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Horror v. Sci-Fi as a Vehicle for Morality

ghost-storiesOne of the common arguments against a Materialistic, Naturalistic worldview is its inability to define or present a compelling Moral universe. And as much contemporary sci-fi is tethered to such a worldview, it could be asked whether science fiction (at least, of the Materialistic cloth) is a fitting vehicle to address issues of morality.

The Wintery Knight once posed the question Does reading science fiction predispose people to atheism? His answer was, basically, yes.

Science fiction makes the mysteries of the universe seem easy to an atheist. Everything can be easily explained with fictional future discoveries. Their speculations about aliens, global warming and eternal universes are believed without evidence because atheists want and need to believe in those speculations. In the world of science fiction, the fictional characters can be “moral” and “intelligent” without having to bring God or the evidence for God into the picture. That’s very attractive to an atheist who wants the feeling of being intelligent and moral without having to weight actual scientific evidence or ground their moral values and behavior rationally. The science fiction myths are what atheists want to believe. It’s a placebo at the worldview level. They don’t want cosmic microwave background radiation – they want warp drives. They don’t want chastity – they want holodecks.

Avatar’s fickle deity may be the best example of what happens when atheists attempt to force a Moral code into their sci-fi storytelling. At the center of the story, at least from the “good pagan” protags’ perspective, is “All-Mother,” who is described thus: “All-Mother does not take sides. She balances nature.” All-Mother is, basically, Nature deified. Problem is, Nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Extracting morality from a evolved impersonal pantheistic life-force is problematic… especially when it comes to lessons on ethics and just war theory. You see, “if Nature is the arbiter of survival, then whoever has the biggest guns, wins; neither Deity or Destiny will intervene.” Which is why the Moral Universe that director James Cameron’s Avatar exists in is quite muddled.

So all the while Avatar is pushing a New Age, Neutral Deity, that Deity is busy acting very non-New Age and un-Neutral, arming her forces to the teeth. In the end, the Impartial, Impersonal Force of Cameron’s world turns partial and personal, comes to the rescue and turns, tooth and claw, on the bad guys… to make the story work, Avatar must abandon its New Age, Nature-worshiping, Gospel of Gaia sympathies, to bring about sufficient resolution to the story.

It’s the fly in the ointment of much contemporary sci-fi — If your fictional universe is a product of chance, material evolution, and random subatomic frenzy, then please don’t attempt to make your story a vehicle for morality. That is, any reasonable, cohesive morality. I mean, if the Force is impersonal and binding all living things together, then there really is no compelling reason why choosing Sith over Jedi is ultimately worse or better than the other. (Which is probably why George Lucas worked so hard to import Western concepts into his Eastern worldview.)

On the other hand, horror, it’s been suggested, is a genre more naturally tethered to rational, traditional morality. In his article, A Guide to Reading Ghost Stories, Robert Woods makes this point. Referencing Russell Kirk’s essay “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” Woods writes:

As with G.K. Chesterton’s assertion in his “Ethics of Elfland,” fairytales are inherently moral as they reflect a universe of moral order and consequences when good is dismissed and evil embraced. Russell Kirk writing of his own ghost stories says, “What I have attempted, rather, are experiments in the moral imagination. Readers will encounter elements of parable and fable…literary naturalism is not the only path to apprehension of reality. All important literature has some ethical end; and the tale of the preternatural…can be an instrument for the recovery of moral order.” (emphasis mine)

So just as there are “laws” that must be yielded to in the natural order, in “ghost stories” there is “a parallel principal within the supernatural order. The better uncanny stories are underlain by healthy concept.

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In other words, a universe with a moral order, where good and evil, holiness and horror, have real consequences, is intrinsic to ghost stories.uaxcrucifix2

The author’s take turns interesting when ghost stories are juxtaposed against science fiction. Woods makes this point:

For Kirk, the “ghost tale” may better communicate certain truths when compared to science fiction. “For symbol and allegory, the shadow–world is a better realm than the mechanized empire of science fiction.”

These “certain truths” that Kirk references are, of course, truths belonging to ghost-stories and the supernatural, moral order. The “mechanized empire” of science fiction cannot adequately grapple with such realities precisely because it denies them. Or, at least, has an insufficient basis to explain them. This is what Kirk describes as “the dreary baggage of twentieth-century naturalism.”

Kirk explains in his essay:

…many people today have a faith in “life on other planets” as burning and genuine as belief in a literal Heaven and a literal Hell was among twelfth-century folk, say—but upon authority far inferior. . . . Having demolished, to their own satisfaction, the whole edifice of religious learning, abruptly and unconsciously they experience the need for belief in something not mundane; and so, defying their own inductive and mechanistic premises, they take up the cause of Martians and Jovians. As for angels and devils, let alone bogies—why, Hell, such notions are superstitious! (bold mine)

So the naturalist, having “demolished… the whole edifice of religious learning,” must deify “something.” Or as Chesterton put it, “When man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Thus, having no supernatural moral order to point to, the naturalist must look for something to fill the void. Of course, this defies his “own inductive and mechanistic premises.” Nevertheless, they replace angels and devils with “Martians and Jovians.” They swap God for the Universe, redemption for evolution. “Dreary baggage” indeed!

Because much science fiction is built on “naturalism” — a denial of a “supernatural order” — the appeal to morality lacks bite. Morality grounded in naturalism, i.e., societal mores, tribal regulation, individual preference, etc., is not nearly as compelling as morality grounded in a “supernatural order.” This is why, it seems, ghost stories ARE superior to science fiction for exploring moral issues.

  • Ghost stories appeal to a supernatural order.
  • Science fiction stories appeal to a natural order.

