In this series, I’ll be exploring speculative fiction, in particular science fiction or fantasy, as a philosophical tool by interviewing philosophers who write in these genres. This third part of the series is with R. Scott Bakker, philosopher and fiction author.
Can you tell me something about yourself, and how you got into writing science fiction/speculative fiction?
I grew up on the clay-cliff shores of Lake Erie, throwing dirt-bombs, sneaking cigarettes, and necking with farmers' daughters. I became a head-banger, dressed in leather I could not afford, and so was terrified of being caught in the rain. Then I went to university, where I learned that 'official' is just a term that turns folk bigotries upside down, more often than not. I despise conviction, not religion. I have a hard time taking literal statements literally, which seems to get me in the odd pickle, metaphorically. I am tall. Until my daughter was born I swore more than anyone I knew.
I devoured fantasy and SF as a child, idolized Howard, Tolkien, and Herbert. It seems to me now that I was always writing: I had completed my first novel as a young teen, which I probably should have discarded, but obsessively rewrote instead, again and again. I did an English Literature degree, a Theory and Criticism MA, and then went to Vanderbilt University to do a Philosophy PhD. I smoked two packs a day. In the final stages of my dissertation, I made the fateful decision to tackle Jackson's famous Mary thought experiment, and within two weeks, I realized I could no longer do 'fundamental ontology'—I had become an atheist on the eve of taking my priestly vows! Luckily, God intervened. Earlier that year, a good friend of mine had convinced me to give his old roommate, who had gone on to become an agent at the prestigious Dunow and Carlson Agency, the manuscript for The Darkness that Comes Before. In the midst of one of my blacker depressive bouts, I received the call from New York. By the end of the year I had multiple three book deals around the world. The whole thing strikes me as unlikely, now, but not quite so much as back then.
You say you've become an atheist on the eve of taking your vows. Still, would you say you're addressing philosophical themes in your literary work, and could you elaborate on this?
I'm primarily interested in the relation between philosophy and fantasy fiction—as the sheer size of my epic fantasy series (six books and counting) attests! People often forget that fantasy fiction is as much a consequence of science as is science fiction. What makes fantasy fiction fantastic, or 'especially fictional,' is the enchanted nature of the setting, the fact that the worlds represented are densely psychological worlds. Prior to the rise of science, such worlds were the norm, as their shared ontology with scriptural worlds makes plain. Spirits, magic, gods, curses, fetishes, witches: these had to be rendered impossible before they could reliably indicate the fantastic.
Now I see no reason to think the scientific process of disenchantment is going to magically spare this one part of nature, humanity. Regarding the conundrums of the soul I think its far more sober to presume stupidity, not some 'extraordinary no one knows what.' I have a disenchanted all the way down view, so for me all intentional philosophy, philosophy that posits intentional functions or entities, is of a piece with fantasy—it just doesn't realize it yet.
Human cognition is bounded cognition, ecological cognition, only possessing enough exaptive 'slop' to mimic general cognition; the modern world as reorganized and represented by science, meanwhile, is drifting ever farther from the meaningful worlds we are adapted to solve. We live in what I call 'crash space,' environments where the problem-solving reliability our basic heuristic toolkits can only degrade over time. On my view, fantastic secondary worlds provide readers with faux adaptive problem-ecologies, settings that can be reliably parsed and understood in psychological terms. They provide what I call 'cheat spaces,' places where we have learned, over time, to game our cognitive predilections. And in this sense, you can see fantasy fiction as a kind of cultural grave marker, a place to make-believe our dead relatives are alive. It shows what has become of meaning in the world.
Because I think fantasy has such tremendous cultural and philosophical significance, I think it’s ideally suited to the expression of philosophical ideas and themes. Consider: the central trope of modernist narratives has to be the idea of a protagonist struggling to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world. The more challenging that narrative search is for the reader the more inclined we are to call a work 'literature.' Since fantasy is fantastic precisely because it provides that meaning, it is both resolutely anti-modernist and is generally perceived to be the most conservative and least literary of all genres. Back in the 90's I was convinced this meant fantasy was the place art most needed to be (the public burning of Harry Potter books simply reaffirmed this hunch). The defining thematic moment in my endless rewriting came when I realized that I could turn the ‘man the meaning maker’ paradigm upside down, tell the story of a protagonist struggling to bring meaninglessness to an objectively meaningful world. Once I kicked that door down, the narrative and thematic possibilities seemed endless, and the books began to write themselves.
But there's also a sense in which philosophy, an ancient invention, is also proper to fantasy worlds. If you think about it, before science's rise to institutional dominance, philosophy was pretty much the cognitive state of the art. So I wanted my meaningless protagonist's meaningful world to also be a richly philosophical one, something resembling the late Hellenism in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. I invented whole traditions, created different canons, and even blurred the lines between philosophy and sorcery. Within the frame of reference of my fantasy world, reality is genuinely anthropomorphic, psychological; though the paucity of information often renders my characters’ disputations as intractable as our own, there is a fact of the matter as to who’s right and who’s wrong. So sorcerers, for instance, undertake quasi-empirical investigations to derive solutions to various metaphysical matters. They have their own metaphysical canon, their own 'arcane Einsteins' you could say.
All and all, I think I've crafted a very detailed philosophical/fantastic cheat space.
Can you say a bit more about your philosophical/fantastic cheat space: What sorts of philosophical ideas can we explore in fiction that you think one can't express in ordinary (non-fiction) philosophical writings?
The obvious advantage of using narrative to explore philosophical problems lies in the famous 'show versus tell' distinction. This is arguably why philosophy relies so heavily on ‘thought experiments,’ small narratives designed to isolate various problems (apparently) in situ. It was the story of Mary the colour blind neuroscientist, after all, that destroyed my dissertation!
Claims in narrative always have a specific time and a place. Then, there. Now, here. Claims in theory do not–as a rule. This is why ambiguity in narrative so often generates understanding, while ambiguity in theory typically diminishes it. The particularity of narrative content bears the possibility of generalization within it, the possibility of some superordinate understanding–which is to say, some interpretative theory. The more ambiguous the narrative, the more the particulars lend themselves to incompatible generalizations. Think of all the countless interpretations of Searle’s Chinese Room, for instance. Since any one interpretation shuts down the possibility of others, generalizing over ambiguous narratives seems to become a form of violence, a shutting down of possibilities. Narrative, as a result, seems to constitute a special form of cognition, one that transcends rationality, insofar as it contains the possibility of logically incompatible interpretations within it.
Stories become shadows thrown by impossible objects… Narrative becomes the bearer of unspeakable truths. Scripture.
Or at least that's how it feels, when the muse allows!
The upshot is that narratives capture the particularities of different problem ecologies in ways that are independent of theory. In other words, they let us consider crash spaces, pose problems, without solving them—for their own sake, you could say. Fantasy, as I mentioned above, is a cheat, a way to indulge anthropomorphic conceits absent any commitment to them. It is a response to disenchantment, the crashing of intuitive ways of making sense of the world. It is a crash space artifact that allows us to pose, in attenuated form, the very crash space to which it ministers. As such, it does not so much provide as beg solution, force the actual application of our sociocognitive tools. It allows us to rehearse what it means to be human without solving the human in the least. And it does so without jargon, without the need for decades of specialized training.
And this is the biggest advantage of all (given the death of posterity). It speaks to us all.
Thank you to R. Scott Bakker for participating!