One of the best books I’ve read in a while–and one of the most engaging graphic novels I’ve ever read–is Logicomix. It’s one of those books that seems so improbable that I think a lot of readers probably picked it up just to see how the authors would carry off a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell and his quest to systematize all mathematics in Principia Mathematica. Frankly, the topic sounds about as dull as Principia Mathematica itself–I’ve always thought of Principia as being one of those books that people refer to in order to sound educated but which nobody has actually read. And, after learning that Russell and his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, spent several hundred pages of densely-packed logic script in order to “prove” that 1+1=2, I suspect I won’t be reading Principia Mathematica anytime soon.
But Logicomix is about so much more than Bertrand Russell’s monumental (and ultimately failed) endeavor to create a self-contained logical system for all maths. Really it’s a surprisingly engaging story about how human beings make meaning out of the universe. I loved the book and will be giving it to loved ones that are into that sort of thing. And, the book made me curious about Russell, whom I’d never really encountered very deeply in college, even though I spent a couple of meandering years as a philosophy major as an undergrad.
I looked up this delightful little interview with Russell, filmed near the end of his life, one of the millions of forgotten treasures on YouTube. In front of the curtain painted to look like a library of ancient books, Russell holds forth in his high-pitched, elfin voice on the uses of philosophy. His basic thesis is that science deals with questions of “how things are” in the world, while philosophy serves to speculate about “how the world might be,” that is, to ask questions which science is not yet prepared to answer.
I think that’s a pretty solid explanation, though it immediately got me thinking that Russell’s definition could just as easily apply to science fiction. Perhaps it applies to science fiction even better: far, far more people read and watch science fiction than philosophy. The field of philosophy has ceded much of the intellectual territory that it occupied in Russell’s day: topics like metaphysics and epistemology get much more airplay in fields like theoretical physics and cognitive science than they do in traditional philosophy departments. Even in 1960 when the interview was filmed, Russell was speaking of the retreat of academic philosophy from topics that could be properly answered by science. But I think even in the realm of thought experiments and counter-factuals, science fiction is adding at least as much to the questions of “how the world might be” as philosophy–or any other academic subject, for that matter.
I know that not all science fiction is Stanislaw Lem and Margaret Atwood–there’s still a huge body of science fiction that doesn’t even try to concern itself with serious questions, science fiction whose sole purpose is an escapist entertainment about laser guns and robots with big boobs. And that stuff can be fun–I’m not too much of a snob to enjoy a Guardians of the Galaxy-type confection. But as we explore the deep stuff, the nature of our universe and of the human predicament, it’s hard to think of a question of metaphysics, epistemology, phenomenology, ethics or aesthetics that hasn’t been explored at least once by some pretty great science fiction.
I’m sure someone who sees this post was a better philosophy major than I. Can you think of an exception to my claim in the paragraph above?
I agree completely! The author Neal Stephenson regards “SF” as standing for “Speculative Fiction,” or fiction that takes ideas seriously. His Anathem is rich with counterfactual possibilities – along with the history of philosophy in a different but nearby possible world!
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Joe Pitkin said:
Thanks! I’m embarrassed at how little Stephenson I have read so far. I have Snow Crash in my to-read pile–I think it’s actually in the top 10 of the to-read pile. So maybe the coming year I will actually get to it. I’ll add Anathem to the list too!