Faith in Science
I am a fan of science fiction books, shows, and movies. Not surprisingly, one focus of science fiction stories is how much science itself will accomplish in the future. There is an expectancy, a faith if you will, in the onward march of science. While it is true that science fiction as a genre often explores the possible dark side of scientific advancement, the advancement itself is unquestioned.
This faith is understandable to a large extent given how much our scientific progress has gained for us in the West. The problem is that many think that the advance of science means the elimination of the supernatural. There is no reason that this need be true, but it is often a theme in science fiction.
One example that comes to mind is Stargate SG-1, one of my favorite shows (at least while it still featured Richard Dean Anderson). The premise is that all the ancient pagan gods were actually advanced aliens pretending to be deities to more effecitvely rule mankind. Now that earth has advanced technologically to a certain point, the U.S. has uncovered some of their technology and have used it to travel to other planets. The old gods are out there, however, and the U.S. Air Force regularly engages them in armed conflict. Conspicuously absent is any hint that the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim God was an alien impersonator. That is probably for ratings reasons although there have been an episode or two that hint that the God is the real deal.
The Third Law
This attitude flows from the third of the “laws of prediction” articulated by renowned sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Many science fiction authors have used this law to suggest that any apparent magic (or the supernatural), as indicated by fantastic feats or events -- must be the result of science.
The problem with taking the “Third Law” to that extreme is that is assumes what has not been demonstrated. I believe in science and the supernatural. But just because I believe in the supernatural does not mean I explain all events and happenings – even unusual events and happenings – in supernatural terms. And just because I believe in science does not mean that I foreclose a possible supernatural explanation for certain events – such as the creation of the universe, the existence of human life, and the resurrection of Jesus.
This undercurrent often bugs me, but I enjoy the genre nonetheless. Still, it is refreshing when I come across fiction authors – top ones in the field no less – who recognize this tendency in science fiction, and modern preconceptions, and are critical of it. Below I discuss -- with spoilers -- two popular fiction books.
Faith in Science Fiction
In 1976, two of my favorite authors – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – published Inferno, an updated version of Dante’s Inferno. Therein, instead of Dante traveling through hell, we have an agnostic science fiction writer – Allen Carpentier -- who dies ignobly while drunk at a party. He ends up in the first circle of hell and – guided by “Benny” – travels deeper and deeper into the inferno, becoming exposed to more and more of its horrors. Carpentier struggles mightily to rationalize all that he sees and refuses to seriously consider that he is in hell. His continuously revised explanation starts with the premise that he was frozen shortly after his death and revised many years later. His reconstituted body was placed in an elaborate futuristic amusement park or reality show (which he labels “Infernoland”) constructed by “the Builders” who have powerful technology.
Halfway through the book, Carpentier still refuses to believe he is in hell despite its parallels with Dante’s vision of hell and despite the conditions around him and within him (his inability to die, his lower mass, his healing after being burned). He even invokes the Third Law:
Infernoland. Disneyland of the Damnable… Clarke’s law kept running through my head, an old axiom of science fiction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
In my time it would take magic, the supernatural, to make that many people, not weightless, but massless. It wasn’t even possible in theory to extract the inertia and leave the weight. But they could do it, the Builders, the God Corporation. Why? It must have cost a lot. Just how big a paying audience did they have.
Eventually, Carpentier realizes that he has come to attribute such power and motivations to “the Builders” that they are in fact no different than God. It is only after he accepts that he is really in Hell and that God is truly punishing people for their wickedness that he begins his journey to find a way out. The refusal to believe in the supernatural – arising from his conviction that only science could explain his condition – had impeded the search for truth. In other words, the opening of the mind to all possibilities to explain an extraordinary event but one – even if that one is supernatural – means that one’s mind is really closed.
Another – more recent sci-fi effort – that turned Clarke’s Third Law on its head was Dean Koontz’s The Taking. The book starts out spooky and continues to digress deeper and deeper into some of the creepiest and most horrific narrative Koontz has ever penned. In The Taking, the world seems to be ending, with dramatic and devastating weather events around the world. From fragmented news reports, we learn that the crewman on the space station suffer cruel fates. The culprit appears to be the work of an insidious alien invasion intent on their equivalent of terraforming. At least at first.
Closer to home, neighbors start turning up dead or missing. An evil much more personal is at work, acting with a hatred of humanity and viciousness that defies explanation. At least it defies any seemingly scientific explanation or imagined alien invaders. The facts simply do not add up. Koontz' ending provides the only rational explanation for the horror and evil that has occurred. It is Judgment Day and God has lifted his restraint of Satan’s fury against man. Much of humanity suffers from Satan’s rampage, but God’s protection saves many and renews the earth. One of the few adults to survive the carnage refers to the Third Law at the end. Therein, she first explains what everyone believed was going on:
An extraterrestrial species, hundreds or thousands of years more advanced than we are, would possess technology that would appear to us to be not the result of applied science but entirely supernatural, pure magic.
Then, the heroine explained what had really happened:
New thought: A supernatural event of world-shaking proportions, occurring in a faithless time when only science is believed to have the power to work miracles, might appear to be the work of an extraterrestrial species hundreds or even thousands of years more advanced than we are.
Satan, aware of the state of modern man’s preconceptions, had played up the deception, but the evidence was there for those who could see it without anti-supernatural blinders on.
Both books are great reads from a purely literary standpoint. (Disclaimer: I'm not endorsing any particular theology of hell or the end of the world, and I doubt the authors meant to do so). But I believe these two books are helpful reminders that – just as in the Age of Faith people too often invoked God to explain the unknown – people in the Age of Science may also jump to the wrong conclusion if they close their minds to all explanations suggested by the evidence.