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"Future Present" - Is Science Fiction a Religious Experience?

Photo_07_hires Is science fiction a prelude to science fact? Can you "sense" the future in the present?

With District 9 zooming to #1 at the box office this week, we thought it was a great question to poll.

No one has answered that question better than the single greatest mind in the history of science. To quote Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

The power and scope of the human imagination is of fundamental importance to our time. In fact, it may prove our salvation.

As a species, we have been around for 200 thousand years, which is not remarkably long considering that Tyrannosaurs Rex existed for two and half million years. Yet in this very short time, the human imagination has led to a profound if still limited understanding of the laws of physics and our place in the universe.

The fundamental concept of the 21st century, the question of life beyond our planet, has exercised human imagination, and sometimes stirred irrational fears, since the ancient Greeks. The search for  is our great secular meditation on the Other.

As we wrote in an recent post, these fears were in part responsible for the gruesome death of Giordano Bruno on February 17, 1600, when he was taken from his Inquisition prison cell in Castel S'ant Angelo across the Tiber from the Vatican, marched to the Campo dei Fiori, and burned at the stake in large part for his belief in an infinite number of inhabited worlds.

Today, some 400 years later, two mutually exclusive world views of our cosmos are at conflict; world views that infuses science fiction as well as popular culture and scientific debate. The first, the physical world view, believes that cosmic evolution ends in planets, stars, and galaxies; the second, the biological worldview, believes that the emergence of life and intelligence is pre-programmed into the laws and constants of physics, which function similar to cosmic DNA. Each results in vastly different implications for science, for society, and for human destiny.

The biological universe worldview is captured perfectly in famed physicist, Freeman Dyson comment that The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming. It is a vision of the world as profound in its implications as that of Copernicus and Darwin.

Finally, there is the new, emerging worldview of Cambridge physicist, Sir Martin Rees, Lee Smolin ,and Richard Gott of Princeton who imagine  that in addition to planets, stars, and galaxies looms the "multiverse" -of more than one universe, where "universe" is defined as everything we have seen, or can see.

The fact that the universe seems to be fine tuned for life has given birth to the poorly named "anthropic principle" -a misnomer because it is relevant to the existence of all forms of life in the universe, not just humankind, and therefore is not anthropic.

These divergent worldviews fuel our daily press with feature news stories about fierce battles for congressional cutbacks in space exploration; essays on the urgency of space colonization, terraforming, the galactic certainty of eventual asteroid impacts, and a new focus on searching for non-carbon-based life forms mainstream media such as the in the New York Times; History Channel specials on the Universe and the search for  with pros, cons, and all views in between.

Many of the most exciting subjects of contemporary science appeared first as products of brilliant science fiction: H.G.Wells wrote "The Time Machine" in 1895, ten  years before Einstein imagined a universe of curved space-time -of special relativity. At that time, with the Newton's theory, time travel looked impossible. But with the Einstein's theory of special relativity moving clocks tick slowly, and later, with the general theory of relativity, space and time are bendable.

A similar result came about with Carl Sagan's novel and blockbuster film Contact about wormholes. He asked Kip Thorne at Cal Tech to examine whether his wormhole physics make sense. Thorne looked into the physics and found that circumstances and solutions might allow a time machine to visit the past.

Arthur C. Clarke, in  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) played out a universe populated by advanced, machine-based intelligence . The Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem represents yet another vision: in Solaris (1961) and His Master's Voice (1968) he argues that we may be unable to comprehend, much less communicate, which lends special weight to a focus on searching for non-carbon-based life forms.

Perhaps an accurate vision of our future be found in the science fiction of Alastair Reynolds, a young, recently retired scientist with the European Space Agency. Several critics believe he is on track to be the next Arthur C. Clarke (2001 -A Space Odyssey). His trilogy a "vision of a future dominated by artificial intelligence that trembles with the ultimate cold of the dark between the stars." -asks the great question: if there is intelligent life out there, how come we never encountered it?

Biological or physical? We won't be burned at the stake, but we'll bet that if past is prelude, it's a biological universe, with all its profound implications for the future of the human species.

Posted by Casey Kazan.

Comments

As part of my search of understanding the human "soul" concept; ended up with a novel that explains same as being a field of energy which, after its hosting of a human body, continues its mysterious existence (unless contained in another energy field with the capacity of including the "soul's" memories, and being transfered to a new body).

The eventual search for a "higher intelligence" or god, or type of Quest, may be limited to the infinite numbers of paralell realities; as being more understandable by human beings than the less understandable universe.

Simon Says

Casey,

I loved reading your article and agree with you on many points, but please—and don't take this the wrong way—have someone edit or correct your articles before publishing. Unintentional grammatical mistakes make for a difficult read, as your reader has to try to comprehend what you meant to write.

Keep up the fascinating posts!

Fantastic read with a great melding of philosophy and science. Such conversations dwindle in quantity these days, leading to an inevitable decline in quality when such exercise is absent.

