Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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Spock and Kirk

Philosophy: The Final Frontier

These are the voyages of the philosopher Lyle Zynda.

Zynda came to teach at Indiana University South Bend in 1995, shortly after completing his graduate studies at Princeton University. When he arrived, Zynda discovered that IUSB's philosophy department was open to ideas for new courses, so he proposed a class that brought together two of his passions: philosophy and science fiction.

"I always read science fiction growing up," says Zynda, who was also influenced by a course on the philosophy of time travel that he'd attended at Princeton. "Science fiction has a speculative nature that allows us to think of fundamental questions in a broader scope. Like philosophy, it pushes the limit of a concept. For example, what makes a person the same from moment to moment?"

Zynda compares popular sci-fi story lines of body snatchers and personality transfers with philosopher John Locke's essays about what makes us who we are. If our psychological makeup is what makes us individuals, Locke asserted, then someone who suffers a complete memory loss becomes a totally different person—an abstract concept that science fiction can help illuminate. "Science fiction dramatizes these kind of ideas by making them concrete, as in stories about two people exchanging bodies," Zynda says.

Zynda's research interests range well beyond science fiction, from the philosophy of probability to the philosophy of religion, but he is making a mark in the sci-fi realm. He has published articles in the BenBella Books "Smart Pop" series on topics such as the existentialist themes in Joss Whedon's "Firefly" and the parallels between The Matrix and Descartes. His article "Personal Identity in the Original Star Trek" appears this fall. Last year, he addressed the Science Fiction Writers Association at its Nebula Awards meeting in Chicago.

In Zynda's Philosophy and Science Fiction class, students examine philosophical issues that arise in science fiction novels, short stories, films, and television series such as Star Trek. He often assigns sci-fi works such as The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the movie Blade Runner, and the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which last year was the One Book, One Campus selection at IUSB. Discussion topics include the relationships between biology, technology, and human nature; intelligence and consciousness; the limits of knowledge and the relationship between appearance and reality; the logical puzzles that arise when imagining time travel; and personal identity.

A common class discussion might focus on the ethical impact of biotechnology, such as the rights humans would have over humanlike androids, which inevitably leads to conversations about reproductive technology, cloning, and the effects of both.

One difference between teaching about fiction and teaching philosophy, Zynda says, is that a student could listen to a philosophy lecture without having read the material and still be able to formulate opinions and participate in the discussion. "For example, if you're going to deal with Descartes' Meditations, you can discuss Descartes' key arguments without everyone having read them, and the class can still work. That's because teaching philosophy involves close scrutiny of relatively short texts."

Skipping the class prep for one of Zynda's courses wouldn't be advisable, though. Zynda tasks his students with using philosophy's tools to alter their views on the contemporary world.

"With popular culture in general, people don't necessarily think critically about it in a systematic way. They just react to it—they like it or they don't," says Zynda. "When I use philosophy to analyze science fiction, I try to help people see popular culture in a different way."

The study of philosophy provides background for how western thought has developed over time, Zynda says. By drawing comparisons to familiar stories from pop culture, he hopes to inspire new generations of students to boldly think in ways they've not thought before.