Rationally speaking, is a presentation of New York City skeptics dedicated to promoting critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. For more information, please visit us at NYC Skeptic's Doug. Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, massive military and we meet, as always is my co-host, Julia Gillard.
Julia, what we're going to talk about today, our topic today, Masimo, is one I'm particularly excited about its philosophy and science fiction or philosophical science fiction, I suppose, if you prefer. So we're going to talk about philosophical themes that run through some science fiction books and movies or TV shows that we particularly like or that we particularly don't like.
And we'll talk about how science fiction is is like well positioned or well designed to explore philosophical questions and also some of the ways that it might lead people astray when thinking about philosophical questions.
You know, it's interesting, I think that the panellists and the interactions between science fiction and philosophy go actually really deep.
In fact, that full disclosure here, I just thought last semester, of course, on science fiction philosophy, that's a topic because I love science fiction, not just philosophy. So I think a whatever there is, there is quite a bit of interaction between that absolutely is.
But I wanted to mention also in an article that I read very recently and will post the link to it on April nine, the title of the article is The Philosophical Roots of Science Fiction.
And what the author is arguing is that actually science fiction is a form of or it originated as a form of philosophising that is science fiction is about.
Possible worlds, it's about essentially what philosophers call thought experiments and, you know, the among the first requalified experiments, of course, is is Plato's idea of the cave, you know, an alternative reality, a way to to make you think about aspects of your own reality by imagining what if things were different.
Right. So so it's probably our listeners do know Plato's Cave explored experiment run along the lines of there is a bunch of people that are inside a cave and they're chained to the wall. And they don't realize, however, that there is an outside world. And what would they considered? The world is simply the shadows that are projected from the coming from the outside, from the light, from the outside on the wall. And then at some point one of these guys manages to get unshackled, is a philosopher, of course.
That's how he manages to get unshackled. And our superhero gets outside and actually is blinded by this. The full reality of things, the real the real sunlight and the two dimensionality of the objects and the colors and the smells and all that. And then once he has this experience, he goes back into the cave and he tries to talk the others into, look, you know, the reality is actually much more complicated. So I've been there, I've seen it.
And of course, he's scorned and ignored because people cannot conceive of these things. So that isn't nice.
And of course, that was a way to introduce Plato's idea that the real reality is the reality of abstract forms. And it's it's a perfect reality, that of which our reality is simply a shadow literal in that in that case, it's about how useful that thought experiment of the cave is, despite the fact that I don't at all agree with the point it was trying to illustrate.
And that is actually, as you know, part of the problem, part of the I'm sorry, the point of both science fiction and philosophy, that is you don't have to agree with the conclusions that are certain other draws. But what is interesting is, is the price he makes you think in a different way about about something. And then you say, OK, well, I thought about it and now I still disagree or I thought about it. And that's an interesting way.
Maybe we can elaborate or get further into it.
So the thing that I took away from the book, The Plato's Cave Thought Experiment, was it was just this useful thing to keep in my back pocket to remind me that like that, the right answer might be something that is incomprehensible, given our current framework for how we view the world and our current level of understanding.
It's also what I took from one of my favorite sci fi novellas, I guess Flatland, in which a a sphere passes through the whole world exists in this plane and and their shapes, two dimensional shapes that can move around on the plane and that's their entire universe. And then a three dimensional sphere comes to visit. And of course, it only as it travels into the planet can only appear to the two dimensional denizens of that plane as a growing circle.
And as it exists the planet, it shrinks because it's you know, that the cross-section of the sphere is getting bigger than smaller again as it passes through the the plane. And so it tries to explain to the two dimensional residents of the plane about this direction up. That's like coming out of the plane.
And they're like, what do you mean, like this way? And they go north. It's like, no, no, no, up, up. But of course, they have no conception of what up could mean the same way. It's hard for us to envision what a fourth dimension or fifth dimension could mean.
So I just keep that in mind almost like a useful metaphor for for things that I can't consider, because my ontology, my whole way of looking at the world doesn't have it doesn't have room for them.
That's right. And in fact, again, Plato's metaphor of the cave can actually be sort of redeployed to think about what modern science has been telling us. When fundamental physicists tell us about things like, you know, oh, well, the reality is made of, you know, quarks or even fields' or they have properties that are very strange.
You know, light behaves as a particle or as a wave, depending on all of those things are a very clear reminder that the world, as it is, as much as we can tell about the world as it is, it's much more interesting, very complicated in alien than we might think from our everyday experience. And so if you take Plato's analogy to indicate to to say that most of us are chained to the world of everyday experience and very few people get a glimpse even of of how the world looks once you're unshackled from that daily experience, that's it's a good metaphor and doesn't have to be philosophy.
It could be science. Which brings us back to science fiction.