Morality grounded in the Absolute (a supernatural order) is far more compelling than morality grounded (?) in the transient. But for the naturalist, because there is no absolute supernatural order, morals can only be transient. Relativistic flotsam is all the atheist can really offer.

Of course, this is not to suggest that the humanistic science fiction author cannot write from a “supernaturalist” frame of reference, but that they cannot do so without “defying their own inductive and mechanistic premises.” The horrorist needn’t make any such leap. A moral supernatural order is intrinsic to the ghost story. We enter such a tale with the cargo of Good and Evil. For the naturalist, however, Hell is a superstition. As is a supernatural moral order. Let them deify “Martians and Jovians” all they like. In the naturalistic Universe, appealing to ultimate Good or Evil is unnecessary. And irrational. But such is “the dreary baggage” of twenty-first-century naturalism.

Of course, there is much great science fiction out there which grapples effectively with moral issues. What should be noted is that in most cases, the books that do this assume a world where morals actually matter and are not just products of matter.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Joe Sanders September 7, 2016, 8:03 AM

    That is why I love Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert so much because within their tales and in my estimation they are able to weave morality and ethics even in their sci-fi without the overall dependency on evolutionist structure.

  • Simon Morden September 7, 2016, 1:46 PM

    Hmm. Isn’t this a least a little ‘Straw Man’y? Not all SF is Rendezvous with Rama. Not all Horror is The Exorcist.
    Then in the last paragraph, you admit there is SF which engages with moral issues, but it’s the ‘right sort of SF’. And there’s plenty of supernatural horror that’s simply nihilistic, but you don’t mention that.

    • Mike Duran September 7, 2016, 1:52 PM

      Absolutely true, Simon. Sci-fi needn’t be atheistic nor ghost stories moral. There’s plenty of nihilistic horror tales. The issue is worldview, and as contemporary sci-fi has hewn closer and more devoutly to secular Scientism, so has it drifted further from any real Moral moorings.

      • Simon Morden September 8, 2016, 2:26 AM

        I still get the feeling that this is a thesis in search of some data. Golden-age ‘scientifiction’ as exemplified by Clarke, Azimov, Heinlein et al, was all about secular Scientism. Writers like Silverberg, Herbert, Le Guin, brought spirituality and ethics to the table very successfully. Now there’s a whole spectrum of SF being published that covers everything from left to right politics, from militantly atheist to ardently Christian, and every admixture between.

        I’d agree that ignoring spirituality and ethical questions weakens any story, but it’s also not true to say that atheists don’t have their individual ethical frameworks – that indeed can make them better people than those that profess a faith.

        • Mike Duran September 8, 2016, 5:24 AM

          Well, my thesis is that “a Materialistic, Naturalistic worldview is [unable] to define or present a compelling Moral universe” and that tales told from a Supernatural POV “are underlain by a healthy concept of the character of evil.” I’m not sure that’s disputable. The question isn’t whether there are atheist authors who “brought spirituality and ethics to the table,” but whether spirituality and ethics can reasonably be derived from a purely Materialistic worldview. I mean, ethics and morals inhabit Pullman’s “Dark Materials” universe even though they have no logical reason to. But as far as a whole new spectrum of sci-fi being published, you’re right.

          • Simon Morden September 9, 2016, 2:02 AM

            “a Materialistic, Naturalistic worldview is [unable] to define or present a compelling Moral universe”

            But then you’ll have to argue against Epicurus and all the other Materialist philosophers that followed – for many, the idea of an external source of morality is simply a non sequitur. You might not personally find that ‘compelling’, but you (like me) are steeped in a Judeo-Christian worldview. Likewise, it’s only Judeo-Christian ghost stories that bring a concept of spiritual evil to the table that we recognise. Lovecraftian horror freights in a whole raft of Nietzschian thought, where the best we mortals can hope for is insanity and annihilation.

            My current WIP is about an autonomous robotic probe. It’s bootstrapping its own morality from first principles, with only the sketchiest protocols designed to allow it to survey a planet, not contact sentient life. It’s instructive, as well as being the hardest thing I’ve ever written. But I’d get cross if you said it doesn’t present a ‘compelling moral universe’. Because I think it does.

  • Jeanette O'Hagan September 7, 2016, 5:30 PM

    Interesting – though I don’t see why Sci-Fi (ipso facto) has to be built on naturalism or vague eastern spirituality – nor did C S Lewis for instance with his Space Trilogy. Even not-obviously-Christian science fiction can explore moral issues – eg Gattaca or even The Sixth Day – and Fantasy also provides great opportunities for exploring the supernatural and the moral, including Christian word view, themes and ideas.

    Given that the study of science in Europe is historically rooted in a Christian worldview (or something like it) – ie the belief in an orderly world that obeys ‘laws’ and is comprehensible comes out of a monotheistic world view – I think there is ample room for a Christian or theistic Science Fiction to challenge the presumptions and leaps of faith of the naturalist, materialist world view that has become the sacred dogma of the modern scientists.

    I’m not sure it’s the genre that’s restrictive – rather that the beliefs and values of creators show through different genres. Maybe it’s easier in Science Fiction to ignore the possibility that reality transcends the natural and the material – but even fantasy and horror (which includes supernatural or something beyond the material world) can still be naturalistic in spirit (eg Philip Pullman’s the Golden Compass).

    I do think it’s a great point about the contradictions in films (like Avatar or Star Wars) a naturalistic world view or even eastern spirituality which talks about ‘balance’ rather than good and evil but is still trying to make a moral point (good and evil, the value of persons, that our lives matter).

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