Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy
Dr. David Kyle Johnson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He earned a master's degree and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma.
At Oklahoma, he won the coveted Kenneth Merrill Graduate Teaching Award. In 2011, the American Philosophical Association's committee on public philosophy gave him an award for his ability to make philosophy accessible to the general public.
Professor Johnson regularly teaches classes on metaphysics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and logic, as well as courses on critical thinking and scientific reasoning. He has published papers on human freedom, the problem of natural evil, the multiverse, the existence of souls, and many related topics in such journals as Religious Studies, Sophia, Philo, Philosophy and Literature, and Think. He also maintains two blogs for Psychology Today.
Professor Johnson also publishes prolifically on the intersection of pop culture and philosophy. One of his books, Inception and Philosophy: Because It's Never Just a Dream, inspired an authors@Google talk with more than half-a-million YouTube views. He also has written numerous articles that explore the relationship between philosophical questions and such pop cultural phenomena as The Hobbit, Doctor Who, Batman, South Park, Johnny Cash, Quentin Tarantino, and Christmas.
01: Inception and the Interpretation of Art
Begin your journey with a look at why science fiction is one of the primary ways contemporary society engages with philosophical issues. Get an overview of the kinds of sci-fi media you will explore throughout the course and explore how you will address the interpretation of art with a look at the film Inception.
02: The Matrix and the Value of Knowledge
Which will you choose, the red pill or the blue? Look at different ideas concerning truth, knowledge, and reality through the film The Matrix, from Plato’s definition of knowledge to the theories of Jean Baudrillard. Also, grasp the important distinctions between epistemology and metaphysics.
03: The Matrix Sequels and Human Free Will
Though panned by critics and science fiction fans alike, upon first release, the two sequels that followed The Matrix—Reloaded and Revolutions, respectively—provide surprisingly fertile ground for philosophical investigation surrounding the existence of free will. Compare multiple theories and see whether these oft-derided films can offer any answers.
04: The Adjustment Bureau, the Force, and Fate
Explore the concept of individual fate through the film The Adjustment Bureau and the larger concept of universal fate in Star Wars. Along the way, take a look at the ways conspiracy theories and supernatural claims invoke “fate” to explain real-world happenings and how philosophers handle these “explanations.”
05: Contact: Science versus Religion
Science communicator Carl Sagan believed science and religion could be compatible. But does Contact, the film based on his novel, prove his point or undermine it? Probe the many ways humans use personal experience to justify belief and whether or not such experiences can justify belief in the face of contrary scientific evidence.
06: Arrival: Aliens and Radical Translation
See how the 2016 film Arrival can help you examine the three questions that arise when discussing the possibility of alien life in the universe: How likely would a visitation be? What effect on society would it have? And, particularly pertinent to the film, would we be able to communicate with them once they’re here?
07: Interstellar: Is Time Travel Possible?
This lecture will take a look at what metaphysics has to say about the possibility of time travel, focusing primarily on the film Interstellar. Along the way, you will also look at other influential time travel stories and the various theories they represent, like Back to the Future, Quantum Leap, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Planet of the Apes.
08: Doctor Who and Time Travel Paradoxes
Open with a look at a fan-favorite episode of Doctor Who and explore the nature of paradoxes in time travel. You will also see that science fiction doesn’t always have to take itself seriously to tell a great story—or to explore fascinating philosophical questions—when you turn your attention to the Futurama episode “Roswell That Ends Well.”
09: Star Trek: TNG and Alternate Worlds
What can quantum mechanics tell us about the likelihood of alternate worlds? Explore the multiverse theory with Lieutenant Worf in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Parallels” and see how science could support the idea of multiple worlds, while also grappling with the seeming untestable nature of such a theory.
10: Dark City, Dollhouse, and Personal Identity
The nature of personal identity is tied to numerous philosophical concerns: memory, consciousness, even the possibility of an afterlife. With films like Dark City and Moon and TV shows like Dollhouse, Professor Johnson guides you through the theories of great thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and their intellectual descendants.
11: Westworld and A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Sentient machines have been a staple of sci-fi for decades. Although here you will focus on a few key stories, you will also take a look at the long history of intelligent machines in film and TV—as well as get a glimpse into our very possible future—examining the ways we conceive of the mind and the implications of artificial intelligence. Machines can calculate, but could they one day be sentient?
