Monday, November 24, 2014

More Philosophical SF Recommendations

Regular readers of The Splintered Mind will remember the recent series of posts offering 36 professional philosophers' recommendations of works of science fiction or speculative fiction (SF) -- compiled here. Since then, I've accumulated a few more lists and recommendations.


a list of movies from the Philo-Teach discussion list started in 1996,
which Bruce Janz has kindly reposted -- movies that philosophers have found useful to show students for teaching purposes. Some good SF on there (but also lots of non-SF).

And here's

a list of science fiction about death
compiled for John M. Fischer in 1993 by John's and my late colleague George Slusser, the visionary science fiction scholar whose vast knowledge of the genre was central to developing UC Riverside's Eaton Collection into the largest publicly available collection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world.

Below are three new SF lists in the standard format I am using for list contributions (ten recommendations with brief pitches).

Further contributions are welcome. Official list contributors should be "professional philosophers" (by which I mean something like PhD and a teaching or research job in philosophy) or SF writers with graduate training in philosophy and at least one "pro" sale. And as always, all readers' further thoughts and recommendations are welcomed in the comments section!


List from Simon Fokt (Teaching Fellow in Philosophy, University of Leeds), Polish SF from Lem and Dukaj:

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961; trans. 1970) Lem explores issues related to limitations of knowledge and communication, philosophy of mind and the structure of radically different minds.

Stanisław Lem, Fiasco (novel, 1986; trans. 1987) Another novel exploring the linguistic and cognitive limitations on understanding and communicating with truly different, alien life forms.

Stanisław Lem, Golem XIV (novel, 1981; trans. 1985) A story from the point of view of an AI which achieves consciousness, raises issues in philosophy of mind, and questions human ethics.

Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress (novel, 1971; trans. 1974) On distinguishing reality from hallucination; scepticism and issues in knowledge acquisition and justification.

Stanisław Lem, Return from the Stars (novel, 1961; trans. 1980) Can humans live in a utopian society? What is the value of suffering, danger and risk, and what can happen if they are removed?

Stanisław Lem, Wizja lokalna (Local Vision) (novel, 1982 – Polish, not translated) Raises moral issues related to artificial intelligences and immortality.

Jacek Dukaj, Inne Pieśni (Other Songs) (novel, 2003 – Polish, not translated) An alternative history, starting from Alexander the Great’s times, in which Aristotle's physics is actually true. There are five elements, form and matter, etc., and some people have the power to will form onto matter. Basically, what would the world be like if Aristotle were right?

Jacek Dukaj, Lód (Ice) (novel, 2007 – Polish, not translated) The Tunguska Meteorite creates the Ice which freezes history and laws of logic in a part of the world. Under the Ice logic has only two-values, while outside it's many-valued. Issues in logic, rationality and cognition.

Jacek Dukaj, Czarne oceany (Black Oceans) (novel, 2001 – Polish, not translated) Jacek Dukaj, Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość (An Ideal Imperfection) (novel, 2004 – Polish, not translated) Both novels explore post-humanism, the limits of human cognition and self, personal identity and persistence in the context of technology advanced enough to permit multiple physical realizations of a single consciousness, and blurring the lines between several simultaneous streams of thought and communication.

Simon adds: "Sadly, Dukaj’s work isn’t likely to be translated any time soon, which is unfortunate. Not because it’s not worth it, but because of the difficulty – he’s very interested in linguistic manipulations and neologisms, including not only making up new words, but making up entire grammar structures (e.g. some post-human-beings have no gender or location, so he creates an entirely new type of declination which is used when speaking about them). It must be a great challenge to translate that! Hopefully someone will, sooner or later."


List from David John Baker (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan):

Dan Simmons, Hyperion (novel, 1989) The best science fiction novel I've ever read, a treasure of the genre. It isn't philosophical throughout, but the chapter titled "The Scholar's Tale" contains a lot of interesting philosophy of religion.

C.J. Cherryh, Cyteen (novel, 1988) Nature/nurture and personal identity questions are central to an absorbing plot.

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (novel, 1972) Revolves around a fascinating question at the border between philosophy and psychology. Revealing the question would spoil the plot.

John C. Wright, The Golden Age (and sequels The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence) (novels 2002-2003) A well-thought-out posthuman libertarian utopia. (Also a deeply sexist novel, I'm afraid.)

Stephen Baxter, Manifold Time (novel, 1999) The plot of this book revolves around the doomsday argument! Also features some interesting detail about time and quantum physics, although much of it is distorted for fictional effect.

John Varley, The Ophiuchi Hotline (novel, 1977) Hinges on some wonderful thought experiments about personal identity, free will and the nature of intelligence.

John Kessel, "Stories for Men" (short story, 2002) Fascinating piece about gender. Examines a civilization in which women are privileged in something like the way our civilization privileges men.

Ted Chiang, "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" (short story, 2013) One of Chiang's most philosophical stories, which is saying a lot. Examines the unreliability of memory. If I had more room for a longer list, at least half of Chiang's stories would be on it.

