Philosophy of Science (Fiction)

As previously noted, I will be on programming at the upcoming Worldcon in Montreal, including moderating a panel at 10am Saturday with the following title and description:

The Philosophy of Science

To what extent does SF explore the meaning of science for scientists and create the ideas that our culture has of science?

Panelists: Greer Gilman, James Morrow, Jeff Warner, Richard Crownover, and DD Barant

This is a little outside my normal range, so this post is a combination of thinking-out-loud and asking-for help as I try to figure out what sort of discussion ought to go with that panel description.

This is really two issues bound together, namely “To what extent does SF explore the meaning of science for scientists?” and “To what extent does SF create the ideas that our culture has of scientists?” The latter is relatively easy, I think– there’s an obvious tension between the “science is awesome!” stories of Asimov and Hal Clement, and the “there are some things Man was not meant to know” stories that start with Mary Shelley and continue on through Michael Crichton, and that ought to be good for some discussion.

One obvious way to go would be to talk about whether SF accurately depicts the practice of science, but that seems like a waste of James Morrow and Greer Gilman, neither of whom are professional scientists. (I have no idea who the other panelists are– two of the three have names that give inconclusive Google results (Jeff Warner might be the folk musician, but I’m guessing probably not the pro wrestler…), and DD Barant is the author of an urban fantasy.) And the question really seems to be more about the motivation of scientists than about the day-to-day business of science.

I like to try to keep panels grounded in fairly specific books as much as possible– I’m much happier leaving a panel with a couple of new books or authors to check out than when the whole thing deals in airy generalities. I’m not thinking of too many books that deal with what makes scientists tick, though– Kirstein’s Steerswoman books, maybe Contact, a bit of As She Climbed Across the Table. There’s the whole Lab Lit thing, but weirdly, that seems like more of a mainstream fiction thing than a SF thing. (Which, I suppose, might be an interesting direction to go– do mainstream writers do a better job of getting at what scientists are like than SF writers?)

There’s also the whole “what is the meaning of science for scientists” definitional game, which can get really thick with citations of Kuhn and Feyeraband and whatever. I’m not wild about that tack, though, as I’ve always been more of a Damon Knight/ Potter Stewart kind of guy (science is what scientists do when they say they’re doing science). Also, it would probably require me to read Feyeraband, in my copious spare time.

I don’t know. This is a tricky one. Happily, given the make-up of the panel, I could probably fall back to the “You are smart people. Say something interesting.” moderator punt. But I’d like to have a better idea of possible discussion topics than that.



  1. #1 eNeMeE
    July 26, 2009

    I imagine a lot of people think FTL is possible. Teleportation, too. Time travel maybe?

    Worth exploring AI, maybe?

    In hurry.

  2. #2 Kylinn
    July 26, 2009

    I had one reasonably intelligent friend assert that of course FTL was possible because Heinlein said in his stories that it would work and he was a scientist so he must know. Even leaving Heinlein’s not actually being a scientist, the sheer incredibility of taking the existence of something in fiction as therefore incontrovertible evidence that it could work in the real world left me slack-jawed and staring.

    Not sure how much this intersects with your panel topic, but the issue of conflating (scientist/science) fiction with fact made me think of it.

  3. #3 John Novak
    July 26, 2009

    Sagan’s Contact is the one that leapt to my mind, too. After that, it gets tough. Perhaps some of Ted Chiang’s stories are relevant– I’m thinking of Divide by Zero and Story of your Life, in particular.

    As a particularly bad and hamfisted example, there is Calculating God, by Sawyer. (One line review: “Less satisfying an answer than, ‘Turtles all the way down.'”)

  4. #4 Mary
    July 26, 2009

    James Morrow is the only one of those panelists I’ve heard of, but I’m a big fan of his. If I could have a conversation with him about SF and the Philosophy of Science, it would lean heavily on the “philosophy” part, shading into religion.

    I guess… SF is all about demonstrating Clarke’s adage that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistiguishable from magic.” That’s why the border between SF and fantasy is so blurry, and why trying to draw a definitional line is such a popular game.

    So in science fiction, scientists have a lot in common with wizards… Or priests. Is that how society sees us? Or at least SF fans? But the reality isn’t like that. Doing science doesn’t feel like doing magic. It feels like a lot of hard work. Think of Bond’s Q or Alias’s Marshall or Star Trek’s Scotty. All miracle workers. Is that what the public expects of us? Funding agencies? But for us, what we do is necessarily very distinguishable from magic… Right?

    That’s where I’d go, with Morrow at least. Does SF lead people to conflate scientists with wizards or priests, and can we possibly fill that role?

