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.


Time, part 3: The Trolls of Time

Sarah Ennals @ 09-08-2009

The Trolls of Time - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


Design intelligence

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2009

Design intelligence - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


Laughter and error-correction mechanisms

Tom James @ 11-05-2009

lightCarlo Strenger has written a good article on enlightenment values on Comment is Free:

…the Enlightenment has created an idea of immense importance: no human belief is above criticism, and no authority is infallible; no worldview can claim ultimate validity. Hence unbridled fanaticism is the ultimate human vice, responsible for more suffering than any other.

it applies to the ideas of the Enlightenment, too. They should not be above criticism, either. History shows that Enlightenment values can indeed be perverted into fanatical belief systems. Just think of the Dr Strangeloves of past US administrations who were willing to wipe humanity off the face of the earth in the name of freedom, and the – less dramatic but no less dismaying – tendency of the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the GW Bush administration to trample human rights in the name of democracy.

As one of the commenters points out, the profound principle has been ignored by both 20th century secular ideologues, religious authorities, and more recent fanatics, is that of always bearing in mind the possibility you might be dead wrong.

The healthy human response to harmless error or misunderstanding is to have a laugh. Thus error is highlighted for all to see and forgiven by all parties. As Strenger puts it:

At its best, enlightenment creates the capacity for irony and a sense of humour; it enables us to look at all human forms of life from a vantage point of solidarity.

A further mistake on the part of humorless fanatics everywhere is to assume that there can ever be one, and only one, eternal truth. It may be that such a thing exists, but it is likely to be beyond our capacity to discern its true form from the vague shadows on the walls of our cave.

And so human beings are prone to error. There’s no problem with this, as failure teaches us more than success.

This notion was articulated by Karl Popper in the 20th century: it is the idea that you can never conclusively prove that an idea is correct, but conclusively disprove an incorrect idea.

And so human knowledge grows and the enterprise of civilization advances, one laughter-inducing blooper at a time.

[image from chantrybee on flickr]


Religion as brand identity… and vice versa

Paul Raven @ 09-04-2009

cross and jet planesOK, this is a fairly short three minutes of video but it’s not available in an embeddable format, so please take a moment to watch a chap called Martin Lindstrom talking about his somewhat controversial research, in which he brainscans consumers while showing them images of religious iconography in between logos of the biggest  and most auspicious lifestyle brands.

Now, the comparison of brand loyalty and religion is far from being a new idea (didn’t Ballard write some stories around something like that?), but I’ve only ever encountered it as a literary metaphor; to see that the advertising industry is researching it in detail isn’t surprising so much as it is a little alarming. [image by laverrue]

The marketing business focusses on what actually works; if something doesn’t get a good ROI, it gets passed over in favour of something that does. Meanwhile, over the course of centuries, the major religions have evolved an astonishing ability to extract loyalty, unswerving devotion and financial contributions from their adherents… which must make them a fairly appealing business model to emulate, no?

Brand loyalty and conspicuous consumption are old news – you can see it on any street in any city in the world, with people wrapped in logo-blazoned clothing (be it genuine or fake). So is the notion that word-of-mouth is the best form of marketing there is. The “street team“, however, is comparatively new, as are social networks… but they can (and probably will) converge with the preceding phenomena very quickly indeed once the right brain-triggers have been unearthed.

Are we ready for brand evangelism? If you find the doorstop importunings of your local church an intrusion, how will you cope with people dropping by to ask “whether you’ve thought about Harley-Davidson today?” [via No Fear Of the Future]


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