Sci-Fi, God, the Universe, and Us

Science fiction was my religion once. Asimov was my prophet and Clark too, and my teacher was Sagan. That was before I came to Jesus and Judaism. Some of the radical amazement I used to feel for the vastness of space came back to me yesterday as I read Heschel’s fourth chapter in God in Search of Man.

He quotes Immanuel Kant. The quote got me thinking about a human being as a speck in the cosmos staring at a nearly unending sea of galaxies, stars, and empty space. I’m sure at some point the insane smallness of a human being next to the stupefying bigness of the universe has made you think too.

Carl Sagan (anyone remember him?) used to make me think with lines like “billions and billions of galaxies in a vast array.” Isaac Aasimov used to make me think in his stories. I particularly like “The Last Question” which you can read here.

It got me thinking, maybe this is why we like science fiction so much. Maybe this is why sci-fi is like fantasy, transporting us to the sublime and opening our minds. Past the jump here a little Kant, a little Heschel, and how it all relates to the meaning of our lives.

Tolkien used to say that faerie stories are subcreation, the natural inclination of our minds to make worlds just like the one who created us.

Lewis used to say that the power of science fiction is exploring the meaning of humanness in a setting that removes the blinders.

Heschel said: The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.

More importantly, for this little meditation on the meaning of life, is the portion from Immanuel Kant which Heschel cites in his fourth chapter. I hope you will identify with it like I did:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within . . . The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates, as it were, my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world — at least as far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.

–From Critique of Pure Reason, 1889.

And, believing in the power of science fiction and fantasy, I not only read but also have long desired to write. The beginning of my novel-in-progress and some notes about it can be seen here. I won’t be posting the entire novel online, but some parts of it in rough and notes about writing and so on for those who share my interest in sci-fi and fantasy fiction.

Meanwhile, Kant’s powerful mind suggests to us that man as an animal is insignificant. Some prefer to believe that is all we are. But if so, then we are nothing but fertilizer in an impersonal process. But Kant thought it foolish to limit ourselves to this view of who we are. He saw something else within, a moral law which cannot be ignored or rationalized as naturalistic impulse (in spite of the asinine theories being published in neo-atheist books trying to explain love via random, naturalistic development!).

We see the infinite laid out before us and it makes us realize our smallness. We see the moral law within us and we are opened to the infinite beyond us.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Atheism, Faith, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Sci-Fi, God, the Universe, and Us

  1. It’s funny: I grew up on Sagan too (Cosmos was the first book that I reread until the pages fell out, though it only barely beat out LotR), but while I carried away from him a sense of awe of the scale and grandeur of the universe, his atheistic philosophy didn’t carry over–probably because of my awe at the scale and grandeur of the universe.

    Recently my daughter was feeling afraid of the Adversary and his perceived power. I showed her that video on You Tube that demonstrates the size of the universe in powers of ten (I think it originally appeared on the Discovery channel) until one sees millions of galaxies as mere specks on the screen and told her, “The Adversary may have some power here on earth, but Hashem created all that. Do you think He’ll have the least trouble protecting you?” She wasn’t afraid after that.

    The funniest part about athiests is that they will implicitly acknowledge the Creator when they slip into using design terminology, or when they inadvertantly ascribe to “the universe,” “physics,” or “evolution” the attributes of Deity.


  2. “(in spite of the asinine theories being published in neo-atheist books trying to explain love via random, naturalistic development!). ”

    Firstly: what is asinine about them? Calling them such is fine and good. But what is your reasoning?

    Secondly: You do understand that being naturalistic is not the same as being random?

  3. NotAScientist:

    I have no problem with methodological naturalism. That is why I tried to be more specific and used the qualifier “random.” Thanks for the challenge on that point.

    What is asinine about describing love’s origin in random, naturalistic terms? It can only be done through a very poor philosophical understanding of the meaning and extent of love.

    I’ve said, as does Heschel, that philosophy cannot prove or disprove anything. Philosophy is only good at asking questions.

    Heschel: Philosophy is, in a sense, a kind of thinking that has a beginning but no end. In it, the awareness of the problem outlives all solutions. . . . In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all the problems.

    So, to clarify, scientific study of the physiological factors involved in love is a worthy study and I’d have no problem with it. It is explaining the origin of love in materialistic terms that I am calling asinine.

    Derek Leman

  4. BTW, NotAScientist, you have a cool blog. I didn’t know about Water Bears!

    Hope you’ll get back into blogging. If so, email me and let me know so I can add you to Google Reader.

  5. Derek,

    Nice post you got here. You wrote: “The quote got me thinking about a human being as a speck in the cosmos staring at a nearly unending sea of galaxies, stars, and empty space.””

    Sometimes when I say Yotzeir Ohr, the words give me a sense of the vastness of the heavens…and the majesty of the angelic creatures constantly praising God.

    It makes me feel small and humble…and that much more grateful as I begin the words “Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu…”

  6. Pingback: Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed

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