2018-11-01 14:41:32 UTC
How Upending Its Hidden Assumptions Can Deepen Your Read Of Science Fiction
Which foundational ideas, assumptions, and seemingly-semantic debates
mold how we interpret our world in relation to science and faith?
By Zachary Porcu
NOVEMBER 1, 2018
Many people will complain about problems while also complaining about
solutions. I see this in conversations all the time when people begin
discussing something they take seriously.
Say you’re having such a conversation, and you try to make a fine
distinction between two very similar points on which much of the
conversations hangs. Likely as not, your interlocutor will become
irritated and dismiss your distinction as semantics. Or say you see some
deeper issue underneath the surface of the main topic and you insist
that there is more beneath the surface. If you bring it up and try to
really focus on it, you will probably be told that you are overanalyzing.
Ironically, however, the ability to analyze precisely, identify
underlying assumptions, and make careful distinctions is precisely what
you gain when you get a real education. Indeed, many very educated
people––Dorothy Sayers and John Henry Newman, to give two famous
examples––have remarked that the ability to make clear distinctions is
almost the definition of what it means to be educated.
It’s easy to see why: without such abilities, you simply aren’t able to
get beyond the level of ramming generalizations at one another until
someone gives up. And if the modern person is not equipped for it, then
tracing the subtle track of a discussion to get at the real core of the
argument is bound to be a dizzying endeavor. No wonder he complains of
semantics––he really has no idea how to navigate such a discussion.
Indeed, these abilities have an almost ubiquitous relevance in modern
life, although some cases are more obvious than others. Naturally, being
able to analyze effectively, make careful distinctions, and get at the
deep assumptions of things are all invaluable for confronting the truly
overwhelming amount of information we are exposed to daily. But
something we often overlook is entertainment, which contains its own
kinds of deeper assumptions, although they are usually hidden to one
degree or another.
Science Fiction Lacks Religiosity, But Why?
Consider science fiction which, like all genres, has its own share of
standard tropes and themes. One of the main themes in science fiction is
the status of technology, and you’ll notice a frequent assumption that
technology will constantly grow more and more sophisticated over time;
more precisely, the assumption is about a certain idea of progression.
When people encounter alien cultures in science fiction, they’re usually
on some sort of a spectrum of more or less technologically––and,
therefore, intellectually––sophisticated. It’s very common, in these
situations, that more primitive cultures have “religion” while more
advanced cultures have dispensed with it. There’s no inherent reason
that intellectual sophistication and religion should be mutually
exclusive, but much of the time in science fiction, they are.
We see it, for example, in Star Trek. Less sophisticated cultures have
more primitive beliefs about the universe, and as they get more
sophisticated, they discard those beliefs. The assumption underneath
that is that religion is just an inferior or more crude form of science,
and that the primary reason we don’t believe in Zeus anymore is that we
now know where lightning really comes from.
Far from being more than a little insulting to the remarkable
sophistication of the belief systems of ancient peoples, we now get to
the heart of the matter: there is, at the bottom of our faith in
technological progress, the assumption that science is the best (or the
only real) source for truth. Is this a good assumption? Well, it turns
out that the root of this assumption is a failure to make a clear
distinction between different types of knowledge.
Sound semantic? Read on.
Does Something Have To Be Verifiable To Be True?
Science is very useful, but it’s often misunderstood. The scientific
method is, at heart, about verification and demonstrability. This means
if you and I have a dispute about the nature of something, say, the
temperature at which water boils, we could conduct a simple experiment
in the kitchen to verify this fact.
If I had been insisting that water boils at 50 degrees Celsius, you
would be able to demonstrate my error. If I complained that there was
some fluke in the experiment and that you simply got lucky, we could do
the experiment over and over again until my error was clear.
This ability to test things with experiments and produce data that can
be verified over and over again (then demonstrated to others) is what
makes the scientific method so powerful. So powerful, in fact, that we
as a culture often romanticize it and equivocate this one sort of
knowledge––the kind that is verifiable or demonstrable––with all
knowledge. We assume that if something can’t be verified by testing,
then it isn’t true, or that we should be very skeptical about it. But
this is our failure to make a good distinction.
The reality is that the verifiable or the demonstrable is only one
category of knowledge, and we believe all sorts of things that we can
neither verify nor demonstrate. Take the existence of the material world
itself: we can’t verify that it is real rather than an illusion. How
about the existence of the past? The universe could have been created
five minutes ago with the appearance of age and all our memories implanted.
What about the existence of other minds? What if you’re the only person
in the world, and the rest of us are soulless automata made to have the
appearance of consciousness? None of these can be demonstrated, either
for or against. That is, there is no way to verify the existence of the
material world, other minds, or the past. Yet we are all rational in
believing these things, and we don’t criticize each other for holding
such “unscientific” views.
Or take something less weighty than these thought experiments. There are
so many things you know about yourself, your friends, your spouse, and
your children that you can’t even begin to verify or prove to anyone
else, but which you have a real sense of and can rightly say that you know.
If you think about all the other kinds of known things, like beliefs on
the basis of authority or aesthetic experience, for example, you see
that there are many kinds of knowledge. Most of them aren’t verifiable
or demonstrable, but we can still be considered reasonable people if we
believe in them. The idea that all knowledge has to be verifiable or
demonstrable is just an assertion, and in fact goes against our daily,
What If Things Were Different?
So we see that this little distinction between different kinds of
knowledge is the basis of a series of layered assumptions that
ultimately manifests itself in the science fiction trope of what
historians now call the “myth of progress,” which affects how other
civilizations are presented in the genre. One stone changes the course
of a river, and it is the same way with these deeply buried intellectual
assumptions. But what if things were different?
In C.S. Lewis’ celebrated Space Trilogy, he self-consciously writes
science fiction stories in which he plays with these foundational ideas,
using a medieval cosmology and classical principles about knowledge
rather than the secular or modern ones we see so often. The result is a
fascinating story with a wildly different take on alien life, space
travel, and man’s relationship to the universe. This weekend I’ll be
presenting an extended look at these themes at the Washington D.C.
This brings us back to the original theme, education. Traditional
education may be lackluster, but this is all the more reason that
conferences like Doxacon are so important. They are the perfect places
to continue sharpening our educational tools. Doxacon’s focus is “faith
and fandoms,” an ambitious aim that seeks to examine science fiction,
fantasy, superhero, horror, and other geek and pop culture genres with
the sophisticated intellectual lens of classical Christian education.
Conferences like these are some of the emerging places where thoughtful
people are meeting to delve into the deeper ideas and hidden assumptions
that are all around us. For these ideas are certainly there, informing
and shaping the way we see the world, and the less aware we are and the
fewer tools we have to engage them, the more thoroughly we’ll be under
the power of such unseen forces.
Zachary teaches church history at the Catholic University of America in
Washington D.C. His research interests include Eastern Patristic
theology, the pedagogy of ideas in Western culture, and the problems
posed by secularism in modernity.
analysis discourse discussion Doxacon education epistemology knowledge
philosophy sci-fi science science fiction thinking
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