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Why Are Literature and Philosophy Such an Awkward Match?

A new anthology reveals the perils and rewards of philosophical fiction.


Blending fiction and philosophy is more akin to chemistry than art: It involves creating a synthetic element that rarely occurs in nature in stable form. Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, and Ursula Le Guin have successfully married the two disciplines, but like many lab-created chemicals, works of philosophical fiction are often volatile and downright toxic. An extreme example can be found in the work of Ayn Rand, whose Objectivist novels can be considered a kind of radioactive waste—a hazardous substance that nevertheless glows irresistibly in the eyes of the uninitiated. That is to say, when philosophical fiction is bad, it’s really bad.

A new anthology, Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories—edited by the philosophers Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel—puts this genre to the test. As the title suggests, the book is focused on the area of fiction where philosophy might be best aligned—where the speculative and the thought experiment are foundational. The collected stories examine the perennial philosophical questions—about ethics, political philosophy, free will—but also introduce newer discussions from neuroethics and the philosophy of physics (a subfield that asks questions like, “Does special relativity entail that nature is deterministic? Does quantum mechanics suggest otherwise?”).

Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories
edited by Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel
Bloomsbury Academic, 264 pp., $29.95

The volume brings together an eclectic roster of philosophizing storytellers who have won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards (Ken Liu, Aliette de Bodard, Ted Chiang) and storytelling philosophers, including the winner of the American Philosophical Association’s “Philosophy Through Fiction” competition. Each short story is followed by an expository “story note,” in which the author expands on the underlying philosophical concepts. The story notes also include a bibliography that doubles as a recommended reading list, providing pointers for curious readers to go further spelunking in Wikipedia or, better yet, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The most prominent of the book’s editors is Eric Schwitzgebel, who since 2014 has been compiling and maintaining an annotated reading list (now running to more than 50 pages) dedicated to philosophical science fiction. In addition to his day job as a faculty member in the U.C. Riverside philosophy department, Schwitzgebel runs a popular philosophy blog called The Splintered Mind. A vocal proponent of public philosophy, he has conducted meta-analyses of the field, such as “The Moral Behavior of Ethicists,” the findings of which he has contributed to publications like Aeon. (Headline: “How often do ethics professors call their mothers?”)

In the anthology’s introduction, the three editors debate the merits and pitfalls of examining philosophy through fiction. Although Martha Nussbaum famously argued for the importance of literature in cultivating our moral imagination, using fiction to make philosophical arguments is neither a common nor preferred method among philosophers. Playing devil’s advocate, de Smedt argues that stories contain “irrelevant detail that could illegitimately influence your judgment,” as opposed to the more pristine environment of a philosophical proof. (The chapter’s bibliography includes a study that showed people respond differently to various moral scenarios depending on whether the character’s name was a stereotypically white or Black American name.) But Schwitzgebel claims that narratives are not merely decorative but essential: “Fiction isn’t merely an aid. The examples are the heart of the matter, where the best philosophical cognition happens.”

When is a work of philosophical fiction more useful than a thought experiment? What sets the likes of Borges’s “The Aleph,” Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon” apart from the less successful iterations—the heavy-handed allegories and moralizing fables?

For one, good philosophical fiction is like a Rorschach test: It generates a plurality of responses. It prickles your conscience and knocks your moral sense askew. And like a well-designed thought experiment, it possesses a prism-like quality. Just when you thought you were done, a slight shift to the viewing angle shines a wholly different light on the issue—hence the infinite permutations of Philippa Foot’s trolley problem.

“The Eye of the Needle,” by the philosopher Frances Howard-Snyder, is a case in point. The protagonist, Imogene, is a philosophy professor troubled by her moral shortcomings. She is jealous of a friend’s success but simultaneously alarmed by her own negativity; she feels ashamed that her son’s college admission result affects her more than the news of the war in Yemen. An occupational hazard of philosophers is that one’s moral flaws are painfully transparent to oneself: “You don’t get to live 47 years and become a full professor of philosophy without some dim awareness of your own moral failings.”

To cure her “empathy deficit,” Imogene undergoes an experimental treatment that activates her mirror neurons, brain cells that are associated with our ability to empathize with the plight of others. Her empathy is suddenly unbounded, utterly disrupting her life, in one instance causing her to use her son’s college fund to pay for someone else’s rehab. But unlike, say, King Midas, who regretted the superpower that had been granted him, Imogene does not want to go back: “Her mind and heart had been changed forever. She now saw the randomness of her attachments to one or two people.”

Your mileage may vary on whether this epiphany is heartwarming or eerie. But philosophers have a term for what happens in this story: “transformative experience.” In her 2015 book Transformative Experience, the Yale philosopher L.A. Paul describes the difference between “epistemically transformative” and “personally transformative” experiences. The latter is like watching a powerful documentary: “It changes your point of view, including your core preferences.” The former is like tasting an exotic fruit: “The only way to know what it is like to have it is to have it yourself.” A truly transformative experience is one that’s both epistemically and personally transformative. Though Imogene had been epistemically aware of her moral failings, it’s only after her transformative experience that she starts acting according to the algebra of her moral preferences.

