Thursday, December 3, 2009

More on Science Fiction

As Nathan Gilmour says, I “really have a way of drawing the ire of scientists.” After this week’s podcast on Fantasy literature and Science Fiction, we received a very long and well-reasoned dissenting opinion from Beth Crompton, who’s probably our most faithful listener who is not married to one of the hosts. She has two problems with the episode, and since both of them seem to have been sparked by things I said, I’ll be responding to them here in this post.

Her first problem is that our discussion of science fiction is “too general,” a fact that I admitted to during the podcast itself and will reiterate here: I’ve not read a lot of science fiction, especially the hard genre stuff, and so what I know about the genre is going to be based heavily on the literature that has been picked up by the Academy as transcending its genre.

My entire knowledge of literary science fiction thus boils down to four novels by Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast), Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (I’ve not seen Blade Runner, however), and a larger number of novels in the related “dystopian” genre, particularly Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, both of which I have taught in classroom settings. So any statement I make about science fiction is going to be rather limited, a fact which I will freely admit and perhaps should have stressed further on the podcast. I am not qualified to make broad statements about science fiction as a genre.

Beth’s bigger caveat with our discussion revolves around my final mini-lecture on the podcast, in which I talked about some points Percy makes in his excellent self-help parody Lost in the Cosmos. (It’s absolutely the best starting point for Percy, in my opinion—don’t just pick up The Moviegoer; it’ll bore you to tears.) We were running short on time, and since the podcast wasn’t on Percy, I didn’t go into a whole lot of detail about what else he says in that book. Since I have as much space as I want here and since his argument is important to Beth’s objections, I’ll do so now.

One thing Percy does in this book—the main thing for what we’re talking about—is to expand Kierkegaard’s ethical sphere, really to move it into the modern world. Kierkegaard, as you may know, says there are three “stages on life’s way”: the aesthetic, in which a person lives for himself and the moment; the ethical, in which he lives for an idea; and the religious, in which he lives for God. (It’s much more complicated than that, and Kierkegaard wrote at least three books elucidating the spheres.)

So Percy goes about trying to find out who in the modern world best represents the ethical sphere, and his conclusion is that it’s represented by two groups: artists and scientists. The former, however, collapses back into aestheticism too easily, whereas the latter remain firmly convicted of their ethical beliefs “Because science works better, this is the age of science, scientists are the princes of the age.” So scientists are the modern embodiment of the ethical sphere and thus feel most at home in the world.

So when Percy brings up Carl Sagan and asks why he’s so lonely, he’s looking for chinks in that armor. Beth claims that she is “sort of depressed by the assertion that scientists are any more particularly lonely and depressed than anyone else.” The addition of the word depressed changes the meaning of the assertion. If I used it in the podcast, I certainly did not mean to. Percy never claims Sagan is depressed—only that he is lonely, a different kettle of fish. He has a worldview that seems to explain everything, an ethos by which he can live his life—and yet he’s looking for more, against what he knows is all reason. David was right to mark this as a “religious itch”—from my own Christian existentialist perspective, the desire for aliens to come down and increase our knowledge, or fulfill us, or whatever else, is a misdirected version of the first section of Augustine’s Confessions, i.e., “our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”

(Our introductory music this week was very nearly Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” incidentally, which is a great musical version of this same notion. The poor narrator of the song is lost in a world where everything is tied up and longs for something outside the circuit to come in and break it.)

Beth points out quite rightly that “just because something is well-understood and categorized doesn't mean it's not still freaking cool” and that scientists often have a sense of wonder about the universe. This is very true. But I didn’t accuse scientific materialism of not having a sense of wonder about the universe (at least I don’t think I did—I have not gone back and listened to the podcast). I accused them of having a worldview that does not allow for mystery as the word is typically understood. It’s true that mystery and wonder are related things, and I could have this wrong, but I see no place for mystery in Enlightenment scientism and the materialism that has followed in its wake and floats around scientific discourse to this day.

She also says that “there's a lot more to science than classifying things, and also, it would be a strange categorization indeed that left out humans,” responding to my reference to Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, that he designed a system that explained everything, then stepped back and saw that he didn’t fit into it. Obviously science does more than classification, but it begins at classification, or at least classification takes place near the beginning of things—and when scientists can’t classify something (the unclassifiable is coterminous with the mysterious, of course), they are forced to leave it out, to leave it untouched.

