5 Sci-Fi Books That Succeed as Novels and Provocative Thought Experiments

Professor Eric Schwitzgebel selects books that succeed both as novels and provocative thought experiments that push us to consider deep philosophical questions from every angle.

Before we get into the five books you have chosen, might you tell us: what’s your special interest in science fiction, and how does it tie in with philosophy?

Well, partly, I just love it. There’s something to be said for pursuing what you love. But I also think science fiction is a great fit for philosophy in a couple of ways. Speculative fiction, generally, I think of as fiction that explores scenarios beyond the ordinary run of human experience. Other types of fiction—for example, ‘literary fiction,’ as it’s sometimes called—don’t much depart from the ordinary run of human experience. But in philosophy we’re often fascinated with scenarios that pull apart things that ordinarily go together.

A wonderful example of this is Derek Parfit’s work on personal identity. Ordinarily, a person has one body that continues in a specific way over time, permanently connected to one mind that also continues in a specific way over time. There’s a familiar body and a consistent personality. You have memories that move from one moment to the next and experiences that overlap. All of these things go together, and we think of them as constitutive or partly constitutive or somehow involved with or correlated with being a person. In the ordinary run of human experience, these things never come apart. But in science fiction-type thought experiments you can wonder, okay, what would happen if you took someone’s mind, just to put it crudely, and put it in someone else’s body? Would it be the same person? Would the person follow the mind or would they follow the body? What if you stepped into a machine and two duplicates of you walked out? What if you lived 800 years, gradually acquiring a new personality every century and entirely forgetting your past? You can separate the pieces, considering what really matters about a person’s identity. You can decouple what ordinarily goes together, aiming to find the essence of the matter in the way that philosophers characteristically like to do.

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