We excerpt an fascinating article from I09 on the association of science fiction to philosophical inquiry. It’s quiet remarkable that this genre of literature can provide such a rich vein for philosophers to mine, often more so than reality itself. Though, it is no coincidence that our greatest authors of science fiction were, and are, amateur philosophers at heart.
People use science fiction to illustrate philosophy all the time. From ethical quandaries to the very nature of existence, science fiction’s most famous texts are tailor-made for exploring philosophical ideas. In fact, many college campuses now offer courses in the philosophy of science fiction.
But science fiction doesn’t just illuminate philosophy — in fact, the genre grew out of philosophy, and the earliest works of science fiction were philosophical texts. Here’s why science fiction has its roots in philosophy, and why it’s the genre of thought experiments about the universe.
Philosophical Thought Experiments As Science Fiction
Science fiction is a genre that uses strange worlds and inventions to illuminate our reality — sort of the opposite of a lot of other writing, which uses the familiar to build a portrait that cumulatively shows how insane our world actually is. People, especially early twenty-first century people, live in a world where strangeness lurks just beyond our frame of vision — but we can’t see it by looking straight at it. When we try to turn and confront the weird and unthinkable that’s always in the corner of our eye, it vanishes. In a sense, science fiction is like a prosthetic sense of peripheral vision.
We’re sort of like the people chained up in on the cave wall, but never seeing the full picture.
Plato is probably the best-known user of allegories — a form of writing which has a lot in common with science fiction. A lot of allegories are really thought experiments, trying out a set of strange facts to see what principles you derive from them. As plenty of people have pointed out, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is the template for a million “what is reality” stories, from the works of Philip K. Dick to The Matrix. But you could almost see the cave allegory in itself as a proto-science fiction story, because of the strange worldbuilding that goes into these people who have never seen the “real” world. (Plato also gave us an allegory about the Ring of Gyges, which turns its wearer invisible — sound familiar?).
Later philosophers who ponder the nature of existence also seem to stray into weird science fiction territory — like Descartes, raising the notion that he, Descartes, could have existed since the beginning of the universe (as an alternative to God as a cause for Descartes’ existence.) Sitting in his bread oven, Descartes tries to cut himself off from sensory input to see what he can deduce of the universe.
And by the same token, the philosophy of human nature often seems to depend on conjuring imaginary worlds, whether it be Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish and short” world without laws, or Rousseau’s “state of nature.” A great believer in the importance of science, Hobbes sees humans as essentially mechanistic beings who are programmed to behave in a selfish fashion — and the state is a kind of artificial human that can contain us and give us better programming, in a sense.
So not only can you use something like Star Trek’s Holodeck to point out philosophical notions of the fallibility of the senses, and the possible falseness of reality — philosophy’s own explorations of those sorts of topics are frequently kind of other-worldly. Philosophical thought experiments, like the oft-cited “state of nature,” are also close kin to science fiction world building. As Susan Schneider writes in the book Science Fiction and Philosophy, “if you read science fiction writers like Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Sawyer, you already aware that some of the best science fiction tales are in fact long versions of philosophical thought experiments.”
But meanwhile, when people come to list the earliest known works that could be considered “real” science fiction, they always wind up listing philosophical works, written by philosophers.