(An example: in this interview, a journalist asked Richard Dawkins what science can do about the why questions that science cannot answer. Dawkins, somewhat incredibly, actually claimed that such questions are just not worth asking. In other words, there’s no point in asking if there’s a meaning to life. Obviously not every scientist—not even every materialist scientist—is Richard Dawkins, but his attitude is instructive here.)

And while scientific systems may have a place for “humans,” I would argue that materialist science (a distinction which I am sure to make) has no place for the Self as understood by everything from Christian theology to Sartrean existentialism to 18th-century political thought. In my encounters with scientists (popular scientists, of course) who wish to deal with the concept of the Self, they either ignore it altogether (leave it out of their systems as something not worth talking about) or attempt to force it into a narrowly materialist worldview, as I heard Michael Shermer do just last week when he was talking about neuro-biology. The Self is a set of chemical reactions. Under such a schema, the scientist as a Self is left out of his own system in any meaningful way.

Beth helpfully gives me a list of science fiction that is life-affirming, which I appreciate and which I will try to read if I ever finish my comprehensive exams and dissertation (a dodge, yes, but at least I’m admitting it’s a dodge), but I do want to stress that I did not claim science fiction was depressing or nihilistic. In fact, when I brought up Carl Sagan’s loneliness, I said specifically that I was talking about sci-fi in its more optimistic strains. So the relative sadness of T.S. Eliot and Nathaniel Hawthorne vs. Neil Gaiman or Ursula LeGuin is not really relevant here. If anything, I’d argue that the realism I read is far more depressing than the sci-fi I’ve read—and of course there are materialists and non-materialists writing in both genres.

I do have to say one thing about depressing literature, however. Beth specifically calls out Hawthorne for his depressing approach to sin in The Scarlet Letter. (I respectfully disagree.) But she praises an R.A. Lafferty novel that I am not familiar with. Here is her description:
Sin in Lafferty's novels exists to be ridiculous. In The Annals of Klepsis, there is a woman who was exiled for committing the Unspeakable Sin, and she is badgered throughout the novel to reveal the nature of her sin, not so that she can be judged, but just because everyone is really curious about what it was. The most frustrating thing about the novel for the reader is not that this woman sinned and what this says about the treatment of women and society's lack of compassion, but that we never figure out what the Unspeakable Sin was either and we would really like to know, because it sounds fascinating.
I have two points here: (a) From my Christian point of view, making sin “ridiculous” rather than something very serious indeed is a grave misstep, and I’d much prefer a depressing novel that treated it seriously than an upbeat one that treated it as a joke; (b) the plot Beth describes parallels Hawthorne’s short story “Ethan Brand” to such a degree that I can only assume it’s an homage to him. So it’s a good thing, I suppose, that not everyone hates Hawthorne. [Insert smiley-faced emoticon.]

At any rate, I hope that clears up any misconceptions I may have given Beth or other listeners about my feelings on science and science fiction. I must again reiterate that I’ve got nothing against science. I just don’t trust materialism; I think it’s bankrupt as a worldview and is a complete failure at explaining the peculiar mystery of what it means to be a human being. Echoing Percy’s question about Carl Sagan’s loneliness was my way of suggesting that something deep inside the materialist is afraid of the same thing.

Thanks to Beth for writing such a long and thoughtful email. She clearly knows much more about science fiction than I do and has thought a lot about it. If you want to respond to anything you hear on The Christian Humanist Podcast, send us an email at


shinigami-sidhe said...

First thank you for the thoughtful response and the clarifications.

That science starts with classification is something I'm not sure I agree with. I think I'd be willing to make the slightly more general statement that science starts with describing the world in abstract terms we can reason about, and classification is one of those abstractions, but I'm not sure I'm willing to say that classification is the base for all abstractions. I might be, but I'm going to have to think about that one and figure out exactly what I mean by both classification and abstraction.

Speaking of meaning, I've actually never heard the term materialistic science before, scientists tend not to self-identify like that, but if it means what I think it does, then all science that is science and not woo is materialistic, because of the necessity for empirical falsifiability.

