Within the last couple of centuries, science fiction has served humanity as part searchlight, part sentinel, part prophetic voice.
Originally known as “fantastic fiction” and “speculative fiction,” this artistic genre – genre almost seems an understatement in this context – has not simply entertained us for generations or, for that matter, divined our future. In many instances, science fiction has supplied a kind of evolutionary tug. It not only has also pointed the way toward scientific and technological innovation and our role within this expanded conceptual landscape but has also inspired us to reach for this future – not only to reach toward it but also to conceive and to refine the nature and terms of this quest.
To put it another way, science fiction now seems to be integrally bound up in scientific and technological progress, an essential facet of the equation. Much of the scientific and technological progress we have achieved arguably would not have been possible without the clarifying effects of science fiction.
I have also been intrigued for a long time with how science fiction has taken on many of properties of religion, not only in terms of helping us divine the future – no pun intended – but also enabling us to identify, improvise and refine the moral and ethical scaffolding to cope within this emerging future.
Venturing out someday into the deep reaches of space, we may encounter a technologically primitive species that may present us with many of the the same moral and ethical quandary that confronted Columbus when he first set foot on the the New World. Interestingly, the Prime Directive, the policy that prohibited the fictitious United Federation of Planet explorers from imposing their values and ideals on alien species, is more than just a popular meme. The cultural success and reach of the Star Trek franchise has drawn a host of people – not just ordinary science fiction fans but also scientists, philosophers and NASA experts from many disciplines – into a protracted dialogue about the moral and ethical implications of contact with other intelligent species, one that has extended across a half century.
Likewise, Asimov’s three rules of robotics not only have pervaded science fiction writing and film but also have provided a basis for the emerging dialogue about the nature, implications and long-term challenges of artificial intelligence.
I was reminded of Asimov’s rules watching Humans, a television series based on the Swedish series Real Humans, which explores the implications to humanity if and when highly sophisticated robots eventually attain a level of consciousness and sentience comparable to humans.
The case could be made that Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths, at least, in the view of many of its adherents, do no provide the moral and ethical framework in which to cope adequately with these emerging exigencies. Orthodox Christianity, for example, historically has focused exclusively on moral human beings as children of God – the unique creations of a divine and omnipotent being who ultimately will raise us (as least, some of us) to live in eternal communion with Him.
Moreover, conventional religion teaches (or, at least, strongly implies) that only human beings are equipped with the moral and spiritual capacity to live in communion with God.
In the view of many adherents of conventional religion, intelligent, robots, even the ones capable of some measure of sentience, are separated from God by an unbridgeable gulf.
Under the circumstances, humans may be unable to cope within this new scientific and technological world without the conceptual and moral scaffolding science fiction writing has provided over the last couple of centuries.
Science fiction affords insights and coping mechanisms that are beyond the the capacity of conventional religion – a critical need as we draw closer to what futurist Ray Kurzweil has described as “the age of intelligent machines.”
To express this network terms, it is almost as if humans have stacked a new platform atop conventional religion to cope with the exigencies of emerging scientific and technological knowledge.
In a very real sense science fiction is confirmation of the argument that “evolutuon finds a way.”