Philosophy Through Science Fiction

The TV series  Futurama  explored the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics in an episode that featured the robot character Bender meeting his (nearly) exact twin.

The TV series Futurama explored the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics in an episode that featured the robot character Bender meeting his (nearly) exact twin.

Watching science fiction movies and shows such as The Matrix, Doctor Who, and Black Mirror may not seem like homework, but such was the case in a new class taught last spring by Caltech assistant professor of philosophy Charles (Chip) Sebens. The goal of Philosophy Through Science Fiction is to introduce students to important philosophical questions using themes such as teleportation, parallel universes, and time travel. 

“When students start learning philosophy, they often feel like the scenarios that philosophers discuss are outlandish and not worth taking seriously,” says Sebens. “Framing the course as an analysis of science fiction allows students to put these concerns aside and ultimately realize that philosophy is relevant to their lives and to other fields of academic inquiry.” 

Multiple Universes, Multiple Robots 

In an episode of the TV series Futurama, called “The Farnsworth Parabox,” a character named Professor Farnsworth discovers a way to travel between parallel universes. He soon learns that there are alternate versions of the main characters in each universe, including the robot named Bender, whose color (grey in one universe and gold in another) had been determined by the flip of a coin. The idea of people or robots living in multiple universes may indeed seem outlandish, but this is a real theme that comes up in quantum physics. 

“In the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, measurements of a quantum particle can split one universe into many, just as coin tosses split Bender’s universe in the Futurama episode,” says Sebens. 

In addition to quantum physics, the class also talked about the concept of identity. “Is the Bender that existed before the coin toss the same robot as either the grey or the gold Bender after the coin toss?” asks Sebens. 

Beauty is in the Eye of Science 

In another section of the class, the students studied a short story by Ted Chiang called “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about a time in the future when scientists have figured out how to render people insensitive to physical beauty. This technology is used to fight “lookism,” a phenomenon where people are discriminated against based on their looks. In the class, the students debated the strengths and weaknesses of the futuristic technology. 

“Discussing this piece of science fiction helped them to better understand various kinds of discrimination and the ways we might address them,” Sebens says. “I hope my students will read and watch science fiction differently after taking this class, noticing when philosophical questions come up and being ready to tackle them.” 

Sebens will teach the class again in spring 2020. 

SoCaltech, Fall 2019Jon Nalick