Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Fundamentally Different

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 12, 2016

I’m endlessly annoyed that science fiction and fantasy are linked together in the public’s mind. Philosophically, they are polar opposites, Science fiction is the enemy of magic, and magic is the foundation of fantasy. These two forms of literature parallel two opposing philosophies of reality: science and religion. We all exist in one reality, but we have chosen to explain reality in two contradictory ways: evolution and magic. Religious fundamentalists understand this distinction, which is why they are so fervently opposed to evolution and science. If you understand evolution there is no need for God. If you understand the Christian theology, there is no need for evolution.

Most people try to incorporate both belief systems into their world view, but that only shows they don’t understand the profound and complete differences between the two. You can’t have God and Evolution as the primary creator of life on Earth. You can’t have Science and Magic. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is an excellent example of science fiction. Because Randall Flagg is a driving force in The Stand by Stephen King, it makes that book a fantasy novel, even though it follows in Earth Abides footsteps. Once you add the supernatural (magic) to a story it can’t be science fiction, even if it’s using a standard science fiction concept and setting. I bring up these two books because they are both nominated in polls for the best science fiction books of all time. (And yes, I know many writers want to create hybrids, like All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.)

Earth AbidesThe Stand

Even though I don’t like that science fiction and fantasy are always lumped together, I can understand why. Most people want to believe in magic, but they accept science. That’s why they pray when they fly in an airplane. Most people are clueless to how their smartphone works, but they accept technology as magical. When folks go in for surgery they ask their friends to talk to God for them, even though the outcome depends on the surgeons’ scientific knowledge and evolutionary biology of the patient.

Magic is based on the power of the word. Magicians work by incantation. They learn their spells through study of arcane knowledge. God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. God creates with the power of words.  The person who wrote The Gospel of John understood that when he said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  When primitive people tried to understand how reality worked they came up with the logic of magic, and the power of words. That’s why magical spells are so important to magicians, they are imitating the power of God. It’s also why most religions disavow magic.

Science, which came very late in human development, assumes there is no magic, and words don’t create but describe. Science assumes everything can be explained through observing reality. Technology is applied science. Science assumes there are no magical beings, no magical forces, and no magic itself. For any story to be truly science fiction it must assume magic does not exist. For any story to be fantasy, magic is an integral part of its reality. That’s why Star Wars is fantasy, and not science fiction.

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land Avon

Science fiction is far from perfect, and far from scientific. Probably one reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together, is all to often science fiction claims magical concepts can be scientific. A great example is Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. There were many science fiction writers in the 1950s that desperately wanted to believe in extrasensory powers. Writers and editors like John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, or Theodore Sturgeon, believed humans could evolve to have god-like powers, or possessed untapped psychic potential that could be developed. Heinlein proposed that Valentine Michael Smith was raised by ancient beings on Martians that taught him to use such powers. But is that science fiction or fantasy?  Mike essentially works miracles. Stranger in a Strange Land is an anti-science fiction novel. Heinlein even melds religion and God into his story. Some have claimed Heinlein was being satirical, but Heinlein also wrote essays about his beliefs in ESP, and even predicted science would prove the existence of the afterlife one day.

Childhood's End

I am working on the fourth edition of the Classics of Science Fiction and I’ve come up against a problem. The Stand by Stephen King is often cited in polls where fans vote for their all-time favorite science fiction novels. But how can a novel with a character like Randall Flagg be science fiction? But then, how can Stranger in a Strange Land or Childhood’s End be science fiction? One point in Heinlein and Clarke’s favor, is back then they believed ESP type powers would be scientifically provable in the future. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s there were theories about ESP, and scientists conducted experiments to detect latent psychic powers in humans. Others theorized that future species of mankind might evolve such powers. In the years since, science has not found a shred of evidence to support such theories, and we have to assume such wild talents are only fantasy. Yet many people still want to believe. Nearly all the powers of super-hero characters represent a desire for magic. We don’t like being ordinary and powerless, so we love stories with characters who have powers. Unfortunately, science fiction writers aren’t immune to such desires for magic.

