Discourse and Cynicism

I’m watching this tragic exchange between Barack Obama and his (now former) pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and wondering what may really be going on here.

Okay, so a lot of things Wright said in the past have been dredged up and tossed into the maelstrom of the current campaign to potentially discredit Obama.  “See, he went to this man’s sermons, this is what he really thinks!”

Can anyone really buy that?  I mean, seriously—how many people agree with every single pronouncement that comes out of the mouths of their pastors?  (When I attended church, I recall moving from a condition wherein I bought everything because I didn’t really understand it to a point where I began to question and then to the place in which I disagreed vehemently…it’s called growing up.)

The accusations Wright made in past sermons all had currency at one time or another.  AIDS was created by the United States to kill blacks (anyone with a passing knowledge of biology and genetics, or a bit of epidemiology—or knows a doctor well enough to ask—would know this is balderdash.  Intent aside, it’s not possible biologically), that 911 was somehow our fault (one could make a philosophical argument to that effect, but it still doesn’t fly in a direct causal sense), or that we are imperialists (again, if you want speak metaphorically, you can make an argument).  Sure, you can use these things as jumping off points to make broader arguments, and it is perhaps totally unfair of the media to have put these things out.

But then Wright himself, after claiming that he would not do so, has grabbed hold of the media bull by both horns and has contributed to the controversy.


I am just cynical enough to suspect collusion.  After all, this is giving Obama a wonderful opportunity to deny all the potential accusations that may come from a peanut gallery of racially-motivated antagonists when and if he gets the nomination.  He is able to use Wright’s statements are talking points to claim a clear difference.

Which doesn’t make anything he says in that regard untrue or insincere.  But having this kind of forum lends credibility to the sincerity.  After all, he didn’t bring it up.  He’s above it.  He’s not “that kind” of politician.

I am cynical enough to suspect it, but not quite cynical enough to believe it.  What this shows is the difficulty a candidate like Obama has being a non-minority candidate.  The discourse on race in this country leaves us with a problem for the candidate who wishes to be seen as an unhyphenated American—which is the best way to succeed in national politics—while being clearly affiliated with a specific strain of civil discourse, i.e. the race issue.  Barack Obama is and African-American.  What he has tried to do—and has been largely successful at doing—is convince the country that this is not his chief attribute, that he is not limited by the divisive aspects of the race dialogue as exemplified by Louis Farakhan and others.  He has managed to present himself as an American who can talk to all of us and is not bound by minority affiliations.

All it takes is one loud voice to remind us of that oftentimes bitter dialogue to drag him back into the fray and make us see him through a lens he has been evading.

This is the by-product of the long history of pigeon-holing that has defined this issue for centuries here.  On the one hand, minorities must struggle against the dominant insistence that they can be no more than what the cliched definition of that minority is seen to be, and it is a sign of heroism when an African-American (or Hispanic, Japanese, Indian, etc) manages to win individual respect against the weight of that insistent cataloging.  On the other, that same individual often must fight against members of that very group who seem set on dragging him or her back into the fold, unwilling to let them be an individual, insisting that they be representative of the group and no more and certainly no other.

Barack Obama should not have to waste his time telling us what he is not.  And we shouldn’t need to be reassured in the face of absurd accusations that a rational man is somehow a cloaked agent for an absurd position.

I am cynical enough to see that what should be in this instance is not ever going to be what is.  Not for a long, long time.

Sex, Gor, and The Good Stuff

The subject of John Norman’s Gor  came up recently in a letter from a long-lost cousin.  He wrote me about SF and different tastes and he mentioned this peculiar series and I thought, Damn, I haven’t thought about that since 1997.

I can name the year and even the week fairly precisely because I was in San Antonio Texas for the worldcon that year and ended up sharing an autographing session with John Norman.  I’d arrived at the table first, saw the name tags, and thought It couldn’t be…

But it was.

