The Future of Sci-Fi vs. the Future of God

One could define science-fiction as material and God as spiritual without too much fear of controversy, and yet you find both in books.  Both are written down to be used in one way or another.  Both are written down because they are useful to us in one way or another.  You can find detractors and supporters for both.  From time to time someone will say, ‘Science-fiction is dead.’  From time to time someone will say the same thing about God.

Writing about what the spiritual future may hold and writing about what the material future may hold turn out to have very similar functions for us.  Whether both forms of writing, or either, are inspired by God I will leave to another discussion.

The main difference between religious texts and science-fiction is that if you hold onto a sci-fi book long enough you can check to see how well it predicted things.  When Heinlein describes cell phones and space shuttles in Between Planets we can look around now and say, well, how about that!  We have those.  When he describes alien civilizations on Venus and Mars we can say, Oops!  Sorry, Robert, better luck next time.

When Mohamed or Jesus or Moses or Zoroaster or Homer tell us about heaven there’s no real way to fact-check it.

But both forms of writing serve to give us a certain kind of comfort about the future, about what’s going to happen to us, whether they are cautionary tales that urge us to avoid eternal damnation or nuclear holocaust, or stories that promise a place without pain or a future filled with technological wonders.

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8 Responses to The Future of Sci-Fi vs. the Future of God

  1. Interesting post — I might one day borrow the idea for my own blog, if you don’t mind!

    The title particularly catches the eye, because it’s an unbalanced equation. SF is a human construction and by definition must be finite; but how can we contemplate the “future” of a being that has neither beginning nor end? The discussion must shift to one of the future of human philosophy v. the truth of God — a different subject entirely.

    Lots of glittering gems to mine here. Thank you for bringing a bit of the treasure to the surface.

  2. john says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply! I thought this would at least get everybody’s juices flowing and get some ideas tossed back and forth. For instance I could say that the title, rather than being an unbalanced equation, isn’t an equation at all as it does not equate anything, it compares two things. Or I could say that one could certainly contemplate the future of a being that has neither beginning nor end. A being without end has more future than any other kind of being. But I think your mistake is in thinking that the title means, “Does Science-fiction have a future? Does God have a future? If so, how do they compare?”, when nothing could be further from the truth. The title means, “How does the future we contemplate when we write science-fiction compare to the future we contemplate when we write about God? Do they overlap?” I’m not talking about the nature of science-fiction or the nature of God. I’m talking about the nature of talking. I’m talking about why we like to talk about the future, what we get from it, and how recourse to religious texts and recourse to science-fiction addresses many of the same needs in us.

    But then, that’s just the kind of guy I am. I’m not really concerned with the nature of God. The nature of God will be what it is no matter what I or anyone else says it is. The nature of science-fiction can at least be affected by human conversation. But what really interests me is the nature of human conversation. We yak an awful lot and we don’t say very much. I like that about us. It makes us kind of adorable.

  3. “How does the future we contemplate when we write science-fiction compare to the future we contemplate when we write about God? Do they overlap?”

    Aaaahhhh, *that’s* the kind of question I love.

    Usedtabe, writing about God was the only way — and the only reason — we Western Civ types had for thinking, talking, and writing about this concept called “the future.” Short term future: What happens when we die? Long term future: When Jerusalem is taken back, when Jesus returns, when the Rapture comes, when the Apocalypse … oh, you know.

    One thing I have not really researched is how many religious traditions around the world regularly employ prophecy to give a sense of destination to daily human endeavors — and what is the psychological overlap between prophecy and fable as a foundation for cultural purpose.

    While I lack that depth of reading, it seems to me that every culture reaches for a sense of stability and predictability to Life on Earth. Both prophecy and fable are imaginal doorways into experiences that are not-here, not-now. Prophecy is overtly future-oriented, and is often exploited to create, enforce, and reinforce a specific power agenda — a story that society is steered to fulfill (eventually), under threat of dire consequences.

    Fable is more generous. Its “once upon a time” quality allows it to be both in the distant past and the immediate present, which of course allows it to endure into the future.

    I think the quality of “prediction” is where things get interesting. Prophecy may start out as either a warning or a reassurance, but ultimately petrifies into something that prevents innovative discourse … and even discourages acknowledgment of its fulfillment. (Like, when Jesus comes back, what happens to all of the Vatican’s real estate holdings? Are they all in Jesus’ name? He’ll just give it all to the poor!)

    “Prediction” infers that a storytelling society has developed enough technological and social finesse to have some guaranteed comfort and resources for innovation and discovery. Imagination manifests quickly into new tools and surroundings. Prophecy can constrain such developments, while fable can provide a humane and humorous basis for acceptance or rejection of the New.

    The rise of science fiction in Western Civ could be viewed as an imaginal way to work around the complex of interlocking Prophecies that have steered our energies. The predictive quality in SF is a way of questioning what has been presented thus far as “real” and “certain.” Reading and writing SF, we are asking, “Does this course of development really make sense? Is it really the best we can do and what we want?” This kind of questioning is not exactly allowed when writing about God. Science fiction authors are not invited into theological discourse, L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith notwithstanding. (Such questioning is not looked upon fondly in free-market economics or business development, either, apparently. Talk about interlocking prophecies!)

    In fact, I think the only place in the West where fable, prophecy and prediction have come together in serious social-political discourse is in the Native American Iroquois Federation practice, of looking ahead seven generations on every decision the tribes had to make. And seven generations is about 200 years …

    Cheers, John!