  5. #5 Peter Morgan
    July 26, 2009

    There’s perhaps a distinction to be made between the role of written SF and TV/movie SF. I would argue that the latter “create the ideas that our culture has of science” more than does the former, insofar as written SF has a relatively limited readership, but TV/movies seep into the culture through heavy advertising, viewership, and water cooler discussions. But do we mean pop culture or do we mean Metropolitan Opera culture?

  6. #6 Uncle Al
    July 26, 2009

    Mankind is incapable of imagining its own future – it’s the only thing that saves us. Science fiction exists to expose and thus extinguish defective futures while fostering collateral feeder roots. Medicore plebeian hordes must be massaged to accept new gods. Pornography can only do so much. So much of humanity doesn’t even have pornography to compete with holy appetites.

    Development is about finding paths to extant goals. Janitors can do that (vat culture of penicillin-G re phenylacetic acid addition). Research is about discovery, the venue of the wildest (and luckiest) mentalities. Research cannot be managed, predicted, or even localized. If smoking a joint while careening about twisted mountain roads discovers polymerase chain reaction (PCR) DNA amplification, you get the Nobel anyway.

    SF allows managerially compacted mentalities, 5 or 50 years old, to expand and dream. March to the sound of a different zither! Hallucinogens proved to be a dead end. Whatever intelligence is, pharma has been remarkably impotent about enhancing it. One suspects intelligence is innate and structural. It must still be exercised to be threatening.

  7. #7 Åka
    July 27, 2009

    Ah! I think this is a panel that I thought up, or at least sowed the seed for sort of. I think the “philosophy of science” angle is a little bit off from the original idea, though. I started out from two observations. The first was how sometimes young people study science inspired by science fictional characters and ideas (like how someone I know was inspired by Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, who took control of his situation by reading the manuals and learning how to understand and work with science and technology). The second was how perceptions of how science works and what it _is_ is often coloured by science fiction. I agree with Mary above, and add that I often see (or read about) a superhero scientist who can save the world in ten minutes and set up applications of theory that will work at first try, which is difficult to live up to.

    Somewhere in the discussion there was a reference to this post of yours: about how science fiction promotes a “systematic approach to the world” which is “the essence of science”.

    For book examples I can mention that I myself at the relevant age was greatly impressed by Kip in Have Space Suit, Will Travel — also because he could take control of his situation by knowing and understanding.

    Of course, you can take the panel in other directions that seem interesting. I will try to be there and listen! (I myself opted out from being on the programming, since I have a baby not two months old.)

  8. #8 Åka
    July 27, 2009

    One very important idea is that of the necessity of always expanding our horizons. In science fiction this is tied to science, but also to physical expansion to new frontiers. It is also often stated to be our defining quality, that which makes us human, and this is also what many scientists say about science. I don’t think people in general have seen it this way through all of history. It could be interesting to see how this way of thinking has been tied to and developed through science fiction. Perhaps.

  9. #9 Åka
    July 27, 2009

    I’ll continue to throw out ideas, if you don’t mind (you can ignore those you don’t like, of course). Science fiction often seems (to me) to be a literature that explores the meaning of being human. In Anathem, there is a little discussion of how people need to see themselves as part of a story, and if they don’t do that they are unhappy. Discovering things, exploring the world, makes you a part of something that is happening, something that is changing — a story. I don’t have the book by me, but according to my (somewhat unclear) notes, this is probably on or around page 414 if you want to look it up.

  10. #10 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 27, 2009

    Will you edit together what we’re posting on Facebook with what’s on this blog thread?

  11. #11 Jeremy Lent
    July 28, 2009

    I apologize in advance if this reads like a “plug”, but I thought you might be interested to take a look at my SF novel published earlier this year called Requiem of the Human Soul.

    It’s a novel with a one foot in science fiction and the other in philosophy. One of the characters in the novel is a double Nobel Prize winner of the mid-21st century called Dr. Julius Schumacher, inventor of neurography (visualization of thought) and discoverer of the dynamic neural correlates of consciousness. In his research, Dr. Schumacher realizes that he can visualize the human soul in the smudges of his neurographic images and, to his horror, begins to believe that human genetic engineering might destroy the soul.

    You might find that this theme resonates with your question of how SF explores the meaning of science for scientists.

    If you’re interested, you can check out the website, and especially the pages: and

    Hope you find it thought-provoking.

  12. #12 Nilanjana Sudeshna
    September 23, 2009

    For those who are interested by this kind of Philofiction stories, I would like to recommend a sensational book titled The Legend written by Alex Mero. This book is the first novel of this talented writer but I hope not his last. There is an online version printable of The Legend on the official website of the author.

