Science fiction, religion and rationality

Paul Raven @ 08-01-2010

As if to mirror the wider (and louder) debate of science versus religion (which I remain convinced is a false dichotomy in some respects), the science fiction scene seems to be turning its attention to the deeper philosophical underpinnings of the genre. Here are a couple of stimulating viewpoints: first of all, Ian Sales argues for science fiction as the last bastion of the rational in literature.

When Geoff Ryman founded the Mundane SF Movement in 2002, I saw it only as a bunch of sf writers throwing the best toys out of science fiction’s pram. When Jetse de Vries called for sf to be optimistic in 2008, I didn’t really understand as, to me, the genre was neither pessimistic nor optimistic.

But it occurred to me recently that these two attempts to change how science fiction thinks about itself are themselves symptomatic of the erosion of the scientific worldview in the public arena. By excluding the more fanciful, the more fantastical, tropes in sf, Mundane SF forces writers and readers to engage with known science and a scientific view of the world. And optimistic fiction, by focusing on “possible roads to a better tomorrow”, acknowledges that situations exist now which require solutions. It forces us to look at those situations, to examine the world and not rely on on a two-thousand-year-old fantasy novel, or the opinions of the scientifically-ignorant, for our worldview.

Meanwhile, over at Tor.com Teresa Jusino discusses the ways science fiction stories address the questions raised by religion:

What all of these stories do well with regard to religion (with the exception of The Phantom Menace, which did nothing well) is capture what I think the discussion should really be about. Most people who debate science vs. religion tend to ask the same boring question. Does God exist? Yawn. However, the question in all of these stories is never “Do these beings really exist?” The question is “What do we call them?” It’s never “Does this force actually exist?” It’s, “What do we call it?” Or “How do we treat it?” Or “How do we interact with it?” One of the many things that fascinates me about these stories is that the thing, whatever it is—a being, a force—always exists. Some choose to acknowledge it via gratitude, giving it a place of honor, organizing their lives around it and allowing it to feed them spiritually. Others simply use it as a thing, a tool, taking from it what they will when they will then calling it a day. But neither reaction negates the existence of the thing.

Good science fiction doesn’t concern itself with “Does God exist?”, but rather “What is God?” How do we define God?  Is God one being that created us? Is God a race of sentient alien beings that see all of time and space at once and is helping us evolve in ways we are too small to understand? Is God never-ending energy that is of itself? And why is it so important to human beings to define God at all?  To express gratitude to whatever God is? Why do people have the need to say “thank you” to something they can’t see and will probably never understand? To me, these are the important questions. They’re also the most interesting.

I’ve got a lot of time for Jusino’s arguments (despite my being an atheist), because her observations chime with my own: the stories that have stuck with me most strongly are those that project new ideas into the conceptual space between human consciousness and the universe in which that consciousness exists. One of the most interesting aspects of those questions is the way that the same evidence (or lack thereof) ends up being used as a confirmation of worldview by both sides of the fence; it all seems to boil down to whether you choose to see a “god in the gaps” or embrace the gaps as proof of the absence of a deity. Sure, there’s acres of philosophical battlefield between the two outlooks, but (as Jusino points out) there’s a lot more common ground than either side is keen to publicly admit.

That said, I’ve a lot of sympathy with Sales, too; the increasingly loud importunings of evangelicals, Biblical literalists, creationists and other cranks (not all of whose motivations or worldviews, it should be pointed out, are prompted primarily by religion) are doing visible damage to public discourse, not just in the States but worldwide. Jusino points out that there’s no necessary disconnect between believing in God and accepting the theory of evolution, and I’m convinced that the vast majority of people share that outlook; however, it seems to be those that don’t share it who shout loudest and longest.

So perhaps we do need more pulpits of rationality, more agitators for progress and foresight, more calm clear voices to balance the shrill and shrieking… and science fiction would seem ideally suited to such a purpose, if only because of its underlying philosophical roots; this is one of the reasons I consider myself a ‘fellow traveller’ with the Mundane and Optimistic SF movements. But I’m leery of prescriptivism, too; science fiction, like all art, should be allowed to find its own way through the individual journeys of its practitioners.

The sf scene’s ability and will to debate (through its fictional output, and in its public discourse) topics that many people find irrelevant or boring – racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, to name but a few – has always seemed to me to be its greatest strength; perhaps having the debate is, in some ways, more important than reaching a conclusion.

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4 Responses to “Science fiction, religion and rationality”

  1. Cheryl says:

    I tend to think that’s what the speculative genres do, at their best. They provide a platform for working out cultural, religious, and scientific “what ifs”. I’d add horror to the list of fiction genres that work in a similar way.

    None of this excludes there simply being a good story behind everything, of course.

  2. Sterling Camden says:

    Re: prescriptivism — in the Tao Te Ching it’s said “He who would rule the empire in order to do something with it will destroy the empire.” The same thing, I think, is true of art. It isn’t a tool for achieving some goal.

  3. GLP says:

    Thanks for this neat summing up. I think the Mundane and Optimistic manifestos are brave and necessary experiments, but for me, the *story* always has to come first (and I’m speaking here as someone who has a story in Jetse’s forthcoming “Shine” anthology). If I come up with a good story idea, I will write it, irrespective of whether it fits into one of these categories. If it does fit in, that’s all well and good; but if it doesn’t, that’s fine too. The thing that has always attracted me to SF is the sheer range of possible settings, and the range of possible stories to be told – the size of the playground, if you will.

  4. Stephen J. says:

    Feh. I’m unthrilled with rationality as a supreme good myself; I tend to go with words from Tom Stoppard (hardly a raving religious nutter) on this topic, from his play JUMPERS:

    “The National Gallery is a monument to irrationality! Every concert hall is a monument to irrationality! — and so is a nicely kept garden, or a lover’s favour, or a home for stray dogs! …(I)f rationality were the criterion for things being allowed to exist, the world would be one gigantic field of soya beans!”

    As for the idea that having the debate is more important than reaching a conclusion, to this too I say rubbish. If that were true, and acknowledged to be true, what would be the point of having a debate at all? (And if you want an example of an irrational crank who’s poisoning debate, check out P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula, who desecrated a Eucharistic host and put the photos on his blog to “prove” God wouldn’t strike him dead. Being a crank more interested in drowning your opponent’s views than disproving them is a matter of attitude, not position.)

    I love science fiction, but any belief that it’s necessarily suited to be a voice for optimistic rationality and progress because it examines scientific possibility is a complete mismatch of criteria. “Progress” and “optimism” are irrational values that are set before the science; they aren’t deduced from it.