Today, I would like to consider two different genres of fiction: fantasy and science fiction. The way in which I talk about them will probably be different than the way a literary expert would talk about them; I make no claims to any serious research in this post, but rather I would just like to share some personal thoughts I have had when comparing the two genres.

Today, we live in a world where it is assumed that everything that happens has a “scientific explanation.” This means more than that everything is explanable; it means that everything is understandable and accountable in terms of matter governed by mathematical laws. If anything out of the ordinary happens, we simply assume that it can be explained scientifically, even if we don’t exactly know how yet. This modern perspective is often called scientific naturalism. This perspective is intricately connected with determinism, which is the assumption that all events are predictable, if you know all of the antecedent circumstances. In other words, whatever happens, happens inevitably.

Scientific naturalism hasn’t always been the prevailing assumption in society. In the past, and even in places today, people often used “teleological” explanations to account for the world, rather than mechanistic explanations. The Greek word telos means “end,” or “purpose.” In this worldview, things in nature act with a purpose, for a specific end, in an agentic kind of way. Aristotle, for example, often accounted for events in nature in teleological ways. It is in a teleological worldview that we anthropomorphize (ascribe human characteristics to) trees and rocks and “mother earth”, etc., as we often read in older literature or modern fantasy. Even the idea of human agency or free will is a teleological explanation of human behavior, and is seen by many scientists as an “artifact of the past,” as all human action is believed by them to be reducible or explanable in terms of neurons interacting in the brain. Human teleology is one of the last surviving links to this more archaic mode of explanation, and we are rightfully most reluctant to let go of it, although it is growing more and more popular to do so among the biological and psychological sciences.

Fantasy is considered a “genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.”1 One reason fantasy literature attracts me is this: in a world saturated with scientific naturalism, fantasy invites me to “suspend” the assumption that all events are scientifically reducible and explore the possibilty of things that transcend the scientific realm, such as spirits, magic, and even free will. The idea that the material constituents of the universe have a form of life and act with a purpose (rather than being dead, inert molecules bumping into each other in random—or even predictable—ways) is refreshing in a world where everything is assumed to be part of an underlying mechanistic reality. Personally, it seems almost arrogant for me to believe that man is the only purposeful being in an otherwise deterministic universe; that we alone break the rules of mechanistic causality and act agentically. While order and mechanicity are often the fundamental substrates of the science fiction world, life and purpose are often the fundamental substrates of the universe in a fantasy world.

I hope my readers do not see this as a scathing criticism of science fiction—I am a science fiction fanatic. I grew up on Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. However, science fiction, although enjoyable to read, does not require me to suspend my naturalistic assumptions about the world. Although the events that happen in science fiction are often impossible within our scientific framework, it is nonetheless assumed by the reader and the characters of the story that in the fictional science fiction world, all events are scientifically reducible (to whatever scientific, deterministic realities exist in that world). To the extent that a science fiction story moves beyond this naturalistic framework, it ceases (in a sense) to be science fiction and becomes something more.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Why is it so hard for us to believe in things that are scientifically irreducible?” We see today a growing trend to reinterpret even scriptural accounts of miracles in terms of modern science, and assume that God himself cannot transcend the scientific realm. If we believe in human agency, we already believe in at least one thing that can transcend a deterministic, scientific framework; that is, at least one thing that acts with a purpose, and is not reducible to the mechanistic interactions of inert matter. Might there also be others? Perhaps what we often call “fantasy” doesn’t differ from the “real world” as dramatically as we think…


1., “fantasy.”

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