Should I delete any novel from the Classics of Science Fiction list whose theories have been shot down by science since they were written? I doubt even Stephen King thought The Stand was science fiction when he wrote it. King is an exceptional storyteller, and uses whatever ideas are useful to forward a story, but I doubt if he’s concerned with their scientific validity. And probably many science fiction writers, if not most, choose story over science. But for me, I’ve always thought the essential quality of science fiction was theorizing about the scientifically possible. I want science fiction to be anti-magic. I read science fiction to imagine what’s possible for humans to create with science, and not with magic. But all too often, science fiction is corrupted by our desires, and we ignore our understanding of science.

Many of the stories from The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Star Trek in the 1950s and 1960s dealt with ideas we thought were science fictional back then, but after a half-century of scientific advances, should be seen as fantasy today. Isn’t it about time we begin discerning magic from science?

I’ve been watching the new miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, based on the novel by Susanna Clarke. That’s what inspired this insight into what distinguishes science fiction from magic.  Like the immensely popular Harry Potter stories, we enjoy tales where magic exists. But I wonder how many fans of fantasy actually believe magic is possible? We do know that all believers in the various world religions do believe in magic. They don’t like to call their miracles magic, and often abhor talk of Earthly magic, or even claim it sinful, but all scriptures about miracles work in the same way as stories about magic.

We science fiction fans need to learn to spot the use of magic in science fiction stories. No matter how much we love The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination, and claim they are classics of science fiction, they are fantasy. But so is the matter transmitter in Star Trek and the time machine in the classic H. G. Wells novel. The main reason the public lumps science fiction and fantasy together is because we all want to believe in magic. More than likely, faster-than-light travel will prove to a magical idea, and words like hyperspace travel, warp drives and wormhole travel are just magical incantations by writers.

Which brings me back to my problem. Should I list The Stand in the Classics of Science Fiction list? Or other books that fans routinely think of as science fiction. For example, I can’t see why so many vote for Animal Farm by George Orwell in a science fiction poll, or Alice in Wonderland. By the way, I’m only talking about polls specifically for science fiction, and not polls for science fiction and fantasy books. I can make an editorial decision and just leave them off the list. Or I could list them in red. I’ve thought of listing any book that was never meant to be science fiction in red, and books that were legitimate attempts to be science fiction in the past, but are now obviously fantasy, in blue.

JWH

How Much History Can I Handle?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 4, 2016

Every subject we study requires studying history.

My problems:

  • Compulsive news reading online
  • Compulsive book buying
  • Compulsive magazine buying
  • Curiosity about too many subjects
  • Can’t keep up with my reading

history

My goals:

  • Simplify my reading habits
  • Decide on the subjects I care about most
  • Learn more about those subjects
  • Focus on fewer topics for writing

I’ll never be an expert on any subject. Primarily because I’m starting too late in life, but also because I’m interested in too many topics. The best way to explain my problem is with an analogy. Have you ever noticed the difference between the magazines Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Science? This will work for any array of subject periodicals. The magazines that have wide appeal with the public will have mostly snippets of news stories, and a few short articles. Reading Popular Science or Discover often feels like reading the sponsors off a race car. When you finish an issue you remember little, even though you’ve just been told a 100 fascinating facts.

Now Scientific American and American Scientist do have pages of newsy snippets, but their compelling content is a handful of longer articles. If takes effort to read those essays, but most people can understand them if they try. When you’re finished, you feel you’ve learned something, and you’ll probably remember a good deal more from reading the first two magazines. You’ve covered fewer topics but gained more knowledge.

Finally, there’s Science. It is magazine scientists read. Its articles are terse, and very hard to comprehend. Science is readable by any well-educated person, but its so technical, and jargon filled, that few people do. Magazines like Science or Nature are general science magazines for people trained to be science specialists. Their specialized training allows them to read across disciplines at a much higher level than the average popular science reader.

