On Philosophy, Science, and Fiction

November 13, 2014

Much of my humanistic self was built by a steady diet of stories, specifically through massive consumption of science fiction as a child. I credit my parents who had a large library of sci-fi paperbacks, including especially Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury, my favorites at an early age and still. I recall vividly tearing through the I Robot and Foundation series, Rendezvous With Rama, and the Martian Chronicles. I also was introduced to pre-Star Wars cinematic sci-fi through Kubrick’s 2001 and Forbidden Planet (my dad taught media studies and brought home 16mm films we watched on a screen in the living room before video tape). I consider these stories (and countless others like them) all part of my early education in humanism. Not because of the accurate science or literal philosophical education afforded by them, but rather because of the opportunity for reflection embodied in these and most other great stories. Mind you, it was the geeky, sciency stuff that often first reeled me in, but it was ultimately the human characters, and their relations to worlds, societies, ideas, and each other that left the most lasting impressions. Many of you may have had similar experiences.

Later, as I moved beyond sci-fi (we also had a full Mark Twain collection I eagerly consumed), literature opened up an even more fascinating realm of exploration. Besides Twain, Cervantes, Dante, Boccaccio, Joyce, Shelley, Vonnegut, Leguin, Atwood, and numerous others became part of my inner life. Well-told stories offered me my first glimpse of philosophical reflection, long before I read my first work of “philosophy.” A vast body of fruitful philosophy exists in the guise of stories, in books and also in films, and provides us opportunities to explore ideas in ways that are sometimes unavailable through traditional, philosophical means. Voltaire’s Candide, for instance, stuck with me much longer than his essays. Perhaps it’s my attention span, or maybe it’s the way that we associate with characters in stories that makes fiction sometimes more useful in philosophizing than reading straight philosophical journal articles or books. Many of the world’s great philosophers also dabbled in fiction, and many of my humanist friends do so now. 

Which brings me to Interstellar. It is a work of fiction. Harping upon scientific “errors” or complaining about the license taken by the storyteller in making his point risks undermining the philosophical value of storytelling, and ignoring the important fact that it is fiction. Dali defies laws of physics too, and Philip Pullman as well in his excellent (atheistic) childrens’ stories. The value however of the stories is their ability to get us to set aside our disbelief, reflect on some rather interesting and important human value, and understand perhaps something about ourselves we might never have otherwise. 2001 was such a film: beautiful, tightly wrought in Kubrickian obsessiveness, and ultimately left open for on-going and interesting interpretation as to the “star gate” and “star child” sequences at the end. Interstellar succeeded in other ways. Comparing as some critics have the nature of human relations in Interstellar to those in 2001, the former seems very much to me to be a much more human film, about parents and children as much as wormholes and some ultimate hope for humanity.  Perhaps as a recent (and again expecting) parent, the central nature of the themes about parents and children struck me more fully than they would have at another point in my life. I was deeply moved, despite the story’s “flaws”… what art isn’t flawed, sometimes deeply, after all?

I embrace stories, as much as science, history, and philosophy, for they offer us yet another fruitful approach to the mysterious world within. Sometimes suspending our disbelief, opening up our minds to wonder and amusement, is not only a great diversion from the stresses of our daily lives, but a delightful manner of considering philosophical issues without reading “philosophy” per se. And for the vast majority of people, stories are often the only way that some philosophical issues are ever introduced, and the world beyond our immediate experience fruitfully set aside, however briefly. I am grateful for the storytellers among us, and for the worlds they create.