Thus I am a materialistic scientist, I think, and as such, I would prefer to stop the discussion of the merits of Christian humanism vs materialistic science here, on the grounds that they are two different worldviews, and I do not have the language or ability as a scientist to rank worldviews in terms of merit. You do, your worldview gives you that language, and I only ask that you not take advantage of this ability by using it to describe my worldview as bankrupt in comparison to yours.

Likewise, not being a Christian, I really can't comment on how appropriately you should view sin, I was only commenting on my responses to two different presentations of sin, and I hope I did not offend you. Should you ever read R.A. Lafferty, I would be interested in any comments you have about him versus Hawthorne. I generally acknowledge that there are probably good things about Hawthorne I'm not seeing, and I will defer to your expertise in that area without ever going back and reading more of him if I can possibly avoid it...

Michial said...

I am not sure how I'm supposed to stop comparing the Christian humanist worldview to others, since the purpose of the podcast (and by extension, I suppose, this blog) is to promote that worldview. The way to do that is to look at how it compares it the other options.

I'll shy away from calling scientific materialism "bankrupt"; I will just suggest, with Percy, that it fails to account for certain very important things, the foremost being the scientist himself. That's all I was trying to say with all that--I wasn't trying to attack anyone personally, least of all you.

I used the terms scientific materialism and materialist science to differentiate from what I see as science properly applied, i.e., in the service of a worldview that takes account of metaphysical truths. (Note that this doesn't have to be Christianity in general or as I understand it; I think Heidegger and Sartre, for example, interrogate being enough to where they're atheists but not materialists in the sense I use the term.) Science, in my estimation, is a tool rather than a worldview in itself ("scientism," as you sometimes hear it called); when it becomes a worldview, it becomes dangerous precisely because it avoids or trivializes some very important questions.

Percy has a great jag on this in his book "The Second Coming." The jist of it is that the modern believer is an a-hole whom no one can live with, but the modern atheist is an a-hole and a crazy person because he is faced with the deep mystery of existence and never once bothers to ask the big question "WHY?" Here Percy is far more militant for his position than he is in the "Why Is Carl Sagan Lonely" passage of "Lost in the Cosmos," though.

shinigami-sidhe said...

Well, comparing worldviews isn't necessarily a problem, but there are just lots of nicer ways to do it than saying that one is bankrupt, a statement which tends to stop conversation and for which I thank you very much for shying away from. I mean, I'm not offended, but what can be said in response to that?

I absolutely agree that science in itself is a tool, more specifically it is a process. However, I'm a non-overlapping magisteria kind of girl, so I can't agree with you that materialistic science should be employed in the service of a more metaphysical worldview, as I think applying materialistic thought to non-material things isn't particularly meaningful. Likewise applying metaphysical thought to the material world isn't particularly helpful.

So all I can say is that I completely disagree with Percy but I haven't actually read him for myself so take that for what it's worth.

Michial said...

To be fair, I didn't say it was bankrupt--I said I find it bankrupt, which if we want to play the relativism game we can take to mean "It doesn't work for me." And what's to be done? You could defend it--explain how it answers the big questions or life, or at least make a case that those questions aren't worth answering.

Anyway, it seems to me that you don't disagree with Percy at all; you've agreed that scientific materialism, the worldview you've taken as your own, has nothing to say about the Self. (Correct me if I'm wrong; that seems to be what your agreement with Dawkins and Shermer is about.) If you disagree with Percy, then, it's not with the content of what he says; it's with the implications or assumptions of it. It seems that you don't disagree that scientific materialism can't answer metaphysical questions, that you disagree that those questions are worth answering. That's fine and consistent of you, but you can't expect me to go along with you or not to bring it up.

shinigami-sidhe said...

I can't really answer you about how my worldview answers what you call the big questions, because I honestly can't. In the case of the Self, that's an undefinable terms. That means several things, not least of which being that I can't draw conclusions or make predictions. I can't say at any point that a concept of the Self is likely to lead to x, or a lack of the concept of Self is associated with y, except for in certain conditions z when something different happens. In fact, I'm not entirely certain I can even say whether I do or do not have a concept of the Self because I can't ever be sure what it is, which means that I can't even use myself as a single data point. And if I change my mind later, I still won't be able to say whether I didn't have a concept of it then or if it was deeply buried or something. Ultimately I can't even say with any authority whether what you call the big questions are actually big questions or not, though maybe if we defined big as frequently asked I could say something empirical about that.

