Genre Fiction and the Real Problem With Philosophy of Science

There's been a bunch of discussion recently about philosophy of science and whether it adds anything to science. Most of this was prompted by Lawrence Krauss's decision to become the Nth case study for "Why authors should never respond directly to bad reviews," with some snide comments in an interview in response to a negative review of his latest book. Sean Carroll does an admirable job of being the voice of reason, and summarizes most of the important contributions to that point. Some of the more recent entries to cross my RSS reader include two each from 13.7 blog and APS's Physics Buzz.

I haven't commented on this because I haven't read Krauss's book (and I'm not likely to), and because my interest in philosophy generally is at a low ebb at the moment (I oscillate back and forth between thinking it's kind of a fun diversion, and thinking I have better things to do with my time). I've been thinking about a new project that's kinda-sorta on the edge of philosophy-of-science type things, though, which has involved a bit of time thinking about why my regard for the subject is at a low ebb at the moment. And seeing the title of Jason Rosenhouse's "The Reason for the Ambivalence Toward the Philosophy of Science" in the "most active" sidebar widget (the post itself isn't so interesting to me, but the framing of the title made me think of something useful), combined with the second Physics Buzz post, combined with what I was writing last week made a bunch of pieces fall into place.

My realization was this: I'm down on philosophy of science type things at the moment because an awful lot of the conversation reminds me of interminable arguments within science fiction fandom.

A perennial debate within SF fandom is how to define the genre. The most contentious version of this involves trying to establish a definition that splits "science fiction" and "fantasy" apart from one another. There are all sorts of ways to try to do this, based on whether the science is accurate or not, whether it's central to the story or just window dressing, and on and on.

This argument was old before I was born, but there are always new generations of fans coming along, so various forms of this are a staple of convention programming. And it has a habit of cropping up in totally unrelated panels as well. For a long time I found this moderately entertaining, but a comment made by someone on one of these panels a few cons back has changed my mind (sadly, it wasn't enough of an epiphany for me to remember exactly when it was, or who said it-- I half want to say Teresa Nielsen Hayden, but I suspect that's because she's a quote attractor, and tends to get credit for smart things said about the genre whether or not she's the one who said them).

What this unnamed panelist said that stuck in my mind was that these definitional arguments end up being bad because they focus too much attention on the same handful of boundary cases. They're so concerned with where to draw the line between two big groups of related works, and arguing about which side of the line a handful of debated works fall on (is Star Wars science fiction, or just fantasy with spaceships?) that they lose sight of the cool stuff that's at the center of those groups.

I didn't think about it too much at the time, but since then, I've looked at these definitional arguments in a different light. And all this recent bickering about philosophy of science, and particular Jason's title and that Physics Buzz article, made me realize that I end up having the same problem with a lot of philosophy of science. That is, I think these arguments end up focusing so much attention on drawing a boundary to keep stuff out that we forget to celebrate the stuff that is unquestionably in.

This isn't a "You're doing it wrong" argument, by the way-- I fully recognize that these arguments are an essential property of an definitional argument. That's how you test your theories, after all, whether they're scientific or philosophical: you look at the edge cases, and see how well they work. Drawing boundaries is absolutely essential to making definitions, and if you're going to draw a boundary, you need to look closely at the edge cases. Whether you're defining literary genres, or science in a philosophical sense, or biological species, what you're doing is drawing a boundary to separate this from that. It's a perfectly valid intellectual pursuit, with a long and distinguished history.

But, in the end, I didn't go into physics because I wanted to draw a boundary between science and not-science (or physics and chemistry, or any other boundary you care to name), any more than I read science fiction and fantasy because I wanted to draw boundaries around genres. I went into physics because physics is awesome. Because quantum mechanics is the strangest and coolest theory in the world, and because it's really true. Because you can do experiments where you let atoms bump into each other, and see unequivocally that they're waves, and obey quantum statistics. Because you can take an atomic clock and show that putting it in motion or raising it up makes time pass at a different rate. Because you can look at the light emitted by an atom and tell how its electrons are arranged, and because you can look at the light coming from a distant galaxy and tell what it's made of. And because of thousands of other amazing and unquestionably scientific experiments and observations and theories.

Drawing a line between physics and not-physics is a good and important thing to do-- it's important to make clear that, to choose a name not at all at random, Deepak Chopra is a shameless huckster whose "quantum" explanations of things are just word salad, and bear no relation to actual physics. But this isn't something I want to spend all my time doing, or thinking about. My primary interest in science is not drawing lines to keep not-science out, but trying to bring people in, to see the amazing and true stuff that makes up the bulk of science, not the infinitesimal fraction of material that lives on the border.

(To a lesser extent, I have a similar problem with a lot of pop-science writing, which I think puts far too much emphasis on wildly speculative topics (string theory, time travel, etc.) at the edges of science, when there's a vast amount of equally cool stuff that is firmly established as true. This is why my own books focus on the established core of quantum mechanics and relativity, not the speculative frontiers.)

It's great if people with a more philosophical bent want to spend time on drawing boundaries, and arguing about whether string theory is passing beyond the realm of science, or whether the Pern books are fantasy because they have dragons or science fiction because they have spaceships. If that's what levitates your aircar, go nuts. For myself, though, I think that the heat generated by arguing over the tiny fraction of stuff on the edges distracts from shedding light on the amazing stuff at the center, and prefer to direct my own efforts elsewhere.


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Utter drivel. Ever read Plato's Timaeus?

By John E Balkcom (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

Giancarlo Rota, the mathematician, was interested in a variety of questions related to the philosophy of mathematics, but he noted that many people are oblivious to them in the sense that they cannot be convinced that the questions address any real distinction of issue. He, of course, found the various questions fascinating, but he admitted that not everyone even considered them questions.