In his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, the noted biologist Edmund Wilson calls for what amounts to a return to “the Enlightenment” with the unification of the sciences and the humanities in the quest for meaning. He argues that the initial thrust of the Enlightenment “stalled” essentially because the sciences alone could provide no real explanations that would fulfill the human desire to find meaning in the universe, and, in response the humanities, especially the founders of Romantic literature, turned away from the sciences in their quest for meaning.
Wilson goes on to argue that a unified approach to discovering the meaning of life is necessary and vital because the conflicts between and within belief systems and religions cannot be resolved otherwise. [This point does assume that human beings will eventually accept factual discoveries that conflict with beliefs, an issue that I’ve raised more than once, since I suspect many humans will find it difficult to abandon belief in a faith-based supernatural.] He also points out, if quietly, that the rate of scientific advance has slowed and will continue to slow as more is discovered, and as more resources are required to research and develop subsequent knowledge and technology.
More to the point of the role of science fiction, Wilson points out that science fiction already plays a key role by using aliens as a means for us to reflect on our own condition. I frankly believe that Wilson ascribes to SF far too narrow a role in regard to charting the future course of human endeavor, although I’m glad to see a recognition in print of at least some of what speculative fiction has done and what I hope it will continue to do.
The Romantic movement sought to find the “truth” about the human condition and “reality” through everything from drugs to the elaborate use of metaphor, apparently because science did not provide an adequate and immediate answer. In a sense, the aliens of science fiction are indeed a metaphorical device for investigating the human condition, but SF also addresses more directly such basic questions as the role of science and technology in society in a way that is far more accessible than any scholarly or academic treatise can hope to do… and in fact in a fashion more accessible than even Wilson’s book. This exploration of the still-widening gulf between belief and scientific grounding in the existing reality of the universe is becoming more and more necessary… but at a time when harder science fiction is being written and read less frequently.
At the same time, I do have to admit that I am concerned about the swelling of interest in fantasy, particularly in the United Stated and particularly fantasy based on permutations and variations of the supernatural, and, equally, about the diminution of overall interest in science fiction grounded directly in scientific precepts and verified facts, perhaps because a great deal of supernatural-related fantasy appears to reinforce the existing dichotomy between the humanities and the sciences, or more bluntly, between romantic/religious faith/fantasy and a fact-based view of the universe.
If that seems a harsh judgment, consider that tens of thousands of people, if not more, have been slaughtered over the past decade by the suicide attacks of “true believers,” many of whom deeply believe they will achieve a paradise in heaven where they will be waited on, served, and serviced by seventy-odd virgins, based on extrapolation of teachings supposedly founded on the words of the Koran. Or consider the hard-core Christian fundamentalists who insist that the world is less than ten thousand years old. Clearly, there is a certain lack of even fundamental understanding of science, suggesting that such beliefs are about as far as one can get from the rational understanding of the human condition sought by Francis Bacon and the early proponents of the Enlightenment.
All of which suggests to me that there needs to be more good science fiction read by more people, particularly those of school age… but then, what else would a F&SF writer suggest?