Sunday, December 18, 2011

Book Review: Scientific Mythologies

But can I still have a cathedral-shaped spaceship?

Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs by James A. Herrick. IVP Academic-InterVarsity Press (Downers Grove, Illinois), 2008. 288 pages. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2588-2. $23.00.

In this slim volume, James A. Herrick sets out on the ambitious task of demonstrating that science fiction, far from being merely a form of low entertainment, has often inspired scientists, even to the point of influencing how scientific questions are asked, and of informing how many scientists have viewed subjects that go beyond the realm of scientific inquiry. Herrick's basic thesis is that a collection of interwoven stories and metaphysical suppositions unsupported and insupportable by empirical science but nonetheless uncritically supposed by many to be scientifically founded, forms the basis of a modern Zeitgeist that stands in opposition to Christianity.

Some time ago in this blog's ancient history, I linked the review of Herrick's Scientific Mythologies over at Dr. James McGrath's blog, Exploring Our Matrix. McGrath and I rarely see eye to eye, and now that I've read this book for myself, I can confirm that this is one of those times. Although McGrath makes a few good points in his lengthy discussion of this book, most of his review consists of textbook examples of tu quoque; for example, when Herrick points out, among other things, that we have no empirical evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials, McGrath criticizes Herrick by pointing out that historical evidence does not favor a literal historical Exodus, either. But Herrick never mentions the Exodus nor says whether he thinks it is a literal historical event. Similarly, McGrath criticizes Left Behind not once but twice in his review--though Herrick never mentions that book nor says what he thinks of it--apparently assuming that the ideas in LaHaye and Jenkins's novel reflect Herrick's own. While attempting to criticize Herrick, McGrath gets off-track and shadowboxes with his favorite bogeyman, the Evangelical Fundamentalist.

I would like to set the record straight. Though flawed, Scientific Mythologies is not the Protestant Landscape with Dragons. It is thoughtful and even-toned, and most of its arguments are well-made (with unfortunate exceptions I'll discuss presently), though it relies too heavily on secondary sources and at time makes factual errors. In spite of McGrath's strange claims to the contrary, it is interested more in description and analysis than in condemnation, of which it offers very little, and most of the information it presents should not even be controversial: much of the book is devoted to a history of certain ideas in both science fiction and popular scientific writings, most of which are probably already well-known to many sf fans.

Contra McGrath, Herrick states early in the book exactly what he means by myth, and he sticks to the definition. He is clearly not using the word in a pejorative sense (though one or two unfortunate rhetorical flourishes may give that impression); quoting Richard Cavendish, Herrick accepts a definition of myth as a story that makes sense of the world and imposes certain obligations and values, and he accepts also the claims of both Cavendish and Mary Midgley that myths are something we cannot do without. His point in this book, then, is not to dismiss what he calls "scientific mythologies" by pointing out that they are myths, but rather to point out that they do not have the basis in science that many claim they have.

After the first few chapters introduce the book and its aims, Herrick moves into discussions of the modern myths he has discerned in science fiction and speculative science. His first, and probably strongest chapter on the subject is chapter 3, "The Myth of the Extraterrestrial." He briefly outlines the history of speculation on the subject of extraterrestrial life. Again, contra McGrath, he does not condemn any and all such speculation, and even says (much later in the book) that the discovery of extraterrestrials would present no, or present little, challenge to Christianity. Herrick's actual concern is to criticize those who write or speak as if extraterrestrials were already known to exist, and who try to base metaphysical or spiritual speculations on this supposed fact. Herrick summarizes his "Myth of the Extraterrestrial" thus, and cites scientists such as Carl Sagan who have been proponents of it:

(1) The universe is vast and contains an unimaginably large number of planets, many of which are likely habitable. (2) Probability, if nothing else, suggests that there must be other intelligent beings "out there." (3) These beings might be willing to communicate with humans. (4) They are more technologically and biologically "advanced" than we are. And (5) they may wish to help us progress. (p. 64)

Herrick quotes numerous scientists and popularizers who have written or spoken of extraterrestrials as if they were already discovered, and quotes a few who insist that Earth's religions will have to change utterly to accommodate their existence. By simply pointing out that we have no evidence of extraterrestrials' existence, and that we don't really know the probability of their existence, he succeeds quite well, without ever getting shrill or casting insults, at making these imaginative claims look silly. Certainly, the insistence that we must change our religious views to accommodate aliens is premature, to say the least.