So one of the things I wanted to say is the book that I used in my course. There are several books out there actually that explore the interface between science fiction and philosophy. The one that I picked up. It's called science fiction and philosophy from time travel to Superintelligence. And it's edited by Susan Schneider. It's got is one of it's one of these books where there are a lot of. Computers and of course, some of the essays are superlative, others like I'm not even sure what they're there, but that goes for any the books and a book, quite frankly.
But what I found interesting about the book is that it's really broad in terms of the scope of it. And and it really does show you how far you can get in philosophy by introducing it by way of science fiction. So, you know, for instance, the various parts of the book cover things like, you know, could I be in a matrix or a computer simulation?
Right. And there are the obvious movies that come about The Matrix or the 13th floor, which I actually showed my students and I thought was particularly, well, interesting from that perspective.
Vanilla Sky, Total Recall and things like that. Or you can ask questions like, you know, person identity free will. The nature of people, persons in science, of course, are more metaphysical person. There you get to things like these are wonderful episode in the Star Trek The Next Generation called Second Chances, where Commander Riker meets a essentially himself as he was left behind doing doing on a planet because of an accident or an accident. And the two selves are in fact, they both have the two rakers.
They both have equal claim to being the real one. And they sort of evolved personally in a different fashion over the last several years. And you can see how, although they have the same basic personality now that their personality has been changed by their further experiences, their memories are different physically. They look slightly different. So it's going it makes you think about, OK, what do I mean by identi? Who am I? Is it is the concern of me, depending on memory and physical appearance on character.
As it turns out, all of these could, could could change.
Minority Report, of course, is another movie that falls into that sort of movie and I should say book Beeac, because actually this is actually Dick.
Yes, I think was significantly better than the movie as it's often the case.
And then this book goes on talking about things like mines, both natural and supernatural. So things like then Blade Runner, for instance, or A.I., the Terminator or a Robot or Frankenstein, those are all works of science fiction that are pertinent to this thing.
That was I robot, by the way. Yes. In case our listeners thought this was a as yet unheard of Isaac Asimov novel about a robot.
Yes. Thank you. That one. Then you get to ethical and even political issues like, you know, brave new world. Obviously, again, Terminator Gattaca was the movie that I picked for for my class was about genetic engineering and human enhancement and the ethical consequences and political consequences of that sort of stuff. And then finally, space and time there.
Of course, my favorite pick would be any of a number of episodes of the Doctor Who series. But the Schneider book picked things like 12 Month Monkeys or Slaughterhouse five based on the Vonnegut novel The Time Machine, of course, the classic by H.G. Wells Back to the Future and in fact, Flatland, because he talks about the space as you just write, so you can see that the range of arguments is huge.
You can cover pretty much anything that philosophers thought about, starting with the appropriate science fiction book, TV show, novella movie and that sort of stuff. So I thought that's that.
And of course it worked, meaning that the students were really, really got into it.
Is this is this was amazingly perhaps after the fact, not surprisingly.
But amazingly, what had happened was by far the most interactive class that I've ever taught because it really got into it before they realized that they were talking about some deep metaphysical issue or philosophy or minor or something like that. So it was amazing.
This is like it's like pureeing the vegetables to bake into the brownies for your kids. Yes, that's that's a good analogy, I suppose.
Yeah. I'm I'm really excited about exploring philosophical themes in sci fi, but I'm also I have a lot of trepidation as well about drawing philosophical conclusions from any kind of fiction. But but as I completely agree with you, that sci fi is, like, uniquely perfect for exploring philosophical issues.
But but like all fiction, I think there's there's so much potential in science fiction, much more so than in sort of your standard, like the way you would lay out a thought experiment in philosophy where you're not trying to, like, engage people's emotions and make it vivid and turn it into a compelling story. But you are trying to do those things in fiction or in science fiction. And so there's just so much. Well, even inadvertently, to to vastly skew the conclusions that people draw about what is likely to happen in the real world or about what they care about, like, OK, so I'll think the first thing, what is likely to happen in the real world?
Take a movie like Terminator, which portrays one like at least theoretically possible and maybe to some extent plausible outcome of advanced artificial intelligence.
Yeah, you get Skynet and you get, you know, Armageddon and, you know, you get a massive destruction and and terror and grief, which is without which it wouldn't make for an interesting movie.
I mean, that's why so many of the exciting and popular science fiction stories are like dystopian or like horrifying or involve conflict because, yeah, if it were just like a happy, pleasant, boring future, then that would not make for the movie.
So there's like so much selection bias and what kinds of stories get told.
There's so invision like this whole space of possible futures and only some small subset of them make for compelling stories.
