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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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 4.2 out of 5 by 36.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Too many errors to forgive First, I try my best to stick to a ‘1 star or 5 star’ system. Everyone gets the best score or the worst score. I got through lecture 5, and, while the hostility to religion (regardless of Prof Johnson’s insistence that there was none) was annoying, it was a low level of annoyance and reasonable. However, then he got to the Big Bang, and he lost all credibility. First, he’d been sloppy with some of the details here and there when it helped his positions, such as the particular sequence of events in the Matrix trilogy. But when he makes a major error like he does in lecture 5, and an error that supports his apparent hostility to a certain point of view, I can’t accept that it was made in good faith. He briefly discusses the Big Bang theory and comments that, while science had postulated an infinitely old universe and (most) religions had postulated a universe with a set age, it was scientists and not priests that developed the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang theory was, in fact, proposed by a Belgian Priest, Georges Lemaître. Omitting that while expressing a view that is less than charitable to a religious world view (while also using some sleight of hand to burden theism with the supernatural tenets of religion) cannot be passed by without judgement. Either Prof Johnson is ignorant on the topic, sloppy, or maliciously left out information that undermined his position. Any of those three options undermines the seriousness with which I should listen to this lecture.
Date published: 2018-09-05
Rated 1 out of 5 by from ARROGANT AND OPINIONATED - PATHETIC PHILOOPHY What an irritating waste of time. Hours of personal opinions on the world by someone claiming knowledge of advanced physics, especially quantum mechanics. He simply repeats the Orthodox Views as seen on most TV-physics programs; so his knowledge here is at least third-hand. I have degrees in theoretical physics and have studied Quantum Mechanics for over 50 years and have never heard so much tripe. I would give this "professor" an F- if he were taking my QM course. So, be warned.
Date published: 2018-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easily One of the Best! This is easily one of my favorite lectures! It's engaging, entertaining, humorous (at times), and thought-provoking. Because of these lectures, Dr. Johnson is now my FAVORITE philosopher!
Date published: 2018-08-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I started this course a couple weeks ago and it is great. It gives really great depth to science fiction. Anyone that likes to read philosophy will gain a new prospective in its application in this course.
Date published: 2018-08-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Great introduction to philosophy I enjoy the professor and his enthusiasm for the subject. I did not like his choice of movies- unless you want to find the good in everything. I bought/rented several of the recommended movies and was quite disappointed, but he was successful in communicating the philosophical message he desired
Date published: 2018-08-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Very Good Introduction but Flawed I really enjoyed watching Dr. David Johnson. I am also watching movies he recommended. Professor Johnson's life started as a Christian evangelical, but now he is an atheist, often fighting with Christians over Christmas displays like nativity scenes. The lectures start as unbiased opinion on sci-fi movies and as he approaches the later lectures, the atheist and leftist in him clearly comes out of the shell. When he takes shots at Hobby Lobby President who later built Bible Museum in Washington D.C, Professor's vitriol clearly comes out. In some lectures he goes out of his way to criticize Christianity. He describes Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber as a Christian terrorist. Even a simple wikipedia page on McVeigh shows his final words as 'I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul'. No believing Christian would say such words at the moment of death. According to this professor, even white racists have their basis in Christianity, a religion brought into this world by the Jews like Jesus and St.Paul. So, there are places where he spills out his intentional ignorance on Christianity to vilify it. So, overall, I like his lectures, I always listen with caution because his atheism and materialism always forces themselves into his final conclusions.
Date published: 2018-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Definitely worth pursuing. I'm only into about the fifth lecture, because I've been watching nearly all of the outside films he's assigned, and they are what gives this course depth, and how the professor shows us the eternal philosophical questions. He's en excellent teacher both as a lecturer and especially the way he planned this course.
Date published: 2018-08-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best lecture series at TTC! This is by far one of my favorite courses in the Teaching Company and at the Great Courses in general. Although I love reading history and science, I'd always found philosophy incredibly dull. Part of the problem was the inaccessibility of the material to present day considerations. Why should I care about Plato's forms if they have no bearing on my life? Even though I enjoy studying about Athenian democracy as a precursor to the subsequent forms, studying Greek or even Enlightenment philosophers struck me as akin to studying the works of Aristotle to understand how the motion of planets. His work make be an interesting historical anecdote, but thought (at least in the natural sciences) has moved on. Professor Johnson takes a completely different approach. He applies philosophical reasoning to a variety of highly relevant topics (and if you are a nerd who enjoys shows such as Star Trek and the movie Inception, this lecture series is for you; if not, I'd highly recommend the Big Questions of Philosophy), and while I understand that some people may have a visceral reaction to his questioning of religious precepts, he does so at their merits; and I think every person should question their core beliefs down to their foundations. Definitely worth listening to with an open mind. As noted, his other lecture series -- Big Questions of Philosophy -- is excellent, and I'm only halfway through. I never thought I'd find a philosophy lecture series so mentally stimulating! Thanks, Professor Johnson.
Date published: 2018-08-07
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