His subsequent chapters build on this first one. In chapter 4, "The Myth of Space," Herrick criticizes the idea that space exploration must be somehow capable of granting spiritual insights. He wonders why exploration of space ought to grant spiritual knowledge that is not already available on Earth, and in the sources he examines, he can find no clear answer. This chapter, in particular, McGrath does not appear to have read carefully enough; although it is true that Herrick mentions C. S. Lewis's opposition to space travel, Herrick neither elaborates on it nor expresses agreement with it. He mentions Lewis a few times, but mostly uses him only to set up a discussion of the film Conquest of Space, which depicts a Christian character in a negative light. Herrick interprets this film as a criticism of Lewis's view. Herrick gives no clear indication that he opposes space exploration as a scientific enterprise (and I do wish he were more clear about his opinion of the subject), but only that he opposes the unsupported notion that a scientific exploration of space will lead to some vaguely defined new spiritual insight capable of sweeping away older religions, a notion based on nothing but wishful thinking.

It is in chapter 5, "The Myth of the New Humanity," that Herrick temporarily loses his mind and is replaced by a politically correct pod person. He discusses the history of eugenics and points out, quite rightly, that much science fiction from the early twentieth century and to some extent even beyond is supportive of eugenic aims. It is in this chapter, too, that he gets into a subject that is truly central to his book, and to which I wish he had devoted a clearer and lengthier discussion: he is sharply critical of the idea that humanity is necessarily on an upward progression, carried along by evolution from one stage to another, each stage higher than the last. He points out that this idea has often been tied both to racism--usually the belief that whites are inherently superior to others--and to atrocious policies of sterilization or extermination. He also notes that many science fiction writers have supported such things.

Herrick expresses no opposition to the truly scientific theory of evolution. McGrath, again play-fighting with his favorite imaginary enemy, appears to miss this, and spends some time in his review criticizing Young-Earth Creationism even though Herrick never identifies himself as a Creationist. What is lacking in Herrick's book, however, is a clear distinction between the scientific theory of evolution, which holds that populations of biological organisms change over time due to mutations, those mutations maladapted to the current environment being weeded out, and the popular but unscientific notion, which holds that evolution inevitably leads to greater complexity, intelligence, and eventually to some sort of Nietzschean superman. It is clearly only the popular and unscientific but oddly persistent conception of evolution that is the target of Herrick's criticism, but a careless reader, or one unfamiliar with what the theory of evolution actually teaches, could easily arrive at the mistaken conclusion that he is "anti-science," just as the previous chapter could give the impression that he is anti-spaceflight. Also, I might add, this chapter is lacking a discussion of Tielhard de Chardin, the theologian who was important in formulating this bogus notion of evolution.

Where Herrick, or rather the PC-bot who temporarily replaced him, no doubt in a life-and-death struggle involving rayguns, goes crazy, is where he tries to accuse Star Trek and Star Wars of racism. His accusation against Star Trek is based almost entirely on the fact that the character Q, a godlike being, is played by a white boy. When I read that, my head exploded.

I refute Herrick thusly. Star Trek featured an innovative multi-ethnic bridge crew and had the first interracial kiss on television. At least one episode of the original series that I can think of was dedicated to lampooning racism. Although Q is a godlike being, he is not represented unequivocally as a "higher" or "better" being. More typically, he is like a petulant child. One episode of Voyager even suggests that suicide would be preferable to a godlike eternity in the Q Continuum. Although Star Trek does indeed accept uncritically the unscientific notion of evolution as progression, it is usually suspicious of highly evolved demigods: benign demigods are praised on occasion, but those that lord it over lesser beings are usually treated to a good dose of the Enterprise's phaser banks. Star Trek implicitly, whether its writers intended it or not, holds the view that there is an ethical standard to which even "highly evolved" beings are obligated. And though it does express the notion that humans are on some vaguely defined upward progression, it clearly envisions all of humanity going there together, and does not present one race as superior to the others. Star Trek also appears to be opposed to the cyborg enthusiasms of the cyberpunks and transhumanists (also criticized in this chapter), since the only cyborgs of note in the Star Trek universe are the Borg.

