Vulcans and Wizards: Transcending Naturalism in Literature

Today, I would like to consider two different genres of fiction: fantasy and science fiction. The way in which I talk about them will probably be different than the way a literary expert would talk about them; I make no claims to any serious research in this post, but rather I would just like to share some personal thoughts I have had when comparing the two genres.

Today, we live in a world where it is assumed that everything that happens has a “scientific explanation.” This means more than that everything is explanable; it means that everything is understandable and accountable in terms of matter governed by mathematical laws. If anything out of the ordinary happens, we simply assume that it can be explained scientifically, even if we don’t exactly know how yet. This modern perspective is often called scientific naturalism. This perspective is intricately connected with determinism, which is the assumption that all events are predictable, if you know all of the antecedent circumstances. In other words, whatever happens, happens inevitably.

Scientific naturalism hasn’t always been the prevailing assumption in society. In the past, and even in places today, people often used “teleological” explanations to account for the world, rather than mechanistic explanations. The Greek word telos means “end,” or “purpose.” In this worldview, things in nature act with a purpose, for a specific end, in an agentic kind of way. Aristotle, for example, often accounted for events in nature in teleological ways. It is in a teleological worldview that we anthropomorphize (ascribe human characteristics to) trees and rocks and “mother earth”, etc., as we often read in older literature or modern fantasy. Even the idea of human agency or free will is a teleological explanation of human behavior, and is seen by many scientists as an “artifact of the past,” as all human action is believed by them to be reducible or explanable in terms of neurons interacting in the brain. Human teleology is one of the last surviving links to this more archaic mode of explanation, and we are rightfully most reluctant to let go of it, although it is growing more and more popular to do so among the biological and psychological sciences.

Fantasy is considered a “genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.”1 One reason fantasy literature attracts me is this: in a world saturated with scientific naturalism, fantasy invites me to “suspend” the assumption that all events are scientifically reducible and explore the possibilty of things that transcend the scientific realm, such as spirits, magic, and even free will. The idea that the material constituents of the universe have a form of life and act with a purpose (rather than being dead, inert molecules bumping into each other in random—or even predictable—ways) is refreshing in a world where everything is assumed to be part of an underlying mechanistic reality. Personally, it seems almost arrogant for me to believe that man is the only purposeful being in an otherwise deterministic universe; that we alone break the rules of mechanistic causality and act agentically. While order and mechanicity are often the fundamental substrates of the science fiction world, life and purpose are often the fundamental substrates of the universe in a fantasy world.

I hope my readers do not see this as a scathing criticism of science fiction—I am a science fiction fanatic. I grew up on Star Trek, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. However, science fiction, although enjoyable to read, does not require me to suspend my naturalistic assumptions about the world. Although the events that happen in science fiction are often impossible within our scientific framework, it is nonetheless assumed by the reader and the characters of the story that in the fictional science fiction world, all events are scientifically reducible (to whatever scientific, deterministic realities exist in that world). To the extent that a science fiction story moves beyond this naturalistic framework, it ceases (in a sense) to be science fiction and becomes something more.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Why is it so hard for us to believe in things that are scientifically irreducible?” We see today a growing trend to reinterpret even scriptural accounts of miracles in terms of modern science, and assume that God himself cannot transcend the scientific realm. If we believe in human agency, we already believe in at least one thing that can transcend a deterministic, scientific framework; that is, at least one thing that acts with a purpose, and is not reducible to the mechanistic interactions of inert matter. Might there also be others? Perhaps what we often call “fantasy” doesn’t differ from the “real world” as dramatically as we think…


1., “fantasy.”

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20 Responses

  1. I disagree on a few points.

    Popular fantasy literature as it exists today does not inherently escape scientific naturalism, it often just provides a alternative version of it. For example, the wizardery of Harry Potter is really nothing more than an more advanced science, an alternative methodology but still a methodology, one the wizards for some reason hide from the rest of us.In this way, the fantasy genre can be misleading. It tells us that the only alternative to science is more science. The religious version of this: God is out there we just need more science to see him. I think ideas like creationism and intelligent design are attempts to do this.

    I agree science fiction is often as you discribe. However, Most science fiction is actually very critical of science and technology. Something like 1984 or Brave New World clearly shows this.

  2. Good points. I do agree with you. I actually consider some fantasy novels to be just a peculiar kind of science fiction… Aragon, for example, describes the “evolutionary history” of dragons, and talks about how magic is the manipulation of energy and how energy has to be conserved and all sorts of scientific mumble jumble.

    Do you know of any genuine fantasy books? Personally, I consider Chronicles of Narnia to be genuine fantasy.

