Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

Imagine Socrates with a lightsaber, and you have an idea of what to expect from this mind-blowing mashup of philosophy and science fiction.
Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 88.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome Mental Stimulation I'm halfway through this excellent course. I'm not a 'professional philosopher' but this type of material has always interested me, and I have 'done' courses on metaphysics and related disciplines. This course not for total beginners, I'll admit, as some of the concepts take a lot of thinking to work them out in the mind and grasp. I'm a lover of mental gymnastics, however, so watching Dr Johnson, with his engaging style and firm grasp on the subject matter compel me onward, which I continue to do gleefully. I'm hooked! :-) Sometimes the material might be deemed to NOT be strictly philosophy, as we're taken through scientific stuff which might be off-putting for the non-scientific person, especially material relating to quantum mechanics, the nature of Time and the exploration of what it means to be conscious as a human being in an apparently physical world. But - as Dr Johnson points out - science is simply 'natural philosophy'. One also needs some understanding of human psychology, history, comparative religion and a bit of anthropology. I've also watched most of the film/TV material we're asked to explore - sometimes numerous times, in order to go deeper - and continue to marvel at how those who conceive of their subject matter and put their philosophical understanding into popular media - which can either be taken at face value or explored in greater depth, as they are in this course. I'm left wanting to watch Dr Johnson's other courses at some point and explore tangentially into other course by other lecturers. I'll come back and complete this review if I feel I need to after I finish the course.
Date published: 2021-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best courses I've ever taken!! I came ino this course with a strong background in SF and absolutely no background in philosophy, but I was curious to discover how the professor would tie the two together and what thought-provoking ideas he would raise. I was not disappointed. Dr. Johnson is extremely knowledgeable about both aspects of the course material and a self-proclaimed nerd (I loved the paraphernalia he had on the desk behind him from all sorts of SF TV shows and movies that were obviously prized parts of his collection). But more than that, he's an engaging speaker and an incredible teacher. He kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the 24 lectures, focused on what he had to say and waiting to learn more. He also provoked me to challenge my own ideas about each of the topics he raised and at least consider other points of view, which was one of his major objectives for this course. I was so enthralled by what he did that I quickly went and purchased "The Big Questions of Philosophy," just because he's teaching it. As Dr. Johnson pointed out in the final lecture, there's so much more he could have added in, if he had only had the time. Might I request that we all do a write-in to The Great Courses to give him the opportunity to do so.
Date published: 2021-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super! I learned so much from this course! I hadn't seen or read the relevant science fiction, but did for the course, as instructed. The professor was very adept at taking what was familiar and teaching me the unfamiliar. Thank you!
Date published: 2021-08-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Bittersweet I took this as the third on a series about Science Fiction and its relationship to Literature, Science, and Philosophy. He was spot on most of the time but I could not escape the times when his own opinion sneaked out , such as "Fake News". The lecture on Global Warming/Climate Change was not what I was expecting appearing almost as a rant. Yes, I believe the planet is warming and climate will change as a result. It has this as long as our planet has existed. I think using Snowpiercer was a bit of a stretch. Since we were talking Philosophy I thought this lecture could have focused more on the conundrum of clime change perhaps looking for more in the way of solutions than how it was presented. I would conditionally recommend that taking the courses focused on Literature, Then Science, before taking this course. I would also recommend the professor could list sources, societies, or clubs where a student of science fiction such as I could interact with others of similar interests such as I.
Date published: 2021-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the very best philosophy courses I've taken ...and I've taken quite a few! Please do more! On other Sci-fi, either movies or franchise or TV series or books. Anything done by Professor Johnson and on Sci-fi would be much appreciated!
Date published: 2021-06-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoought Provoking First I'd like to say this was an unexpctedly excellent course the lecturer was extremly good and his arguments were well presented clear and concise. First an admisson of guilt I too am a bit of a scifi geek, as the lecturer also annouced on the first lecture. Some of the scifi he identified, will be hard to trace but so what; it doesn't stop you following the argument or discusion presented. Does he say some challenging things with an element of bias ? Yes of course he does this is philosophy. This is a really excellent course I enjoyed it from start to finish and i will be dipping intto periodically as it was so enjoyable, like I do with other courses good courses from TGC. Whats more he has inspired me to consider a differnet line of research for a future full time educational activity i might be pursuing. An excellent course.
Date published: 2021-05-29
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Unusually devoted to his own opinions I found Dr. Johnson to not be my cup of tea. That came as a disappointment, because I was thoroughly intrigued by the course’s premise. Clearly, many differ, as the number of glowing reviews testifies. But as I progressed through the course, I grew more and more frustrated and irritated. (Disclaimer: because of that I did not complete the course, as I suspect I would have grown even more frustrated and irritated had I been exposed to the entirety of his lectures.) I found him to be rather doctrinaire, often taking what struck me as the most specious, the most “out there” theories and treating them as though they were obvious truth. At times, I would find his reasoning to be downright bizarre. To top that, those might be the times when he seemed the most dogmatically dismissive of different conclusions. And being a theist, I did not appreciate his atheism. (He didn’t routinely “push” it, or anything like that, but it did clearly enter into some of his analyses in what was, for me, a distasteful way.) Johnson struck me as one who ventures outside his realm of expertise (philosophy) while evidencing an often strident confidence in the veracity of his conclusions. I’ll give a couple of examples. Regarding science, it was clear to me that Johnson has read far more of it than I have, but at the same time his presentations often bore more confidence in his scientific views on very cutting-edge theories than seemed warranted. Regarding economics (a field with which I’m pretty informed), it was clear to me that Johnson doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does; I found some of his reasoning and conclusions in this arena to be laughable. There were some interesting moments, of course. Johnson is obviously a smart guy, and his presentation style is engaging (as is true for nearly all of The Great Courses), but on the whole I did not enjoy and cannot recommend this course.
Date published: 2021-05-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from How deep do you want to go? I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this course. I never took a college philosophy course, so I was not previously exposed to the logical approach to reasoning exhibited by Prof.Johnson. I think that the topics he selected were excellent ones worth discussing,and the films or shows selected to illustrate the topics were perfect. I appreciate that the fact that it is not a requirement to "pre-watch" the title recommended at the end of each chapter - the summaries he provides at the beginning of each lecture are more than adequate. Prof. Johnson is an excellent speaker, it was not possible for me to tell if he was reading a teleprompter for sure. I found his arguments for explanations or questions to be sound, it is hard to disagree with his interpretations. I only gave this four stars instead of five because of two reasons: a) Occasionally there was too much philosophical bla-bla-bla with various philosophers opining on topics that were not particularly interesting b) After watching most lectures, I found it very difficult to recreate the main arguments that were made explaining the key points. I understood them when Prof. Johnson made them, but apparently they didn't "stick". One could argue this is indicative of my limitations as a student, or it could be indicative of his limitations as an instructor.
Date published: 2020-12-19
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Join an award-winning philosopher on an intellectual journey through time and space as you experience dozens of intriguing science fiction stories in film and TV.