My vote is on your term of a "physical universe", so as to turn an analog world of infinite variations into a digital decision of two vices ;)

As to the infinite realities, Simon Says, I see parallel universes to be a misunderstanding of multiple dimensions, or at least the dimensions beyond the more easily understood first three. My stance arises from my mental image that says time is not an actual part of space, as the remainder of measurable and malleable parts of space are. To me time appears to be an irrational measurement required to grasp details otherwise impossible to our still young human minds. It is the duct tape our mind requires to put the universe and its components within reach, else it disappear as infinitely fast as it appeared. The universe cares not about what was or will be, only what is at the moment, for it cannot undo existence, changing the heading of everything infinite 180 degrees to omniundo, nor can it change its own rules to alter its heading. It may only live in the now, though it need not more as the now is already infinite with possibilities as the now is forever and all.*

* That last sentence is under beta development.

I don't think it is possible to "sense" the future in the present (that smacks of predetermination - Heisenberg pretty much put the kibosh on that), but our brains have definitely evolved to try and predict the future anyway. There are many everyday things we do that are, in fact, "predicting the future".

For instance, as I go through the motions of tossing my empty coffee cup into the trash bin 6 feet to my left, my brain tries to predict where the cup will land (based on my past experience observing disposable containers in flight) so as to correct the movement of my arm and ensure the cup lands where I intend it to (in the bin). Similarly, when my position on the geek-jock axis causes me inevitably to miss said trash can and my empty coffee cup to go skipping off Joe's monitor and on to Susie's desk, my brain tries to predict which of my office mates will laugh longest and hardest (so I know whom to focus most on ignoring).

You don't need to be a prophet (or Arther C. Clark) to be pretty accurate about these kinds of predictions (though it is to your evolutionary advantage to be able to act upon them - like learning that it's better just to walk over to the trash bin with that empty coffee cup, since you'll be headed over there anyway to pick it up off of Susie's desk). And over time, we have expanded these more basic and concrete types of predictions into more abstract types of predictions (like trying to predict if a suave remark to Susie about my coffee cup marksmanship might positively impact my dinner plans tonight, and eventually my contribution to the next generation of trash bin-missing geeks).

I agree with jecofish this was a GREAT article, but it just had a few grammatical errors that made it a little hard to read. Though, it's not that big of a deal as many articles I'm referred to through Digg have much much unbearably worse grammar.

I would like to throw a few ideas out and see what happens to them. I believe in God and think I see a pattern that I attribute to him. Bear with me.

When steam power was being harnessed, technology advanced along that line and was fine-tuned to better living conditions, etc. I believe that God was involved in giving at least some of the ideas, because my presumption is that he would have already known the scope of what could be done with it.

A similar scenario played out in various other fields. Radiation and then nuclear sciences, once discovered, were explored and many benefits have been extracted from them. Of course, there has been a negative side to that and many other fountains of discovery. Since the planet is still habitable we seem to have learned to keep at least minimal limits to what we do with it.
From that perspective there have been developments in many fields over time, and I don’t think that any of them surprised God. In fact, I think he may have been guiding us.

Now, when I see several simultaneous developments occurring, the potential they have can be incredibly awesome.

On one hand, we are able to send probes to see if there is actually life on Mars and other nearby celestial bodies. We are discovering at the same time that life forms we have never imagined can exist in extreme heat, extreme cold, and even devoid of the light we have thought necessary. At the same time we have cracked some of the code of DNA and some splicing techniques. And some of this is because of or in conjunction with computational power becoming available and having the ability to correlate data from all over the world.

I don’t think this is coincidence, but rather that God has engineered this scenario. But even if it is coincidence, let me suggest something.

I have always been amazed at the tenacity of life, how it permeates all parts of the earth, and is lately proving to be more widespread than we imagined. I see a correlation between how life permeates the planet and God’s stated plan in Genesis to fill the earth with life.

We find ourselves in a situation where we are about to find out that life has permeated the whole universe, or we can implement it ourselves.

If it turns out that all of our searching reveals that there is no other life in our solar system besides what we have here on earth, we can take some of the life forms that live in the extreme environments we know about and plant them in appropriate places. And if they don’t quite fit, maybe we can splice the DNA appropriately to make them fit.

The thought of contaminating another planet with our life forms might sound scary, but I remember when I was a new kid in the seventh grade at my school there were folks that thought I was polluting the school. I survived and so did they.

The utility of it is we might be able to seed some fields to produce what we need so that when we arrive we already have some of the supplies necessary for our life. I also think that we will do it inadvertently, because sooner or later a space gizmo will leave some form of life to propagate after our exploration.

I think planning it will be much more efficient in the long run.

The human imagination cannot imagine something that is unknown. For example, you cannot imagine the correct answer to the question, "Where is Robert Burt sitting right now?" You can imagine a lot of hypothetical possibilities, but your imagination will not provide you with the correct answer. If it were essential to your survival to know where Robert Burt is sitting right now, your imagination would be worthless. In this sense knowledge is more important than imagination.

Mike Kangas:

I find your ideas interesting, & would like to subscribe to your newsletter !

Seriously,re.: science fiction as a religious " experience ":

Most good to great science - fiction novels, short stories, visual media, etc., have elements of spirituality religion & philosophy in them, notably the re - imagined Battlestar Galactica series. Star Wars has heavy elements of philosophy with the Force, & Star Trek's fictional Vulcan society put on a layer of mysticism & philosophy over its logical, rational surface.

Science fiction that is completely mechanistic & overly tech - reliant can be awfully shallow.

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