies that the island nation of Japan had begun implementing in 1624, around the time Bacon was writing New Atlantis

Bacon was raised in a family deeply entrenched in the affairs of the state. His father was Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, and his mother, Anne, was the daughter of the tutor to Edward VI. Francis himself eventually became a member of parliament and was deeply involved in the political intrigues of the era, close to both Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex (who led a failed insurrection against the Queen). In New Atlantis, the father of empiricism advocates passionately for a society that is not for the magical but for the angelic, not for superstition but for divinity, not for the ‘commixture of manners’, but for ‘preserving the good which cometh by communicating with strangers’, not for war but for building advanced weaponry.

Finally, consider the Duchess of Newcastle, Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 work, The Blazing-World. Cavendish, like Bacon, was a royalist, but unlike Bacon, backed the wrong side, and lived in exile for over fifteen years as a result. Also like Bacon, she rejected the Aristotelean method of epistemology in favor of the new empirical methods. As the first woman to address the Royal Society of London, she states in her prologue for The Blazing-World that she is specifically targeting a female audience for the work. Indeed, her prologue, addressed to ‘Noble and Worthy’ ladies, reveals that the tripartite structure of the work, which includes both a fantastical and a romantic section tacked on to her original Observation Upon Experimental Philosophy, was in order to better appeal to this audience ‘by reason most Ladies take no delight in Philosophical Arguments’.

The protagonist of the novel is ‘The Lady’, who in the first part of the book is kidnapped by a foreigner who has fallen vehemently in love with her. He races away with her as captive, only to encounter a storm that blows his ship to the north pole, where he, along with his men, perish. Only The Lady survives to discover that the North Pole serves as a gateway to another world, one with a sun of its own, peopled by strangers in the shape of animals and birds, but who walk upright. The Blazing-World, as she learns it is named, is an exceedingly peaceful place. From the bear-men to the fox-men to the geese-men, they all speak the same language, share the same monotheistic religion, and are obedient to the same emperor. The groups, in spite of their sharply different shapes and sizes and colors, live in perfect harmony. When she meets their emperor, he first assumes she is a deity, but when she insists that she is mortal, he professes his love, and asks if she will become his empress. Thereupon, she is given absolute power over the Blazing-World and quickly sets about creating societies dedicated to learning and scholarship, with an emphasis on empirical methods to derive knowledge.

Cavendish and her husband were supporters of the Crown who went into self-exile during the first English civil war, after the royalist faction lost to parliamentarians in favor of a constitutional monarchy. Her version of Utopia features, unsurprisingly perhaps, a strong monarchial form of government. When The Lady questions the inhabitants of the Blazing-World about why, they reply that just as it was natural for one body to have but one head, it was also natural for one political body to have but one governor. Moreover, they declare that the monarchy is a divine form of government, and in direct accordance with their monotheistic belief; just as they unanimously submit to only one God, they likewise unanimously submit with complete obedience to only one monarch. Under this all-powerful head of state are a cadre of eunuchs who work diligently on the ruler’s behalf. Perhaps Cavendish, punished for her support of her monarch, is metaphorically implying that a neutered nobility is what is required for a monarchial system of government to function harmoniously. Cavendish’s Utopia is thus one where harmony is a paramount goal, where empiricism is the gateway to epistemological success, and where all the people submit to one monotheistic religion and to one monarch.

Since the dawn of science, philosophy and science fiction have been natural allies, fellow travelers in humanity’s journey towards greater understanding. Inspired by the nascent scientific method for gaining knowledge, English philosophers of the early modern period wrote ‘truth in a tale’ type of science fiction, works they hoped would cross-pollinate ideas and shape narratives towards greater understanding and a better world.



Manjula Menon once worked as an electrical engineer in Brussels. She therefore regards this piece in Sci Phi Journal as a homecoming of sorts. A list of her other publications can be found at