Plato’s Cave

I previously mentioned that Isaac Asimov was heavily influenced by the science fiction stories he read in his youth (the “pulps”, like the one shown above….gee, I wonder why so many people give similar reports of alien abductions?).
Similarly, I enjoyed watching Star Trek re-runs when I was young. The Star Trek episode “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” reminds me of the image to the right. During the past couple of centuries, it has been possible for humans to generate a detailed understanding of our place in the universe, but a persistent science fiction theme explores the possibility that reality as we know it is just an illusion.

Might you be in some kind of computer simulation that tricks you into thinking that you are more than just software in a computer? Probably the most hyped version of this sort of “simulated reality” fantasy is The Matrix. A modern philosophical version of this topic is the “brain in a vat“, but this is an age old idea. In our “Western” philosophical tradition, some Platonists long ago imagined that reality as we experience it is an illusion while the only things that are truly real are the imaginary “ideal forms” invented by philosophers. In Cellular Civilization, Thomas is a haunted host for alien nanites and his thought processes are so muddled that he has trouble recognizing what is real. There are endless ways to explore and question the nature of reality in science fiction stories.

I’ve previously imagined a disease called “reality assignment disorder” that would involve confusion in the brain about which experiences are due to an external reality revealed to us by our senses and which are imagined fantasies. In Capgras syndrome, patients have the feeling that an acquaintance has been replaced by an imposter. In alien hand syndrome, patients feel like someone else is in control of a limb. All kinds of strange perceptions can be caused by brain damage. We need a healthy brain in order to have a normal sense of what constitutes reality.

I’ve never been plagued by doubts about the reality of the world that my sensory organs and my brain allow me to experience: I can’t take seriously the idea that we should not trust our brains…..hundreds of millions of years of evolution went into making the (healthy) human nervous system a reliable way to experience the world around us. However, I do like science fiction stories that explore the possibility that conventional beliefs about the nature of reality might be wrong because those beliefs are built upon imperfect knowledge of the universe. I love the idea that a simple scientific discovery can “change everything” and radically reshape human beliefs about the universe.

Newton did not literally “penetrate the sky” and so perceive reality in a new way, but he was able to imagine that a single force, gravity, both makes apples fall off of trees and holds the Moon in the sky. That conceptual leap once-and-for-all allows us to stop wondering what holds the Moon and planets in their positions in the sky. There need be no aetherial “celestial spheres” or other fantasy explanations for the motions of celestial objects…..gravitation does the work of a thousand imagined epicycles.

Here is another example of how a scientific discovery can suddenly change our understanding of the universe: during most of human existence on Earth, people wondered about the composition of celestial objects. Even after the science of astronomy had begun it was tempting to believe that people might never know what stars are made of because of their great distance from us. However, spectroscopy revealed that stars are made of the same types of atoms that we find in our own bodies. For centuries it was possible for philosophers to imagine that celestial objects might be composed of some mystical and ethereal substance not found on Earth. I love that science can overturn such beliefs and allow us to realize that the material of our bodies was formed inside stars that long ago exploded and scattered our atoms through space…only to be formed into new planets and stars…..and us.

I suspect that we are the one remaining member of the Homo genus because of our special cognitive abilities. Humans have the ability to play with ideas and create stories that meander back and forth between the objective reality that we all experience using our structurally similar brains and imagined variations of reality that we can each invent as extensions of what we see in the world.

I’ve never been very good at pushing my imagination towards the more hardcore domains of fantasy, but it is easy for me to play around with imagined science.

What distinction am I making between “hardcore domains of fantasy” and “imagined science”? The boundary that is of interest to me was discussed by Veronica Hollinger in “The Vampire and the Alien: Variations on the Outsider“. Dr. Hollinger discussed “domestication of the fantastic” in the context of vampires. There have been many science fiction stories about aliens who could suck vital essences from humans, so why not imagine that horror story vampires might be space aliens? For me, the main reason is that there are so many vampire stories where no attempt is made to give a rationalization for the existence of vampires…they are simply presented as a magical element of a fantasy story.

I’ve never been intrigued by the idea of vampires, but I can imagine how it might be possible to portray Overseers as vampire-like “aliens”. I enjoy having some deep-rooted antagonism between humans and Overseers, but I’ve never tried to portray Overseers as evil creatures. I’ve never read “The Space Vampires” and, as a biologist, I have little patience for plots that involve beings with magical “life force”-sucking powers. I can imagine an Overseer using nanite probes to take away memories from Franny (rather than give up her memories, Franny leaves Earth) or those nanites taking away the ability of Judy’s motor neurons to control her muscles (this happens in Exodemic), but I’ve never taken seriously stories like “Day of the Dove” in which alien creatures feed off of humans (or humanoids).
In the image to the right, the boys defeat such an alien (it has an appetite for fear) with laughter. I like to think that I have a good imagination, but I can’t imagine how anyone would think that it makes sense for a life form to feed off of fear….or think that people would enjoy science fiction stories about such imagined life forms. Yet, Star Trek had several episodes based on this premise including “Wolf in the Fold“.

A large part of my problem with stories like Day of the Dove and Wolf in the Fold is that they strike me as horror stories or murder mysteries dressed up to be passed off as science fiction. These stories try to “domesticate the fantastic” and ask us to say, “Gee wiz, an alien like that could explain so much of the evil from human history,” but even as a 12-year-old I was not buying it, or the idea that dinosaurs died in the biblical flood.

What I like most about science fiction and Star Trek is adventure…going to new places and seeing wonderful things. Expanding our mental horizons. For the past 100 years it has been popular to imagine space aliens suddenly showing up and turning our view of the universe up-side-down. Of course, after a while, that can grow old. For me, the Fermi Paradox is a like a big wet blanket draped over SciFi First Contact stories.

Aliens should not show up on Earth next week, they should have been here millions of years ago. Maybe Earth was so boring that the aliens came and then left, but that does not make for a good science fiction story. Maybe we are looking at shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Maybe we all do see the shadows of aliens who long ago came to Earth, but we just do not recognize the meaning of those shadows.

It took the genius of Newton to start with something that many other people had seen (a falling object and the Moon in the sky) and conceptualize it in a new way (universal gravity). What if evidence for space aliens is right here in front of our eyes every day?

One of my favorite parts of the Exodemic Fictional Universe is that it is escapist literature depicting the human condition as being such that we are all just one small step away from a kind of personal First Contact that would win us a ticket off this rock and set us on a grand adventure among the stars. We don’t need to be the brilliant (or lucky) scientist who can build a space ship in the garage. We don’t need to depend on a slime dripping alien to show up looking for a planet to plunder. We don’t need to imagine a government conspiracy with aliens hidden at Area 51.

In Exodemic, Franny lives her whole life never even giving a thought to space aliens or travel between the stars, but suddenly she finds herself seated across a table from someone who can take her away from Earth and open up for her a new life of adventure. All she has to do is say, “Take me away”. If we are chained up in Plato’s Cave, wouldn’t we all say “Take me away”? Appolgies to Martie Maguire and Marcus Hummon…..

touch the earth
break it in my hands
take me away
fly as high as you can
wrap me in a blanket of stars
take me away

Images. Top: Edgar Rice Burroughs on the pulps, “people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines…..I could write stories just as rotten.” colored modification of the Flammarion Woodcut. Genus Homo chart.

Music. In Exodemic, the Overseer who takes Franny away speaks with an accent…people in England think she is from Eastern Europe…..something like in the music video below: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYMk6ifkHiY) You can mouse over the Dixie Chicks above to get at the play controls and silence the instrumental version of “Cowboy take me away” that is on autoplay.

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