    I read another a few months ago, I can’t remember the name, that was genuine fantasy as well. Fundamental to the story was purposeful, agentic being (not only in people, but in the surrounding world as well) and the “magic” was not just mechanical manipulations of the world, but an interaction of purposeful agents. The book literally drew me out of my worldview and into a whole different universe.

    True, science fiction is often critical of science and technology and cynical about man’s usage of it… but do they present an alternative to scientific naturalism? or are they just a cautionary, warning us to use it well?

  3. The funny thing about this whole phenomenon is that with the advent of the Einstein, the Heisenberg uncertainty priniciple, chaos theory and a host of other discoveries, science is starting to take a nondeterministic route. Sadly, this still is being used to undermine, rather than reinforce the idea of free will. Too often it is equated with purposelessness.

  4. Good point, Doc. And also, they still try to reduce the world to, and explain the world in terms of, a more fundamental, non-purposive reality. And there is also a kind of statistical determinism preserved… the laws of statistics hold a kind of determinative sway in quantum mechanics. In the end, random processes are no more agentic, meaningful, or purposive than determined, inevitable processes.

  5. This reminded me of something I’ve always hated, besides Harry Potter that is. In the original Star Wars the force is described as religous and mystic power, which is very fantasy like. In the newer garbage films however, they explain the force as a scientific phenomena, caused by specialized cell organelles, which is very science fictioney. I’ve never really understood what possesed them to make this transition. The fantasy version had a deep meaning to it, where as the science fiction version is just lame qausi-scientific gobbledy gook. I guess its just Hollywood.

  6. David,

    On Friday, a better version of this post will appear on my home blog,, and I use Star Wars as an example, exactly as you describe here (even similar wording). I have it all written already…

    Please don’t think I’m plagiarizing you. I’m posting it on Friday exactly as I finished writing it earlier today.

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. To make matters worse, David, I actually pulled a quote from Clayton’s comment earlier today (Clayton, if you do not wish me to, let me know) and referenced it in my newer post in the paragraph before my Star Wars analogy. That certainly doesn’t help the Star Wars analogy look original… lol

  8. I humbly beg to differ with the thesis of this article. I think that “determinism” is being used here as a strawman to try to bring down “scientific naturalism”.

    I really don’t think that there is anything truly “scientifically irreducible”. Everything probably is “understandable and accountable “. I just don’t think that we can learn all of the details without revelation from God. Further, I don’t believe that we can fully comprehend and understand everything with our currently limited brains.

    I really do think that there are laws set forth upon which everything including the atonement of Jesus Christ is predicated (D&C 130:20-21). I think this is an important and essential part of the gospel. It is also an essential part of Western Culture and modern science. In a very real way this concept of eternal, knowable laws is the foundation of science and engineering. It is what motivated much of the search to learn the laws.

    Looking at this in another way: I would have a harder time believing in the perfection of God’s plan and the efficacy of Christ’s atonement without faith that it is all predicated on eternal law and not just a whim of some Greek-type god.

    As a pre-mission freshman in college I had a wonderful time taking Engineering Physics. It breezed rather quickly over much of modern science. I *often* felt the Spirit in that class bearing witness of truth. That “science” was as “true” as the gospel! It compliments the gospel and in a larger sense is part of the gospel. We don’t know everything yet, but I have confidence that if we are obedient to God’s laws we will someday.

    The best example of determinism I have found in science fiction are the Protectors in many of Larry Niven’s stories. They are described as being so smart that they always know the best thing to do in any situation. The author’s conceit is that there is only *one* best thing to do in any situation and that it has nothing to do with *right* and *wrong*. The Protectors are incredibly capable and intelligent, but also slaves to the one best way to accomplish their objectives.

    This makes for some fun stories (look for “Protector”) but doesn’t ring true. “Choice” (or “agency”) exists as does random action. I’d say more, but I’ve gone on too long (I’m an engineer, not a philosopher).

    Please don’t give up on science just yet. It is a component of the gospel, even if it is imperfectly and incompletely known as yet. Take care.

  9. I would have a harder time believing in the perfection of God’s plan and the efficacy of Christ’s atonement without faith that it is all predicated on eternal law and not just a whim of some Greek-type god.

    That’s a perfectly fine position. Since when, however, were moral laws (those relating to the atonement) and scientific laws the same thing? I think it is perfectly fine to believe that f=ma is the decree of God, and that the laws of science are not immutable and deterministic… that is, that they could be suspended or changed. This doesn’t bring us into a moral relativism unless you begin to believe that good and evil are arbitrary. That is a very different discussion.

