Philosophical musings of Chic Hollis
When someone begins a sentence with “In retrospect, I think…,” be on your guard for a speculative fable about the past from some story teller, self-appointed philosopher, theoretical scientist, or all-wise religious guru.
Science fiction usually deals with the future, but there are times when “sci-fi” has dealt with the past. Then it’s called “history.” Human beings live in the present and like to imagine from their unique, modern point of view what human life might have been in the past and what it would likely be in the future. Whichever way we direct our gaze – into the past or into the future – we are merely guessing about the reality that was experienced or some version of a possible reality that is going to be experienced.
Archeologists, anthropologists, cosmologists, biologists, and geologists dedicate their lives to the study of the past in order to persuade others that they have uncovered clues to what actually happened during those remote times when there were no written or photographic records. Their theories are reluctantly accepted by their peers until more conclusive evidence is available or a more rational explanation or interpretation of the events is published. We aren’t used to calling the narratives that these experts relate “science fiction” because that term normally applies to fabricated, exotic descriptions of unknown periods of animal life in the future. But the term could easily apply to how ancient history is explained by modern scientists.
The technological details underlying a science fiction story are only vaguely described so that we will temporarily lay aside our disbelief when we read about them. The same procedure is used in explaining the prevalent scientific theories of how the universe began, how the continents drifted apart, and how life evolved on this planet. The gaps in our historical “intelligence” are huge, and the process of “connecting the dots” is insufficiently analyzed by laymen. Since most of us aren’t particularly interested or directly involved in the analysis of the few facts available, we accept what is presented to us by the experts as adequate proof of their theories. Ascertaining the whole truth about the past is beyond our present human capabilities as is predicting the future with any kind of reasonable accuracy.
Pride of being the first person to identify some obscure universal truth motivates the closeted researcher. However, that discovery may take years to be accepted and to improve the life of the common man. As in the case of Nobel and his discovery or invention of dynamite, it may not improve human life all that much! Since there exists a belief among those who control the wealth of society that the past can be explained by piecing together a random accumulation of a few fossil fragments, money is available to promote historical science fiction.
The average scientist is not as selfless as Madame Curie. Uncovering the dangers of strange elements like uranium took time and lives including Mrs. Curie’s. From the wildest guesses about the chemical properties of uranium came the atom bomb and the Chernobyl catastrophe. The blessings from the accumulated knowledge about uranium are mixed: WWII in the Pacific was ended in 1945, and the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union helped to end the Cold War. Cheaper electric power was eventually produced for awhile, until the incalculable risks to human life were deemed to be too high in some political cost/benefit analysis.
As attractive as the scientific theories about the distant past may seem to us, they are still science fiction. Obviously, some scientific narratives are more plausible than others, but we must always be alert to the possibility of scientific fraud and research errors. Can we believe the story about The Big Bang? Black holes swallowing every last atom of matter within their gravitational field? Simple one-celled creatures evolving into complex Homo sapiens given enough time?
We can ridicule the religious faithful who believe in the unsubstantiated history contained in The Bible that says God in the form of an incandescent bush came to Moses and whispered the Ten Commandments into his human ear. Yet, we don’t dare laugh at the expert scientists, the Darwinists, and the quantum physicists. I can’t deny that what they are telling us may be useful to them in their line of scientific endeavor.
But how much does it matter whether or not we know that the Earth is round unless we are navigators? The roads we drive on are mostly flat and follow the curvature of the surface of our planet. We aren’t harmed by believing that we walk in a straight line to the closest drugstore in our neighborhood and say that the sun “comes up in the East and sets in the West.”
We can accept historical and futuristic science fiction as long as we don’t get carried away by our personal desire to believe whole-heartedly in the most popular theories because our friends do. The hotly contested social dispute over what human history should be taught public school children is an example of a preposterous controversy where old science fiction challenges new science fiction. Is there any harm in teaching both creation theories and letting the students decide for themselves?
A new theory has been recently introduced into this war of words where professors who teach science and religious leaders are embattled. Proponents of Creationism, Darwinism, and now Intelligent Designer-ism are wrestling for prominence as the most likely explanation of how mankind came into being. None of the arguments is convincing. Too many questions can be raised about all three theories that can’t be satisfactorily answered. But does it really matter much to the man-in-the-street which of the three is the most correct? Familiarity with the specific assumptions of each position may be intellectually beneficial, but who cares?
Does it upset you that genetic scientists believe that all humans are supposedly descended from one African woman? Did “that woman” have sexual relations with an immortal being like Mary in the New Testament? Did this “original” woman have a husband or any brothers and sisters? When did the taboo begin that prohibited having sex with your brother or sister? Who thinks about that issue today? It’s the law! Let the up-tight in our society worry about this taboo if they care to, but all the heated discussion won’t change a thing.
None of us can accurately predict what’s going to happen this year. The writers of science fiction can only speculate about what life on this planet will be like sometime down the road. Why are some of us so concerned about what might have happened a million years ago when a handful of primitive bipedal mammalian chordates roamed Africa, or was it still called Gondwana?
Which story do you believe about who has the right to the land in Israel/Palestine? The sci-fi retrospective narrative of the Old Testament which the Jews prefer to believe? This says that their God bequeathed this small plot of desert land to Abraham. But didn’t Joshua and his followers invade that same land 40 years after the Jews hastily emigrated from Egypt? Now the followers of Mohammad contend that this land is their land and sing their version of the popular song: “This land is my land…”
Since Abraham supposedly is the father of both ancient tribes, the land belongs to whoever has a legitimate title to it, right? Unless, some foreign power intervenes and says otherwise as the United Nations has done. Consequently, another ugly war is being waged off and on for years over two different interpretations of historical sci-fi.
If the sci-fi narrative is interesting, listen. If the story makes sense, file it in your memory bank. If the conclusion is logical, entertain your friends with the latest theoretical scuttlebutt. Whatever you do, don’t go so far as to alienate anyone, because life is too short even when most of the time it is stressful and taxing.
Teach your children that there are all kinds of possibilities and theories about what might have happened in the past and what is going to happen in the future. Each may have some authentic validity. But not one of these sketchy, unproven theories is worth arguing about, fighting over, or dying to defend.