For those who may not know of Gor, this was a series of novels published through the Seventies which I can only describe as a combination of Conan and The Arabian Nights as if written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in collaboration with the Marquis de Sade.  Chains, leather, large bosoms, and a lot of improbable adventuring figure in them, although I was told by a friend that some of the Jungian psychology and mirror-world construction throughout the series was quite sophisticated.  I wouldn’t know.  I tried to read perhaps three of them—never finished any one of them.  I hasten to add, it wasn’t the bondage that turned me off—hell, I was 14 when I picked the first one up and any kind of gratuitous sex was appealing at the time—but it was the illogic of the plots and the sword-and-sorcery setting, even though it was written as if it were science fiction.  By my third or fourth attempt, the sex was beginning to bother me, but let me not pretend to a sophistry I did not possess at the time.  I didn’t know what bothered me about it, not till much later, only that it did.

The sex in these books shares something with a certain strain of Romance.  Women are forced to have the sex they apparently “really want” through the mechanism of a slave culture.  They’re tied up, they have no choice, and then discover that they like it.  What this shares with certain romances is the underlying liberation from personal responsibility.  No doubt this is true for certain people—I’ve been with a few—who really want to get down and dirty, but they don’t want to accept the responsibility of it being their idea. The conceit of “being taken” appeals because it frees them from blame.

As if blame ought ever to be part of sex…

For the males in these books, there is a similar loss of responsibility, since if things don’t work out they can sell the females—or get rid of them in some less pleasant fashion (they are property, after all).

I use the terms “males” and “females” quite intentionally.  These are not men and women—they don’t have the stuff to merit such descriptors.

All in all, these are wish-fulfillment fantasies of the first order, and after having spent an awkward half-hour with Mr. Norman I think I can say that with some degree of certainty.  Whether the wish-fulfillment is a device deployed in the novels to appeal to a target audience or an element of his own personality would be difficult to say, but I’m not sure such a distinction matters.

Norman fell out of favor and of course he was soundly attacked by feminists, and he made the mistake of defending the sexual ethics of his series.  I remember that it was an embarrassing screed.  It underscored the old rule of comedy—never explain the jokes.

The Gor novels are available, I discovered, from e-reads.com.

There are 26 of them now.

I remember that they had originally come out from, I think, Ballantine.  Then DAW picked them up.  The series was dropped due to flagging sales.  People had grown weary of them, which happens to many series, for many reasons.  Norman had decided that he was the victim of political correctness.  That is such a convenient excuse!  In this case, though, the numbers backed up DAW.

The thing that bothered me about the sex in these books I later came face to face with in my own life in a very unpleasant way.  I believe sex must be mutual.  Absolutely.  Power games have no place in it.  Both parties—or all three, four, five, or whatever the arrangement may be—must be there of their own accord, willingly, and with the clear knowledge of what they are there for.  Seduction for me is only valid if it is part of an already understood dance—in other words, seduction is foreplay.  The idea that it is to convince a somewhat unwilling party to do something they aren’t sure they want to do I find somewhat distasteful.

Long ago I was involved with a woman with whom I was, to use the cliche, Madly In Love.  I mean, I had it for her as deeply as it is possible to have it for someone.


Turned out that we were fundamentally incompatible.  It happens.  It’s sad and occasionally tragic.  But one of the things that ultimately turned me off was her seeming desire to be dominated sexually.  She wanted me to “take her.”  I didn’t figure this out for a long while, not till other problems manifested, and then she threw it in my face as an insult, that I was somehow deficient.

It took some time before I understood that this was a pathology.  By “taking her” the burden of the relationship would have all been on me.  If it went bad, well, it would have been my fault, not hers.  My insisting that she be an equal participant ran afoul of that.

Twisty?  You bet.  How much simpler, one could think, to be in Mr. Norman’s universe where that was a given—woman are to be taken, and it still ain’t your fault.

