A few notes on Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David Kyle Johnson (Great Courses)

Great Courses has a few very good lectures on Science Fiction.  So far, I’ve found all of them very insightful, inspirational and even aspirational.  This one is no exception: the depth of analysis Johnson performs on movies and TV shows is astounding and I, who rarely watches anything and even more seldom pays attention, was blown away by the level of detail than can be found in these works.  On the other hand, I was not so impressed by the philosophy angle of this course.  Not because it was bad, but because I know so little of philosophy that I couldn’t tell when to be impressed, and how much.  One thing I do know about, though, is written science fiction, and in this regard the course is severely lacking.  The author acknowledges as much in the end, so the following is not a criticism.  I just want to point out a few works that I found insightful to further explore certain philosophical questions the author poses.

I took notes while listening to the course and came up with seven points I’d like to raise.  Before I list them, let me just summarize my impression of this work.  I made the happy mistake of not paying enough attention to the course description.  I didn’t realize that it would generally analyze movies and TV shows.  Of those mentioned, I’ve seen maybe half of the movies and almost no TV shows.  I have seen the Star Trek series (all of them except Discovery) but didn’t pay enough attention to remember the episode names or small nuances the author mentions.  Almost all the other shows were a complete unknown to me.  Listening about the movies I’ve seen, I could appreciate the immense detail they contained.  I could have watched Inception or The Matrix numerous times, and I wouldn’t pick on half the nuances the author did.  I always considered visual media inferior to books, which I can read with much greater focus, but after listening to this course I have to eat my humble pie and concede that for people who pay attention to TV and movies, this medium is just as rich and insightful as books.  I draw the line there, though: movies can match, but not exceed, the quality of print media, and so I’d like to make six suggestions for written stories and one (unrelated) observation.

First, I’d like to correct a glaring error.  In his lecture on AI, Johnson mentions the Three Laws of Robotics and correctly assigns them to Isaac Asimov.  Subsequently, he mentions the Zeroth Law, and attributes it to the Will Smith movie I, Robot.  This is false.  Asimov invented the Zeroth Law as well, as a way to explain the robots’ active involvement in human evolution.  Evolution needs an impetus, and that is rarely without any pain.  The First Law, though, would have prevented any pain and thus doomed humanity to stagnation enforced by the robots, akin to Jack Williamson’s With Folded Hands.

Second, Johnson discusses virtual universes.  This discussion absolutely convinced me that we live in one, but heeding his advice, I’m not saying it out loud (please don’t shut us down).  This lecture’s argumentation was one of the easiest for me to understand, with probabilities and math.  However, I felt that mentioning stories on pocket universes would have greatly enriched the content.  Theodore Sturgeon’s Microcosmic God not only introduces the concept of a virtual universe (albeit not virtual, but with constrains that cause its inhabitants view themselves as in a separate universe), but also the god of such a universe, direct communication with said god, and, most importantly, a purpose for the universe and its inhabitants.  The author doesn’t really delve on the question why someone would create and maintain a virtual universe.  Ironically, he returns to this concept in the end when he briefly mentions an episode of Futurama where a pocket universe is featured, but he doesn’t elaborate on it.

Third, time travel is a real mind-bending concept.  With his analysis of Interstellar, one of the few movies I’ve seen multiple times, Johnson once again convinced me that he was a movie watching genius, paying far more attention to the screen than I could ever achieve.  He listed other movies and TV episodes, and he even mentioned in one very short sentence Robert A. Heinlein’s story All you Zombies.  This story, in my opinion, should have played a much greater role in his lecture on Jinnee, a self-created object that causes its own existence in a time stream.  This story is so wonderfully convoluted and self-fulfilling that I can’t think of a better and more fun example of this phenomenon.  By the way, here Johnson convinced me that we live in a block of spacetime without a beginning or an end.

