Lately I’ve been an incredibly busy guy (note the absence of blog posts by me in recent weeks). So I’m going to start this blog entry by admitting right upfront that I have not seen even a single frame of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new science TV show, Cosmos. It’s probably quite good in it’s own right (though in light of recent comments by Tyson, I have questions as to just how good the show is). But I just haven’t had the chance to check it out.
All the same, I have had my eye on the controversial statements Tyson has made as relate to other academic disciplines, particularly the field of Philosophy. If you haven’t been following this issue, Tyson recently made some very disparaging comments about philosophy on a podcast where he was being interviewed. In fact, this is not the first time he has made comments that dismiss philosophy as being counter productive to progress (in his mind) since we might be sidetracked by asking too many questions about the nature of reality and our existence in this universe. I don’t want to dive into all the details of what all he specifically said as that will make this blog post much too long. Instead, I highly recommend reading this article by Scientist and Philosopher (yes, both disciplines together) Massimo Pigliucci where he quickly addresses the misconceptions Tyson (whom he seems to know personally) has about philosophy. It’s a very worthwhile read, even if you’re not a scientist or philosopher. Pigliucci is very even handed in his response, being both direct and kind.
Now, I admit that the topic is of particular interest to me as I do have a BA in Philosophy from Bethel College, where I had the privilege to study under Chad Meister, James Stump, and Tim Erdel, among other professors (look those guys up, they’re not only amazingly intelligent, they’re also genuinely amazing people). So I recognize I probably have a bias in this situation as I’m already clearly sold on the value of philosophy (as I crammed in that BA while getting a totally different BA in four years). Or maybe–just maybe–I have something Tyson seems to lack: an actual working understanding of what philosophy is and the broader and deeper purpose it serves (which Pigliucci addresses head-on in his article). I’ll let you decide.
I’m also a lover of science and have long drawn to science fiction as both a favorite genre of mine for reading and watching as well as the genre I most often find myself working in as a writer and filmmaker. I believe science fiction is a genre that is uniquely equipped to dive directly into big philosophical questions (much as the horror genre often comes ready-made to dive into the spiritual realm directly). Sci-fi offers us big philosophical questions like: Is it right to arrest someone for crime they have not yet committed but supposedly are sure to commit in the future (Minority Report)? Are we alone in the universe (Contact, War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and many others)? Is it right to bring back to life potentially dangerous creatures that went extinct 65 million years ago (Jurassic Park)? What does it mean to be a living being (Frankenstein and much of the Zombie genre)? Is it right to use our advances in genetics to engineer better human beings (Gattaca)? Can human beings have a loving relationship with artificial intelligence (Her and Transcendence)? Can technology bring us to a place where we lose sight of what is real (The Matrix Trilogy and Inception)? You get the idea.
Recently I’ve rewatched two sci-fi movies that are personal favorites of mine and have profoundly influenced my own journey into filmmaking: Jurassic Park (the movie that made we want to be a filmmaker) and Gattaca (the movie that taught me that great science fiction can be quiet, introspective, and deeply moving). Both function as cautionary tales of sorts (as does much of sci-fi and horror).
Now what does this all have to do with Tyson and his position that empirical science is far and above so much better than philosophy? Allow me to put it this way: I love science and I believe in the value of scientific pursuits and empirical research and progress. I also believe that such scientific pursuits and progress must always first be held up to the illuminating power of that profoundly important branch of philosophy known as ethics. Science, left to its own devices and driven solely by a thirst for the type of progress Tyson seems to think is far more valuable than wasting our time asking philosophical questions, runs the risk of being blind to ethics. This is where science fiction continues to serve us well. These are just two examples, but Jurassic Park and Gattaca caution us to the dangers of ethics-blind scientific development.
