Science Fiction and Philosophy: An Encounter in the Future

Science fiction, starting with its forerunner Frankenstein, has a history of imaginative and forward-looking storytelling going back 200 years. While philosophers sometimes try to construct fictional worlds in the abstract, science-fiction storytellers frequently strive to put philosophical explorations in concrete terms. In this sense, philosophy and science fiction are distinct paths with the same goal: answering the big issues confronting humanity.

Inspired by this idea, the Peking University Berggruen Research Center hosted a webinar entitled “Science Fiction and Philosophy: An Encounter in the Future” on April 28, 2021. The webinar aimed to unearth the philosophical threads underlying sci-fi narratives, connecting insights from both fields to help us understand our changing humanity.

The webinar was hosted by Professor Zhang Xianglong of the Department of Philosophy at Peking University. With an audience of about 100, it was designed as a series of four conversations, each between a sci-fi writer and a philosopher.

1. Introduction – Science Fiction as Reduction

The webinar began with Zhang Xianglong’s claim that science fiction is essentially a “reduction:” a “suspension” or deactivation of some of our familiar ways of doing and thinking so that our deeper, crueler, and perhaps more beautiful characteristics may be exposed. Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is a good example. In this story, the Trisolarans’ invasion of Earth disrupts faith in many ideas, including humanitarianism. In this cruel scenario, technological problems become philosophical problems.

Zhang believes that this capacity of science fiction is essentially made possible by the original spontaneity of human imagination: a power called “transcendental imagination” by Kant and his successors, “Maya” by Hindus and Buddhists, and, according to ancient Chinese philosophers, is reflected in the process of Qi to form Yin and Yang.

The rapid progress of quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence demonstrates that many “impossible” technologies can be made real. Quoting Liu Cixin in The Three-Body Problem, Zhang says that rather than giving our vitality the framework of technology, we should infuse technology with our vitality.

2. Science Fiction and Intelligence Science

The first conversation opened with a discussion of the shared features of science fiction and artificial intelligence by Mu Ming, a sci-fi writer. The reason for AI’s rapid progress in the past decade, according to Mu Ming, is that it provides a universal tool for thinking. AI technologies, such as machine learning, deep learning, and natural language processing, not only can offer novel approaches to a number of disciplines, but also can substantially affect our daily lives. Just as the abstract nature of intelligent technology bestows it with broad applications, science fiction does not offer concrete outcomes or plans, but rather a methodological way of thinking.

Wang Qiu of the School of Philosophy at Fudan University then shared his ideas about the academic discourse on science fiction and artificial intelligence. The lack of academic consensus on the definition of intelligence leaves considerable space for science fiction to join the conversation. By envisioning and therefore concretizing the abstraction of intelligence, science fiction enables us to reflect on its fundamental aspects. At the same time, science fiction is able to extrapolate “alternative” or “highly-developed” intelligence and inspire us to reconsider the relationship between humanity and intelligence. AI scientists and philosophers should connect more with science fiction and inquire into the underlying issues of logic represented therein.

3. Science Fiction and Simulated Reality

Simulated reality (SR) is the philosophical hypothesis that the real world could be a hi-res and hi-fi simulation game in which we are characters or strings of code in a program developed by a superior civilization.

In the second conversation, sci-fi writer and translator Baoshu introduced the history of SR in philosophy, from Zhuangzi’s “dream of a butterfly” to the Platonic realm of ideas and Hilary Putnam’s “brain in a vat”. According to Baoshu, once SR is considered technically possible, then the significance of “reality” may be lost, because a sufficiently advanced SR technology allows for an infinite number of worlds within worlds. No one living in any world, even the true “real” world, would be able to be sure whether they are actually living in the real world. In this case, reality may be meaningless.

Liu Yang of the Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University introduced the “simulation theory” proposed by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom. Bostrom believes that, assuming that our future computational power is strong enough, if we are optimistic about the future of humanity and we agree that humanity would have an interest in simulating the evolution of society, we are most likely simply programs running on supercomputers. However, Liu adds that a presupposition of the simulation theory, which is that consciousness can be simulated with an algorithm, is not without challenges. Some researchers suggest that we still know little about the generation and evolution of consciousness, and it seems unreasonable to talk about “creating” something—in this case, consciousness, the mind, or intelligence—when we are unclear about what that thing even is.