So those are the that's the subset that we see when we look at science fiction. I'm not saying that things couldn't happen. All Terminator, just that I think it's it's really it's hard not to watch movies like Terminator and draw the conclusion, either consciously or unconsciously, that that is what is most likely to happen or even I think some people just like don't consider other alternatives. It's just like this is the one thing that they've seen portrayed. And so that's what they're what they have in mind as like what would happen if we got artificial intelligence.
So before we get into the point you're raising, which I think is in fact very important. Let me open a little parenthesis about the dystopian aspect of so much science fiction.
Actually, apparently, from what I what I read, there is a debate even within the science fiction community about what some people refer to as the dystopian turn of the last few decades since I don't think well.
So apparently that's up for debate. So there are some people that say that, look, actually this has become significantly darker. Science fiction has become significantly darker and more dystopian over the last few decades.
And in fact, some some authors have even advocated a sort of a return to a more positive view of the universe, saying we can actually look at this even within the simple confines of a single television series, TV series and its and its spinoffs.
If you're familiar with the original Star Trek series, which was aired in the late 1960s, for instance, there was definitely an optimistic, by and large look at the future.
The creators of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was essentially a secular humanist with a very positive outlook on what reason and technology can achieve in the future. You know, you have a society where, yes, there is still the Klingon stator and the occasional war here and there. But by and large, you know, people do what they do because they want to do it. You know that there's no money. You just asked the replicators to do things for you.
You know, there's it's a very interesting, very positive. You know, humanity's out there in the cosmos, you know, mostly interested in in scientific research and understanding of other cultures. You know, there's the prime directive you don't try to put to to to conquer other other residents and so forth.
Now you move to the the other spinoffs that the spinoffs of the original Star Trek, starting with the Next Generation series in the lead. They started in 89 and it ended in 1994.
That one was still pretty optimistic, although there are some interesting, very, very dark episodes like the introduction of the Borg, for instance, at some point, which shows you these completely different, very dystopian society. And then you get into spinoffs such as Deep Space Nine. Deep Space Nine is arguably the darkest of the Star Trek series, where Armageddon is around the corner and every minute.
And there is all sorts of bad stuff happening even to major, major characters.
So even within the space of a single series, well, a series of series, if you will, you can see that now. It is also true, however, that science fiction always has had some level of dystopian sort of aspect to it. Right. Go to back to H.G. Wells.
H.G. Wells, one of the original science fiction writers, lead part of the 19th century, early part of the 20th century, although he himself was actually what I would think of as a techno optimist, he was actually optimistic for most of his career about technology, science and the role of reason.
Yes, but he did ride the time travel, sort of the time machine where our protagonist ends up looking into a world that is entirely dystopian, where the human race has been split somehow evolutionarily into two different groups, one of which essentially preys on the other.
So although it seems utopian at first, that's actually my favorite arc where there's you see a world that seems really perfect and then you gradually realize it's not only not. But actually horrifying. That's right. And, you know, the War of the Worlds is again from H.G. Wells. That's not exactly a positive take on on extraterrestrials.
And so so a dark dystopian view has always been looking around in science fiction, although I think that some authors have made the point that there's been sort of an up and down in the frequency of this kind of thing.
But then again, we're talking about literature. And as you were saying earlier, it's hard to write a story where everything is everybody's happy and everything is fine and you sell books.
OK, well, fine.
You know, imagine turning on the TV news in the evening and the anchor said, well, most of the times everything was fine today. You know, it's not exactly a big deal, actually. Yeah, once or twice maybe. But after a while, you just go get something else to do.
So I actually my hypothesis is that is that there has been a trend towards more horrifying, more graphic, like darker stories.
And I think it's just that, like you, you get a jolt, like a an exciting shock from seeing something that's darker than you're used to, which just encourages this trend towards darker and darker material.
I would agree. No, I would agree. And I think you do have a good point that one does need to be careful, not only with science fiction in particular, but sort of good literature in general. Clearly, people are not discovering new things via literature. You know, the is an invention, the human mind.
They are, however, exploring possibilities. And yes, there is the clearly, clearly the potential for misleading your reader consciously or unconsciously.
And I'm sure that most most writers don't do that consciously. But then again, there is another side to it.
So if you talk to him, whenever I have had the chance of talking to authors or I've heard authors explain their work, not just science fiction bits, sort of fiction in general, and if you notice this, but they refer to their characters as if they were not actually writing them.
So typically, you know, so. So what do you think it's going to the question could be so why did you know the main character did do this? And the other often responds that something along the lines of, well, I think he did it. What do you think you did if you wrote the damn thing?
You don't you know, I don't think these people are being coy or somehow deceitful.
I think the hunch that I get the impression that I get is that that others really do explore their own thought processes while they're writing what they're writing. And so they truly don't necessarily know where this thing is going to is going to go.