In Jurassic Park, the ever eccentric and at times obnoxious character Ian Malcolm (a mathematician who specializes in Chaos Theory, or Complexity Theory as it has more recently been known), points out to John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park, the following: “I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here. It didn’t require any discipline to attain it. […] You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could. And before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunch box. And now you’re selling it! You wanna sell it!” When Hammond tries to push back with the assertion that his scientists have done amazing work, Malcolm cuts in with, “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” (See the whole scene here.) Jurassic Park goes on to play out with a plot structure more akin to a horror movie, where indeed we can’t help but be confronted with the reality that maybe Hammond’s scientists did move too fast and now it has cost the lives of several people. What’s more, this power Hammond has tried to wield may not be something humans will ever be able to contain and effectively control.
In Gattaca, we observe a society that has embraced progress in human genetics the point of designing nearly perfect babies in hopes that they will have the most appealing qualities, lasting health, and excellent intellect. This sounds good in theory at first glance. Everyone wants the best for their children! But as anyone who might take the time to pause and consider the ethical implications of this type of thirst for the “perfect” children might point out, the society of Gattaca eventually lost sight of the innate value of every human being, regardless of genetic gifting. A new caste system is created where non-designer human beings are firmly marginalized and pushed out of the upper stratus of workplaces and society in general. Ian Malcolm’s line, “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should,” applies equality here. It’s worth noting that these two films came out just a fews years apart. Clearly, in the world of Gattaca, the people wielding the power to design the genetics of children do not pause to consider the long-term repercussions to the whole of the human race. Inadvertently, the society of Gattaca sacrifices justice and equality in the name of individualistic perfection (take genetics out of the conversation, and I’d argue that this is actually one of the core problems the Unites States of America has been facing for at least a century in our quest for the “American Dream”).
As I read about Tyson’s dismissal of philosophy (or if we even want to be generous to Tyson, his potential dismissal specifically of the philosophy of science), I was struck by the notion that Tyson’s idea of scientific progress is distinctly western and modern. Tyson seems to be an empiricist, which likely explains why the only type of “progress” that seems to matter to him is progress that can be measured in a lab (which is why he mistakenly believes philosophy has not offered humanity any progress in the last several centuries–a dead giveaway that Tyson does not actually understand philosophy and does not know it’s history and continued evolution, as Pigliucci points out in his article). My fear is that the exact kind of thinking Tyson is engaged in here is the type of thinking that will charge blindly ahead because as new scientific and technological developments occur, new opportunities present themselves. Meanwhile, folks like Tyson are so focused on the notion that we could accomplish something that no one pauses long enough to ask if we should. I think this is why science fiction continues to offer us cautionary tales. We seem to need constant reminders that just because we are capable of doing something does not mean doing so is the best or most ethical choice.
Want a real world example? Currently, Japanese scientists have been developing a rather elaborate machine that together with virtual reality can offer users a rather realistic and complete physical sexual experience. Yup, that’s right. Sex with a robot–basically. Don’t believe me? Read this article at your own risk. It makes perfect sense to me that our technology is evolving to a place where this sexual experiences with robotic machines is possible. But just because such a thing is possible, is this a road we should go down as a species? Don’t we already have too many problems born out of our individualistic and self-serving views of sexuality? Aren’t people already isolated enough and lonely? Do we need yet another tool that isolates us further from other people and likely fosters unhealthy views of sexuality?
While Tyson can dismiss philosophy as pointless armchair speculation, I’m glad sci-fi continues to bring these important philosophical questions to the pop-culture landscape. Is it any coincidence that while these Japanese scientists develop this sex-machine movies like Her and Transcendence offer up to us questions about the nature of relationships with technology that blurs the lines between human and machine? I’m more than a bit creeped out by the idea of a character like Sam from Her having access to the type of machine now in development in Japan.
And, I for one, will continue to tell sci-fi stories born out of deep philosophical questions that wrestle with faith and doubt in our vast universe (“A Silent Universe”) and our often mistaken desire to escape the here-and-now in hopes that the future will be better and we will be happier (“Playing with Ice”). I invite you to check these films out and join the conversation. What are your thoughts?