  13. #13 socratus
    October 24, 2009

    Philosophy of Science
    How to make physics ideas clear . . .
    . . . . . . ? . ? . ? . . . ! ! !
    After reading some scientific ideas:

    The more I study the more I know
    The more I know the more ideas I have
    The more ideas I have the more they abstract
    The more they abstract the less I know the truth

    And therefore conclusion from some article

    ” One of the best kept secrets of science is
    that physicists have lost their grip on reality ”

    Israel Sadovnik. Socratus
    ========== .

  14. #14 Jhumpa Lahiri
    November 2, 2009

    Philofiction helps us to enrich our idea of what is ‘real’ by incorporating all dimensions of the imagination, particularly as expressed in magic, myth and spirituality.

  15. #15 socratus
    May 9, 2010

    God doesn’t play dice: cause and effect
    (causality and dependence)

    Einstein said “God doesn’t play dice” because he didn’t accept
    the probabilistic arguments of quantum theory. He thought
    that behind the probabilistic arguments of quantum theory some
    real process is hidden. This real process makes the situation
    probabilistic. Thinking so – Einstein wasn’t alone.
    P. Langevin told, that to speak about crash of unity between
    cause and effect is ‘ intellectual lechery’. And Lorentz,
    de Broglie, Schrodinger believed that the situation in the
    micro world can be explained in details. All of them considered
    that the particles and fields exist in real space and time and they
    can move from one point to another. And this situation is possible
    to describe not only probabilistically but in details too.
    But other group of scientists didn’t agree with them.
    Their leaders, Bohr and Heisenberg, said in micro world we must
    refuse to describe particle’s behaviour to the smallest detail.
    Here is enough to use Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
    Most scientists agreed with them saying: ‘There isn’t better
    interpretation quantum physics than Heisenberg’s ’.
    From time to time somebody tried to give new interpretation
    and explanation quantum situation (more concrete ) but without
    success. And at last Feynman said: ‘I think I can safely say
    that nobody understands quantum mechanics.’ And somebody
    agreed with him saying, we cannot understand, but we can
    accustomed to it.
    Yes, they accustomed to the paradoxical quantum micro world
    and now, developing it, they created new paradoxes ( quarks,
    dark matter/ energy, string theory, new particles, new dimensions
    and new symmetries . . .and etc)
    I try to understand the situation.
    We have dualistic particle as a ‘ math point’.
    We have two kinds of space:
    a) Minkowski ( -4D) and a its shadow –
    b) separate independent space and independent time (3D+t)
    The dualistic particle/wave point can move from one point
    to other, or (maybe) from one space (-4D) to another (3D+t).
    This situation was known from 1908 but it still is unsolved.
    Is this situation hard puzzle ?
    Isn’t clear that we need to know: dualism of particle,(-4D )
    and its shadow – (3D+ t) to solve this puzzle – problem ?
    But these categories of being scientists try no debate now.
    Maybe they are busy solving other problems . . . and . . .
    . . . create new paradoxes . . .. . . . . . I don’t know.
    I remember that about 50 years ago I have read one interesting
    book. Maybe this book will help me to understand the situation.
    I must reread it again.
    Where is it? Here it is:
    Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus: ‘The Praise of Folly.’
    All the best.
    Israel Sadovnik Socratus


  16. #16 Phil o' Fiction
    February 14, 2011

    A philosophical text should be an unbiased reflection on the totality of everything that is. The text should not contain imagination and fictitious elements. This means that no characters may be created and no events may be imagined. Contrary to that, the literary text should only apply as a product of the imagination and of feelings. This means that fictitious elements, events and imagined characters may be created here. Let us know pay attention to the difference the public makes between philosophers and writers. Philosophers are known for their usually unintelligible jargon and for reasoning that most people cannot follow. Writers of literature are seen more as artists, creative souls who do not really belong in the academic world. But what is now actually the difference between philosophy and literature? Is that the difference between a philosopher and a writer? A writer can have more things in common with a philosopher than with another writer. Isn’t it then the case that the individual differences are greater than the differences between those two categories? And, what is philofiction actually? A literary genre that brings together philosophy and literature by making all areas between intelligence and feeling fade away with the objective to make the reader know no boundaries. Philofiction dialogues describe events and meetings between part real, part literary created characters, who reason and interpret but also clarify or contradict all kinds of thoughts and statements and in this way enable the reader to deepen his knowledge. Philofiction does indeed appeal to the intellect and the imagination simultaneously and therefore is no different from the manner in which each of us experiences life.

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