Herrick's criticism of Star Wars consists largely of pointing out that many of the actors in the films were British. That does not even deserve a response.

It is also in this chapter that pseudo-Herrick makes his most obvious errors (and thus we know that he is not the true Herrick). He confuses the original Battlestar Galactica with the remake and shows himself incapable of correctly spelling "Adama" or "Cylon." In his discussion of Star Wars, too, he for some reason can't spell "midi-chlorian," but then again, who would want to?

Herrick turns sane again in the following chapters, "The Myth of Space Religion," and "The Myth of Alien Gnosis." Neither needs a discussion here, as they merely expand on the previous chapters. "The Myth of Space Religion" again criticizes the idea that beings in space must necessarily have deep religious knowledge, and "The Myth of Alien Gnosis" discusses the frequent appearance of Gnostic or Neo-Gnostic concepts in sf, something of which anyone who's seen the Matrix films is aware.

To my mind, Herrick says little here that is remarkable. As a form of popular literature, science fiction naturally tends to reflect the philosophical fashions of the age, so it should be no surprise to anyone that, for example, sf tended to support eugenics in an age of eugenics. Nor should anyone be surprised that in a politically correct age, in which the progressives have stuffed their former support of eugenics down the memory hole, science fiction tends to be politically correct. And though many people today apparently believe that entertainments are incapable of shaping their thoughts, anyone with a realistic view of fiction should also find it unremarkable that science fiction has not only accepted ideas current in the culture, but has also reinforced them and in some ways shaped them. Taken as a brief history of ideas (and that is for the most part what it is), Herrick's Scientific Mythologies is engagingly written and informative, though as mentioned previously, it relies too heavily on secondary sources. I would like to see a second edition that corrects the errors, delves more deeply into the topic, depends more heavily on the thinkers Herrick discusses, and depends less heavily on their later interpreters. While he's at it, although he does for the most part maintain a professional tone, he should remove the occasional snide asides and scare quotes, as well as the baseless race-baiting.

I must agree with McGrath, however, in saying that this book fails as a work of Christian apologetics. Herrick sets up these "Scientific Mythologies" in opposition to Christianity, never explaining why these are the only alternatives, nor explaining why the reader ought to prefer Christianity to science fictional speculation. He also, strangely, avoids mentioning that many of the ideas he criticizes were posited by Christian thinkers (for example, the notion that the universe must be full of inhabited worlds was based in part on a theological argument that God does not waste space). He states in his acknowledgments that he presented much of his material in lecture form to church and youth groups, and the book does read throughout as if Herrick is preaching to a choir. He treats Christianity as if it is firmly established on irrefutable historical data, an assertion he does not support and to which even a mildly skeptical reader might object.

I think it would be best if Herrick removed his brief and inadequate mentions of Christianity from each of the present chapters and wrote a final chapter explaining in detail why he thinks Christianity stands on firmer ground than the "scientific mythologies" he criticizes. His criticism that these "scientific mythologies" are not actually scientific appears to me to be a strong one, and the jarring, undefended praises he gives his religion do not help his argument. He could make his case more effectively if he began by explaining that empirical investigation is necessarily limited in its aims, and continued by describing how many scientists have overstepped their fields of expertise by launching into imaginative speculation or metaphysics, continue by explaining why these speculations are baseless or these metaphysics self-refuting, and then finish by defending Christianity on both metaphysical and historical grounds. In this way, he could produce a better work of apologetics and could also avoid the criticism to which the book in its present form is easily susceptible, that his religion is no more empirically verifiable than the myths he condemns.
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