And in that sense, give us some useful data actually about correct. How our and our brains have have collected over the years of our experience living in the world. So much data, so much raw data about how the world works. Right. And so and it does, you know, notice patterns and and make predictions about things even when we're not aware of it. So, yeah, getting data about what our brain thinks a certain type of person and a certain type situation would do.
Right. Actually is drawing probably to some extent based on real data about how things work in the real world, although just don't know to what extent. And it's also going to be heavily biased by what you think would be entertaining for readers. Absolutely.
That is definitely the case. But but I think the good literature, just like good science fiction literature, and of course, we should acknowledge immediately that there is a lot of bad literature after hearing a lot of bad science fiction literature.
But good literature in general, I think is in fact a thought experiment. The difference between science fiction and standard literature is that science fiction is specifically a fight, a certified experiments about the kinds of questions that I mentioned earlier, the constant mind of the concept of identity, time travel, know things like that.
While the standard literature is largely a set of experiments about human relations. Now, of course, in science fiction, you do find human relations as well. Otherwise, the story wouldn't be interesting necessarily.
But they are they're cast within a background of certain kinds of questions.
So what we're saying is that you're right in cautioning people know remember, this is a story and not only it's a story, but it's a story that is written by a particular human being, a particular point of view, who he or she may be exploring, even unconsciously to some extent, and certainly not an objective view of the world. And it's certainly not a discovery about about the world.
But then again, you could even turn the tables around, I think, and say that I'm going to I'm going to stretch the point for a minute here.
But but bear with me. You could say that anything that we do in terms of communicating our ideas to other people, including writing professional philosophy and including, in fact, running professional science, I've done both of them is in fact telling a story.
You know, you don't you don't write a scientific even a scientific paper, which is the quintessential example of a trite, you know, bare to the bone kind of literature, because you're supposed to write a very standard format using a third person in personal voice and so on. And for even so, a science paper. It's not just a collection of formulas and data.
There is interpretation there.
There's an introduction that sets the frame for what the reader is about read. There's a discussion which deviates from the actual data and sort of tells a story about where things may or may not go and what probability in terms of.
So all of it is a story constrained if you have to use facts. Of course, I am certainly not suggesting that science. I think, in fact, we could even line up these things and say that that scientific writing is the most constrained in this perspective.
Philosophical writing I'm talking about professional philosophical writing is less constrained because it's about logical possibilities, not about physical possibilities and logical universes larger than the physical one.
And then when you get all the way to the literature, of course, you have very few constraints, although you still have some because the story has to make some sense. Right, right. Right. So, yes, you're right, there is a continuum of constraints. But what I was trying to do is sort of to flip the thing around and point to the fact that everything we write, no matter how constraint, is, in fact literature.
We are telling a story. We and we are, in fact, putting in there a point of view. If anybody here thinks that it's a science paper does not have a point of view. Well, think again. That's why we have a psychology of science and sociology of science, which have shown in the last couple of decades very clearly that scientists do have points of view and agendas, conscious or unconscious, whatever it is, this is a matter.
So even those are stories. So I guess it's sort of ironically, the danger may be higher. OK, now I'm really pushing the point, but I realize that.
But the danger may be in some sense be even higher in the case of a technical, philosophical and even some more so technical scientific literature than than standard literature because of this. First of all, because of what you just said a minute ago, that most people correctly assume that the scientist is very constrained in what you can write. So, you know, it's got to be better. It's got to be this this this story has to be backed up by something.
Well, yes, but there is sometimes there's is quite a bit that we can debate about the reliability of that data, how it was gone and how was filtered, the analysis were done and all that sort of stuff, but also that the public is, of course, much, very much aware when you read a science fiction or a fiction story that it is, in fact, fiction.
It says so right on the cover.
I know. I know so. But I'm not sure that that that makes a huge difference in the conclusions that people draw from it.
Like, well, that's an empirical question. I don't know. I know. I know.
And I'm basing this mostly on anecdotal data.
But although I'm also basing it on the fact that I don't remember the citation of the study now, although I can find it posted on TV shows or at least this one TV show that they looked at about ghost hunting, that was that was explicitly labeled at the beginning of the show as being fictional. People still came away from it, feeling more confident that ghosts existed.
Right. And yeah, I just have a bunch of anecdotal examples of of people arguing that the world is a certain way and their evidence is it's fiction.
And I feel the pull of it myself as well.
Like, I have to consciously stop myself from including fictional examples in my in my process when I'm trying to figure out, you know, what I think would happen.
And it might even like I agree with you that people will sort of give more credence, but will be less inclined to examine critically the conclusions of a scientific paper because they are saying, well, it's factual, so it can't be right.
But at the same time, at least they know that they're in the mode of like someone is like making a claim here in the scientific paper and especially in a philosophical paper, and even more so in a. Opinion piece and about, you know, society or politics or something, people know someone's making a claim that I can valued as true or false, but that's not really the mindset you're in with fiction. You're just in the passive mindset of like I'm experiencing a story here.