The point I’m making here is my daily reading for all the subjects I’m interested in is too close to the Popular Science level.

Mentally, my curiosity flitters around like reading magazines at the dentist. If I make myself, with the aid of Google, I can read an issue of Science, but it’s no fun. It’s just too specialized. I want to discipline my mind to function around the intensity of a Scientific American article, or at least a longer article in Discover. I want to be able to write about my favorite subjects at that level. That means knowing those subjects in greater detail, which means knowing much more history.

Think of it this way. Let’s imagine we have 100 brain cells to use. Popular Science requires one cell for a 100 different news items. Science requires all 100 to understand one article. Scientific American assigns 20 cells to five topics. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my brain cells more carefully.

Each day, how is your mind applied? Is your consciousness like a reader of People magazine, or The Atlantic?  And for every pet topic you pursue, how much history do you know? We all know people who pontificate about their beloved subjects – their minds appear bloated with information. But that’s what it takes to be knowledgeable about a particular subject.

This bit of navel gazing came about because of an offer from Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) to subscribed for $7. I have a hard time resisting cheap magazine subscriptions. People who know I’m an atheist, might be puzzled why I would even be tempted by this magazine. Although I’m not a believer, I find history of The Bible fascinating. The Bible was written during a time when humanity was transitioning from pre-history to history. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bible began as oral storytelling, and then over the centuries, its stories were written down, eventually becoming canonized into the book we know today. I’ve even been wanting to write an article called, “Bible Study for Atheists,” and figured a subscription to BAR would be helpful (even though it is controversial).

No, my problem is not lack of interest, but lack of time. If I had all the time in the world I’d roam up and down history studying everything. But I don’t have that much time. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s still not enough time. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my time spent exploring the history of my pet interests. I can only handle so much.

Rock and roll music is what got me interested in history. I started listening to AM Top 40 rock in 1962. As I grew older, I realized there were many wonderful tunes before 1962 to be discovered, so I began exploring jazz, blues and folk music of the 1950s, which led to Swing and Big Band music of the 1940s and 1930s, which took me to a different kind of jazz in the 1920s. When I get the time, I’d like to go even earlier, to the Tin Pan Alley era.

Once I learned how to move backwards in time, I began to incorporate those skills into chasing the origins of everything else I loved. In college I majored in English and studied books from the 19th and 20th century. My sense of history through novels goes back to the historical times of Jane Austen. A love of movies takes me back to the 1910s and 1920s. A love of science fiction takes me back to the 19th century again. I keep trying to get into classical music, but for some reason I have a hard time pushing into the 17th and 18th century. But the more I get into the history of science, which takes me back to the late 1500s and early 1600s, the more classical music becomes relevant. Studying The Bible jumps me back to the first millennium BCE, and connects me with Egypt, Babylon, the Levant, Greece, and then Rome, which brings me back to The New Testament, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries, which then leads me towards Byzantium, and the Middle Ages. Which connects me with Europe rediscovering the classical Greeks, and jumping back to 400 BCE. Because Plato and Aristotle impacted so many people in the 19th century, that  jumps me forward to the Transcendentalists, and then back to the Enlightenment.

I also spend a good deal of time reading science fiction, which also means tramping around the future.

This morning, while taking my shower, and thinking about how I failed to clean out my growing pile of unread magazines yesterday, I felt crazed to think I should subscribe to more magazines. Yet, I wanted to – badly. It just became obvious, that no matter how addictive my curiosity is, I can’t consume all of history. I need to specialize. But in what? And why?

Sometimes I think I should just stay closer to home in time, like anytime after 1951 when I was born. I love westerns from the 1950s, so they would be in the territory of history I could cover. But then I think about writing a piece called, “Should Westerns Be Historically Accurate?” which means prowling around the 1800s. And I really would hate to give up Austen, Dickens and Trollope. That makes me think I should extend my range of history to the year 1800. I’d get to keep Darwin, but not Newton. I might  handle that. I’d have to give up the Founding Fathers, but I’d still have The Transcendentalists and Abraham Lincoln. Not too bad of a trade. Plus I’d get to keep the The Impressionists in Europe. I’d have to give up the Roman Empire, but at least I’d have the best part of the British Empire. I’d have to give up most of the history of mathematics, but I’d get all of the history of computers.