I would like to assume the mantle of mature self-awareness here and say that I saw this as morally suspect and ethically bankrupt.  But the truth is, it was a major turn-off.  I can’t abide the idea of sleeping with someone who may want to be somewhere else.  Yielding shouldn’t be a valid concept in sexual relations.  How good can anyone feel about him or herself when they person they are having sex with probably doesn’t actually want them?  That the only reason they’re there in the first place is for reasons having nothing to do with mutual desire?

On the other hand, it’s not too hard to see why such pathologies emerge.  Sex is potent stuff.  It’s dangerous.  The pleasure derived is in direct relation to the risk involved.  Putting up boundaries, hiding behind games, negotiating terms all make sense when one is not sure about what one wants.  Sex is as good as the risk taken, though, so for it to be worthwhile at all, one must be vulnerable, and that is not easy to do.

The problem with fantasies like Gor is the pretense of no-risk sex.  The women are tied up, they’re not allowed to complain, the men get to walk away after a good spend, and there are no down-sides.  What was Erica Jong’s term?  The zipless fuck.

I’m not condemning here what used to be called casual sex.  Strangers meeting, screwing, parting, never to meet again…in and of itself, I can’t see a problem with it as long as everyone involved knows what they’re there for and why.  It’s just another variation of mutuality.  And no less risky than the committed sex of long-term lovers.

What I’m condemning, I think—if I’m condemning anything—is the attempt to “clean up” sex.  Clean up in the same sense as attempts to create a “clean” atomic bomb.  So there is just the initial explosion and no fall out.  Remove the risk, make it a computer game, render the consequences null.  Make it “safe.”  And remove responsibility from it.

As if that would somehow make it better…?

James Morrow’s Dasein

I like James Morrow’s work. (I like Jim, too, quite apart from his work.) His new novel, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, is exemplary. I think everyone should go out right now—right now—and buy a copy. If I may be so bold, this is what science fiction is all about.

Well, maybe not all science fiction, and even that which is about this does other things…

No, let me not equivocate. This is the pure stuff.

In my view, the thing that makes science fiction potent, beyond merely a neat ride to some cool places with some kick-ass characters, is that it is philosophy in action. I call it epistemological fiction. Epistemology, if I may borrow a quote from my Oxford Companion to Philosophy (the entry on Epistemic), is as follows: “A proposition is epistemic if and only if it has some implication for what, in some circumstances, is rationally worthy of belief.” Epistemology concerns itself with knowledge, with how we know things, and the nature of the whole process of knowing. By extension, it concerns itself with the nature of the knowable, and hence impinges on what we grandiosely call Reality.

Now, in the case of science fiction this can be a bit problematic, since a good deal of what we write about is not in the realm of what we acknowledge as Reality. To put it simply, there is no Galactic Empire (that we know of); we cannot travel faster than the speed of light (as far as we understand the universe to date); and there is no practical immortality. We cannot travel in time ala H.G. Wells, the likelihood of an alien invasion is next to nil, and sex with an alien probably won’t happen—physiology aside, we don’t (most of us) have sex with other species on our own planet, why would we change our proclivities for a be-tentacled zoomorph from Altair 4?


In the introduction to his fine overview of philosophy, Think, Simon Blackburn writes: “I would prefer to introduce myself as doing conceptual engineering. For just as the engineer studies teh structure of material things, so the philosopher studies the structure of thought. Understanding the structure involves seeing how parts funciton and how they interconnect. It means knowing what would happen for better or worse if changes were made.”

In a nutshell, that is also what science fiction does.

We ask questions of the classic “What If?” variety in both philosophy and science fiction. The thing that separates science fiction from fantasy, say, is that we expect useful answers from those questions.

(Fantasy, though kindred, is not concerned with the nature of reality, but with the nature of myth. This is why readers can accept the fantastic nature of magic and dragons and so forth even while implicitly understanding that such things are not “real” but can then turn around a get mightily irritated at such things as sound in the vacuum of space or violations of conservation of energy in science fiction.)

