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 Salon.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.