Could I really go on a history diet and only read about events that happened after 1799? I just swiveled around in my chair and scanned my bookcases. Not much of a sacrifice – most of my books cover topics that happened since 1800. I could thin a third of my unread books if I moved the cutoff date to 1900. I easily have a quarter century of unread books that fit into that time period, which probably translate into “the rest of my life.” But there goes Tolstoy and Louisa May Alcott. But that might finally give me time to read Proust and and finish reading Virginia Woolf.

I’m probably bullshitting myself here. I have so many contemporary topics I’m interested in, that if I made the cutoff date 2010, I couldn’t keep up with all the things I’d want to read. Every time I go to the library I scan the new book shelf. I could literally spend the rest of my life only reading books published in the current year about current affairs, and still not read everything I wanted.

Maybe it’s not what I read, or the history covered, but how I read. I could simplify my life by only reading books that appear on the library’s new books shelves, and give up reading magazines and web pages. That has a lot of practical benefits. I wouldn’t have to limited myself to particular times in history, and it would give me lots of variety. And yet, it would narrow the amount of reading I feel compelled to pursue. If I actually read all the magazines I currently get, in physical and digital form, I would never have time to read books. Hell, if I just read the free articles I get from News360 and Flipboard each day, I’d be reading 24×7.

Sometimes I think reading off the internet has ruined my mind. The internet is the heroin of information.

I can’t read everything I want. I can’t study every fascinating subject. There’s too much history for every topic. Trying to tidy up my reading habits is like using Marie Kondo to tidy up my house – it’s extremely difficult. But if I want to get away from a Popular Science level of concentration it will require tidying up what I read and how. I can clean out topics I’m hoarding, or somehow limit the fire hose of information I’m drinking from. Or both.

JWH

What Can You See That I Can’t?

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I just read “This man had no idea his mind is ‘blind’ until last week” by Helen Thomson at the BBC Future. The story is about a 42-year-old man who can’t see mental images, a condition called aphantasia. WTF? I don’t see clear mental images when I close my eyes. Do you? I sometimes see dark, fleeting shadows, that are sometimes shaped like something.

Close your eyes and visualise the face of the person you love the most. The colour of their eyes, the texture of their hair, the detail of their skin. Can you imagine it? Philip can’t.

Although Philip, a 42-year old photographer from Toronto, is happily married, he can’t conjure up his wife’s face because he has no images of any kind in his mind’s eye. When he thinks about a face, it comes to him as an idea, as an intellectual concept, rather than a mental picture.

swiss-mountain

Like Philip, I do see imagery in dreams. When I was a kid and smoked pot, I used to have visuals. And sometimes, out of the blue, I’m startled by very vivid mental pictures. But that has lessened since I’ve gotten older. I think I must have aphantasia. I found, “Can’t Visualize? You May Have Aphantasia” which offers a series of test questions. They go on to say,

Intriguingly, while they can’t summon mental imagery on demand, Zeman insists that aphantasia is a condition and not a disorder. “Most of them knew what it was like to visualise as they experienced imagery in dreams, or as they dropped off to sleep,” he said.

This was confirmed by two World of Lucid Dreaming readers with aphantasia.

One said: “Dreaming and seeing imagery on psychedelics aren’t a problem at all, sometimes I think I’d be overwhelmed if I could visualise imagery.”

Another explained: “I definitely CANNOT visualize in my mind’s eye whatsoever. Never ever. I’ve even taken courses on meditation in order to get better at this visualization – with zero success! I always thought people who can visualize volentarily were actually in the minority and I was in the majority.” He added: “However I have caught myself visualizing when I’m close to the dreamstate… I can say that I am a natural lucid dreamer”.