What we do in SF is ask philosophical questions, primarily about the nature of being. The utility in SF is that, because we posit the existence of our fictional realms as real places, beholden to the universe in the same way we are, we can build the models that allow us to explore the human consequences of those questions. The castles come floating down from the air to rest firmly on the ground and we can go inside and study the architecture. More importantly, we can study the way the people living in the castle deal with that process.

For the most part, this is subtext. But it’s a subtext that constrains the characters and the action to a consistency which we can recognize as authentic experience. That is, if people lived in this place and time, this is how it would be.

That’s all. And that is also why questions of scientific validity are secondary, despite the attempt to define SF as a subset of fantasy simply because it decorates its stories with impossible things. We accept that FTL may be impossible, but we want to examine what life would be like in a universe (specifically in “our” universe, insofar as we know it) in which it is possible, and in order to do that we must make sure of the consistency of our premise. We have changed something and that change has consequences for authentic human experience. What are they?

(Fantasy, by and large, doesn’t care about such questions. Fantasy is not interested in the anthropology of Middle Earth, but in the reification of moral action. Setting therefore becomes a test, a journey through the underworld, not an examination of cause and consequence.)

Given that (and I stipulate that SF can and does ask other sorts of questions), we come to James Morrow’s new book, which is an excellent example of positing as real what can now be consider only theoretically.

Edwina Sabacthani is a top-flight, world-renowned geneticist. She owns her own island, the Isla de Sangre (Blood Island). She hires Mason Ambrose, who has just walked out on his Ph.D oral defense in disgust, to come to the island to teach—imbue, if you will—Edwina’s teen-age daughter, Londa, with a moral sense. It’s been lost, it seems, after Londa had a head-injuring accident, which also caused amnesia. Londa remembers none of her childhood.

Of course, not all is as it seems. Edwina has a staff, including a gentleman who is an expert at genetic manipulation—creating winged Iguanas and other exotic critters, most especially a huge tree named Proserpine who at one time possessed an actual brain with an actual consciousness—and some other people in other parts of the island who, Mason discovers, are doing the same sort of thing as he is for Edwina’s other daughters.

Other daughters…well, not exactly. And here is where the science fiction enters into all this thickly and exotically and becomes one with the moral play-acting with which Mason begins Londa’s education.

Say you are a woman who has reached a certain age and the desire to be a mother has of late become overwhelming. Say, further, that you are suffering from a fatal illness and have less than a year or two to live. You are supremely intelligent. You do not want to give birth and die, having essentially done the biology but missed out on the actual mothering. What do you do?

In the case of Edwina Sabacthani you employ your brilliance as a geneticist to develop the machinery and techniques to bring a fertilized ovum not only to term but to then artificially advance its maturation to any age you want. You produce, in turn, a 17-year-old, a 5-year-old, and an 11-year-old. This gives you the proper “spread” of key life experience moments of childrearing. They are all basically from the same genetic background, so they are triplets. They are, in short, the same daughter, in three manifestations. You can visit each of them by turns and immerse yourself in their progenic possibilities as a parent, partaking of the joys (and griefs) of each important stage of your offspring’s life.

There is, however, a problem.

Oh, not the empty brain problem that might appear immediately obvious—you’ve got that covered as well through a device which basically uploads all the necessay background information each child needs—but a thornier one you may not have initially anticipated. Facts do not suffice to make a human being. Each girl may be a prodigy in her own way, but none of them have gone through the necessary experience—living—to develop a sense of morality. You have, in short, created three well-informed and educated monsters.

The question of where our moral sense comes from is one which has haunted philosophy since, well, forever. Is it hard-wired at birth or do we acquire it, learn it? Since the process of learning begins practically immediately, there is really no way to definitively answer this question.

Except in a science fiction novel. At least, we can posit the circumstances wherein a fully form human is introduced to life practically an adult buy without a lifetime of learning behind its mind to fill in such delicate issues with any substance. What Londa—and the other two girls—must go through is a classroom education in morality which is intended to substitute for the way morality usually manifests.