And there are claims and often value judgments embedded in the story, which you may not critically evaluate because you don't think that that's, you know, the activity you're doing right now.
Yeah, and I would agree with that. But let's also remember another thing that I think it's pertinent to, not just the discussion about science fiction and philosophy, but sort of more broadly about about fiction.
And that is when you use a science fiction story, let's say, in a class like the one that I talked on, on science fiction and philosophy, what you're doing is you're dissecting the story and you're explicitly inviting students or your audience to think critically about what their story, what to get out of their story. And so got to dissect it critically. That's the same experience that you have in, say, literary criticism class, right?
I mean, it's not like somebody comes in and said, OK, here, Shakespeare, this is the truth. We'll read it and go home.
I'm sure students examine the themes much more critically and they would if they were just passively for entertainment. Yeah, exactly.
So and that goes and again, that draws the parallel with the primary philosophical literature itself.
I mean, you know, as a philosopher, you can write a paper and you think that your thought experiment is great and the best thing since sliced bread was invented. By the way, I never understood why. Why was that such a good thing? But anyway.
But then you publish it, right? And it is the central philosophers and sociologists of science even have argued that deep that science philosophy in general, academic scholarship. It's not a process that can be even conceived at an individual level.
It is a social endeavor, not in the sense that, you know, it's socially constructed and everybody can have their own opinion and whatever. But in the sense that literally, you know, you can come out, the scientist or the philosopher can come up with a very interesting idea or a very cool idea.
And the way to find out the difference is not to ask the scientist or the philosopher is to ask the community of the relevant community of scientists and philosophers to sort of go in and say, OK, now that's a thought experiment, dissect it, take a take a look and see what you think. What kind of counters can you can you come up with in that sense?
I think science fiction is a good introduction to philosophy, not in the sense that you pick up a Philip Dick story, which I highly recommend, and you read it and you say, oh, wow, I learned something about reality or but but in the sense of, OK, that was interesting.
Now let me talk to somebody else about it. Let me see what other people have written about that sort of stuff. How do they dissected what you can get out of in what you can be or should be aware of it and that sort of thing?
Yeah, and what I was going to say earlier is that I, I have gotten a lot of use beyond just the entertainment value from science fiction, especially the kind where the philosophical well, it's not necessarily making a philosophical argument, but presenting a situation that forces me to, like, consider how I feel about things like like the I forget which movie you mentioned earlier was a minority report presents a what if like what if we could know that certain people were going to commit crimes, then, you know, would we allow essentially the question they're asking is like, how do you feel based on your personal ethics and your views of the world?
What would your preferences be for how we could like how we should react to that information or whether we should even like that information?
So that's that seems safer to me in that it's asking. I mean, it can still influence you by like, you know, maybe the characters who are who like maybe the society is really creepy or something.
And so that's going to make you more inclined to to, like, reject the idea of taking preventative measures based on this kind of technology.
But the very least, like it's it's forcing you to ask is interesting questions of yourself.
But, yeah, I don't know. There are I can also just think of so many examples where the.
The in theory, it could be asking, getting you to ask yourself how you what you value and how you feel about different possible societies, but it's just so colored by the tone that the author takes, like in Brave New World. In theory, that could be an interesting exploration of how do I feel? Or an opportunity for me to explore the question, how do I feel about a society where we are all medicated such that we don't experience negative emotions because everyone is on this drug so much?
Yeah, we're getting there. Yes. Yeah. I mean, so many things.
And so it's portrayed in a creepy way in a brave new world. And it's essentially people come away from it like thinking this would be horrible, like it wouldn't be really living. And so you'd be pretty inclined to reject the idea of getting rid of negative emotions.
But you could tell that story in a much in a very different way that would not make it seem so creepy and actually make it seem pretty great.
I agree there is a point of view. But but and one does need again, I definitely grant into one does need to be wary of the fact that there is a point of view which does have emotional consequences. You know, you are instinctively I mean, I'm sure you have had this this experience.
You you read a novel or you watch a movie where the main characters are really, really bad guy, the kind of person you don't really want to have any sympathy to. And yet somehow the author writes it in a way that you end up feeling caring about if it is a good novel or a good movie, caring about what happens with this really bad guy. Clearly, that's an example of emotional manipulation.
At some level, you don't you don't think the guy deserves any of your empathy and you cannot avoid having it. This is sometimes called in philosophy. Literature, actually, it's called the paradox of of fiction, because you actually end up feeling empathy for something or somebody who, you know, doesn't exist. Right.
It's like, yeah, that doesn't seem that paradoxical to me. Well, from a logical perspective, it is certainly not from point of view of human emotion. And clearly it works. But from a point of view, the logic is like, wait a minute, why should I actually have any emotion whatsoever about somebody who I know I'm not I'm not even deceived about the fact that the person actually exists.
