Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

Course No. 4112
Professor David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
King's College
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Course No. 4112
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how popular science fiction shows have tackled profound issues such as autonomy, sentience, pacifism, colonialism, racism, grief, morality, and much more.
  • Grasp the important distinctions between epistemology and metaphysics.
  • Looking at popular dystopian works, dive into the issues of capitalism, socialism, and balance to understand why an unregulated free market is a recipe for inequality.

Course Overview

The science fiction genre has become increasingly influential in mainstream popular culture, evolving into one of the most engaging storytelling tools we use to think about technology and consider the shape of the future. Along the way, it has also become one of the major lenses we use to explore important philosophical questions.

The origins of science fiction are most often thought to trace to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, a story born from a night of spooky tale-telling by the fireside that explores scientific, moral, and ethical questions that were of great concern in the 19th century—and that continue to resonate today. And, although novels and short stories built the foundations of science fiction, film and television have emerged as equally powerful, experimental, and enjoyable ways to experience the genre. Even as far back as the silent era, films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis have used science fiction to tell stories that explore many facets of human experience.

In Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy, Professor of Philosophy David Kyle Johnson of King’s College takes you on a 24-lecture exploration of the final frontiers of philosophy across several decades of science fiction in film and television. From big-budget blockbusters to television series featuring aliens in rubber masks, Professor Johnson finds food for philosophical thought in a wide range of stories. By looking at serious questions through astonishing tales and astounding technologies, you will see how science fiction allows us to consider immense, vital—and sometimes controversial—ideas with a rare combination of engagement and critical distance.

The Future Is Now

Science fiction is often concerned with the future, being used not only as a tool of prediction—humans are notoriously bad at accurately predicting the future—but also as one of extrapolation and interrogation. Rather than simply asking what the future will look like, the futuristic visions of sci-fi TV, like Star Trek, Firefly, and even the animated comedy Futurama, offer compelling statements about humanity’s hopes, dreams, and fears. We can, therefore, use fictionalized futures to better understand today’s world.

Setting a story in the future—or in an alternate reality, or on a faraway planet—also allows sci-fi creators to open up the realm of possibility beyond what our current world offers, while also looking at very real scientific possibilities. As you look at sci-fi films like Arrival and Interstellar, Professor Johnson highlights the kinds of issues worth considering if contact with extraterrestrial life or time travel became part of our real-life experience. And even if these experiences remain in the realm of fiction, considering them still provides insight into important philosophical questions. Indeed, throughout the lectures of Sci-Phi, you will ponder many questions that have concerned philosophers for centuries, including:

  • Do humans truly have free will?
  • Could machines one day be conscious? Or be sentient?
  • Could we actually be living in a simulated world?
  • How will humanity confront a future of diminished resources and advancing technology?
  • Are science and religion compatible?
  • When, if ever, is war justified?
  • How do we know what information to trust and what to dismiss?

Exploring Reality through Fiction

Staples of science fiction like time travel, alternate universes, and extraterrestrial life are endlessly fascinating ideas to explore. Yet, despite the insights they can give us, they may not seem very relevant to everyday life. Even our conception of reality—what is real and what isn’t—can have little bearing on the more mundane aspects of living from day to day. But science fiction, for all its futurism and outlandish flourishes, is not limited to these theoretical concepts; it is also a window into crucial discussions about the here and now, questions concerning ethics, power, religion, tolerance, social justice, politics, and the many practical dimensions of living in a world that is constantly changing and forever presenting humans with fresh new dilemmas to solve. And by removing us from reality, sci-fi can also remove our biases and make us see such issues anew.

Indeed, as Professor Johnson makes clear, stories of simulated worlds and artificial intelligence can seem far-fetched, but they actually offer valuable insights into social and ethical issues that may be more immediate and relevant than they first appear. By looking at them through fiction, we can take a step back and get a clearer picture of the larger implications. For instance, by looking at characters like Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation or the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, we are forced to wonder: If we create artificial intelligence that achieves true sentience, how will we treat these man-made beings? Will we repeat the sins of the past by enslaving them or will we embrace them as our equals? If we are ever able to re-create a convincing version of the world via computers, as films like The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor suggest, do the lives lived in those simulations mean less than those in the “real” world? The answers to these questions—and many others—speak volumes about human values and, given our ever-evolving technology, may require answers sooner rather than later.

You may be surprised to see how often a science fiction story can “trick” you into thinking about questions and concepts you may have never considered. Shows like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror overtly present questions and issues for audiences to ponder. However, while other films and television shows may seem to focus more on the adventure and entertainment value of science fiction, they still often have deep philosophical dimensions. Consider the long-running British TV series Doctor Who. A beloved icon of science fiction, the show has always been framed as simply the exciting weekly adventures of a time-traveling alien; yet, throughout its decades on television, it has explored issues of autonomy, sentience, pacifism, colonialism, racism, grief, morality, and much more.

A Unique View of Philosophy

While each lecture of Sci-Phi focuses on a few key films or television episodes, you will also explore dozens of other movies and TV episodes along the way. Likewise, each philosophical concept you explore opens the door to further discovery. Throughout the lectures, you will be introduced to the ideas of great thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, Turing, Baudrillard, and many others; and through these ideas, you will better understand the different ways philosophy examines the big questions, from metaphysics and epistemology to existentialism and ethics.

