If there’s one thing philosophers of mind like more than an argument, it’s a rattling good yarn. Obviously we think of Mary the Colour Scientist, Zombie Twin (and Zimboes, Zomboids, Zoombinis…) , the Chinese Room (and the Chinese Nation), Brain in a Vat, Swamp-Man, Chip-Head, Twin Earth and Schmorses… even papers whose content doesn’t include narratives at this celebrated level often feature thought-experiments that are strange and piquant. Obviously philosophy in general goes in for that kind of thing too – just think of the trolley problems that have been around forever but became inexplicably popular in the last year or so (I was probably force-fed too many at an impressionable age, and now I can’t face them – it’s like broccoli, really): but I don’t think there’s another field that loves a story quite like the Mind guys.

I’ve often alluded to the way novelists have been attacking the problems of minds by other means ever since the James Boys (Henry and William) set up their pincer movement on the stream of consciousness; and how serious novelists have from time to time turned their hand to exploring the theme consciousness with clear reference to academic philosophy, sometimes even turning aside to debunk a thought experiment here and there. We remember philosophically  considerable works of genuine science fiction such as  Scott Bakker’s Neuropath. We haven’t forgotten how Ian  and Sebastian Faulks in their different ways made important contributions to the field of Bogus but Totally Convincing Psychology with De Clérambault’s Syndrome and Glockner’s Isthmus, nor David Lodge’s book ‘Consciousness and the Novel’ and his novel Thinks. And philosophers have not been averse to writing the odd story, from Dan Lloyd’s novel Radiant Cool up to short stories by many other academics including Dennett and Eric Schwitzgebel.

So I was pleased to hear (via a tweet from Eric himself) of the inception of an unexpected new project in the form of the Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy. The Journal ‘aims to foster the appreciation of science fiction as a medium for philosophical reflection’.   Does that work? Don’t science fiction and philosophy have significantly different objectives? I think it would be hard to argue that all science fiction is of philosophical interest (other than to the extent that everything is of philosophical interest). Some space opera and a disappointing amount of time travel narrative really just consists of adventure stories for which the SF premise is mere background. Some science fiction (less than one might expect) is actually about speculative science. But there is quite a lot that could almost as well be called Phifi as Scifi, stories where the alleged science is thinly or unconvincingly sketched, and simply plays the role of enabler for an examination of social, ethical, or metaphysical premises. You could argue that Asimov’s celebrated robot short stories fit into this category; we have no idea how positronic brains are supposed to work, it’s the ethical dilemmas that drive the stories.

There is, then, a bit of an overlap; but surely SF and philosophy differ radically in their aims? Fiction aims only to entertain; the ideas can be rubbish so long as they enable the monsters or, slightly better, boggle the mind, can’t they? Philosophy uses stories only as part of making a definite case for the truth of particular positions, part of an overall investigative effort directed, however indirect the route, at the real world? There’s some truth in that, but the line of demarcation is not sharp. For one thing, successful philosophers write entertainingly; I do not think either Dennett or Searle would have achieved recognition for their arguments so easily if they hadn’t been presented in prose clear enough for non-academic readers to  understand, and well-crafted enough to make them enjoy the experience.  Moreover, philosophy doesn’t have to present the truth; it can ask questions or just try to do some of that  mind boggling. Myself when I come to read a philosophical paper I do not expect to find the truth (I gave up that kind of optimism along with the broccoli): my hopes are amply fulfilled if what I read is interesting. Equally, while fiction may indeed consist of amusing lies, novelists are not indifferent to the truth, and often want to advance a hypothesis, or at least, have us entertain one.

I really think some gifted novelist should take the themes of the famous thought-experiments and attempt to turn them into a coherent story. Meantime. there is every prospect that the new journal represents, not dumbing down but wising up, and I for one welcome our new peer-reviewers.


  1. 1. Steve Phibrook says:

    Perhaps I am missing the point of this article. As far as I can tell, religion deals with the nature and intent of the supposed creator. Philosophy deals with the “why” of creation in the first place. After all, it seems rather pointless for a perfect and infinite being to create anything. And science deals with the nuts and bolts of the creation. As far as the why question, in my unlearned opinion, is there anything an infinite being cannot do? I would say many things. A simply game of chance, or a logical game like chess. All possible end games would be available to the infinite intellect. Cannot break a bone, know pain or heartbreak and of course know the terror of death. I believe that’s where we come in. As for science, it seems to be blending into both philosophy and religion. They tell us the most powerful machine in the world discovered a new particle. It lasts a bizilionth of a second. Here’s the picture, it’s a bit out of focus and sort of looks like Venus under certain conditions. Hmm… Reminds me of something. It certainly is an interesting time to be alive.

  2. 2. Jesus Olmo says:

    “Neuropath” is superbly disturbing. I would like to recommend you three more sci-fi/phi-fi novels and one short story, all of them about consciousness, sense of self, perception, etc.:
    “Blindsight” by Peter Watts.
    “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers.
    “Infinite Ground” by Martin MacInnes.
    “Second Person, Present Tense” (short story) by Daryl Gregory.

  3. 3. Jayarava says:

    I started reading science-fiction before my teens, but philosophy only in my 40s. I was struck by the similarities between speculative modes of fiction (science oriented or otherwise) and speculative modes of moral philosophy especially. Both ask us suppose that humans are in an artificial and unfamiliar situation and imagine how they would respond. I particularly like the “first-contact” sub-genre of novels.

    Recent thought-provoking novels include

    Ken McLeod. Intrusion. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13189396-intrusion
    Neal Stephenson. Seveneves. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22816087-seveneves
    Liu Cixin. The Three Body Problem. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20518872-the-three-body-problem

    There are also a few novels that explore the philosophy of language

    Samuel R. Delany. Babel-17. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1199688.Babel_17
    China Miéville. Embassytown. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9265453-embassytown

    I would like to read a novel that deals with the consequences widespread problem of confusing experience and reality. Any suggestions?

  4. 4. Hunt says:

    I definitely think fiction (stories) can stimulate areas of the creative mind that rote fact often doesn’t. You never really know when that “aha” moment may come, and there’s the added benefit that you can pursue an interest while enjoying yourself. Stories are also a very efficient way to educate. Nothing gets the point across quite as well as an engrossing story.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    I’m enjoying the recommendations – thanks!

  6. 6. Steve Phibrook says:

    To Jayarava, how about the true story of John Von Neumann? (I hope I have the name right) the title is, A Beautiful Mind. I believe he is one of only a handful of people that recovered from full blown schizophrenia to tell what it was like from within.

  7. 7. Peter says:

    I believe that was John Forbes Nash Jr., Steve. Another brilliant man, though.

  8. 8. Michael Murden says:

    The fourth volume of R. Scott Bakker’s Aspect Emperor series just came out on July 25th. I think it’s the best philosophical Heroic Fantasy I’ve ever read. Of course, you have to read the three volumes of The Prince of Nothing first. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

  9. 9. Steve Phibrook says:

    To Peter, yep that’s it. A great book. Way better than the movie, as usual. I just get so easily confused!

  10. 10. David Duffy says:

    Confusion of reality and experience – anything by Lem eg Fiasco

  11. 11. arnold says:

    Post modern mind is changing from phenomena of functions to a more inclusive phenomenon–observation….

  12. 12. Shaikh Raisuddin says:

    All thought experiments are futile when the meanings of words of no dictionary are scientifically verified.


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