Right. It's not as if it looks like a documentary. It turns out to be a movie fiction movie. You know, it's fiction.
You know, the guy doesn't exist. You know, the guy hasn't done any of those things. And yet you cannot avoid being drawn emotionally. So what I'm saying is, you're right. When you want to warn people about drawing conclusions about a story like, say, Brave New World, because clearly they're reading a book that is a particular point of view and often is emotionally charged because that is what makes it a good book. If you were just an aseptic description of this thing, of this scenario in a neutral way, it probably wouldn't be particularly interesting book.
You know, even in in The Matrix, I only realized this recently.
One question that isn't explicitly but very implicitly posed is, would you like how do you feel about the idea of finding out the truth about your reality if that truth is, like, horribly upsetting the right.
Thank. Much more likely to put it.
And the character who chooses to go back to blissful ignorance is this like slime bag character and all of the good, noble characters you actually are supposed to like and admire, choose the, you know, the right bill?
Yeah. So, yeah, that's that is.
But let me go back to your previous example for a minute, because I think that there's there's a couple of interesting points to be made there. And that was Minority Report. Yeah. By the way, as I said, I actually read the novel. It's a short, rather short story by Philip Dick.
And, you know, if you want to ruin a story, just give it to Steven Spielberg.
He's going to change the ending in the in the only way. And it doesn't make any sense, but it will please. But it will please the audience.
But anyway, so if you actually I actually recommend the exercise of watching the movie and then read the novel or the other way around it anyway.
What what I think was interesting in your take on that on that story is this you said, you know, so you presented with this thought experiment about a particular society that works in a particular way.
And then one of the things clearly you can ask yourself about, well, how would I feel about a society that was structured that that point?
I think that was I consider that one of the most useful and least prone to biased conclusions. Write questions you can get out of science fiction.
But here's another way of looking at it or sort of a complementary way of looking at it, which is you could take the set up of the story.
The idea that there are these I forgot what they were called, but these these praecox, the praecox who can predict, in fact, with a fairly high degree of accuracy and in fact, apparently initially in the story, a total degree of accuracy, what's going to happen?
And then, you know, you figure out that actually there is such a thing as a minority report. There is occasionally it does happen that one of the praecox looks at. Of things and sees a different future. So now there is no you have to make a decision essentially about how likely one one future or the other is.
Now, you can take all of that as a given as part of the structure of the basic idea of the story. And then you can you can ask yourself the question you were asking it. OK, how would I feel about a society that works that way, that it's built around this capability where the police is given powers to act accordingly and so on, so forth?
But what you can also do, which, of course, is one of the things that if you're using that as an introduction to philosophical questions you would do is you can say, OK, let's use now the structure of the story as equivalent to a set of premises is in an argument.
You can question the premises.
So there you can say, well, wait a minute, what does it mean that the praecox are capable of discovering reading into the future, that that in itself assumes a certain particular metaphysical view of how of the future of time following unfolding events and so on, causality and so on and so forth.
Right now you can use that with students or in the case of the general public, reading a book on science fiction and philosophy say, look, there are these embedded assumptions. And so now let's start talking about causality. Let's start talk about time. Let's not talk about all these other things. And at that point, you don't really need to stick to the novel anymore. You just used the novel as a starting point and say, OK, here's a thought experiment.
Now, that four experiment starts with certain assumptions, certain consequences. Let's go and start questioning the assumptions where you go there. And at that point, you just you're off pretty much independently of the novel itself, which is, of course, what I did in the class that sort of limits the impact of the novel itself. Sure. Right. Because when you when you use it as a starting point and then you go off and sort of examine the concepts underlying the structure of the novel, then then then you can open up the discussion to, well, OK, what if I don't buy that view of determinism and what if I don't buy that view of causality and so on and so forth.
So I wanted to ask you, what if somebody were to ask you, what is your favourite science fiction book or or movie or something that has to do with philosophical issues?
What would I know? I know I, I person actually hate questions like what is the best.
Yeah. But pretty tough. Yeah. So I'm not going to ask you what's your best choice. But pick one. Yeah.
Pick one and say why. Well. For, I guess, sheer like brain tickling pleasure. Yes, let's go with that. I well, so I've I've mentioned this author as a pick maybe a year ago.
His name is Ted Chang, and the one published collection of his work is called I think it's called Stories of Your Life and.
I'm trying to pick one story. OK, I'll just give you a couple of examples of the kinds of themes that he explores.
One of the stories is about cognitive enhancement. And he posits this drug that that vastly, by many, many orders of magnitude improves your intelligence. And he just he paints this really vivid, far more vivid and convincing picture than I've seen anywhere else.