Fans of the genre will find their experience of sci-fi stories enriched by layers of philosophical inquiry that reveal each story to be much more than just entertainment. Similarly, those who are looking for a thrilling and accessible introduction to philosophy will be equally rewarded by Professor Johnson’s breadth of knowledge, as well as his deep and abiding love for both science fiction storytelling and philosophical exploration. As you engage with philosophy by way of sci-fi stories for screens both large and small, it is important to keep in mind that Professor Johnson will not shy away from revealing key plot points in many of the stories he explores throughout the lectures; so, although it is not required, watching the films and TV episodes at the heart of each lecture is recommended. Presented as a one-on-one conversation and enlivened by fun visual references to many of the stories you will encounter, Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy is a philosophy course unlike any other.

Whether telling stories of far-flung futures or investigating the here and now, science fiction is an invaluable source of intellectual and imaginative exploration. From the genre-defining classics like Star Wars, Doctor Who, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Twilight Zone to a new wave of speculative tales like Transcendence, Snowpiercer, Westworld, and The Hunger Games, sci-fi stories offer a uniquely engaging and incisive way to ask serious questions about the world we live in, even when those stories are set in a galaxy far, far away. Philosophy is the search for truth. Sometimes that truth is best revealed through fiction.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 34 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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.” x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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? x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 8
    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.” x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 24
    Kubrick’s 2001 and Nietzsche’s Übermensch
    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. x

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Your professor

David Kyle Johnson

About Your Professor

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., University of Oklahoma
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...
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Reviews

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 56.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Too Political I love the Great Courses, I enjoy philosophy, and I love science fiction. I expected this course to be a perfect fit for me. The first several lectures were interesting, however, the professor rarely explained a philosophical point in any detail and regularly discounted ideas without significant explanation. By the halfway point I realized why I was so frustrated with the course. I wasn't receiving lectures on philosophy or science fiction, but I was receiving lectures on modern political leftist thought. My preference would be to remove the politics and personal opinion and focus on the writing and thinking of respected ethicists and philosophers. When the lecturer did so, the course was interesting and informative. Such a balanced approach tended to be more and more rare as the course progressed.
Date published: 2019-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoyable course Enjoyable study, especially for one who enjoy science fiiction, as I do. Dr Johnso does suggest that the listeners watch several movies, Most of which I had never seen. This, if you take his advise, will extend the amount of time one must commit to the course, significantly. However I did not watch all of his recommendations and the study was still quite thiught provcing. I recommend it.
Date published: 2019-02-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unexpectedly Good! If anyone had told me that the Teaching Company would develop a course at the intersection of philosophy and science fiction - AND that it would be entertaining and informative, I would have called them crazy. I've purchased well over 75 courses and, on the face of it, this was the craziest paring of topics that I've seen. Lately I've been hitting up the newer science offerings on the GC website, such as Introduction to Astrophysics, Radio Astronomy, and Ancient Astronomy, and I was looking for something a little bit different. This course certainly fills the bill for this long time Sci-Fi (not always Phi) aficionado. Professor David Johnson neatly connects some basic tenets of philosophy with science fiction films and novels that illustrate the same philosophical themes. Some caveats here: It is extremely helpful if the viewer is familiar with the films and books that are referenced in the course, and Johnson is careful to advise the viewer to preview referenced films before beginning each chapter. In other words, it helps to be a Sci-Fi fan. So, this course is not for everyone. If you're not familiar with the films or books discussed here, this course will be a tough go. So, I enthusiastically recommend this course with that warning.
Date published: 2019-02-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Audio download would be fine. Normally, I am not much for philosophy. However, I do like science fiction a lot, and am familiar with most of the movies and books discussed here. Note that the video is almost entirely the professor talking, so you can save yourself a lot of cost and get the audio download.
Date published: 2019-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Good Update on the Genre I have always had a soft spot for the genre and this course is a good addition, highlighting the philosophical issues the best writers bring forward. This course includes more recent films (The Thirteenth Floor) and television series (Orphan Black) to present its points along with the time honored Star Trek Universe, Dr. Who and Firefly offerings. The viewpoints given always try to incorporate a balance once the thesis is established and for the most part the lecturer is successful. On the whole, this course offers a thoughtful insight into how the best Science Fiction has and continues to think and write about the possibilities in our future.
Date published: 2019-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My grand-nephew's delkighted! I bought this as a gift for my teen-age grand-nephew who's a sci-fi & film buff. I couldn't have chosen a more perfect gift for him. He called me a few days after receiving his gift to tell me that he was thrilled & delighted.
Date published: 2019-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unqualified to write reviews Last time I submitted 2 separate reviews, after four months of trying to reclaim my "EelSalguod' handle, both were rejected without specifics, therefore could not ascertain the reasons for my failures to comply to your standards. Therefore please do not ask for any reviews in the future. Thank You
Date published: 2019-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Sci-Phi Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy, as a overview of the philosophical issues underlying this genre of literature, is excellent. I do think the instructor needs to adjust his presentation to acknowledge that truth is more than mere facts. A truth is a statement in words which coincides with reality; however, facts are not self-interpreting. It would be closer to say that a truth consists of correct facts correctly interpreted. The presuppositional framework one uses to evaluate the facts is a matter for metaphysics, not natural philosophy; in other words, the reference system one uses to evaluate the facts is a matter of choice, not something that automatically emerges out of that maze of facts which can be measured by empirical means. The instructor seems to be dismissive of any presuppositional system based upon anything other than empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible processes. This excludes - a prior - such systems as are based upon historical documents, eyewitness testimony, intuition, etc. But even geometry is based upon intuitively obvious inferences and ethics is based upon perceptions derived from Natural Law; neither of these can be proven in an empirical way. I haven't yet finished the course, but it seems the instructor also excludes works such as C. S. Lewis' Deep Heaven Trilogy and other works that use Nature as a set of symbols for imagining the supernatural.
Date published: 2019-01-16
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