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 fourth part of the series is with David John Baker, associate professor at the University of Michigan. He writes short science fiction stories.
Can you tell me something about yourself, and how you got into writing science fiction/speculative fiction?
My dad is a long-time science fiction fan, so I had a lot of early exposure to the genre through him. I can’t remember a time before I saw Star Wars, for example. I probably also saw 2001 (and understood maybe a tenth of it) before I could read. I also decided I wanted to be a scientist when I was four, so that factored in. I thought of myself as a science person. I hoped I would live in space one day, like the animatronic people in Disney’s Tomorrowland. It was the Eighties. Kids' science books painted a pretty optimistic picture of the future.
It got to be the Nineties, and my dad and I decided to share a subscription to the Science Fiction Book Club. One of the books you could order was Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I saw the title in the catalog and it dawned on me that I could try writing the kind of stories I liked to read. Soon after that I also read Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, which convinced me that you could accomplish something really important in the genre. I started a novel, which went nowhere, and decided I’d better begin with short fiction instead. By that time I was studying philosophy, so philosophy started working its way into my stories. Although it would be more accurate to say that I got into philosophy because of my love of sci fi. Long before I took a philosophy class, I was already immersed in thought experiments from the fiction I was reading and writing.
You write "Long before I took a philosophy class, I was already immersed in thought experiments from the fiction I was reading and writing." - could you say a bit more about how you see the relationship between thought experiments in speculative fiction and philosophy?
This is a challenging question, because Eric Schwitzgebel already spoke so insightfully about thought experiments in your interview with him. I’ll try to add something new!
The best definition of science fiction I know of was put forward by the great author Robert Charles Wilson (Spin, Blind Lake). Wilson calls science fiction “the literature of contingency.” How might the world, or human life, be different, and what do those alternative possibilities mean for us here in the actual world? Philosophy studies that same question, of course. Some people complain about outlandish thought experiments in philosophy: how can we trust our intuitions about trolleys and so on? I’m of the opposite persuasion. I think we learn a lot from considering even the strangest hypotheticals.
What’s special about fiction is that it puts you inside the thought experiment. Parfit’s human fission examples are shocking when you first read them, but you don’t necessarily put yourself inside them and ask what it means for your life that you’re the sort of being who could in principle be split into multiple people. But in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline, we follow a character whose very humanity is threatened by being duplicated over and over, who feels guilty for the crimes of her duplicates. There’s a philosophical point you take away from hypotheticals like this--the propositional knowledge you gain from them, I suppose. But in fiction there’s a personal moral you take away. When it works, it works because the people in the fiction feel the way real humans might feel when confronted with the hypothetical situation. In a philosophy paper, the characters in the thought experiments aren’t usually of much importance.
Another thing fiction is especially good at is exploring impossible hypotheticals. Like time-travel stories with a single timeline and a changeable past--the recent movie Looper, for example, is totally conceptually incoherent. But this sort of story still has something to teach us about the value we place on the actual, fixed past (Michael Swanwick’s novel Bones of the Earth does this well).
Given the importance you find in emotions (and character-driven stories) as well as impossible situations, could you say a bit more about how you use these properties of fiction in your own speculative fiction writing?
I don’t personally write many stories about impossible situations like changing the past. I love reading that sort of story, but I feel like it would violate my philosophical scruples to write one!
Most of the stories I write (more than half, anyway) take place in a future history that I consider pretty utopian. The humans in this setting are pretty far beyond Homo sapiens biologically. They’ve eradicated scarcity, cured senescence and live pretty peacefully in general. It seems to me that at this stage of development, if we ever reach it, the problem of nihilism and the meaning of life will loom large in people’s minds. They’ll start to wonder, what do we mean when we say that we’ve accomplished something good in building this civilization? How do we know there’s any such thing as goodness? I often find myself writing about characters who live in paradise and wrestle with this sort of doubt.
Utopian fiction—real utopia, as opposed to dystopia—isn’t written very often, and when it is people often complain that there’s no way to introduce conflict in a utopia. This problem of doubt is my way of bringing conflict into a society I consider nearly perfect. Probably the most sweeping event in this setting of mine is a conspiracy of people who basically think Ivan Karamazov was right, that life is meaningless without God. These conspirators don’t believe in God, but they think they can do some good in the world by becoming gods themselves--using their technology to create humans and giving these created humans some sort of moral law to follow. They see this as the only way to make sure that someone, somewhere has a purpose and a reason for being. The broader society sees it as slavery.
Hopefully people will be better off in the future, and I do believe we’re better off now than we were in the past. But people will always find something to be sad or angry about, something to fight about. In my stories so far I’ve mainly used philosophy as a tool for imagining what might still trouble people once all their material needs are met. So in that sense a lot of what goes into my characters is philosophical. What does this person think of the meaning of life, or are they afraid that it has no meaning? That sort of question tells you a lot about a person, obviously.
Thinking further about your philosophical puzzle - what happens to people if all their future needs are met - Do you think that fiction allows us to know what would happen in such a case? I'm thinking of analogous cases, such as the intuition that people who would live forever would eventually get bored with everything. The standard paper on that case, Williams' Makropulos case, starts out with a fictional story - a play by Karel Čapek about a woman who is immortal and is bored with everything. It's very interesting that the paper uses a fictional story to make its case. Do you think speculative fiction can provide us with knowledge about philosophical puzzles like these?
I think it’s a lot easier to learn from fiction how some people might feel in a situation. That’s actually the problem I have with that Williams paper: he’s trying to argue that everyone, no matter their circumstances and character, would react to immortality the way Emilia does in The Makropulos Case. The play works for me because I can believe that someone in Emilia’s position, eternally young and watching the world age around her, might come to feel this hopeless indifference if they were a depressive sort of person. But the paper doesn’t convince me, because Williams’s contention that every immortal person would inevitably reach that same breaking point betrays a failure of imagination on his part. Maybe if he’d read more science fiction he would’ve written a different paper!
Thank you to David John Baker for participating!