Why We Boldly Go: Moral Truth in Science Fiction
Science fiction as a literary genre allows an author to set her stories on exotic planets, or even in other dimensions. The characters can be human, alien, or something truly bizarre, like a nebulous ball of conscious gas. Given this diversity, one may find it surprising to discover that in many of the most popular sci-fi stories, there’s a homogenous view of religion. In these stories, religion is something for primitive people, for primitive cultures. The enlightened, advanced cultures have moved beyond religion to something else. At the same time, sci-fi often deals with lofty ideas writ large. Authors have a message for their readers: This is how we should live. Or this is the danger of human hubris. Or this is what loss of humanity looks like. These are, very often, moral messages. However, moral truth in these tales is never found at the end of the microscope or at the edge of the galaxy. Instead, it is what motivates and organizes the discovery, the journey.
Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has an optimistic vision for the future of humanity but is intentionally devoid of any reference to God or religion, except in less advanced cultures. It is a scientific utopia. A good example of this comes in one episode of The Next Generation, “Who Watches the Watchers.” Here the crew of the Enterprise encounters a medieval culture that has been under secret observation by the Federation. Their covert means of scientific spying malfunctions, and the medievals are accidently exposed to a world beyond their ken; the world of starships and holodecks has careened into a primitive society. For the crew of the Enterprise, this constitutes a deep violation of the “prime directive,” a central ethical principle of Starfleet: One ought never to interfere with the development of other, non-space-faring cultures. How, then, to manage the damage already done?
There’s disagreement in Starfleet about how to proceed. Federation brass suggests that the Enterprise should play along, indulge medieval superstition, and tell the primitives that their extraordinary experience is actually a divine revelation. Captain Picard can give an enlightened set of commandments, consistent with Federation values, while simultaneously papering over the inadvertent contact. But Picard refuses. He will not enable superstition or deceive these people. Instead, he opts to unveil the truth about himself to a core group of medievals. Perhaps they will see their own potential on the observation deck of his starship.
In this episode, we find themes about religion and morality that are littered all over the sci-fi landscape. Religion is for the unenlightened. It can be, and often is, a tool used by those who know better. This tool can be wielded for good or for ill. Humanity has shed its religious skin as it has grown. That’s part of progress, the sloughing off of superstition.
But something that cannot be outgrown is morality, despite its deep historical connections with “superstition.” Picard, in contrast to the exuberant James Kirk, is known for his unflinching commitment to a moral code. The moral code itself resists the gravity of “progress.” At bottom, the ethical vision of the Federation has seen no farther than dusty former slaves did at Sinai: Love your neighbor as yourself. What has changed, however, is humanity’s application of “neighbor.” Where humanity now struggles to see the Samaritan as a neighbor, Star Trek asks us to think of a universe full of neighbors. Some surprisingly like us, some barely sentient space slugs, some built by human hands, and some as nebulous, supra-intelligent clouds of gas. Picard takes it as obvious that we should love our neighbor, but a question at the heart of Star Trek is this: “Who is my neighbor?” The moral truth revealed in that ancient desert is still written on the hearts of those aboard the Enterprise. But that mount is one place Star Trek will never boldly go.
If we journey to Frank Herbert’s arid world of Dune, we find the same themes. While Rodenberry imagines a utopia, Herbert envisions a future of humanity where we have regressed. He envisions humanity populating the galaxy, technologically advanced. However, the empire is ruled by despots, puppets, and politicians with the same moral ineptitude we find in so many historical examples. The worst of these is House Harkonnen—corrupt, cruel, and indulgent. There are exceptions, however. Some of the empire’s houses are concerned with justice and the inherent value of their subjects. One of these is the House Atreides, and its heir is Paul. Where Harkonnen hoarded for themselves, Atreides provides.
Though the world of Dune is no utopia, it shares some resemblance to Star Trek. Religion is something for primitive people, intentionally designed by a group of elites for their own benefit. One of these groups, the Bene Gesserit, has sown prophetic seeds throughout a galaxy ruled by human empire. The Bene Gesserit whisper through their priestesses, present at every level of human civilization, about a coming messiah, called by them the “Kwisatz Haderach” or “the one who can be many places at once.” This Christ-figure would have real power, but power realized through careful genetic manipulation and intense training. A power discovered and wielded because of human effort. The specifics of the prophecy were adapted to whatever local culture, in case they ever were needed by the Bene Gesserit. This custom greatly benefited the exiled Paul Atreides, when he found himself living outside the reaches of the Empire, among the tribal and religious Freman. The Freman had their own Bene Gesserit doctrine. Paul, himself a messianic candidate born of his Bene Gesserit mother, Lady Jessica, fits well enough the Freman expectation. Paul and Jessica use the religious tools prepared for them ably, and Paul leads the Freman to freedom and secures his own place in the empire. Herbert implies that Paul will bring about a golden age on Arrakis through the work of Kynes, a scientist with the knowledge to terraform the desert world. In this way, religion is a tool to bring about a scientific utopia.
Herbert does not give his readers a moral exemplar like Picard. The denizens of Dune are corrupt, fallible, and selfish in ways that Roddenberry would not have countenanced. Even Paul Atreides is deeply flawed. Whether he is primarily motivated by vengeance or altruism, Herbert does not reveal. But Herbert certainly has a moral perspective. He expects his readers to see Paul as virtuous when he rejects Freman’s traditional violence in favor of mercy. He expects his readers to think that the House Atreides’s government of relative generosity and justice to be morally superior to the corrupt, self-serving rule of House Harkonnen. But this moral vision comes not through religion, though religion may be, in the right hands, a tool to bring it into focus. The moral vision itself is deeper than the narrative; it is what makes the narrative coherent and the characters empathetic. We want Paul to win because he sees the humanity in the Freman where House Harkonnen does not and because we want to see justice done.