12: Transcendence and the Dangers of AI
Science fiction has always been fascinated by the possibilities of artificial intelligence, with many storytellers focusing on the dangers of sentient machines. But human predictions of the future are often inaccurate, so here you will explore arguments both for and against the creation of AI through the film Transcendence, as well as through other iconic stories.
13: The Thirteenth Floor: Are We Simulated?
What is the likelihood that we are living in a simulated world right now? Some philosophers, using laws of subjective probability, would say it may actually be much higher than you might think. Examine the film The Thirteenth Floor and understand how creating a convincing simulated world could alter our conception of reality itself.
14: The Orville, Orwell, and the "Black Mirror"
The pervasive influence of social media makes life feel more performative than ever, yet it really just demonstrates an old dilemma heightened by new technology. Here, see how the anthology show Black Mirror and the Star Trek-influenced series The Orville offer episodes that examine extreme cases of objectification and mob mentality. Also, look back on a pre-internet example in George Orwell’s much-adapted Nineteen Eighty-Four.
15: Star Wars: Good versus Evil
The original Star Wars trilogy is not morally ambiguous, but many other entries in the franchise present complicated gray areas when it comes to good versus evil. Professor Johnson demonstrates how the 21st-century films in the series, especially Rogue One, create a more complicated view of morality—and what Nietzsche can tell us about space politics.
16: Firefly, Blake’s 7, and Political Rebellion
Many science fiction stories revolve around scrappy, sympathetic rebels and the overthrow of oppressive government powers. Here, look at how two series—Blake’s 7 and Firefly—take similar approaches to the experience of political oppression and individual defiance. Consider the implications of dissent within society and contemplate the perpetual dilemma of balancing freedom and social order.
17: Starship Troopers, Doctor Who, and Just War
From the overt (though satirical) militarism of Starship Troopers to the pacifism of the Doctor, examine how societies view war and the ways we are (or are not) able to justify it. As you compare and contrast two very different ways of confronting violence, you will also look at the middle ground via Just War Theory and ponder the difficulties of preserving life while sometimes having to cause harm.
18: The Prime Directive and Postcolonialism
What can science fiction tell us about the dangers of colonialism and moral relativism? Take a look at the Prime Directive—the rules that are supposed to prevent interference in other cultures—and the ethical ramifications of imposing one society’s values on another, as you plunge into several episodes from different iterations of Star Trek, including the classic series of the 1960s, The Next Generation, and Enterprise.
19: Capitalism in Metropolis, Elysium, and Panem
Capitalism is an economic philosophy as much as it is a practical system and, while it has many benefits, the capitalist system also has its share of pitfalls and ethical quandaries. Looking at the dystopian visions of the sci-fi films Metropolis, Elysium, and The Hunger Games, you will dive into the issue of balance and understand why an unregulated free market is a recipe for inequality.
20: Snowpiercer and Climate Change
Open this lecture with a look at how and why we get scientific information from experts (or don’t) and why what we should conclude about climate change is as much of a philosophical issue as it is a scientific one. Then, through the film Snowpiercer, take a look at how a lukewarm approach to pressing issues can create narratives of false security and cast doubt on real dangers that will have consequences for the fate of humanity.
21: Soylent Green: Overpopulation and Euthanasia
When is it acceptable to end your own life? With the rising threat of overpopulation on Earth in the future, see what the 1970s film Soylent Green offers as a solution to dwindling space and resources. Also, consider other ways societies, in both science fiction and the real world, tackle the moral issues of euthanasia (both self-chosen and coerced) and population control.
22: Gattaca and the Ethics of Reproduction
Dive into the ethical questions of “designer babies,” genetic manipulation, and human evolution at the heart of the movie Gattaca, a film which NASA once considered one of the most plausible sci-fi films ever made. Then, turn your attention to a similar issue as you explore the philosophical and scientific ins and outs of cloning, via the Canadian TV show Orphan Black.
23: The Handmaid’s Tale: Feminism and Religion
The television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale offers a grim vision of a future in which religious fanaticism reshapes the United States into a misogynist totalitarian state. Professor Johnson provides a brief overview of the meaning(s) and different stages of feminism in the 20th century and examines what the disenfranchisement of women says about the uses and abuses of power.
24: Kubrick’s 2001 and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch
Analyze one of the most famous—and possibly weirdest—sci-fi films of all time: 2001: A Space Odyssey. Consider the imagery and ideas of Kubrick’s vision and determine whether, as some suggest, it reflects the concept of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Close with a brief glimpse of the science fiction worlds still waiting for you to explore them.