David K. Johnson
David K. Johnson

We can always take comfort in the fact that we can find and do embrace answers to metaphysical questions.


King's College

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.

By This Professor

The Big Questions of Philosophy
Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy
Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy


Inception and the Interpretation of Art

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.

34 min
The Matrix and the Value of Knowledge

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.

33 min
The Matrix Sequels and Human Free Will

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.

34 min
The Adjustment Bureau, the Force, and Fate

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.”

32 min
Contact: Science versus Religion

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.

34 min
Arrival: Aliens and Radical Translation

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?

34 min
Interstellar: Is Time Travel Possible?

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.

34 min
Doctor Who and Time Travel Paradoxes

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.”

35 min
Star Trek: TNG and Alternate Worlds

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.

33 min
Dark City, Dollhouse, and Personal Identity

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.

36 min
Westworld and A.I. Artificial Intelligence

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?

36 min
Transcendence and the Dangers of AI

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.

35 min
The Thirteenth Floor: Are We Simulated?

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.

33 min
The Orville, Orwell, and the

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.

34 min
Star Wars: Good versus Evil

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.

33 min
Firefly, Blake’s 7, and Political Rebellion

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.

34 min
Starship Troopers, Doctor Who, and Just War

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.

35 min
The Prime Directive and Postcolonialism

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.

33 min
Capitalism in Metropolis, Elysium, and Panem

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.

34 min
Snowpiercer and Climate Change

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.

36 min
Soylent Green: Overpopulation and Euthanasia

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.

34 min
Gattaca and the Ethics of Reproduction

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.

32 min
The Handmaid’s Tale: Feminism and Religion

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.

36 min
Kubrick’s 2001 and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch

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.

38 min