I deeply apologize if I seem overreacting or demanding. My intent is not to come to a blatantly Christian worldview and complain that they aren't welcoming or that they are being too Christian. This wasn't even my initial focus, I just thought the discussion on science fiction was a little bit not very comprehensive, and SF is sort of my deal. I just considered that the original phrasing of your opinions on materialistic science was a little harsh, in the sense that it sounded as though you thought a materialistic scientist was not really worth listening to, so I thank you very much for actually explicitly challenging me to say something about and defending my worldview, even though that is something that my worldview explicitly tells me not to do because it's impossible, which is what makes these discussions difficult. So scientist checking in. Please carry on with the Christian Humanism.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

To be fair, we did only have an hour to talk about science fiction, so we did tend towards those authors with whom we were most familiar. I'm certain that if Grubbs and I did a follow-up the way that Michial and I did for the Emergent/New-Calvinist episode, we could sketch out some more variety, and we might indeed come back to these questions in the future, but in an hour, comprehensive coverage would have to be a farce.

Also, I'm not entirely impressed with the vocabulary of "worldview" anyway, but I'm especially troubled by people who claim that their worldview doesn't allow for reflective self-criticism.

If you meant something other than that by "I thank you very much for actually explicitly challenging me to say something about and defending my worldview, even though that is something that my worldview explicitly tells me not to do because it's impossible, which is what makes these discussions difficult," please do say what you did mean. But if you did mean what you seem to mean here, I would have to agree with Michial that such an intellectual disposition can't help but come up short on capital, if we're going to run with that bankruptcy metaphor.

shinigami-sidhe said...

Is reflexive self-criticism the same thing as a concept of Self? I'm seriously asking, because I don't know, See, I can't deal in absolutely capitalized undefinable terms, but reflexive self-criticism I understand (I think) and I'm actually going to go so far as to claim that that is, or should be, possible in any worldview, though how one goes about doing it is going to vary. Calling thought and consciousness the Self sounds to me like we are turning thought, personality, consciousness, etc, into something too sacred and special to be questioned, and I find that problematic. In fact, Michial has already made it clear that treating the Self as something material (as in Shermer) is something that is limited and not really a good thing to do. And I disagree with that on the grounds that not considering the Self in a metaphysical way is likely to miss things, and I have an awesome example. I can't cite this, because I'm not sure if it was ever published, this was just a project one of my professors was doing for the government. There is a computer game that applicants to a military academy have to play, and the project was to model the gameplay of several participant and see what might be seen about the thinking ability of the participants. Without going into the Bayesian statistics of it all, modeling gameplay actually isn't that difficult if you have a lot of samples of the play you are trying to model, and in the implementation you can look at lots of probabilities and figure out things about strategy, thank you game theory among other things. There was one test subject who could never beat the game, and from modeling her play compared to others our researchers realized that she was trying and discarding more strategies in a set time period than normal, so while she was excellent at coming up with strategies she was actually doing it too fast to be useful for the game environment. She didn't know this, she just thought she couldn't play the game, but when the AI professor + slave-laboring grad students reported this finding, it was this frustrated woman who was admitted to military academy and the military did some rethinking of entrance criteria because their game wasn't necessarily testing the qualities they thought it was. The professor continues to receive huge materialistic rewards from the government, and the slave laboring grad students get a pittance from that, because that's how it goes.

I'm a fan of materialism, but capitalism sucks.

shinigami-sidhe said...

Forgetting the materialistic outcome for a moment, this woman the frustrated game player, on her own with non-empirical self-reflection, may or may not ever have been able to reach such an insight about her own mental processes in generating strategies quickly. Materialism demonstrably did give her a greater insight into what she is like as a person. What a materialistic worldview does is give us a framework from which to reach certain insights, because even negative results let us know things, when reflecting on our own selves or anything else, including the materialistic process of science itself. There's an MIT guy named Dave Clarke who does nothing but publish long-winded papers on methodology and assumptions, and he quotes Harry Potter while doing it. If we decide the self is really a Self, we may be able to say our worldview is superiour because we have this weird undefinable magical thing compared to the which all else is trivial, but at the same time we lose the ability to investigate it in certain ways.