This suggests that hypnagogic imagery and visualization close to the dreamstate draws on a different mechanism to daydreaming and visualizing during full wakefulness.

Also on the positive side, Zeman notes, “their capacity for abstract thought was well developed” and that “an inability to visualise does not imply an inability to imagine: imagination is a much richer, more complex capacity than the specifically visual ability lost in aphantasia.”

These people sound like me. How much do you see what you close your eyes?

I wonder what I missing? It might explain why I love photos.

I’ve always known I’m missing various mental abilities. I can’t remember tunes – neither the melodies or lyrics. My wife practically can’t forget them. I’m terrible at languages. But I have mechanical, spatial, directional, mathematical skills that some of my friends lack.

Articles about aphantasia are popping up on the net. Here’s a long one, “Aphantasia: How It Feels To Be Blind In Your Mind.”

If it was April 1st, I’d think this was some kind of joke.

JWH

String Theories in Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 8, 2016

String theory must be in trouble if Sheldon Cooper, a fictional character from the popular TV series, The Big Bang Theory, decides to give up working on the theory after twenty years of dedicated effort. String theory is an elegant mathematical theory that seeks to explain how the Standard Model unites with the  quantum theory of gravity. In recent years string theory has come under attack because its not falsifiable, implying it’s not scientific. This is quite controversial. But don’t worry, string theorists are far from packing it in, see the new book Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon.

Why String Theory by Joseph Conlon

I think these science wars defining the scope of science are a good analogy for what’s going on in science fiction. Many, if not most, science fiction fans want to believe the future holds unlimited possibilities, and science and technology will eventually create everything we can imagine. For some deep psychological reason, most science fiction readers do not want to believe our species has limitations. They hate the idea that faster-than-light travel might not be possible. And are horrified at the suggestion that colonizing the galaxy might be an unrealistic pipedream. Let’s face it, true believers of science fiction want Star Wars or Star Trek to become humanity’s future. They passionately cling to Arthur C. Clarke’s First Law: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” In other words, they want to believe nothing is impossible.

What if science does discover we have limitations? What if we reach the limits of what we can observe or infer by all our extended senses of technology? What if we can’t build machines that can test string theory? Or find clues to prove the existence of the multiverse? As long as we know we can’t go further, we can assume that we can, and science fiction has hope. But what if science conclusively finds the boundaries of our existence? Should science fiction stay within those boundaries? Aren’t stories outside those boundaries called fantasy? I believe Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora explores these very questions.

Aurora KSM

Shouldn’t science fiction be about the possibilities of science? Aren’t we really wanting to believe the inverse of Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – that magic is just technology we don’t understand? Isn’t that how God created Earth in The Book of Genesis? I’m afraid most fans of science, even beyond the science fiction fans, are hoping that science will magically make anything we want happen.

Science Wars by Steven L. Goldman

Few people understand the limitations of science. I highly recommend one of The Great Courses from the Teaching Company called, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It by Professor Steven L. Goldman. (Just one credit at Audible.com.) Goldman starts with Plato and Aristotle and takes us through the centuries showing how scientific thought emerged in natural philosophy and then science. Science is far more complicated than the Scientific Method. Science cannot state absolute facts in the philosophical sense of explaining the Truth of Reality. Current scientific theories are our best statistical explanations for what we experience. Theories are always supplanted by newer theories. Newtonian physics was excellent at explaining reality in the 17th century, but Einstein explains reality better in the 20th century. Is Newton wrong for not seeing what Einstein did? Will Einstein be wrong when someone comes up with a better theory?

One of our limitations is we never get to know. We only get to know the best explanations we have at the moment, and most people’s working knowledge is based on theories hundreds of years out of date. Any fundamentalist Christian is working with a 2,000 year old model of reality. If you don’t know the new theories, the old ones feel perfectly good. And aren’t most science fiction readers hoping for the future based on theories long out of date?

