Speculative Fiction and Knowledge

This is part of a series of posts about the value of speculative fiction in understanding religion.

Generally, speculative fiction is a poor place to learn about the real world. In other words, there are reasons to doubt the cognitive value of speculative fiction. This is to say it doesn’t add much to our knowledge or the justification of our beliefs. How so? There are so many excellent and accessible nonfiction books, YouTube videos, and podcasts about most every topic imaginable, that it’s unwise to slog through a science fiction or fantasy novel for the same information. Furthermore, the science found in a novel may be outdated or incorrect; not all science fiction is hard science fiction, beholden to the laws of physics. Even when we know the novel is hard science fiction, why should we take the writer’s word for what is established science when we can consult a peer reviewed source or expert that has spent their time verifying their research rather than honing characters and plot?

Thought Experiments in Speculative Fiction

A natural place to look for cognitive value in speculative fiction is stories that function as thought experiments. Such fiction sometimes even contributes to science—for instance, by anticipating scientific developments, as H. G. Wells did in writing his 1914 novel “The World Set Free” about nuclear weapons.

When it comes to speculative fiction about religion, thought experiments abound. Consider James Blish’s 1958 book A Case of Consciousness, which considers Christian (predominately Jesuit Catholic) theology in the context of an alien society that is both sinless and atheistic. Or Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 book Starmaker, a philosophical exploration of God’s psychology and how the cosmos relates to God under the assumption that species across the universe can be united telepathically. Or Jack McDevitt’s 1991 story “Gus,” which examines whether computers can have soul by considering a simulation of the theologian St. Augustine. Or the 1999 film “eXistenZ,” directed by David Cronenberg, that explores virtual reality as spiritual experience, which is mass marketed but nevertheless subjectively real.

But speculative fiction is in a poor spot cognitively if all that’s cognitively valuable about its works is the thought experiments they contain. Thought experiments are pure world building. The specifics of the characters, the plot, the style—in short everything that makes the work literature—can be stripped away in favor of a synopsis. I may be mistaken about this in particular cases—for example with deeply psychological stories where the thought experiment is also the working out of a psychology (see my later post on this). But I worry that championing thought experiments in speculative fiction is just a way of championing speculation, whether it appear in fiction or nonfiction. And that is the problem before us: How does speculative fiction, insofar as it is speculative fiction, contribute to our knowledge?

Narrative Truth and Objective Truth

Let’s turn to the other genre that comprises speculative fiction: fantasy. In particular, fantasy based on a particular historical time period or culture seems like it might be of cognitive value because we have something to learn from the work. But fantasy writers take liberties with the source material that inspired their fantasy world because, after all, the worlds they make are not our own. Their goal is to tell a good story in a convincing world. They aren’t restrained liked journalists or historians are. So we would be unwise to say we’ve learned about Mongolian culture after having read about the Dothraki in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Writers take liberties with their research because the “truth” of a story, the fabric of the narrative, is not how objectively probable the entities are that populate a fictional world—for instance, a literate feminist woman living in 12th century Germany—but how the entities cohere with one another when taken together. That coherency can be achieved by supposing our 12th-century literate feminist had a progressive father that taught her to read rather than selecting a husband for her. It can be achieved more felicitously by supposing she was Hildegard of Bingen. But either way, in truth-seeking, humans are handicapped by our penchant for conflating plausibility with probability, as Daniel Kahnemann explains in his Thinking, Fast and Slow (see his Steve example). Reading a novel about our 12th-century feminist disposes us to overrate or underrate how literate, oppressive, progressive, or feministic her wider culture was. These protagonists become stereotypes for how we think about the culture. We may be able to guard our thinking against this tendency, but it’s not the literary features of the work that facilitate this. In this, we have to fight against what literature does to us, so if anything, it’s cognitive value is negative (See my later post where I partially revise this position).

There’s a related concern that’s exacerbated by speculative fiction: We believe writers have told their story well not only by preserving suspension of disbelief, but by more and more fully immersing their reader in the story world. Does it then follow that the writer has only perfected his craft when he induces a psychotic break in his readers? This may be going too far, but writers nevertheless aim to break readers from reality temporarily. The reader should be so immersed that he has forgotten he’s at home, on the bus, or on lunch break. Rather, he is on Arrakis or Middle-Earth. Deep immersion may be exercise for our imagination, but we should be skeptical about whether the boost in imagination is of cognitive value because its achieved through a process that diminishes our knowledge of the actual world, however temporarily. More investigation would have to be done to determine if the sort of imagination developed through reading speculative fiction helps with real-world cognition, for instance with problem solving tasks.

The Cognitive Value of Other Literature

Now there are arguments in favor of the cognitive value of literature. One influential argument in philosophical literature is Dorothy Walsh’s observation in Literature and Knowledge that literature gives us knowledge of “what it’s like to x.” For instance, knowledge of what it’s like to lose a child to death, to be lost in a forest, or to experience religious conversion. This sort of knowledge can only be obtained by personal experience or through reading literature and related media. Crucially, it’s literary form that enables us to acquire this knowledge, which is essentially immersion into a particular kind of experience.

Another influential account of the cognitive value of literature is Martha Nussbaum’s account of moral knowledge in her essay on Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. For Nussbaum, moral knowledge—knowledge of the right way to act in a given situation—is so nuanced and particularized that it can’t be conveyed in nonfiction. What’s required is language of “literary splendor,” including metaphors and the deep psychological descriptions that characterize James’s novels. Moral knowledge can’t be condensed into statements of fact. Rather it’s the perception of people who have honed their moral faculty through living life or through reading exemplary works of literature that faithfully depict morally complex situations.

But it doesn’t seem that speculative fiction can appeal to either Walsh’s or Nussbaum’s accounts of literary cognitive value. There may properly be a kind of knowledge that consists in what it’s like to lose a child to death, but it’s much more difficult to claim that there’s a kind of knowledge that consists in what it’s like to be a dragon rider or to play a game of Quidditch. These experiences exist only within the story world and have no correlate to something that could actually be experienced by a real person.

So too with Nussbaum’s account of moral knowledge. She claims artists have an obligation to “depict reality precisely and faithfully,” which isn’t the business of speculative fiction writers. Speculative fiction writers regularly subject their protagonists to morally difficult situations, but insofar as these morally difficult situations precipitate from the fantasy or science fictional premises that writers deploy, they have less to do with the real situations we find ourselves in. In terms of moral knowledge, the cognitive value of speculative fiction seems to be diminished by its being speculative fiction.

In summary, it seems that speculative fiction resists the cognitive value theorists have found in other literary genres. But of course, I’m editing an anthology of speculative fiction stories about religion, so presumably I think that speculative fiction can inform us about religion and that its being speculative fiction facilitates this. I’ll begin discussing how this is so in my next post.

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