How Upending Its Hidden Assumptions Can Deepen Your Read Of Science Fiction

How Upending Its Hidden Assumptions Can Deepen Your Read Of Science Fiction

Which foundational ideas, assumptions, and seemingly-semantic debates mold how we interpret our world in relation to science and faith?
Zachary Porcu

Many people will complain about problems while also complaining about solutions. I see this in conversations all the time when people begin discussing something they take seriously.

Say you’re having such a conversation, and you try to make a fine distinction between two very similar points on which much of the conversations hangs. Likely as not, your interlocutor will become irritated and dismiss your distinction as semantics. Or say you see some deeper issue underneath the surface of the main topic and you insist that there is more beneath the surface. If you bring it up and try to really focus on it, you will probably be told that you are overanalyzing.

Ironically, however, the ability to analyze precisely, identify underlying assumptions, and make careful distinctions is precisely what you gain when you get a real education. Indeed, many very educated people––Dorothy Sayers and John Henry Newman, to give two famous examples––have remarked that the ability to make clear distinctions is almost the definition of what it means to be educated.

It’s easy to see why: without such abilities, you simply aren’t able to get beyond the level of ramming generalizations at one another until someone gives up. And if the modern person is not equipped for it, then tracing the subtle track of a discussion to get at the real core of the argument is bound to be a dizzying endeavor. No wonder he complains of semantics––he really has no idea how to navigate such a discussion.

Indeed, these abilities have an almost ubiquitous relevance in modern life, although some cases are more obvious than others. Naturally, being able to analyze effectively, make careful distinctions, and get at the deep assumptions of things are all invaluable for confronting the truly overwhelming amount of information we are exposed to daily. But something we often overlook is entertainment, which contains its own kinds of deeper assumptions, although they are usually hidden to one degree or another.

Science Fiction Lacks Religiosity, But Why?

Consider science fiction which, like all genres, has its own share of standard tropes and themes. One of the main themes in science fiction is the status of technology, and you’ll notice a frequent assumption that technology will constantly grow more and more sophisticated over time; more precisely, the assumption is about a certain idea of progression.

When people encounter alien cultures in science fiction, they’re usually on some sort of a spectrum of more or less technologically––and, therefore, intellectually––sophisticated. It’s very common, in these situations, that more primitive cultures have “religion” while more advanced cultures have dispensed with it. There’s no inherent reason that intellectual sophistication and religion should be mutually exclusive, but much of the time in science fiction, they are.

We see it, for example, in Star Trek. Less sophisticated cultures have more primitive beliefs about the universe, and as they get more sophisticated, they discard those beliefs. The assumption underneath that is that religion is just an inferior or more crude form of science, and that the primary reason we don’t believe in Zeus anymore is that we now know where lightning really comes from.

Far from being more than a little insulting to the remarkable sophistication of the belief systems of ancient peoples, we now get to the heart of the matter: there is, at the bottom of our faith in technological progress, the assumption that science is the best (or the only real) source for truth. Is this a good assumption? Well, it turns out that the root of this assumption is a failure to make a clear distinction between different types of knowledge.

Sound semantic? Read on.

Does Something Have To Be Verifiable To Be True?

Science is very useful, but it’s often misunderstood. The scientific method is, at heart, about verification and demonstrability. This means if you and I have a dispute about the nature of something, say, the temperature at which water boils, we could conduct a simple experiment in the kitchen to verify this fact.

If I had been insisting that water boils at 50 degrees Celsius, you would be able to demonstrate my error. If I complained that there was some fluke in the experiment and that you simply got lucky, we could do the experiment over and over again until my error was clear.

This ability to test things with experiments and produce data that can be verified over and over again (then demonstrated to others) is what makes the scientific method so powerful. So powerful, in fact, that we as a culture often romanticize it and equivocate this one sort of knowledge––the kind that is verifiable or demonstrable––with all knowledge. We assume that if something can’t be verified by testing, then it isn’t true, or that we should be very skeptical about it. But this is our failure to make a good distinction.

The reality is that the verifiable or the demonstrable is only one category of knowledge, and we believe all sorts of things that we can neither verify nor demonstrate. Take the existence of the material world itself: we can’t verify that it is real rather than an illusion. How about the existence of the past? The universe could have been created five minutes ago with the appearance of age and all our memories implanted.

What about the existence of other minds? What if you’re the only person in the world, and the rest of us are soulless automata made to have the appearance of consciousness? None of these can be demonstrated, either for or against. That is, there is no way to verify the existence of the material world, other minds, or the past. Yet we are all rational in believing these things, and we don’t criticize each other for holding such “unscientific” views.

Or take something less weighty than these thought experiments. There are so many things you know about yourself, your friends, your spouse, and your children that you can’t even begin to verify or prove to anyone else, but which you have a real sense of and can rightly say that you know.

If you think about all the other kinds of known things, like beliefs on the basis of authority or aesthetic experience, for example, you see that there are many kinds of knowledge. Most of them aren’t verifiable or demonstrable, but we can still be considered reasonable people if we believe in them. The idea that all knowledge has to be verifiable or demonstrable is just an assertion, and in fact goes against our daily, lived experience.

What If Things Were Different?

So we see that this little distinction between different kinds of knowledge is the basis of a series of layered assumptions that ultimately manifests itself in the science fiction trope of what historians now call the “myth of progress,” which affects how other civilizations are presented in the genre. One stone changes the course of a river, and it is the same way with these deeply buried intellectual assumptions. But what if things were different?

In C.S. Lewis’ celebrated Space Trilogy, he self-consciously writes science fiction stories in which he plays with these foundational ideas, using a medieval cosmology and classical principles about knowledge rather than the secular or modern ones we see so often. The result is a fascinating story with a wildly different take on alien life, space travel, and man’s relationship to the universe. This weekend I’ll be presenting an extended look at these themes at the Washington D.C. conference Doxacon.

This brings us back to the original theme, education. Traditional education may be lackluster, but this is all the more reason that conferences like Doxacon are so important. They are the perfect places to continue sharpening our educational tools. Doxacon’s focus is “faith and fandoms,” an ambitious aim that seeks to examine science fiction, fantasy, superhero, horror, and other geek and pop culture genres with the sophisticated intellectual lens of classical Christian education.

Conferences like these are some of the emerging places where thoughtful people are meeting to delve into the deeper ideas and hidden assumptions that are all around us. For these ideas are certainly there, informing and shaping the way we see the world, and the less aware we are and the fewer tools we have to engage them, the more thoroughly we’ll be under the power of such unseen forces.

Zachary teaches church history at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. His research interests include Eastern Patristic theology, the pedagogy of ideas in Western culture, and the problems posed by secularism in modernity.

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