Basically string theory was getting too far ahead of science. String theory is like the concept of galactic civilizations in science fiction, it just sounds so good, that we insist it must be true.

But here’s the kicker. If we don’t want to live in fantasyland, we have to stick with the current best theories that are falsifiable. Religion and most of philosophy aren’t, and look where they’ve taken us.

I lean towards believing science will eventually show us our limits. One limitation that’s under examination by science philosophers is whether or not we can examine reality without our subjective bias. That understanding is limited to our perceptions and how our brain works, and that will always color what we discover. I wonder, when we invent machines that think, if they will discover aspects of reality that we can’t see because of this limitation? And if they do, can they report it to us. Right now whatever we see with the telescope comes through the limits of our perceptions. What if we invent a telescope that can see for itself. Can we ask it: Are you seeing the same reality we do? Can you see things we don’t?

It might turn out that humans will never discern strings, but our machines will. Can science determine that? Or is even that only possible within the realm of science fiction? If you pay attention to reality, we live with endless limitations now. There is no reason to believe that our species has no limitations. There’s no reason to believe science is unlimited. I think it helps us to know what is falsifiable by science, and even expect science fiction to work with those limitations. Isn’t that what distinguishes it from fantasy?

JWH

Explaining Reality With More Than One Book

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 8, 2015

What are the minimum number of books you’d have to read to get a good overview of reality? Would they all be science books, or would we need philosophy, history, mathematics or even religious texts to go beyond what experimental results can’t cover?

There are billions of people on this planet who explain existence with the help of just one book. These sacred works have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, well before science and scholarship. It’s quite understandable to want just one manual, but is this world explainable in words? Science experiments offers an alternate explanation to ontological questions, but requires reading a library of books to understand. That might be why billions stick to their single volume guides.

On the Origin of Species

Is there a single science book that can compete with The Bible, Quran, Tanakh, Tao Te Ching, Rig Veda, Diamond Sutra, etc.? Does science even try to give one book believers what they want? A book on cosmology or biology explains aspects of reality but without telling people how to live. People who live by just one book, read for guidance, not explanations. They want the world to be easily explained, fair and just. The trouble is science splendidly explains how reality works in tremendous detail, but offers no guidance how to live. We followers of science are left to find our own purpose, because science clearly shows everything in this reality is a product of impartial statistical events.

Do people choose one book solutions because reality is overwhelming, preferring simple myths instead?

How many science books would a person of faith have to read before they could understand the existential nature of their lives? Because believers are taught from an early age to believe in their single books, their non-scientific views are deeply ingrained in their minds, and hard to reprogram. Apparently, anything we learn as children sticks with us, and is very hard to erase. If children were taught Darwin at an early age, and their one book was On the Origin of Species, would the world be psychologically different?

Few scientists understand the actual science of things beyond their narrow specialty. If everyone had to read the original research of all the discoveries of science, we wouldn’t have much time for anything else. Most supporters of science understand reality through popular science, which is only an approximation of real science. Our knowledge about reality is collective knowledge. People who argue against evolution are really arguing against millions of books and research papers.

I once bought On the Shoulders of Giants by Stephen Hawking, which reprints the original scientific writings of Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Einstein, but I could not read it—at least for long. If I devoted my life to it, I could probably understand this book after a few decades of trying.

What would happen if schools showed documentaries that recreated all the great science, mathematics and engineering experiments of history, so that little kids saw how people discovered details of reality for the first time? Would seeing be better than reading?

I’ve read hundreds of nonfiction books and seen just as many documentaries, but I’d be hard press to point to a selection and claim they are the basis of my beliefs. Of course I have a confusing, muddled view of science and mathematics, and couldn’t actually teach what I know either. However, because there are endless views of The Bible or Quran, I tend to think even having just one book to master doesn’t lend itself to consistent explanations.

Despite all the books I’ve read about Einstein, and all the documentaries I’ve seen that explain his work, I still can’t comprehend relativity. Evolution makes sense to me, but I couldn’t teach it. I can understand why other people might not comprehend evolution.