Ariel Djanikian, The Office of Mercy (novel, 2013) Recent novel by a first-time author. A utilitarian civilization ruthlessly acts out its principles on a grand scale. Hard to say if this is a utopia or a dystopia.

Greg Bear, Queen of Angels (and sequel Slant) (novels, 1990 and 1997) Another morally ambiguous utopia. A civilization which treats violent deviants with therapy rather than punishment.


List from Christy Mag Uidhir (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Houston):

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (novel, 1972) A novella composed of three short stories that addresses the issue of personal identity through the Colonialist lens.

Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (novels, 1980-1987) Four novels and a coda. Modern masterpiece of literature, science-fiction or otherwise. Difficult and at times seems impenetrably dense but, like much of Wolfe’s work, the rewards for the careful reader are endless.

Walter Miller, Jr., Canticle for Leibowitz (novel, 1959) A powerful tale both beautiful and tragic of Humanity and the light of knowledge.

Stanisław Lem, The Cyberiad (story collection, 1965; trans. 1974) A collection of philosophically-themed short stories about the adventures of constructor engineers Trurl and Klapaucius trying to out do one another.

Frederick Pohl, Gateway (novel, 1977) How time doesn’t heal all wounds; some it leaves freshly open and raw forever.

Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (novel, 1975) Haldeman’s sci-fi Vietnam masterpiece. What war at relativistic speeds means for soldiers going home.

Jack Vance, The Dying Earth (novel, 1950) Set millions of years in the future against the backdrop of a dying sun where mathematics has become magic and Earth a thing of terrible beauty.

Stanisław Lem, The Futurological Congress (novel, 1971; trans. 1974) It’s The Matrix on drugs (literally) but better written and utterly hilarious.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (novel, 1998) A thoroughly enjoyable time-travel romp with a surprisingly philosophically sophisticated ending.

Mike Resnick, Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge (novel, 1994) Novella that uses stories from a single geographic location across time to weave together a portrait of humanity (and the rise and fall thereof) as an essentially ruthless and thoroughly evil blight upon the universe.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Schindler's Truck

Today I'm thinking about Schindler's truck and what it suggests about the moral psychology of one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.

Here's a portrayal of the truck, in the background of a famous scene from Schindler's List:

[image source]

Oskar Schindler, as you probably know, saved over a thousand Jews from death under the Nazis by spending vast sums of money to hire them in his factories, where they were protected. Near the end of Spielberg's movie about him, the script suggests that Schindler is broke -- that he has spent the last of his wartime slave-labor profits to save his Jewish workers, just on the very eve of German surrender:

Stern: Do you have any money hidden away someplace that I don't know about?
Schindler: No. Am I broke?
Stern: Uh, well...

Then there's the surrender, Schindler's speech to the factory workers, and preparations for Schindler's escape (as a hunted profiteer of slave labor).

Seeing the film, you might briefly think, what's with the truck that caravans off with Schindler? But the truck gets no emphasis in the film.

Thomas Keneally's 1982 book Schindler's Ark (on which Spielberg's 1993 film was based) tells us more about the truck:

Emilie, Oskar, and a driver were meant to occupy the Mercedes. [Seven] others would follow in a truck loaded with food and cigarettes and liquor for barter (p. 375).
In one of the factory garages that afternoon, two prisoners were engaged in removing the upholstery from the ceiling and inner doors of Oskar's Mercedes, inserting small sacks of the Herr Direktor's diamonds... (p. 368).
So, on Keneally's telling, Schindler drove off with a truck full of barter goods and small sacks of diamonds hidden in the upholstery -- hardly broke. On reflection, too, you might think the timing is too cinematic, the story suspiciously tidy, if Schindler goes broke just at the moment of German surrender.

Part of me wants Schindler to have gone broke, or at least not to have driven off with sacks of diamonds. A fully thoughtful Schindler would have realized, perhaps, that he was in fact a profiteer of slave labor, despite the admiration he rightly deserves for the risks he took and his enormous expenditures of (most of!) his ill-gotten profits. On this way of thinking, the wealth generated by Schindler's factories more rightly belonged to the Jews than to Schindler. I picture an alternative Schindler who realizes that and who thus retains only enough money to ensure his escape.

But another part of me thinks this is too much to hope for, that the thought "Of course I deserve to keep some of these diamonds" is so natural that no merely human Schindler would fail to have it; that in wanting Schindler not to have that thought, I am wanting an angel rather than a person.

We don't really know, though, what Schindler fled with. David M. Crowe writes:

It is hard to imagine that he still had a collection of diamonds so large that it would fill the door and ceiling cavities of a Mercedes. [N.B.: This is an uncharitable reading of Keneally's version] Emilie [Schindler's wife] totally discounted the idea that the two of them left Bruennlitz with a "fortune in diamonds," though she later admitted that Oskar did have a "huge diamond" hidden in the glove compartment (2004, p. 455).
By all accounts, Schindler's remaining wealth was gone, probably stolen, by the time he surrendered to the Americans.