Picture of what it would feel like to be many, many, many, many, many times smarter and faster thinking than all of the other people around you. And just how the world would be like how you would experience the world. What like conversations would be like what that kind of power it would feel like.
He also wrote a novella, which I think is not only online right now, I think it's not in the published volume called The Life Cycle of Software Objects, which explores some of my favorite kinds of ethical questions, because the the entities in the story are the software objects are essentially these very, very complex and intelligent pets that are digital that people buy to raise and bond with. And a certain point, the funding for this company that makes the pets runs out.
And so they're the people who love them have to figure out a way to somehow keep them alive because they're essentially. So this is like the first question is, you know, whether it makes sense to care about these digital creations. And like, I came down pretty high on the side of yes, it does make sense and all the relevant ways they are people or at least extremely sentient animals.
And then the further question, like as the plot develops, the the caretakers of these digital pets are trying to find a source of funding to keep their digital world running. And they're approached by a company who manufactures sex robots, essentially like pleasure, pleasure robots.
And the company offers to fund the digital creatures world in exchange for being allowed to to get a copy of the source code and to create more of these digital pets. But with the modification that they would be like nymphomaniacs, I'm OK.
And and so this is not the same Valentine the Valentine episode that it's not OK to be pretty OK. A dystopian Valentine. Yeah. Daro Valentine's Day.
Anyway, to wrap this up, the the people who are the caretakers are horrified by this idea and want to turn it down flatly.
But the digital animals argue, well, you know, how would it really be doing harm like these these new versions of us would be like they would be programmed to want to be sex slaves.
And the people are like, yes, but that's like they haven't like you've made them want that. And the the digital pets say, well, yes, but when you programmed us in the first place, you made us want all the things we want. Is this any different? And it's a it's a very well-written story.
And then there's there's a decent amount to a philosophical defense of nymphomaniac.
It's no, I was going to try to engage that, TAHTAWI. But just know, OK, there's a bunch of other stories, including I'll just to name one last one.
That particular story, Story of Your Life explores some of the most complex philosophy of science ideas I've ever seen in a novel. Basically the main character they encounter this new race of aliens that has a completely different approach to language and a completely different approach to math and physics. They're physics is basically teleological. So the interesting thing for me was to see how the aliens could explain like they could. They had the same physics in the sense that they could make the same predictions like they're they described the world in the same way that we did.
Sorry. They could make predictions about the world the same way that we did that were accurate, describing a different planet, but describing it differently. And there was no way to say that their interpretation is right or aren't you? Depredation was right. Right.
And talking to a couple of physicist friends of mine after reading the story, there are plenty of examples like this in actual physics, like the Feynman has talked about how an ordinary particle moving forward in time is equivalent to an antiparticle moving backwards in time.
And there's no way to say which, which is actually the case because the math is identical, right? Yes.
This is actually what brought some philosophers of science to endorse a view called anday realism, where according to which science is the aim of science or the best of science can do is to be empirically accurate, adequate, but not this.
So to describe truth, there are some this would be the one you describe. This is an example of the determination of theory by the data. Yeah, yeah.
It's so that's very interesting. OK, I want to hear your. Yeah. So then I think you're telling me that it's about wrap up things. Well so I mentioned Philip Dick, which certainly should be a starting point for anybody interested in seriously interested in exploring science fiction and philosophy. But in terms of one of the things that struck me in the last few years as this particular worth watching in this case, this is a TV series and it's the second.
The reboot of Battlestar Galactica, so Battlestar Galactica was originally aired in the 70s, I believe, and then they did a reboot in the 2000s of I think it was about five seasons. And I actually miss it when it was on the air originally, which means that I actually watched the entire series episodes back to back in a very short period of time.
And so I could actually follow the story line very, very closely. The reason I found it interesting, other than it is very it's a very good example of drama in general. I mean, it's just as good as any dramatic series I've seen over the years with engaging characters, you know, interesting stories and all that sort of stuff.
But it it offers so many, you know, launching points for discussion of all sorts of almost all of the of the topics that we talked about today, because so the basic story is that the story starts out with an attack organized by artificial intelligence lifeforms called the Cylons on what looks like Earth and turns it turns out it's actually the planet of origin of humanity before we got to Earth, but never mind that at any rate.
So basically, the survivor in the attack is successful. The survivors of humanity are very few scattered, and they have to leave that area of space with a convoy of spaceships and looking for another place where to end up and the Cylons pursue them.
Now, the interesting thing there is that you can start talking about artificial intelligence because there is this you learn gradually about the history of the Cylons, how that came about. They evolve. They become more and more conscious. They become, in fact, more and more similar to human beings. As a matter of fact, they become they develop the ability for emotional reactions, for instance, and so on.
