Last week there was a great interview in The Atlantic with Professor Tim Maudlin, who teaches the philosophy of physics at New York University. It’s a really interesting interview and it got me to thinking a number of things all at once.
The first thing it brought mind was the question of how philosophy, the love of wisdom, is applied to the various fields of human endeavor and study. Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Ethics, etc.. A few weeks ago I posted a blog about the difference between the fundamental questions asked by Science, Religion, Spirituality, and Philosophy. But this article started me thinking that a Universal Philosophy might encompass all of these questions. A universal philosophy might be able to examine the relationship between these questions.
The attempt to create a universal philosophy, a sort of theory of everything, that I am most familiar with is the Integral Philosophy of Ken Wilber. Wilber has spent the last thirty years working on philosophical framework to encompass religion, spirituality, psychology, and science. It’s a little to expansive and complicated to explore in detail, but the heart of it is a system he calls the quadrants of knowledge – a simple chart that shows outlines the relationships between the different areas of understanding. Wilber builds on the idea of holons by Arthur Koestler. A holon is both a thing unto itself and part of a whole. Wilber then arranges the different holons of the cosmos into quadrants. The quadrants are created from the intersection of two dichotomies: the interior/exterior and individual/collective. This presents four areas: individual interior (psychological), collective interior (cultural), individual exterior (physical/behavioral), collective exterior (physical/social). He then further extends levels of development within each quadrant (atom, molecule, cell, organs, bodies, etc.). You can see the chart below for a better idea of what I’m describing (from Kheper.com ).
Having read most of Wilber’s work, and much of the source material he used in formulating his theory, I find that I agree with the majority of his Integral Theory. There are problems with it, and there are some folks who think there are a lot of problems with it (see the writings at Integral World for a critique of Wilber’s theory, and in some case, Wilber himself.) I find his Integral Theory, a useful lens through which to examine the world and a means of seeing the interconnectedness of our individual lives with the cosmos around us. I’ve used it extensively in writing my non-fiction book exploring the connection between spirituality and globalization, The Chrysalis Age, and my feature film Dark September Rain, which explores what a spiritual response might be to an event as horrible as Sept. 11th.
However, while Wilber’s Integral Theory does provide a proposition for the relationship between the different aspects of existence, I don’t think it qualifies as a complete Universal Philosophy. The chart above is a great map the different quadrants at different levels of development, but it doesn’t help understand the relationship between the various holons at these levels in or between quadrants. A Universal Philosophy would, I think, attempt do that – explore the relationship between the questions of the different philosophical arenas, especially Science, Religion, Spirituality, and Ethics.
I don’t really have the time to come up with a fully functional Universal Philosophy (assuming I could) but it is an idea that I think I know I want to explore in my writing. Which brings me to the next thought that the interview with Maudlin prompted – How can sci-fi and Fantasy be philosophical fiction?
One of the things that I have always found most alluring about sci-fi is that there has always been a tradition of writers asking big questions, and if not directly trying to answer those questions, at least probing them in interesting and thought provoking ways. Because science fiction stories are almost always about ideas, often more so than character or plot, there has always been a strong philosophical streak in the genre. Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice is a perfect example of what I think represents philosophical fiction. In fact, after the sci-fi set up of the neutrino message from space, it seems increasingly focuses on philosophical questions.
So, how can a Universal Philosophy, a philosophy of everything, be articulated and explored in science fiction and fantasy? Sci-fi and fantasy are genre fiction, which to me means that they are far more concerned with things happening. I suspect this is why so many sci-fi stories, especially from the Golden Age, focused on ideas more than characters (see this great report by the BBC in the 1960s prior to the launch of Dr. Who). Ideas drive plot. Not that characters are not important. They are the means by which the ideas are explored and explained, often in lengthy info dumps or “philosophical semi-Socratic dialogue scenes” (Stranger in a Strange Land comes to mind).
It is one the reasons I think science fiction and sci-fi writers are prone to utopianism. What better way to explore the utopian ideals of your particular ideology than in some fictional future (Walden Two, Ecotopia Emerging, 2150 AD, Looking Backward, etc.).
I’m not really interested in promoting a particular ideology in my writing. I’m more interested in exploring the appropriateness of different ideologies or philosophies in understanding the cosmos and how to see the relationships between them to get a clearer vision, not just of reality as we experience it now, but of how to structure our personal and collective futures. Of course, I suppose the notion that is even possible is a bit of an ideology.
Regardless, I think sci-fi and fantasy are perfect playgrounds for philosophical explorations, as long as it is integral to the story, complements the plot, and is actively lived by the characters. Otherwise, it’s easier to write an essay.