Jeffrey Thayne

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 world view, 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.

Here is a practical example: The original three Star Wars movies, I believe, had elements of fantasy. They certainly had elements of science fiction as well, but what was interesting was that “the force” did not seem to be something that was scientifically reducible or explainable. It was mysterious, elusive, and perhaps had a kind of life of its own, and had a kind of spiritual quality to it. The Jedi were seen as a kind of sage (with military training, or course). However, in the newer Star Wars movies, the Jedi were treated as having a kind of “genetic advantage” over their peers (almost like the X-Men) because of a higher number of “midichlorians” in their bloodstream. The force was just another physical phenomena like gravity or electromagnetism. Whereas in the original three Star Wars movies, the force almost had a nature and purpose all its own, in the newer Star Wars movies, the force was caused by something measurable and observable. The force was safely explained. Whatever fantastical elements the original had were stripped away, turning it into a purely science-fiction story.

Elsewhere, a reader named Clayton astutely commented:

Popular fantasy literature as it exists today does not inherently escape scientific naturalism, it often just provides a alternative version of it. For example, the wizardry of Harry Potter is really nothing more than an more advanced science, an alternative methodology but still a methodology, one the wizards for some reason hide from the rest of us. In this way, the fantasy genre can be misleading. It tells us that the only alternative to science is more science. The religious version of this: God is out there we just need more science to see him. I think ideas like creationism and intelligent design are attempts to do this.2

In other words, many self-styled fantasy books in many ways portray humans methodologically manipulating an inert world for instrumental purposes, a kind of bizarre science fiction—referencing a different kind of technology, but a technology nonetheless.

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?


1., “fantasy.”
2. Thinking in a Marrow Bone