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.