Maybe we should ignore books altogether. Maybe we should strive to teach kids the basic concepts of science by having them recreate the experiments themselves. I’m getting sort of old, but I wonder if there are any experiments I could learn to do, that would allow me to see how a basic aspect of reality works. For example, I’ve been taught the sun is a big ball of hydrogen. Is there anyway I could prove that for myself?

For 2016, I plan to read On The Origin of Species. I wonder how close I can get to seeing the science behind it, and how much will remain just a story, a myth, a generalization? And after that, I want to find another science book that will take me closer to understanding real science rather than popularization. Einstein discovered relativity with thought experiments. I don’t think there will be many books I can comprehend actual science without mathematics and experimental apparatus, but there might be a few. I’m sure it’s more than one.

I ask my friends who believe in The Bible to distrust what it says, but am I not a creature of faith by my acceptance of science from popular sources? Who knows, maybe one book guides are one too many. Maybe we shouldn’t believe anything unless we can recreate the experimental proof ourselves.

JWH

What Is Outside of the Box?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 9, 2015

We are constantly advised to think outside of the box. This usually comes on the job, when a breakthrough is needed because doing things the old ways are obviously no longer working. But what is outside the box? For a CPA, it might be new ways to shelter taxes, or for a NASA engineer, a completely novel way to land a rover on Mars, but for most people it means, “Try thinking other than the way you’ve always thought.”

Think-Outside-the-Box

To understand how that’s done really requires knowing what’s in the box and what’s outside the box. I like to think of the box as our skull. Our brains are inside a bone box, connected to the outer world by five sensory input ports. You can read 2,500 years of philosophy about what’s outside the box, but it essentially comes down to three things. Solipsistic thinkers believe only the self exists and there’s nothing outside the box. It’s all an illusion. Theistic thinkers believe we are souls embedded in a physical reality created by God, that obscures a greater spiritual reality . Finally, scientific thinkers believe there is a vast singular objective reality outside our heads that can be understood through gathering evidence with scientific and statistical methods using our five senses.

Each of these viewpoints can hinder the perception of what’s outside of the box through rigid adherence to beliefs about what might potentially be outside the box. Which is why we’re constantly told to think outside the box. If you believe your religion explains what’s outside the box, then why are there so many other religions? Which one explains reality? If you believe the religion you were brought up to believe, how can you know if you’re not culturally brainwashed? To think outside the box would require studying a good sampling of all religions, and then deciding which theological ontology is the most valid, if any. Any scientist who’s heard the phrase paradigm shift will understand their own potential for rigid thinking that blinds them to something new.

Inside our heads, we build the walls of our box with cultural brainwashing. Most people think the way they do because they were taught to think that way by parents and peers. We seldom escape that original packaging. Anyone who is completely confident in believing what they were taught are delusional. And even when taking on new views, it’s very easy to take on new delusions about what’s outside the box. Can we ever really know what’s exists outside our skulls?

It’s very easy to find masters of hidden wisdom who to claim to teach the ultimate secrets to what’s outside of the box. Just watch this entertaining video about thinking outside the box. It’s a come-on for the esoteric belief in hidden knowledge called Kabbalah. I highly recommend watching this video because it’s very convincing. And that’s the trouble, there’s an infinity of convincing cases made to what’s outside the box. There are plenty of other ancient systems of hidden knowledge, like Gnosticism and Pythagoreanism. Folks have been trying to figure out what’s outside the box for thousands and thousands of years. Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book Sapiens that humans have been inventing ideas since the cognitive revolution 17,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are experts as making shit up—it might be our defining characteristic.

For the last five hundred years, science has been trying to measure data from outside the box by looking for consistent behavior. During the time it has developed an extremely statistically consistent view of what’s outside the box. It’s precise down to enough decimal places to allow scientists to send probes to Pluto billions of miles away or let giant heavy-than-air jumbo jets fly around the world.