Still another part of me thinks: If anyone deserves diamonds, it's Schindler. It would have been justice served, not a failing, for him to keep a portion of his wealth.

These three parts of me are still at war.

Monday, November 10, 2014

My Reaction to David Chalmers's The Conscious Mind, 18 Years Later

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked me what book written in the last 30 years changed my mind. Instead of trying to be clever, I went with my somewhat boring best guess at the truth: David Chalmers's The Conscious Mind. It changed my mind not because I came to accept its conclusions, but rather because Chalmers so nicely shows that if you want to avoid the bizarreness of panpsychism, epiphenomenalism, and property dualism, you have to say something else that seems at least equally bizarre. I differ from Chalmers in lacking confidence that I have good basis for choosing among the various bizarre metaphysical alternatives.

These reflections brought me, then, to what I've been calling "crazyism": Something that seems crazy must be true, but we have no good way to know which among the crazy options is the right one. My article, "The Crazyist Metaphysics of Mind", just published in Australasian Journal of Philosophy is, at root, my much-delayed answer to Chalmers's 1996 challenge to materialism.

Two Views of the Relationship Between Philosophy and Science Fiction

Consider two possible views of the relationship between philosophy and science fiction.

On the first view, science fiction simply illustrates, or makes more accessible, what could be said as well or better in a discursive philosophical essay. Those who can’t stomach purely abstract discussions on the nature of time, for example, might be drawn into an exciting story; but seasoned philosophers can ignore such entertainments and proceed directly to the abstract arguments that are the meat of the philosophical enterprise.

On the second view, science-fictional storytelling has philosophical merit in its own right that is not reducible to abstract argumentation. For at least some philosophical topics, one cannot substitute for the other, and a diet of only one type of writing risks leaving you philosophically malnourished.

One argument for the second view holds that examples and thought-experiments play an ineliminable role in philosophical thinking. If so, we might see the miniature examples and thought experiments in philosophical essays as midpoints on a continuum from purely abstract propositions on one end to novel-length narratives on the other. Whatever role short examples play in philosophical thinking, longer narratives might also play a similar role. Perhaps entirely abstract prose leaves the imagination and the emotions hungry; well-drawn thought experiments engage them a bit; and films and novels engage them more fully, bringing with them whatever cognitive benefits (and risks) flow from vividly engaging the imagination and emotions. Ordinary literary fiction engages imaginative and emotive cognition about possibilities within the ordinary run of human experience; speculative fiction engages imaginative and emotive cognition about possibilities outside the ordinary run of human experience. Both types of fiction potentially deserve a central role in philosophical reflection about such possibilities.

[from the intro of "Philosophers Recommend Science Fiction", forthcoming in Susan Schneider, ed., Science Fiction and Philosophy, 2nd ed.]

Monday, November 03, 2014

Philosophical SF: Thirty-Six Philosophers' Recommendations

... here!

This mega-list of about 360 recommendations is compiled from the lists I've been rolling out over the past several weeks. Thirty-four professional philosophers and two prominent science fiction / speculative fiction (SF) authors with graduate training in philosophy each contributed a list of ten personal favorite "philosophically interesting" SF works, with brief "pitches" for each recommended work.

I have compiled two mega-lists, organized differently. One mega-list is organized by contributor, so that you can see all of Scott Bakker's recommendations, then all of Sara Bernstein's recommendations, etc. It might be useful to skim through to see whose tastes you seem to share and then look at what other works that person recommends.

The other mega-list is organized by author (or director or TV series), to highlight authors (directors / TV shows) who were most often recommended by the list contributors.

The most recommended authors were:

Recommended by 11 contributors:

  • Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended by 8:
  • Philip K. Dick
Recommended by 7:
  • Ted Chiang
  • Greg Egan
Recommended by 5:
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Robert A. Heinlein
  • China Miéville
  • Charles Stross
Recommended by 4:
  • Jorge Luis Borges
  • Ray Bradbury
  • P. D. James
  • Neal Stephenson
Recommended by 3:
  • Edwin Abbott
  • Douglas Adams
  • Margaret Atwood
  • R. Scott Bakker
  • Iain M. Banks
  • Octavia Butler
  • William Gibson
  • Stanisław Lem
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Larry Niven
  • George Orwell (Eric A. Blair)
  • Kurt Vonnegut
The most recommended directors / TV shows were:

Recommended by 7:

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation
Recommended by 5:
  • Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Batman: The Dark Knight, Inception)
Recommended by 4:
  • Ridley Scott (Blade Runner)
Recommended by 3:
  • Futurama
  • Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code)
  • Andrew Niccol (Gattaca)
  • Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers)
  • Andy & Lana Wachowski (The Matrix and sequels)
Reactions, corrections, and futher suggestions welcome (as always) in the comments section.

[image source]