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Science Fiction And Philosophy Go Hand-In-Hand: This Is Why

If you're a fan of science fiction, then I've got another label for you: you're also a philosopher, to a degree.

Yes, I know - the images that the mind conjures up when we think of these two types of people bring up two very different things. One is of a typical geek who buzzes with excitement at the thought of spaceships and aliens, and takes the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate a little too seriously (think the characters of The Big Bang Theory, but without the veil of being an attractive actor disguised as a nerd). The other is of old men dressed in flowing white robes - probably from Ancient Greece - who spend most of their time sitting around just *pondering* things, perhaps with their chins resting gently on their fists in the classic "thinking pose". Both stereotypes are usually white and male with a very particular social reputation, although the latter is distinctly different, with one suffering from stigma and the other revered. No prizes for guessing which is which.

Why? Because, simply put, it's a great way for us to explore social issues, cultural dynamics, and generally think about why we are the way we are - and challenge how we feel about that - without any of the prejudices or preconceived notions that we may carry with us, even unknowingly, from our normal world.

I'm not the only one who thinks so. Some even claim that science fiction actually has its roots in philosophy. There's a reason why there seems to be so much crossover between Speculative Fiction and Science Fiction: both make us ponder things that stem from the question, "What if...?", and these questions (and the musings that can follow) can be provocative or inspire contemplation and deep thought (be that introspection or extrospection)... and from this, hopefully also inspire more independence of thought and intellect.

Science Fiction and Philosophy Go Hand-In-Hand - This Is Why
Photo by Jorm Sangsorn on Shutterstock

Take, for example, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (one of my favorites): it allows us to explore the concept of utopia, and question whether it can truly exist or not. Much like George Orwell's 1984 (another one of my faves) it also encourages questions around what would happen if a state had absolute control - even if that was by choice at first - or control over specific but powerful like new technologies, or the way we communicate? Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale encourages us to consider the dangers of a totalitarian society, while the TV series Raised By Wolves begged the questions, "What does it really mean to be a parent?" and "Can humankind ever really exist without some form of faith?" (I'm still devastated that that show was pulled from the networks before the story was concluded, by the way. I need answers!)

Other common philosophical questions raised in sci-fi stories include what it really means to be human; whether technological enhancements, from implanted chips to artificial intelligence, are a good or a bad thing; what a perfect society might look like; if there is a way to sustain life after death and what consequences that could have; what happens to us - or to be more specific, human consciousness - after death; or what is reality (perhaps none more famously than The Matrix). There are questions raised around the concept of gender and identity, our sense of belonging, and our purpose in life. And there are the questions such as "What else is out there in the universe?" "If something else is out there, is it more likely to be friendly or hostile?" "How would the world as we know it change, if we discovered proof of alien life?" No matter what the question is asking, although some stories may find a more roundabout way of saying it than others, it is also a way of breaking down complex ideas that may have been tough to understand through traditional explanations of philosophy, and translating them into scenarios that more of us may find easier to understand or relate to.

And it can help to expand our minds. The goal isn't to change our minds per se, but rather, to expand them, by offering us new perspectives and fresh ways of thinking, and to challenge the way we see the world. And to be - and remain - an open-minded person, we must keep on doing this. The pursuit of this expansion must be constant and ongoing.

Because the truth is, it is impossible for a person to be truly, absolutely, one hundred percent objective. No matter how much some of us may like to think of ourselves as being absolutely open-minded and inclusive, the fact is that these things always exist on a spectrum. I believe that no human being can be entirely without some form of preconceived ideas or notions that help to shape their view of the world, myself included - for the simple reason that that is how we perceive and make sense of the world around us.

Predisposition - the tendency to act in a certain way - is not the same thing as prejudice. And although prejudice is typically thought of as negative, there is such as a thing as positive prejudice - yet both versions of it can lead to inequality in thinking, or the inability to be totally objective. The information that we already have in our brains is literally how we process the world around us and develop our awareness of the things in it. By the very fact of being a participant in what we are observing, there is already some level of subjectivity there. We are a part of this world, so no matter how much we may try to remove ourselves from a circumstance, our very existence makes us involved somehow. This is the basis of The Observer Effect after all: that seeing is changing, so to observe something already means to be a participant that is capable of having changed it. They, by their very nature, are interlinked and inseparable. As this paper puts it - a lot more succinctly than I do - "Observations are influenced by the observer, and the observer is influenced by the observed."

But back to my point about sci-fi: it can be a great blank slate, or equalizer of sorts. It allows us to explore questions about things that, in our world, we already have opinions, thoughts, and feelings tied to whether we are aware of it or not- but when these concepts are instead attached to characters and stories that we are brand new to, we might feel differently about them. And when we compare them to the normal, everyday things that they are parallels of, it might actually help us expand the way we think, and at least consider things differently.

It also allows us to explore what the future might look like, playing out various different scenarios (from the good to the ghoulish), and in doing so, give a little more forethought to how the changes we may be making today might affect tomorrow. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples is The Terminator. There are many reasons to argue and/or agree about how AI can be great and helpful, but before we start teaching the machines how to really think for themselves, have we thought about what might happen if the machines do someday take over? Sure, they might not start hunting humans down like in the movies, but there might still be a calmer, more real-world, yet equally harmful consequence if we are so excited about our innovations that we don't pause to consider the longer-term implications first.

Perhaps for some people, science fiction is only about a fun romp in space, or futuristic scenarios full of crazy gadgets and cool inventions, for better or for worse. For others, maybe it's just the escapism of being able to "travel" to a different world. But for me, at least, science fiction and philosophy are undeniably intertwined, and I relish the way this genre (and speculative fiction) can stimulate, puzzle, and invigorate this aspect of my mind.


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