There is such a thing as you can think about philosophy in mind, because the Cylons actually literally upload their minds when they don't die. Essentially, if they die near a spaceship that is capable of capturing their thoughts, essentially they get rebooted into another into another physical organism, maintaining the same memories and emotions and so forth.
So you can talk about philosophy, mind, but also within the society, the new society built by the human colonists who are trying to escape to summons all sorts of interesting things happen, including episodes. That question, for instance, the basic idea of democracy.
There is a situation where a group inside the human group takes over and takes control on the basis of democratic means, and the only way to stop them is to essentially impose martial law. It turns out that it's justified in that case, which brings out the whole point according to utilitarian.
Well, yes, exactly.
According to a particular kind of philosophy. So. So that makes you think about what I mean. So now you can start debating the basis of democracy under which ethical conditions is in fact a good system or it's not a good system and so on and so forth.
And then finally, there is we got also two issues of political philosophy and and ethics that deal with, for instance, torture. There are episodes where the Cylons were sentient beings. Conscious beings are tortured by the so-called good guys.
And the scenes are built in a way that although you know the sun and this is the bad guy, you do feel empathy for it.
And so, again, it's this idea that you are you're put into these situations where you think, you know, what is the right thing to do, but you're put in a situation where it may not be the right thing to do or at least where there is a reasonable doubt about whether it is that is the right thing to do or not.
Yeah, it's a really interesting and well done sort of starting point for essentially anything you can you can think of about about any major topic in philosophy. So much so that in fact, not surprisingly, there is a book called Philosophy of Battlestar Galactica and the Property Bill I've not deserve.
Yes, I have not done it. But you can probably build an entire course for an entire semester.
All we are over time.
So I'm going to wrap up this section of the rationally speaking podcast and move on to our next. Welcome back. Every episode, Julie and I pick a couple of our favorite books, movies, websites or whatever tickles our rational fancy. Let's start as usual with Julia's pick things.
Masimo, my pick is actually a very philosophical piece of science fiction, which I was stunned to realize I had not recommended in our entire two year history as a podcast. But I should definitely take this opportunity. It's called Three Worlds Collide.
It's essentially a novella online written by Eliezer Kasky, and it's a really sophisticated and also very gripping exploration of essentially metaphysics.
I mean, so the premise in a nutshell is that there are two two species of aliens, two alien civilizations, completely separate from each other and from us that are that we encounter, one of which has such repugnant practices, practices that are as morally, just incredibly morally repugnant to us. And then the other species of aliens views a lot of our practices as being incredibly morally repugnant. And so the one of the things that the story breaks down, I mean, goes into a lot of things is just one of the central themes.
But one of the things that it breaks down is the feeling of confidence about the current our current moral views being the the end of moral evolution. It was just to give you a sense that this novella was praised by a Hugo nominee, Peter Watts, as being, quote, the kind of classic 50s era first contact story.
But Jonathan Swift might have written if Jonathan Swift had had a background in game theory.
Oh, that's interesting thought experiment right there.
The highly beloved sci fi novella. I will I can hardly recommend it.
Well, my pick is an article that came out fairly recently by Bellairs Nelson. The article was published there, Talking Philosophy, which is the Philosopher's Magazines blog, which is populated by a number of authors. And Nelson wrote something called Four Kinds of Philosophical People, and it is a taxonomy of philosophers, unquote, and not just like metaphysicians.
Now, that's not exactly not the classic kind of taxonomy, but, you know, if you if you will, the psychological types that do philosophy.
And so the four types are, for instance, to the program mist or the antiseptic.
The program is downplays, according to Nelson, the importance of humidity and is more interested in characterizing yourself in terms of the other virtues, like philosophical rigour. And he has examples.
He thinks that that Patricia Churchland, who has been on this podcast, is a program, for instance, and among the most famous philosophers whom you classify as that way is WPRO Quine. Then there is the formalist or the guru who, according to Nelson, is somebody who trudges forward, not necessarily with the light of reason, an explicit argument, but but of inside an association often expressed in aphorisms. And of course, people in that category include Nietzsche, for instance, and possibly Wittgenstein and so on.
So there is a couple of types. So it's an interesting exercise for the reader interested in philosophy, not only to figure out which type of philosophy it might be, but whether the four types actually do make a good sense of the sort of the geography of types of philosophical thought. I thought it was an interesting way of analyzing, a very different way of analyzing the philosophical literature.
So I just love categorizing things and it's so deeply satisfying. I don't know why, but yeah, this is great. I will resist the urge to continue reading all of the other types right now since we are over time.
So this concludes another episode of rationally speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
The rationally speaking podcast is presented by New York City skeptics for program notes, links, and to get involved in an online conversation about this and other episodes, please visit rationally speaking podcast Dog. This podcast is produced by Benny Pollack and recorded in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York. Our theme, Truth by Todd Rundgren, is used by permission. Thank you for listening.