4. Science Fiction as Thought Experiment

The third session featured Chen Qiufan, also known as Stanley Chan, and Professor Tian Song of the Southern University of Science and Technology Center for Humanities. Bringing up his own experience as a novelist, Chen explains how methodological dialogues might happen between science fiction and philosophy. Chen proposes that one of the core feature of science fiction is “what if” experimentation: consider “what” consequences will be introduced “if” certain changes happen. This suggests a way in which science fiction might learn from philosophical thought. According to Chen, there is no absolute boundary between philosophy and science fiction in that both of them are attempting to address the same few basic questions: Who are we? Where did we come from and where will we go? There can be more dialogue between the two, allowing science fiction to become a fluid and creative narrative medium to connect more disciplines and ideas.

Around the turn of the 21st century, Tian Song said that sci-fi was a type of thought experiment. He nominates three criteria to evaluate a sci-fi work: narrative skill (plot and characters); scientifically imagined scenarios and objects; and the realm of thought, or, the setup of sci-fi as a thought experiment. The third criterion involves the exploration of the multitude of possible interactions between science, technology, nature, and human society, including:

• How might the invention and application of a specific technology, such as an invisibility cloak or gene editing, change us and our society?

• What kind of society might exist in a world of special physical features and conditions, such as a planet whose gravitational force is only half as large as the Earth’s?

• If universal artificial intelligence emerges, what would happen to human society?

5. Philosophy in Chinese Sci-fi Narratives

Compared to their overseas counterparts, Chinese sci-fi stories have received few philosophical interpretations. A philosophical investigation into Chinese science fiction would not only allow us to see more clearly how such stories are constructed and directed, but also promote consensus and innovation among storytellers.

Sci-fi writer and philosophy PhD candidate Shuang Chi Mu thinks that the composition of sci-fi stories and philosophical essays are intimately connected. An idea can either be used in a philosophical paper if it can be fit into a theoretical framework, or in a sci-fi story if it seems somehow untamable.

The philosophical motifs pursued by Chinese science fiction, Shuang Chi Mu says, should be enlightenment, distinctly Chinese philosophical characteristics, and world-class awareness. Chinese sci-fi needs to achieve both enlightenment and a thorough understanding of the world while also trying to absorb traditional Chinese wisdom (non-dichotomous ontology, non-theological ethics, and logical systems of principles, crafts, and objects) and climbing the rational and emotional peaks that only world-class masterpieces can reach.

On enlightenment, Sanfeng, a visiting researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology Research Center for Science and Human Imagination, says that modernity is a prominent philosophical force in Chinese science fiction. For the citizens of China, which until recently was considered a developing country, the future has been associated not only with an “other shore” of time, but also a literal “other shore.” Meanwhile, Eastern views of morality, religion, and the world tend to be assumed values in Chinese sci-fi stories. It is also not uncommon to find reflections and expansions on the visions for civilization advocated by Samuel P. Huntington and Francis Fukuyama.

6. Conclusions

After the four discussions, the audience contributed some fascinating discussions in a Q&A session, including:

1. The Wandering Earth offers a home-centered approach of “escape with our Earth,” in contrast to the “escape to find another earth” or colonial approach in conventional Western narratives. This seems to demonstrate an East-West difference in terms of doomsday survival.

2. Novelty and cognitive plausibility are defining features of science fiction. The former, influenced by various modern western Marxist schools, exhibits the affinity between leftist utopias and science-fiction literature, while the latter grasps a shared aspect of science fiction and philosophy in general—logical rigor—and thus sets a higher intellectual standard for sci-fi authors.

3. With respect to the relationship between sci-fi and science, science can be construed as a way or mindset to explore the world with testable and replicable methods. But science fiction is not necessarily based on actual science and technologies; all it needs is to construct a world consistent with the laws of logic and mind.

Building on the discussions in this webinar, the Peking University Berggruen Research Center will continue to offer activities related to science fiction and philosophy. Please stay tuned!