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Science Fiction

by Tim Madigan

Indeed, many of my colleagues teach introductory philosophy through science fiction. Alas, I can’t read the stuff, let alone teach it. It may be an (un)earthly paradise they’ve all discovered, but I’m left grubbing down here alone, like the little lame boy left behind in Hamelin, but without even a glimpse of that lovely land.
Marjorie Grene, A Philosophical Testament (Open Court, 1995, pp.113-114)

While I have great admiration for Marjorie Grene, I must shamefacedly admit that I am one of those persons who uses science fiction stories and films when teaching introductory courses in philosophy. For many years, I have shown my students scenes from movies such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as given them as reading assignments short stories by such masters of the field as Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss, and Ursula LeGuin. Not only is this a way for students to relate better to the often-abstract issues being discussed, but is also completely appropriate to do so. Logical counterfactuals, for instance, are very much like science fiction’s ‘other worlds’. Mr Spock and Data of Star Trek fame are good representatives of the Stoic way of life. And Mary Shelley’s 1817 novel Frankenstein, arguably the first genuine work of science fiction (it relies upon no supernatural elements to move the story along), is required reading in all my ethics and medical ethics courses. The growing discussion about cloning, stem cell research, and computer intelligence ably demonstrate that this work is even more relevant today than when it was originally published.

In fact, many of the great names in philosophy themselves dabbled in the art of science fiction. Plato, thousands of years before H.G. Wells, gives us the prototypical invisible man story in his account of ‘Gyges’ Ring’ in The Republic. Leibniz allows us to speculate about other worlds before arguing that this one is the best of such possibilities. Kant advocates the view that we would have ethical obligations towards space aliens if they were intelligent beings, regardless of what bodily form they might possess. Wittgenstein frequently mentions Martians in his Philosophical Investigations. Robert Nozick has written a compelling short story dealing with the consequences of a meteor hurling toward the earth, threatening to end all life on the planet. And the Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938), who coined the term ‘robot’ in his famous 1921 play R.U.R. (Reason’s Universal Robots) not only began the debate about the uses and abuses of artificial intelligence – he himself had a doctorate in philosophy, wrote learned articles about aesthetics, and helped to popularize the philosophy of Pragmatism in his native country. Maybe philosophers really are in another world.

Even when I don’t want to do so, I find myself being dragged in to using science fiction examples in my classes. When teaching a course in Computer Ethics a few years back, for instance, I was surprised when many of my students strongly urged me to go see the then-current movie The Matrix. I had made a solemn vow never to sit through any movie starring Keanu Reeves (although I do like to show my students the scene from his earlier epic Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, wherein the intrepid time travelers capture Socrates and impress him with their deep philosophical message, “All we are is dust in the wind, dude”). But I was impressed by the connections the students made between what we were discussing in class and the various plot threads of the movie. They pointed out that the computers secretly controlling the minds of humans in the film were much like the shadowmasters who control the minds of the cave dwellers in Plato’s ‘Myth of the Cave’. If Keanu Reeves can get my students excited about epistemological, ethical and metaphysical issues, then damn it, to The Matrix I will go.

I hope you find the following articles to be thought provoking, and I encourage you to submit articles to Philosophy Now on this rich topic for future issues. Think hard and prosper and use the Force of Reason to guide you. To infinity and beyond!

– Obi-Wan Madigan

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