Imaginative Philosophy


Thought Probes, edited by Fred D. Miller, Jr. and Nicholas D. Smith, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981, 362 pp., $11.95.

Whoever heard of discussing time travel paradoxes in philosophy class? I mean, really! Philosophy courses as I remember them seemed more interested in the philosophers themselves and in the schools of thought with which they were identified than with actually analyzing their ideas. Just one more course full of dull facts and names to be memorized and regurgitated on command.

Fortunately, that is not the case with Thought Probes. This text focuses on ideas. Through deft questioning, it encourages its readers to use their analytical abilities and put concepts to work, testing limits, finding strengths and weaknesses—in short: to think.

I freely admit that much of my enthusiasm is due to the text's use of science fiction stories to illustrate philosophical points. This is a legitimate academic use of science fiction, unlike the literary approach that tends to pull the stories apart and examine them with respect to plot devices, means of character development, narrative techniques, and so on; the result is the equivalent of a dissected frog—all its workings are exposed, but the damned thing doesn't jump anymore.

The editors of Thought Probes have found a better use. They give a brief overview of an area of philosophy, followed by a story ("conceptual experiment," as they like to call it) concerned with that area, followed by a philosophical essay ("analysis") in the same area, winding up with questions ("probes") geared to stretch the mind. They make you analyze the content of the story. What was it about? What was the author trying to say? Do his concepts hold up under close scrutiny? Fitting treatment for a body of writing called "the literature of ideas." For that's what draws people to science fiction. Not cutesy writing styles and literary tricks—ideas. Ideas are also what draw minds to philosophy. And because so much science fiction begins with "What if…" and goes on from there, it is ideally equipped to probing matters of morals, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. The two are made for each other.

Fred Miller and Nicholas Smith appear to be no strangers to the two fields they bring together in their text. The depth and breadth of their knowledge of science fiction is impressive. They are familiar not only with the Big Name masters but with the Lesser Lights as well, giving numerous examples in the recommended reading sections at the close of each section. Many of the stories included in the text as "conceptual experiments" are among the most provocative ever written in a highly provocative field: Clarke's "The Star," Heinlein's "All You Zombies—," Godwin's "The Cold Equations," Niven's "Cloak of Anarchy," plus a couple of stories that are seeing print for the first time.

The editors appear to recognize no taboos. In discussing the question of God and the problem of evil, they give considerable time to atheism. On the subject of politics, they give full measure to the anarchist viewpoint, questioning the necessity of any government at all.

Of special interest to REASON readers will be the respect—almost deference, I might say—accorded the libertarian point of view, not merely in the political context (the political "analysis" segment is an excerpt from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia), but in the areas of free will versus determinism, morals, and values as well.

But most important, it's geared to make you think about things you wouldn't ordinarily think about. It starts the mental juices flowing. It sparks the mind. It makes thoughts, ideas, and concepts exciting. That's what a philosophy text should do but, as many of us know, too often does not. That's why Thought Probes is so special.

I never thought I could be enthusiastic about a philosophy text, but this is a wonderful book, a marvelous book. If you're a student or a faculty member, do your very damnedest to get Thought Probes into the curriculum. I truly wish it had been around in the mid-'60s when I was required to take Introductory Philosophy at Georgetown University. And if you're not a student or faculty member, well, you just might like your thoughts probed anyway.

F. Paul Wilson has written a number of science fiction novels, including An Enemy of the State, recently reviewed in REASON.