Ken Liu’s contribution, an excerpt from “Theuth, an Oral History of Work in the Age of Machine-Assisted Cognition,” is a testament to Fredrik Pohl’s dictum, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” The narrator is a lawyer who lives in a near future where the use of employer-provided brain implants (“boosters”) has become prevalent. A booster is both an information storage (like cloud-stored memory) and a computing unit that can access the narrator’s memory to do simple legal work (billed at a reduced rate to clients). But what happens to a person’s “knowledge”—their memories, their learned skills, their experience—when the person leaves the firm and returns the booster?

A former corporate lawyer and tech litigation consultant, Liu weaves into the narrative the intricacies of intellectual property law. Under what circumstances does the personal use of assets acquired during employment constitute the “misappropriation” of company property? What if the assets were intangible, such as the abilities of judgment that one acquires through employment? Ostensibly, the story takes on an oversold thesis—the perils of cognitive enhancement. But Liu’s ability to anticipate the scenario’s nth-degree consequences sets it apart from half-baked speculations.

Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” and Christopher Mark Rose’s “God on a Bad Night” are like modern reimaginations of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” attempts to square an omniscient and benevolent God with the existence of evil and suffering in this world.

Chiang’s story is set in a world that resembles ours with one notable difference: Angels come to visit. These heavenly visitations are less like the Pope touring your city in the Popemobile than natural disasters with a high risk of collateral damage: The Earth cracks upon their appearance; shards of glass fly from shattered windows; a shaft of heaven’s light literally blinds onlookers. Some bystanders, however, are luckier. One visitation that leads to eight casualties also delivers four miracle cures: “the elimination of carcinomas in two individuals, the regeneration of the spinal cord in a paraplegic, and the restoration of sight to a recently blinded person.” But whether individuals are struck by a good fortune or a tragedy is purely random, with complete disregard for whether their own behavior was moral.

We are accustomed to thinking of a godless universe as being random. “The idea that life is unfair presumes the notion of fairness; where do we get our notions of fairness and justice and moral desert?” writes Chiang in the story note. “If the universe rewards us when we’re good and punishes us when we’re bad, our lives make sense. But if we’re punished even when we’re being good, we need an explanation.” The clear existence of God in the story makes such arbitrary assignments of miracles even more puzzling. And God further tantalizes mortals by keeping the criteria for admission to heaven opaque and fickle, as if to assault the presumption that omniscience entails benevolence and a consistent set of rules for delivering justice.

If Chiang’s God is mischievous and even sadistic, Rose’s god is an accidental one. The story is undergirded by a speculative theory from theoretical physics and cosmology that contends “a new universe could be created from our own, and without a prohibitively large requirement for energy, or even much analytic knowledge beyond what we can now provide.” With a powerful particle accelerator and a monopole—a hypothetical particle with only one magnetic pole—scientists could create a universe in a lab, essentially making them gods. According to the theory, the wormhole between the new universe and ours closes soon after its creation, and the new world might be “entirely inaccessible, and imperceptible, to its creator.” Like parents separated from a newborn child, creators have no means to take care of the new world, possibly leaving its inhabitants bemused by the silence of its creator. Just like our own world.

The unwitting creator in Rose’s story is Arlo, a recently divorced scientist. One day, in frustration and under the influence of peppermint schnapps, Arlo activates a particle accelerator, creating yet another godless universe. But the story makes it clear that even if he had access to the new universe, Arlo, a clumsy and uninspiring father to his daughter, would not be a dependable god. “Arlo’s lack of self-knowledge, and his obliviousness to the risks he brings about, push him further away from any conventional expectations we have of God,” writes Rose.

Like any anthology, Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories has some rough edges. There are times when the expository notes outshine the stories, opening up new philosophical worlds that the narratives failed to do. I noticed a kind of Anna Karenina principle at work, whereby every one of the weaker stories was weak in the same way: It packs in too many concepts. Aliette de Bodard’s story, for example, encompasses many themes—Chinese philosophy, state-authorized cruelty, family values, and free will—without a unifying keynote. The sheer variety of ideas might have come to full fruition in a book-length story.

Stylistically, some of the stories occasionally slip into excursus, a tell-don’t-show technique that is handy for unpacking scientific details or philosophical musings but risks sounding like a proof or a succession of lemmas. This tendency runs against precisely what the editors of the anthology are trying to overcome with the use of fictional narrative.

The anthology’s best examples, though, show that certain philosophical concepts are often better articulated by good storytelling than the mechanical exactitude of expository philosophy. Good philosophical science fiction is not a naturally occurring species, but the best examples remind us that when the double helix of literature and philosophy are successfully intertwined, it feels as if they have always belonged together.