Pillars of Creation

The Guardian: Science Fiction Is a 21st-Century Religion

Writing on The Guardian, Damien Walter says that science fiction has evolved into a religion for modern times. His interesting and thoughtful article covers much of the same ground explored in my essay “Religion Fiction Inspires Real Religion.”

“SF provides a place to focus our awe at the wonders of the universe, just one of many functions it shares with religious beliefs.”

The main point that I make in “Religion Fiction Inspires Real Religion” is that religion-oriented fiction, and in particular religion-oriented science fiction (I call it “religion fiction”) plays a similar role for religion as science fiction for science. Theology and philosophy alone wouldn’t command strong emotional reactions, at least not for most people, without the human stories and science-fiction-like mythologies that form the narrative scaffolding of most religions. Early works of religion fiction may be integral parts of some of today’s mainstream religions, and contemporary works of religion fiction may become integral parts of tomorrow’s religions.

Walter says:

“It’s often argued that science has killed God, and that scientific knowledge reduces the mystery of the universe. [But every time] science opens up further depths of our universe, the mystery of it all only deepens. And the hunger for stories that speculate on answers to that mystery only grows.”

Life After Death in Silicon Virtual Realities

Walter seems skeptical about the possibility to upload minds to silicon, but he recognizes spiritual transhumanism as a religion for our and future times – what I and a growing number of Cosmists have been saying for years. He wonders whether there a chance, however slight, that we can find again the people we love after death, and says that speculative fiction provides a place to speculate on the answers to such questions.

“The Singularity, a point in the near future when technology evolves so fast that it allows life to transcend all physical boundaries, is now a common idea in SF, explored by writers from Damien Broderick to Charlie Stross. Its believers style themselves as singulatarians and transhumanists, but their rhetoric of life after death in silicon virtual realities so deeply echoes fundamentalist Christianity that no one is joking when they call it the Rapture of the Nerds.”

Pillars of Creation

Image: Nasa/ESA Hubble/RexX.

  • spud100

    As central as science fiction is to present an innovative and passionate vision of the future, fiction, as important as it is, is not all most people want or need. Humans cannot live by speculative fiction alone, paraphrasing, as someone long ago stated. To this end, I am now reading, philosopher, Eric Steinhart’s “Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death.” This, being a book that sort of maps out a computational response to human mortality. The book, for me, is based on computer concepts applied to our universe, and it seems to come out quite on target. Tight, so to speak, on the universe that astronomers now observe. Is Steinhart unassailable? In no way! This, being a fact of life, because there are always bright students, philosophers, and scientists who are happy to attack any concept that is offered up. I can search the papers at ARXIV, for example, and find challenges to Einstein’s general relativity, or the evidence of the Big Bang being wrong. All things are challengeable, based on the way people perceive things.

    For me, Steinhart’s book goes a long to rationally understanding how the universe seems to be, and in this, there is some satisfaction for me, concerning both the existential and the scientific. Both factual books and fictional books, have the human flaw of never occurring. The Light of Other Days, by Clarke and Baxter, may never happen, or Sting Theory, or the Standard Model may eventually be found false. But I am guessing, from what I have read (half way complete), it’s quite good, and well defined in its speculation. So much so, that the I speculate that whatever sort of physics we live within, the computational rigor seems solid enough to survival new discoveries of the cosmos, be it expanding universe or steady state.
    I love science fiction, as a theatre for the mind, but digital physics and philosophy appears, so far, to hit the goal. Even the most inspirational writers, like Olaf Stapleton cannot achieve this. Never the less, I will still purchase and read science fiction.

    • Giulio Prisco

      Good to see you Spud, how are things on the good old K Forum?

      I didn’t read Eric’s book yet because 110 dollars for the Kindle version (more expensive than the hardcover) seems frankly excessive to me and I don’t want to encourage publishers’ greed. I would be happy to send 10 or 20 bucks directly to Eric if he wants to send me a copy.

      I read Eric’s papers, so I have a good idea of what he says in the book.

      Humans cannot live by speculative fiction alone, but humans cannot live by boring engineering details alone either. We need both, speculative fiction to be motivated and imagine things, and hard engineering to get things done. And we need people to do both. I agree with you that digital physics is probably where big things will be done, but that isn’t happening yet – perhaps we need to read more good science fiction to endure the wait and, of course, to inspire and motivate the next generations of digital physicists.

      • spud100

        Hi Giulio,

        I don’t disagree with your summary. It was 3 months before I decided to finally by Steinhart’s book because it is expensive ($88.00 US). So far its worth it. Steinhart shows that the transfer of data about persons. planets, and universes, call transfer their information via “pipes.” for instance, which I do not recall seeing in his on-line file. The reason, I surmise, that physicists are not doing this and leaving it to philosophers, is because as you have indicated, physicists are able to enforce restriction on scientific speculation, via ridicule and career punishment. In Steinhart’s case, philosophers go where physicists fear to tread.

        My guess is that if someone funded digital physics and philosophy it would take-off and soon become the religion of programmer analysts and software engineers. Science fiction will always inspire, and that is what makes it different then other forms of literature. The Forum is largely unchanged, and combativeness ebbs and flows with the usual suspects in play. I will let you know if I find some interesting concepts that fit in well with your Religion. I suspect I will.


        • Giulio Prisco

          Re “physicists are able to enforce restriction on scientific speculation, via ridicule and career punishment.”

          Yes, and that’s the reason young researchers must confine themselves to politically-correct research topics.

          But there is also another reason physicists are leaving digital physics to philosophers – there are no digital physics theories and frameworks at the moment that offer a better quantitative explanation of physical phenomena seen in the lab or in the universe.