Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Science Fiction and Identity, Part One

What is it that makes us who we are?

Really -- it's an important question. Philosophers have been debating this for milennia... in large part because they've realized just how inportant it is. It's not a simple question. It's not an easy question. It's not a question that we have a definitive answer for.

Tackling this question involves grappling with the deepest aspects of philosophy, to struggle with the essence of humanity, and to seek answers that may not even exist.

It's also not a question that science can answer. Sure, science can inform the debate -- I've long since lost count of the number of studies I've seen on issues related to this -- but it's fundamentally a philosophical question, not a scientific one.

Today we have three major groups exploring this issue, all from different angles and all producing different sorts of results. The first two -- philosophers and scientists -- are pretty obvious. The third category -- science fiction authors (some fantasy authors do this, too, but let's not get too deep into the issue of the blur between the genres) -- are a pretty uniquely modern phenomenon, but have been quietly (or, occasionally, not so quietly) exploring a number of complex philosophical issues in the background of our culture for quite a while now. Many of these explorations have to do with issues of identity and humanity.

They've even been doing it in a manner that's a lot more accessable to the "average joe" than most philosophical treatises.

I'm not saying that a Star Trek episode is as important in the grand scheme of things as a major philosophical treatise, mind. I'm just saying that they often explore the same issues, albeit from different angles.

It's rather akin to how the ancient Greek morality plays explored the philosophy of ethics, really.
I'm also not saying that every science fiction story qualifies. Many don't.

The fundamental question explored by science fiction, however, is "What if?" It is from this angle that science fiction authors address the question of what makes us who we are.

While a philosopher explores issues of what makes us who we are, he does so through careful argument and discourse. When a scientist does so, he seeks factual answers and reasons based on emperical evidence. When a science fiction author does so, he sets up a scenario and shows the (hypothetical) consequences.

The products of this sort of exercise vary from beloved classics to pieces of pop culture. They have been known to lead to some pretty interesting (if obscure) philosophical debates between fans... and have a considerably higher "geek appeal" factor than Descartes.

Sorry, Rene, but your work just doesn't have what it takes to be debated by Vulcan-eared Trekkies at a geek convention. Roddenberry has you beat on that count... and no, I don't use "geek" as an insult. I've earned my geek stripes, thank you very much.

And, of course, all of this begs the question -- why am I bringing this up on an autism blog?

Well, I plan to indulge my inner geek when I write about issues of identity and autism. I can't write purely serious science and philosophy pieces all the time, now can I?


  1. Hey Alex, its Lauren from Baudhuin. I saw some of your postings in Denise's list and thought I'd say hi. I miss having your insider's perspective when people start debating autism. How is the job hunting going?
    I think SciFi is the best way for the average person to explore philosophical questions. Where else can you take the "what if" to the fullest extent?
    Also, do you think aspie's tend to like science fiction or is that just a stereotype? I know my brother loves to play with 'what ifs' all the time. (It would drive us crazy when he was younger) Now that he's older, he tells me the major themes from every Orson Scott Card book, and he still gravitates towards departure from current reality.
    Is it because the world is so absurd and hard to understand to him already that he seeks out other ones?

  2. Job hunting's going decently, in the sense that I think I've found something. I'll have more to say in a few days, mind, but...

    Anyway, for other places to explore "what ifs", fiction in general does this. It's just that the philosophical questions tend to be explored more in sci fi. For instance, there's an entire alternate history genere which explores questions like "What if the South won the Civil War?"

    As for Aspies and sci fi, there is a tendency in that direction. I'm not going to get into causality, but we do also tend to explore "what ifs" and tend to have our best social relationships in school with the "geek crowd".

    And, finally, no -- I don't think it's because the world is absurd and hard to understand. Well... there's some truth in the "hard to understand", but... it's more a matter, in my opinion, of trying to make sense of the world via the exploration of hypotheticals. Predictability and understandability are inherently related.