    I think that “determinism” is being used here as a strawman to try to bring down “scientific naturalism”.

    The best historians and philosophers of science disagree with you here. Determinism isn’t a dispensable part of scientific naturalism, it is part of the essence of scientific naturalism.

  10. Jeff,

    Feel free to quote me if you need.

    “Do you know of any genuine fantasy books?”

    I think books like The Lord of Rings are genuine. I’d also suggest the Brothers Grimm stories and other folk tales.

    “True, science fiction is often critical of science and technology and cynical about man’s usage of it… but do they present an alternative to scientific naturalism? or are they just a cautionary, warning us to use it well?”

    Sadly, these works (the ones I’ve read anyway) advocate irrationality or nihlism as the only alternatives to science. Ironically the scientist and the self decided irrational fundamentalist are not all that different. They have both reduced the world to something they can understand.


    No one is trying to get rid of science so much as we are trying to put it in its place. A few points:

    Science its self as Doc metioned has moved beyond the model of a law based universe. Your arguement is therefore not a scientific arguement or at least not a contemporary one.

    “I really don’t think that there is anything truly “scientifically irreducible”. Everything probably is “understandable and accountable “. I just don’t think that we can learn all of the details without revelation from God.”

    Can I ask a simple question: how is it that God knows you? Does he know you only in the scientific sense of the word? Thinking of you only in terms of genetics, biology, whatever advanced sciences we don’t have access to, and of coarse your predicted future. If so, what is the point to the atonement? Is God just saving good lab samples?

    Isn’t it possible that God knows you as one person knows another? And that he loves you similar to how one person loves another? I suggest that these are experiences that are irreducible to science. I agree with you, God knows everything. However, not everything that is knowable is scientifically knowable.

  11. Now that was a quicker reply than I expected! If Determinism is part of the essence of Scientific Naturalism, then I don’t agree with it. I hope that we aren’t arguing over “fried froth” as John Taylor described French philosophy.

    My personal belief is that there exist laws just as eternal as God (or intelligences in general) and that they underpin the whole Plan of Salvation. Only a portion of these laws have been revealed to us at this time and I really don’t think all of it will be revealed in mortality. I have confidence, however, that it is Law not Magic.

    I find it sad to see people so many people critical of the so called “scientific framework” (that is what I thought you meant by “scientific naturalism”). I don’t believe that God operates outside of what we call the laws of nature (Newton’s laws of motion, the laws of thermodynamics, etc.); however, we do not have a perfect understanding of these laws.

    I like how Elder Oaks describes how we learn truth in part II of his recent talk on Testimony:,5232,23-1-851-10,00.html

    I try not to confuse “moral” law and “scientific” law as they pertain to different things (though I suspect that the roots of moral law may be derived from scientific law), but that seemed to be what was going on in the discussion above.

  12. Tom,

    You may be really interested in my series on the differences between Greek and Hebrew philosophy. (you can find it here: ) I recommend reading all four posts in the series (don’t worry so much about the comments on the posts… they swerve way off-topic).

    One of the points that I argue is that the belief that there are abstract, universal scientific laws that transcend God is an artifact of the same Greek philosophical assumptions that contributed to the Great Apostasy.

    As far as abstract, universal scientific laws that transcend even God, I can find no evidence in scripture that point to them. There are certainly verses that refer to moral principles that God is bound by, but none of a scientific character.

    Everything I can find in scripture implies that God is the source of the scientific order, and the master of the material world. I too loved that talk from Dallin H. Oaks. However, it doesn’t say anything about universal scientific laws that bind God.

  13. Tom,

    As for determinism, you may be interested in this post as well:

    Many of the best philosophers of science would agree that to the extent that you believe in human agency, to that extent you differ from scientific naturalism. If human choice can be entirely accounted for by matter moving according to scientific law, then you no longer have agency. That is, human agency, by definition, is something that can’t be reduced to mechanistic causality.

  14. Well, I am no scientist nor good in contemporary metaphysics, but I have read a lot into the 17th-19th century metaphysics. So pardon my comments if they are old school. I think the naturalism you are describing here is mostly one only early 18th century mechanist materialist philosophers would defend, in the vein of many French philosophes like Baron d’Holbach. Many other materialists (including ancient ones like Epicurus) do not think of matter in this light, as mindless and passive, obeying certain laws forever. Epicurus postulated free will with little bits of matter. Early American philosophers, like Cadwallader Colden, saw matter as dynamic and creative, always active. Hegel’s matter was ontologically subservient to spirit, but yet dynamic and active itself. We have seen this in the Mormon tradition in the vein of Orson Pratt and Brigham Young, who hinted at a panpsychism (echoed now by process theology in Hartshorne and Griffin). They often have looked at matters ability to stick together, to attract each other, and even to resist other bodies as examples of their activity.

