Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

Unbelievable: Science Fiction, Science Fact, and How to Tell the Difference

Science Fiction

Editor’s note: Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion is currently available at a 50 percent pre-order holiday discount from the publisher, ISI Books.

My box of books just arrived. Now you know what all of my family and best local friends are getting for Christmas this year. In Unbelievable: 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion I show how science fiction shapes science, especially speculative scientific inquiry into the likelihood and cultural impact of superhuman AI and the arrival of super-intelligent extraterrestrials. The publication date is January 7, 2019.

The topics I discuss are timely. Last year, in response to political fears, George Orwell’s 1984 became a bestseller on Amazon. The full scenario of this dystopian novel, written in 1949, did not actually come to pass in 1984, or in 2017. But some of its plot elements are becoming increasingly feasible. One of the hottest Christmas gifts this season is pocket-size drones with HD cameras that enable even Little Brother to watch over you. Big Brother has even more sophisticated toys by which human privacy is invaded, especially if you live in China.

A Game of Catch-up

Science is playing catch-up with science fiction, and this is nothing new. For example, some of Johannes Kepler’s (1571-1630) imaginative story of space travel, Dream or Astronomy of the Moon (posthumous, 1634) , became reality in my lifetime. But some sci-fi scenarios, such as the one where artificial intelligence comes to exceed human intelligence and achieves self-awareness, are just impossible. My book Unbelievable helps you sort the possible from the impossible. Kepler and H.G. Wells figure in my survey of the history of science fiction and how this history has influenced futuristic mythology. I show how anti-religious ideology has shaped the picture of the future found in textbooks, on TV, and elsewhere in our culture.

Here is a test of your ability to distinguish plausible scientific technology from stuff that is implausible given the limits of natural law. Do you think it is possible to buy a device that would project your cell phone’s GPS mapping software into the space above your dashboard, so you can see it and the road at the same time? Answer: yes, and this is another popular gift this Christmas season. Of course military and airline pilots have had similar heads-up displays for quite a while, but now this technology is available to any automobile user with a smartphone. 

How about a device that allows you to upload your mind to a computer so you can have conditional immortality after your body dies? I’ll leave that one for homework.

Horror and Euphoria

Arthur C. Clarke, the influential writer of science fact and and science fiction, commented in a prophetic manner that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He cowrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which depicts the horror and euphoria of an encounter with techno-magical AI and ET.

The movie ends with a vision of the starchild, a human fetus floating serenely in space. This appears to be the new humanity after ET enlightenment. For those disenchanted with traditional religion, 2001 sketched a space-age faith. Clarke’s imagination has shaped some of the mythic elements of futuristic AI-ET storytelling. But much of what he wrote is simply unbelievable. 

Futuristic myths of this sort come into better focus in my book Unbelievable, which, I don’t mind repeating, would make a fine gift, at Christmas or anytime!