Fourth, in my opinion Johnson’s greatest omission was Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Granted, using PKD for philosophical questions is akin to cheating, but this book covers so many wonderful subjects that it’s nearly tragic the author didn’t use it.  The most visible philosophical question is that of identity.  In the book, most characters know they are replicants, but there are both replicants and humans that are not sure which side of the divide they are on.  To determine this, they need to display empathy to animals.  Replicants are not capable of that, and even those who were programmed, like Rachel Rosen, can be caught in their lie.  For Dick, empathy was proof that a being was minded.  But why empathy to animals?  Because animals are nearly extinct in this world, and humans feel great guilt for their disappearance.  As a result, they are overly attached to the few animals that survive. Replicants don’t share this guilt and don’t care about animals.  In fact, animals in their care often die.  In addition to these concepts, the book features a host of others that didn’t make it to the movie.  It has a sort of reverse virtual world, with a religion where people can take part in the suffering of a virtual messiah.  The book also showcases the mood organ, a device that lets people dial in what mood to feel.  This is done mainly to comedic relief, but as I was thinking about it, I found it absolutely terrifying.  I don’t know which philosophical concept to apply here, but I’d love to hear about them.

Fifth, when Johnson talked about pacifism and the just war theory, I became convinced that the US was a terrorist nation.  The real-world application of the just war has, in my opinion, proven this.  The discussion on pacifism was a bit lacking, in my opinion.  I recall the author saying that pacifism cannot work with a complete lack of violence; that violence is required to defend the pacifist ideals.  Here, I’d like to mention And Then There Were None by Eric Frank Russell.  Here, an occupation force lands on a planet populated by people who follow Gandhi’s teachings to the extreme.  Their pacifism is so absolute that they convert all the soldiers they encounter, until just enough of the invaders remain to launch their spaceship and run away.  This is one of the funniest science fiction stories I’ve ever read, and maybe that’s why it doesn’t get enough credit.  For something more serious, I’d mention Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, where society lives in a sort of organized anarchy, but the author has been criticized for stacking the worldbuilding to unrealistic extremes.

My final literary suggestion is not a science fiction work.  In his lecture on environmentalism, Johnson spends a lot of time on “lukewarmism”, a thought process that global climate change is not as severe as some people believe, and trying to fix it would have more extreme consequences in the other direction.  The author associates this way of thinking with a libertarian worldview.  I tend to disagree.  I believe libertarians are more open to the ideas presented in The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg.  Even though the book’s data has been in large part debunked, its main point, that fighting global climate change now is far more expensive and may lead to more human misery, compared to waiting for technological innovation and market forces that would drive environmental cleanup more efficiently in the future, still resonates with many people.  In the interest of fairness the book and its impact should have been mentioned.

Finally, I’d like to make a non-literary observation.  The course features many real-world applications of the philosophies the lecturer talks about.  Often, they bleed into politics and international relations.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the discussion on just war and terrorism, where the author draws parallels between terrorist attacks and the US military involvement around the world.  Even before listening to this course, I had a formed opinion about the US never declaring war, using euphemisms like “kinetic military action” and “enhanced interrogation”, and using drones for extrajudicial killing of its own citizens.  The lecture only further cemented my conviction that the US is on the wrong side of the just war theory.  There was another philosophical question, which begged for a real-world example: social credit score.  Johnson mentions a Black Mirror episode and another from The Orville (the only TV show episode from the entire course I actually fully remembered), but glaringly omits China and its application of the social credit score.  I can already see a similar trend in other countries, where potential employers take people’s social media activities into account when making hiring decision, and in recent years there has been the disturbing trend of digging very old social media posts to embarrass people or even damage their professional life.  China, however, has taken a scientific approach to social media and devised a system that seems extremely similar to that described in the Black Mirror.  The China-sized hole in the lecture echoed throughout the rest of the course for me.

My last point was genuine criticism.  The other six were merely suggestions to readers who happened to listen to this course and wanted to read more.  I genuinely enjoyed the course and found it informative and thought provoking.  I would recommend it to any science fiction fan, and those who find the subject as fascinating as I did would do well to pick up the literature listed above.  I believe it further enriches the content of the course and perhaps raises arguments that weren’t presented in the course material.

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