We all live in a subjective reality created by our minds which give us delusions that we know what’s outside the box. We’d like to believe there an objective reality that is the same for all seven billion of us to perceive. Subjective reality might be too powerful to ever let us comprehend what’s outside the box. Culturally we carry the baggage of thousands of years of religious and philosophical thinking that provide no actual evidence to what’s outside the box. Zen Buddhists work to teach people to see directly with their senses and forget corrupting concepts, but few people can do that.

Often to think outside of the box requires us to stop thinking inside the box. It helps to let new concepts inside.

If you’re following the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, so far all the candidates are rigidly thinking inside their boxes, and so are the voters. Essentially politics have become a way to form coalitions of like minded subjective thinkers, usually based on the same moldy old issues inspired by subjective desires. If there is an objective reality out there, we must work on the actual problems that we face to let us live safely in that objective reality. If it’s a solipsistic or metaphysical reality, it hardly matters. Sadly, most voters are seeking candidates that validate their delusions. Isn’t time we all start wondering what’s actually outside our boxes?

Flammarion_Woodcut

JWH #971

The Science Fiction in The Martian

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 5, 2015

Most folks call The Martian science fiction, even when most of the articles I read about the book and movie praise its science. After I thought about it, I find it very difficult to find anything science fictional about The Martian. When does fiction mutate into science fiction? Science fiction has always been notoriously hard to define. Does rocketships and a Mars setting automatically make The Martian science fiction? Is being set slightly in the future make it science fiction? In terms of publishing categories and movie marketing labeling, it’s pretty natural to call The Martian science fiction, but I’m wondering if that’s old habit or lazy convenience.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love super hard science fiction that doesn’t stray far from scientific laws. But from the vantage point of when I grew up back in the 1950s and 1960s, our lives in the 2010s are already science fictional. So it’s hard to discern everyday far out from imaginative far out. The Martian would definitely be science fiction if it was written back when Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were telling stories about going to Mars hoping to inspire humanity to really go. Isn’t Andy Weir and his work a child of science fiction, but not necessarily science fiction? Aren’t we too close to going to Mars for stories about going to Mars to be called science fiction?

One reviewer said The Martian should just be called fiction. Even if we haven’t gone to Mars yet, it doesn’t mean a story about going to Mars is science fiction. Science fiction speculates about the possibilities of what science might discover, and The Martian uses science that engineers routinely apply now to existing space missions. About the only fantastic speculation I can see The Martian is the belief that the United States will spend trillions of dollars on a Mars mission sometime in the near future. The only area where I see Ridley Scott pushing believability is the scale of his Mars rockets, rovers, habitats and equipment. It’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t remember if Andy Weir imagined everything so big.

Science fiction is about a sense of wonder that pushes the limits of knowledge. Sure it’s often unbelievable and even ultimately unscientific, and although science fiction is fantastic like fantasy fiction, science fiction is something we want to believe is possible even though it’s probably not. The Martian is far out, and has tremendous sense of wonder, but isn’t it too mundane to be science fiction? Isn’t it really just fiction? We could do everything in The Martian if Uncle Sam would write NASA a big enough check. And I say again, that’s about the only thing I think is science fictional in The Martian.

I’m wondering if there are qualities to science fiction that we don’t understand. That it’s too easy to call anything about the future, or anything that takes place in outer space as science fiction. Maybe we don’t know what to point to when we’re looking for the essence of science fiction. For 99.9% of people, science fiction is the perfect label for The Martian. The book and movie are wonderful, inspiring and filled with a powerful sense of wonder. I think they make people feel like they used to when they were kids reading science fiction for the first time. However, I think there is something more to science fiction. Something elusive that we can’t easily pin down. Something that we long for when we’re old, and wish we could find it again. I’m not sure that’s in The Martian. I believe it has too much science for that ineffable quality.

Nor do I mean any criticism of The Martian by thinking about not calling it science fiction. It’s a standout story and movie. I was just wondering when times get so close to science fictional if we need to reserve the label for stories a little more into the twilight zone.

JWH