Mason, with the rich history of philosophy to choose from, must decide which philosophers to use to base his approach on. One might think he’d choose Dewey, whose pioneering work in education would seem to make him an ideal primary source. But Dewey was pretty much a hands-off kind of educator, trusting the child to find its own path. He relied on the intuition the questing mind brought to the whole notion of learning, and merely supplied the requisite templates to best accommodate the questions.

Mason makes what to many might seem an unlikely choice. Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger is one of the curiosities that came out of the whole pit of the Third Reich. He had done groundbreaking work in philosophy long before Hitler came to power and is oft credited with founding Existentialism. (Sartre gets the credit for making it a major movement, sometimes gets credited for inventing it, but he built upon Heidegger’s work.) An existentialist Nazi?

Not exactly. When the German intellectual and artistic community began to realize what kind of a beast Herr Hitler was after he came to power in 1933, there was a division. Many left the country. Many stayed. Some joined the Party. Even among those who didn’t, many were supportive of the Nazi movement. A few probably even thought the Final Solution was not an altogether bad idea.

But those who stayed and gave support, no matter the reason, have been subsequently painted with the same brush—Nazis, with all that the label entails—and Heidegger is one who lived under that cloud. The direction of his work did change during the Third Reich, and in some ways it took on an ironic viewpoint. I’ll get to that.

Did Heidegger think the Third Reich was in all things a good idea? Doubtfully. He was probably one of those who thought a revitalization of Germany was necessary, that there were problems the Weimar Republic simply could not tackle, that the economic policies Hitler fomented were probably not a bad thing. It is difficult to imagine he would accept the racial theories, but like many others probably thought things would never get so bad. (The composer Paul Hindemuth received a rude shock from Hitler. He was very much a German nationalist, was proud of the fact that Germany was standing up for itself again and reclaiming its heroic heritage, and supported Hitler, at least in this aspect. He composed music to celebrate the new Germany—and found himself censured for being a degenerate artist. He never, I think, fully grasped where he had run afoul of the Nazis. When you listen to Hindemuth, you cannot escape the absolute heroic celebration of the individual. Hindemuth doubtless meant the individual German, but the Nazis were in no way about individual anything. Hindemuth’s music was degenerate because it was liberating, and the Nazis perceived that he would never compose march tunes for the Gotterdammerung.)

Heidegger’s chief sin, in the view of history, was that he equivocated about the Nazis and did not take a firm stand against them.

Personally, I think he was too stunned by it all.

Be that as it may, Heidegger developed the concept of the Dasein, which Morrow uses to great effect in The Philosopher’s Apprentice, and it would seem to be an ideal tool for such an examination.

Dasein is a German word famously used by Martin Heidegger in his magnum opus Being and Time. The word Dasein was used by several philosophers before Heiddeger, with the meaning of “existence” or “presence”. It is derived from da-sein, which literally means being-there/here, though Heidegger was adamant that this was an inappropriate translation of Dasein. In German, Dasein is synonymous with existence, as in I am pleased with my existence (ich bin mit meinem Dasein zufrieden). For Heidegger, however, it must not be mistaken for a subject, that is something objectively present. Rather it is comparable to the earlier separation of “Subject” from “subject” in the immanentist philosophy of Giovanni Gentile. Heidegger was adamant about this distinction, which carried on Nietzsche‘s critique of the subject. Dasein, as a being that is constituted by its temporality, illuminates and interprets the meaning of Being in Time. For more information, see other related Heideggerian concepts, such as being-in-the-world.