    Joy

  4. john says:

    First, the good stuff! If you all out there in the blogosphere found Joy’s comment to be as erudite, fascinating and regular old fun as I did, check out her new mystery novel: Yu (actually, the ‘u’ has an umlaut, but I don’t know how to make a ‘u’ with an umlaut here) just released by Open Press Books. I bought one! She really knows how to write. And her webpage: http://www.joyshaynelaughter.com/

    Now, on to my blather and philosophizing ‘n’ stuff:

    I think the one thing that you’ve overlooked in your discussion of prophecy, fable and prediction (which I found FABulous, by the way! Of course, fabulous actually means the stuff of fable, which makes my description of your comment at least self-referential, if not tautological, but I digress), I think the one thing you overlooked is the impact of the language of mathematics on human thought. Mathematics enables us to transform mere prophecy or prediction into extrapolation, which is an entirely different kind of animal. I can say, “If I sacrifice three pigeons to Poseidon my sea voyage will go better,” then, if my sea voyage goes well I can say, “See? I told you!” The introduction of math into these proceedings changes the process in a profound way. The introduction of scientific method changes it even more. But neither mathematics nor scientific method is any good at examining subjective experience. If I see a ghost mathematics and scientific method can’t help me define or describe my experience in any way. Maybe I saw a ghost, maybe I didn’t. The event is not demonstrable, it’s not testable, so it remains outside the purview of the language of science and math.

    Science and math are such incredibly powerful tools for shaping our material world that we tend to discount that which they can’t address. But discounting it doesn’t make it go away. We have experiences that affect us deeply, so deeply that the direction of our lives can be changed, sometimes fundamentally, yet these experiences are irreducible. They can only be examined or discussed by the use of poetry, not math. And poetry by its very nature, by its necessary function, is vague, imprecise, approximate.

    Which gives us a lot of wiggle room as regards ‘the truth’.

  5. I think the one thing you overlooked is the impact of the language of mathematics on human thought.

    You’re absolutely right, John, I did, because mathematics is always the thing I forget. It’s a massive fog to me, until it “matters,” which could be a form of “precipitates,” into objects and experiences like architecture and music.

    I once got into an online argument about which came first, mathematics or music. My stance was that both are human expressions of the same thing: proportion plus dynamic plus time equals a qualitative experience that increases or refines understanding. Hearing music (drumbeat, for example) can help us see mathematic relationships (number, frequency).

    For me math and music are in eternal coitus like Tibetan Buddhist deities depicting blissful , enlightened reality. Since I am human and not enlightened yet, Music has been more present and active in my consciousness … and Math is the absent father.

    Mathematics enables us to transform mere prophecy or prediction into extrapolation, which is an entirely different kind of animal. I can say, “If I sacrifice three pigeons to Poseidon my sea voyage will go better,” then, if my sea voyage goes well I can say, “See? I told you!” The introduction of math into these proceedings changes the process in a profound way.

    As in, “More is better”? “Let’s Make a Deal, God!”? Yes! God or Gods become forces one can deal with. A new kind of relationship is reached. It is possible to affect and improve ones’ conditions, via this relationship with the Divine.

    But neither mathematics nor scientific method is any good at examining subjective experience. If I see a ghost mathematics and scientific method can’t help me define or describe my experience in any way. Maybe I saw a ghost, maybe I didn’t. The event is not demonstrable, it’s not testable, so it remains outside the purview of the language of science and math.

    Sigmund Freud and half of reality television are looking vexed right now. I think this bar has an exit door over there …

  6. BTW, a friend of mine just posted this as his Facebook status:

    “Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.” –Dr. Richard Feynman

    So maybe Science Fiction is the Poetics of Doubt?

    What do you think?

    • john says:

      I love Richard Feynman. To me, the scientific revolution in the Renaissance was only the first step in understanding that when we hear someone say something like “God created the heavens and the earth,” we’re not experiencing the truth, we’re experiencing a fallible human being’s best attempt to describe the truth using spoken language, an inherently approximate tool. This seemingly simple logical step makes us very, very uncomfortable because we want our spoken language to be the truth, not merely a fair approximation of it or even an approximate description of it. And yet the very nature of spoken language prevents it from ever being precise or accurate. There isn’t enough time left in the universe to describe a single leaf well enough that a person who has never experienced a leaf would be able to make one from scratch, and yet we can talk about leaves and our experience of leaves and listen to people talk about leaves and feel that we have communicated.

      I can say, “That woman is beautiful,” and you can agree with me thinking that what I meant was, “That woman’s facial features conform to the range of shape and proportion generally agreed upon by this culture at this point in time to be aesthetically pleasing and/or sexually attractive” when what I actually meant was, “That woman is an expression of the divine thought, and therefore inherently beautiful,” which you probably would have agreed with, too, if you’d known that’s what I’d meant. But we could part company not knowing anything about each other, you thinking that I was sexually attracted to a particular person and me thinking that you understood me.

      Mathematics and music don’t present us with these difficulties. A mathematics either corresponds to the real world or it doesn’t. Music either speaks to us or it doesn’t. But in neither language can we say something that isn’t true. If you don’t believe me, try to write an equation that says, “White people are better”. Go to a piano and just using your fingers on the keyboard try to tell me a lie.

      So, is Science Fiction the Poetics of Doubt? I would say yes. It is the intersection of spoken language and mathematics. And when it does it’s job it can tell us that we are ignorant, arrogant, egocentric, unimaginably microscopic and inconceivably insignificant beings – but without us the universe wouldn’t be what it is.

      The joke is that we actually are the center of the universe, but only because there is no point in the universe that isn’t the center.

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