One more brief example. In Foundation, Isaac Asimov also invents a humanity that has spread an imperial government throughout the galaxy. As this empire sinks into stagnation and finally dissolution, Hari Seldon, pioneer of the new science of psychohistory, promises to resurrect civilization, but only after it has died. Seldon’s secret plan is to maintain over the generations of decline a small group (the titular “Foundation”) who will still remember the power of technology and, specifically, nuclear energy. This Foundation produces a new religion, with priests who maintain the fusion energy plants of civilization. The common, unsophisticated man literally worships at the Foundation’s altar, but the elite know the truth. With a hold on the hearts and mind of the simple, the Foundation can advance its aims. But the Foundation has its aims: the restoration of civilization, not as the end, but to permit the thriving of humanity.
Asimov’s Foundation is a story without a traditional narrative. There are no main characters. The protagonist is the Foundation. What Asimov expects is that the reader will identify with the Foundation’s goal, realizing human flourishing is a worthwhile end. If his readers do not agree with this moral judgment, then there is no unity to the story. Why that end? Why is that important? And here again the moral assumptions of the story are never argued for or even articulated. This is not the end of the Foundation’s science. It is the invisible beginning, the implicit axiomatic starting point. It exists there, in between the lines, relying on the shared knowledge between author and reader that this is good.
The unstated assumption of a great deal of science fiction is this: there is a moral world, full of values and duties. It is known well enough that moral judgments can be justifiably made, but the moral insight comes not by way of religion, which is mere superstition and tool. We might naturally expect science fiction, a genre so eager to explore big questions, to offer some explanation of the very thing that makes the exploration go. What we often find instead is the moral law, not just within ourselves as readers, but starkly, recalcitrantly illuminating the minds of authors even when marking out the absolute boundaries of human depravity and progress.
At this point, and many others, these fictional worlds mirror our own. We find the same sort of disconnect as the assumed perspective in our popular culture. One is allowed to have an opinion on what is moral, so long as that opinion isn’t grounded in religion, so long as it does not refer to God or to the revelation of himself in the Word. These are the primitive ways of thinking, pre-modern. Our public epistemology only permits views based on a narrow set of assumptions. But it was not always so. Not so long ago, the culture of the West assumed that moral judgments must be grounded in God and his revelation. It would not be a stretch to say that this was the dominant view from Plato until perhaps the 19th century, when the Enlightenment’s influence became widespread at all levels of culture. With the Enlightenment came the rejection of religion as a moral authority. Many began to accept the idea that moral knowledge can only be justified by human reason, unaided by anything external. The Enlightenment was an epistemological revolt. The old ways were burned away, and new ones erected in their place. This new epistemic edifice gave rise to modern science. The success of science gave many tremendous confidence in these modern ways of thinking, confidence shared, more or less, by Rodenberry, Herbert, and Asimov.
The Enlightenment’s quest for moral knowledge has not enjoyed the same success. It did result in powerful ways of learning about the material world. But it will be difficult to show how the epistemic revolt improved on the moral vision of Jesus found in the New Testament. In Star Trek, Dune, and Foundation, we see the Enlightenment way of looking at the world projected to imaginative ends. And we find that though humanity has navigated to the stars by the light of science, he has no light to shine in the deeps where moral truth can be found. The quest for knowledge so central to these stories can only be partially completed. To discover the grounds of moral truth, we must boldly go back to more ancient ways of seeing the world.
Ultimately, I think that these stories assume something false about religion and about science. The religion found in these words is something of a caricature, at least when contrasted with the Christian religion. These stories present religion as inevitably superstitious, authoritarian, and slavishly bound to tradition. That is not a fair or accurate description of Christianity. On the other hand, science is often presented as the only valid way to discover the truth about the world or (perhaps a distinction without a difference) the only truths worth pursuing are scientific ones. This not a correct application of the methods of science. These mistaken ideas about religion and science are assumed and then we are offered a dilemma: either science or religion. Our authors have an obvious preference. They want us to adopt the thin epistemology of science (really, a form of weak scientism). Under this guise, they reject moral intuitions as proper grounds for knowledge; intuition and sentiment are too close to religious superstition. But this offer is a false dilemma made on false assumptions. Though, it is not a mistake invented by science fiction writers. We can lay the blame for that at feet of the Enlightenment.
Once we see the mistake, it becomes clear that boldly going back does not mean the rejection of science in favor of superstition. Rather, it means that we adopt the thick epistemology of Plato and Aristotle that allows for the connection between fact and value. We permit ourselves to take our moral knowledge seriously. We know some moral facts more deeply than we could ever know anything about the empirical world. A thick epistemology allows us to move from morality to metaphysics.
Picard and all worthy protagonists know that the most important things cannot be weighed and measured. Picard can’t explain how he knows this, but Plato can.
Jonathan Pruitt is a PhD candidate at the Rawlings School of Divinity. He has an MA in philosophy and ethics from the Talbot School of Theology and an MA in apologetics from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. His master’s thesis is an abductive moral argument for the truth of Christianity against a Buddhist context.