Heidegger used the concept of Dasein to uncover the primal nature of “Being” (Sein) which Descartes and Kant left unexplored. Like Nietzsche, Heidegger criticized the notion of substance, arguing that Dasein is always a being engaged in the world. The fundamental mode of Being is not that of a subject or of the objective but of the coherence of Being-in-the-world. (from Wikipedia)


Dasein: German compound from da (‘there, here’) and sein (‘to be’), thus literally ‘to be there’ and, as a substantival infinitive, ‘being there.’ In Kant, Hegel, etc. it is ‘determinate being’, especially in space and time, but also the ‘existence’ of God. It often amounts to a person’s ‘life.’ For Nicolai Hartmann it is the dass-sein of something (‘the fact that it is, its existence’), in contrast to its Sosein (‘essence, being thus’). Heidegger uses it for ‘the entity which each of us himself is’ and ‘the being of man.’ He does so for several reasons. Dasein is a neutral term: it does not commit us to viewing man as a biological entity, as a consciousness (Bewusstsein, a formation parallel to Dasein), or as essentially rational. Dasein has no determinate essence; its being consists in its possibilities, in what it can make itself be: for Dasein, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ It is ‘there’ in the world. But it is not confined to a particular place (or time); it ‘transcends’ and is ‘there’ alongside others or past events. It is the ‘there’ or locus of ‘being’: without Dasein there would be beings, but no being as such. (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)

You might begin to see where Heidegger had difficulties with the Third Reich, insofar as the world in which one’s “being” is engaged is necessarily part of the whole package. Corruption, disease, and perversion then become inseparable. “In understanding the world, Being-in is always understood along with it, while understanding of existence as such is always an understanding of the world.” The world he refers to is the everyday world, Husserl’s “life world.” Which would include the landscape of politics. He altered this by the mid 1930s, claiming by 1943 in On The Essence of Truth, that truth, and by implication being, is no longer principally in Dasein, but is the “open region” to which we are exposed. This neatly displaced man from a central place in his own self creation and rendered him but a borrower of whatever might be gleaned from the ocean of existence in which he is trapped. (This sounds more like Sartre.)

(It might also be interesting to know—and we can’t—if Heidegger regarded Hitler and his minions as ‘beings without Being as such.’)

In either case, Dasein would appear to carry with it a concommitant responsibility for self direction—in short, a moral center. Being There is a condition Heidegger related to being thrown into the chaos of existence, alone and without any help in finding one’s bearings.

However, none of us are ever so thoroughly tossed into the maelstrom and left there to flail and flounder about. At some point, we all acquire some kind of direction from those around others, intentionally or otherwise. It would seem absurd to talk about responsibility in a moral sense if no compass has been provided and none latently exists.

Which is, of course, precisely why Mason is eager to apply Heidegger to his tabula rasa charge, because here he finds an alert and conscious mind that has no experience of any such compass. And therein lies the problem which drives the rest of the novel.

Mason succeeds, of course, but the results—also of course—are unexpected.

Consider: we grow up in a complex of stimuli and examples of behavior often conflict. Right and wrong are in many instances contextual—and for that we have ethics—but we have a notion of absolute morality, which the world and its various manifestations confuses. The process of growing up within this landscape provides us opportunity to learn—to discover—the differing modes of interaction and how to define them, assigning right and wrong and all admixtures thereof to categories of response. To assume this education can be replaced with a text-book approach is hubris incarnate. We try to do this now in many ways. Learning by example seems indispensable, though we have also found that experience must be leavened by interpretation. Which is more important, though? And if, as some suspect, morality is innate, how much can teaching really affect it?

(American business would love to find a method of “imbuing” a knowledge base that is immediately useful on its workforce rather than relying on the rather unquantifiable realm of “experience”, which appears to create indispensable people, people whose lifetime of actually doing better fits them for the job.)
Mason’s success with Londa—and the success of the other teachers, to varying degrees—produces in her a profound devotion to a kind of Kantian imperative, an absolutist apprehension of the good, the beautiful, and the by god Right. Her vast education and native intellect direct her to try to take on the malaise of the world. It is as if she recognizes that her Dasein can possess no harmony unless the place into which she has been thrown, naked and bereft of a compass, can be brought into compliance with the moral maxims derived through the earnest efforts of her teacher, whom she lovingly calls Socrates.

It is when the world ultimately refuses to be ministered to where the tragedy begins.