    There are of course middle views like the extinct Muggletonians, Kinkade, and mainstream Mormons–some how there are two generally classifiable types of matter: one more passive and another more active, a sort of psychical body. How exactly Mormons explain mind-body relationships is not clear (they definitely rule out Malebranche’s occasionalism and Leibniz’ pre-established harmony). So they seem more on a physicalist influence route, where free will is generally knocked out. But I wonder, if thought is considered a result of a certain combinations of particles, why could not free will be a result of particles too, or even immortality?

    In my general understanding, thought by traditional materialists is seen as arising out of a certain combination of atomic particles. The parts themselves do not have the ability to think (or in a more active perspective, not the same capacity for self-determinism), but together can create an apparatus like the brain where thought is possible. Now I’ll summarize some points made by John Ryder. If matter is active, cannot material systems develop over time and secure a place for intelligence without leading to a reductive materialism? Cannot then even better material systems develop? Only if matter is passive can one determine it to behave according to mechanical principles. But mechanical systems do not seem to create novelty that we experience in the universe. The universe is not the machine 18th century deists anticipated, for machines undergo cyclical and repetitive changes alone. Evolution screwed that up. So why not think of the universe as an organism or series of loosely connected organisms that can become infinite meliorized?

    On a side note, I am also concerned by what we mean that things are scientifically reducible? I think that most scientists would agree with William James that experience boils over our previously conceived notions; matter and the world is irreducibly complex. There is no way I can no for sure if I let go of a book it will not float upwards tomorrow. I do not believe it will, but since I have had only experience teach me, how do I not know the experience may differ?

    Lastly, I guess I don’t feel that a science fiction novel needs to entail what you seem to suggest: full of lifeless and predictable/determined facts. They describe matter in a more detail, but they do not necessarily thus reduce life to automation. And I do not think all modern Sci-Fi shows fit within this labelling: what about Battlestar Galactica?

  15. As I’ve indicated in previous comments, no story/book/movie (or, at least, very few) falls perfectly into one category or the other. Even Star Trek entertains fantastical elements at times. And as mentioned earlier, many fantasy stories have technological assumptions embedded into them.

  16. […] 1., “fantasy.” 2. Thinking in a Marrow Bone […]

  17. I had a professor of creative writing once who was a guest lecturer and NYT Bestselling author. He was teaching a class that focused on sci-fi/fantasy. He also made the essential distinction you did Jeff. Not having quite the same philosophical repitoire, he suggested that fantasy has religion and sci-fi had natural law. He labled Star Wars, therefore, as a work of fantasy in a science-fiction setting (this was before the new movies).

    Martin, thanks for the historical insight. I think it must be clear that scientific reductionism (especially of the Godless kind). Is very new in human history. Incidentally, I just gave a presentation on William James in which this issue came up, saddly, I don’t know if I see that the majority of scientists agree (at least the majority of social scientists wouldn’t).

    Great posting and discussion!

  18. Thanks, Brent! I appreciate it.

  19. I’ve been away from the blog for awhile — I’ve been at a psychology convention in Boston.

    This is a very interesting post and discussion.

    I just wanted to make a plug for the movie Stardust, which I see as a very “genuine” fantasy in which a strong sense of human agency is paramount. I see, in particular, a sense of relational synchronicity (in the spirit of Carl Jung) between the characters, especially the romantic leads. (This is especially interesting considering the underlying theme of eternal life in the film.)

  20. True, science fiction is often critical of science and technology and cynical about man’s usage of it… but do they present an alternative to scientific naturalism? or are they just a cautionary, warning us to use it well?

    I think, Jeff, that the answer to both of these questions is often yes — at least if science fiction film is looked at. The alternatives they present are often implicit and not very satisfying, but there are alternatives nonetheless. It’s hard to see, for example, the film Gattaca as anything other than science fiction. There is a true alternative in this film to scientific reductionism and determinism — and that alternative is inspired by some kind of secular humanism, in which the conquering human spirit is supreme. This includes popular notions of romantic relationships, as well as nature’s resistance to being conquered by technology. You can see these themes in the film I, Robot as well.

    This secular humanism is missing some of the magical themes that would be more satisfying to some religious persons; however, there is still a strong sense of human agency and irreducible relational connectedness. There also is a strong moral message of what we should and should not do, in terms of scientific and technological expansion.

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