No, scientists can't address questions that are claimed to be big, but the questions that can be addressed can be done in such a way that an authoritative answer can be found. For example, how do ants always find their way home? Maybe that's a trivial issue, maybe it's not, I'm not the one who can say such things, but I can say that not only can a good answer be found, in the course of finding that answer, people put ants on stilts, and there has to be a great deal to be said for that. It brings me a peculiar sort of joy to think of ants on stilts. Joy is something that is dicey to measure, but I claim that my own assessment of the goodness or lack thereof of my own mental state is the only one that is valid, and however I choose to measure happiness in regards to myself is as valid as I claim it is. I can't say whether the joy I find from this is in any way comparable to the joy you find in contemplating the big questions, but I do know that it is a joy that is not provided by contemplation of the big questions. If those with a metaphysical worldview have ever put ants on stilts, they have failed to share it with the world. You find my worldview somewhat lacking in capital, but the other side of the coin is that it isn't necessarily obvious the purpose of endlessly debating questions in pretty much the same way over and over without ever reaching a conclusion. To some that would actually be the definition of either insanity or boredom. I think about metaphysical things because I want to, but ultimately I can't give more of a reason than 'because I want to', but I can easily justify putting ants on stilts. We learn stuff that way! And dude, they're ants on stilts.

Michial said...

When Gilmour said your weakness is lack of reflexive self-criticism, he's talking about your unwillingness, heretofore, to address what we've labeled a big gaping hole in the materialist worldview. We raise a problem in the worldview, and you (and Dawkins and Shermer) say "We can't talk about that."

The problem with saying that the Self should be questioned is that it requires a Self to do the questioning. So the very act of questioning it reaffirms its existence. Question away--but that's EXACTLY what Percy is talking about.

I'm not sure what your example proves. No one except the most stringent idealist (which I am not) denies that there's such a thing as the material brain and that it is related to consciousness. All I'm saying is it goes beyond mere chemical processes, something scientific materialism simply can't admit and remain scientific materialism. Obviously a study of the material world can tell us things about ourselves and the world we live in; my point is that it is limited, much more limited in some regards than traditional religious or humanist perspectives.

I'm not sure what putting ants on stilts has to do with anything, but I'll say this for probably the fortieth time: I am not anti-science, and there are a lot of things that scientists, materialist or otherwise, can talk about that I am not qualified to talk about. It's when they start saying they know that the physical world is all that matters that they lose me because that is not a call you can make using the tenets of science. And once you make that call, there's a wide variety of things (important things, best I can tell) that you can no longer talk about, the notion of the Self being first and foremost.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

I knew I shouldn't have posted comments on a blog right after I wrote up a freshman final exam.

When I said reflexive self-criticism I was, of course, being redundant, the way I do when I write up questions for final exams just in case some folks in the class don't understand all the words. "Reflexive" means bending-back-on-itself, and I meant it grammatically rather than metaphysically/psychologically. I think Michial's points still hold, but my own points were not about any ontologically persistent, capital-S Self.

Rather, I wondered whether any "worldview" unwilling to engage or incapable of engaging in reflexive examination could ultimately be adequate. For instance, philosophy broadly conceived has always been about the enterprise of questioning its own questions, and history has been about the project of noting the causes and effects that drive its projects. On the other hand, there's no way to account for the worth or even the existence of algebra by solving for x--one must do a history or a philosophy of mathematics to get there.

That doesn't mean that algebra is a bad thing; it only means that it's not reflexive, and it needs to exist in some kind of relationship with one or more reflexive intellectual disciplines in order to constitute a comprehensive/systematic understanding of reality.

My contention would be not that Dawkins and company do nothing with reflexive disciplines but that they mask those assumptions that are susceptible to reflexive criticism (their axiomatic materialism, just to name one) behind the prestige of the word "science," thus sullying the genuine human goods that science can serve (after all, if only an atheist can be a scientist, most folks aren't going to want to be scientists) and prior to that mixing categories in what I'd call rather bad faith.

In sum, I'm no more anti-science than Dawkins is anti-morality. I would say that I don't find his materialism compelling just as he would not find my vision of the sum of reality entirely too large and diverse. (There be dragons there, aye!) There's nothing at root wrong with differing basic assumptions--that's why conversion is a common human experience--but I'm not going to sit idly by as people mix their categories and further muddy things that are already tough.