Upon the death of their “mother” the triad of sisters leave the island and in Londa’s case begin to deal with the landscape into which they’ve been thrown. Londa takes the undeniable rightness of the moral compass Mason has given her and launches into a crusade to fix what she sees wrong. At first this is done through perfectly rational, utterly logical ways involving the improvement of the human condition. She establishes foundations to tackle specific probelms, medical, political, environmental, and social. Her work catapaults her into the limelight.

And brings her enemies.

Which, while intellectually she can understand, emotionally makes no sense to her. If a thing is wrong and consensus can be generally achieved that it is wrong, why then would any reasonable person oppose correcting the circumstance?

(One of the ugliest examples of this conundrum is the Civil Rights Movement. It is doubtful that anyone with half a brain disagreed in principle with the aims of the movement, and yet it was fought tooth and nail throughout the 50s and 60s by people who could not get around their objection to actually realizing equal rights with people they viewed as not only inferiors but as threats should the playing field be leveled. As if they said “Sure, you can give blacks equal rights to me, just so long as nothing changes.” The reefs upon which morality runs afoul…)

It may seem that Morrow has chosen a side in this book—and, indeed, he has, but not in the way one might expect—but he does not sell the opposition short. Because in fact nothing is absolute, no one is either good or bad, and the process of determining right and wrong is an ongoing task of compromise and assessment. What, after all, are we to make of someone whose company runs sweatshops in third world countries yet sponsors schools elsewhere? (Bill Gates may justifiably be accused of creating and operating an economic bully in Microsoft, but without it the Gates Foundation would not exist.)

What Londa lacks is the life experience to know why her efforts are challenged with such hatred and how to cope with it. When she is thwarted, her response is, while perhaps logical in some sense, irrational.

Mason’s own apprehension of the philosophical tools he uses changes over the course of the novel, and he comes to realize that while we may all be thrown into the chaos to wrestle with identity, ideally we are not thrown in alone. Interrupting—bypassing the “natural” unfolding of life—handicaps us in often unpredictable ways. And that each of us, when we enter someone’s life (perhaps with the intent to teach), must take care to recognize that we will have an effect. That even when we finally decide to walk away from someone, when we decide that our involvement with them is detrimental in some way, just having been there has altered their trajectory into the Nothing. A philosophical butterfly effect.

Nothing can possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without qualification, except a Good Will. Intelligence, wit, judgment, and the other talents of the mind, however they may be named, or courage, resolution, perseverance, as qualities of temperament, are undoubtedly good and desirable in many respects; but these gifts of nature may also become extremely bad and mischievous if the will which is to make use of them, and which, therefore, constitutes what is called character, is not good. It is the same with gifts of fortune. (Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals)

What is puzzling about [the] difference between empirical cases and cultural cases is that the first are without a doubt based on the testimony of the senses, but it cannot be said that experiential data are devoid of value in the second. Just for a start, an act cannot be recognized as murder unless there is some experience (direct or indirect) of of the fact that is was a killing. (Umberto Eco, Cognitive Types and Nuclear Content)

We have to seek for a discipline of the speculative Reason. It is of the essence of such speculation that it transcends immediate fact. Its business is to make thought creative of the future. It effects this by its vision of systems of ideas, including observation but generalized beyond it. The need of discipline arises because the history of speculation is analogous to the history of practice…The object of this discipline is not stability but progress. (Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason)

I began this by claiming that James Morrow’s new novel is exemplary of what science fiction can do at its peak, and that SF is fundamentally philosophical literature. Through the course of The Philosopher’s Apprentice we are treated to a demonstration of the possible consequences of a set of actions (Edwina’s “artificial” creation of three daughters, Mason’s choice of Heidegger as basis for his instruction). The question is asked, the plot proceeds, the characters learn. And as they do, we do. We may disagree with some of the conclusions, may even argue with the underlying assumptions, but that’s as should be. The whole point is to spark that dialogue, author to reader, and to confront questions which may not today have any immediate basis in reality, but may tomorrow.

When we step on that butterfly—or let it go—we have no idea what will happen next. But we should be aware that something will.