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Philosophy Through Science Fiction

Liz Stillwaggon Swan thinks through sci fi.

As a philosophy teacher, I frequently find myself devoting quite a bit of time and energy, especially in my introductory courses, to getting students to understand that philosophy is a different sort of intellectual activity which will require of them a new kind of thinking. I consider myself successful in this endeavor if, during the semester, some of them stop asking the “Is this going to be on the test?”-type question and begin to try and articulate original questions about the nature of reality, mind, God, and their place in the world. In the quest to put students on the philosophical path of seeking insight on their own, it is essential to have an imaginative, insightful and fun coursebook. Nichols’ et al’s new book, Philosophy Through Science Fiction, is a delightful way to get uninitiated students to engage with philosophical ideas and concepts for the first time. The genre of science fiction has a long, rich history of tackling scientific concepts and theories and their attendant philosophical problems often before science itself does. Science fiction, and thus this coursebook, deals with time travel, mind-uploading and cyborgs, God and the design argument, etc; all of them concepts which have intuitive appeal to science-minded philosophy students. Science fiction also has the advantage of being more readily accessible than academic philosophy, because of its creative narrative style.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which takes on a significant area of philosophy, such as knowledge and skepticism, religion and God, spacetime and time travel, the nature of mind, personal identity, and free will. Each chapter consists of a concise and helpful introduction to the topic; a sci ence fiction story that exemplifies the chapter’s subject matter; and some selections from historical and contemporary philosophy which link together various aspects of the subject from thinkers in both sci fi and philosophy. The reader can easily become engrossed in the excellent collection of stories in the book, and could almost forget that she is reading a philosophy coursebook, if it were not for the helpful pedagogical features such as study and discussion questions, recommended reading lists for both the sci fi literature and philosophical writings relevant to the chapter’s subject matter, and helpful text boxes containing additional gems. For example, in the chapter on mind, there are boxes labeled, ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation: Measure of Man’, ‘Hal 9000’, and ‘Ghost in the Shell’; and in the chapter on time travel, ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’. These tools allow the reader to continuously make connections between the science fiction known from popular culture and the philosophy. The sci fi drawn on is from both science fiction super-stars and from lesser-known greats, including Michael Resnick, Philip K. Dick, Ted Chiang, Robert Heinlein, Cory Doctorow, Greg Egan, and Timons Esaias. And the philosophical writings are drawn from historical sources such as: Plato, Descartes, Anselm, Hume, Augustine, Locke, and Hobbes, and also contemporary thinkers such as Mary Midgley, Alasdair Richmond, Stephen Wykstra, Franz Kiekeben, John Searle, Eric Olson, and Kevin Timpe.

This book could be used as a supplementary text for graduate or undergraduate seminars on the philosophy of time, physics, or philosophy of science generally, as well as for seminars on metaphysics, including knowledge, God, time, free will, personal identity, the mind-body problem, and human nature. But its real strength lies in its ability to introduce creative philosophical thought-experimenting to the student with no background in philosophy. Any Introduction to Philosophy course, or introductory courses in the history and philosophy of science, or in metaphysics, would provide the perfect platform for introducing students to philosophy through science fiction. Such courses can, and perhaps should, be supplemented by such relevant films as Solaris, The Matrix, and I, Robot. And of course, the book will appeal to a non-academic readership interested in the philosophical underpinnings of science fiction.

Science fiction captures the public imagination with its thought-provoking and sometimes haunting stories. Philosophy is just as enthralling (though I’m admittedly biased); but its captivating effects can be stymied by poor introductions in the classroom which emphasize its rigor, esoteric jargon and dryness, rather than its fascinating methods for providing deep insights into who we are and why we are here. First impressions matter. Philosophy Through Science Fiction provides an imaginative way for philosophy to make a very good first impression.

© Dr Liz Stillwaggon Swan 2010

Liz Stillwaggon Swan holds the Horning history and philosophy of science postdoctoral fellowship in the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University.

Philosophy Through Science Fiction: A coursebook with readings, Ryan Nichols, Nicholas Smith, Fred Miller, 2009, Routledge, 434 pps, ISBN: 978-0-415-95755-7, $35.96.

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