Is mysticism overtaking science in sci-fi?

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

With the fall movie season upon us, I'm suddenly presented with an embarrassment of riches. I could take the easy way out, and say something nice about the science of Surrogates. Unfortunately, that would overlap heavily with my recent comments on Sleep Dealer and Moon.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs? One word: rats. If food fell from the sky, within a week we'd be armpit deep in garbage and vermin. Paranormal Activity? Give me a break.

What really excites me right now—and not in a good way!—is the recent spate of superficially sci-fi movies that are not merely scientifically illiterate, not merely unscientific or antiscientific in their outlook, but that actually promote mysticism as a superior alternative to science.

You think I'm kidding, or maybe exaggerating for dramatic effect? Well, take a look at the nine mystical conceits at the heart of 9 (and yes, some of these may be spoilers):

1. That the human soul exists, and is separable from both the body and the intellect.

This is a widespread and by no means objectionable belief, but any clergyman will tell you there's no scientific basis for it. For this reason, science fiction stories tend to stay away from it. Look to fantasy and horror for stories where the separable soul plays an important part.

2. That the human intellect can be copied like software, but the human soul is conserved or copy-protected or some such.

Again, the idea here is that the intellect resides in the material world, whereas "soulness" is a supernatural property that can neither be created nor destroyed. The soul is neither a substance nor a pattern nor a process of the laws of physics, but stands apart from them in a way that science can't touch.

3. That machines driven by pure intellect are inherently evil, or at least inherently corruptible, and cannot be trusted at all.

The robot uprising is a science fiction cliché, but 9 goes one better by saying it's the lack of soul that triggers the rebellion, rather than resistance to oppression or a philosophical rejection of slavery (which, after all, is the root meaning of the word "robot").

4. That seeking after technology is a misguided pursuit that can only lead to the destruction of the human race.

Another not-uncommon belief, but one that flies in the face of millennia of evidence. For example, way back in 1800, Thomas Malthus opined that Britain's growing population would soon eat up all the food and then starve its way to a huge population crash. And he would have been right, if technology hadn't vastly increased the productivity of British farms. Now, 200 years later, the prophesied crash still hasn't occurred, and in fact the standard of living of British citizens, and damn near everyone else in the world, continues to rise.

5. That the soul can be divided into multiple pieces, a la the "horcrux" magic of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The word horcrux appears to be an invention of J.K. Rowling, but the concept itself dates back at least to Medieval times, and probably much farther. The Mabinogion, a book of Welsh fairy tales compiled in the 1300s (from stories that were probably already centuries old at that time), discusses it obliquely, as a way of protecting the soul's owner from harm. But just because the idea has a provenance does not make it science.

6. That the soul (or pieces of it) can be transferred into inanimate objects, rendering them "alive."

This is similar to the Old Testament idea of a "golem," a creature made of clay and animated through prayer and incantation, or the homunculus of European and early Islamic alchemy. This was a tiny humanoid creature, made by the careful mixing of unspecified ingredients and animated with a drop of the sorcerer's blood or other bodily fluids. In many cases, the sorcerer could see through the homunculus' eyes, feel its pain, etc., suggesting that a piece of his soul was in fact contained in the creature. However, like the Philosopher's Stone—a mythical formula for converting base metal into gold—the technology of homunculi was widely rumored but never actually demonstrated to any of the monarchs who demanded to see it.

7. That moving or dividing the soul requires alchemical symbols inscribed on metal tokens.

I wish I knew what to say about this. I mean, where did these symbols come from? Were they discovered and refined by a process of theory and experiment? Did ancient magicians receive them in dreams, or decode them from the heavens? And if some symbols really could produce physical or metaphysical effects, why weren't they as widely known as the methods of cutting stone, fermenting beer, or mixing gunpowder? People want to be rich, information wants to be free, and anything that really works is unlikely to stay secret for long.

8. That it is somehow desirable or necessary to put human souls into weak vessels.

The soul-powered homunculi of 9 are made of burlap, for Krishna's sake, while their nuclear-badass enemies are made of tungsten and titanium. Why couldn't their creator have poured them into bodies that were bigger and stronger than those of the bad machines? Because that would be technology, and technology is eeeevyil.

9. That single-celled microorganisms can be created de novo, from bits of vaporized human soul.

The theory of "abiogenesis" dates all the way back to ancient Greece, when the philosopher Aristotle declared that mice could be created from rotting hay and dirty laundry. He was wrong, but he was at least kinda sorta scientifically wrong. But "achemogenesis," where life can be created without any matter input at all, is a theory I've never heard before, and about as scientific as a kick in the nuts.

And here are four of the fallacies of 2012:

1. That there is enough water locked away in aquifers and polar caps to, literally, drown the entire Earth.

Not even close. In fact, there's only enough to raise ocean levels by about 90 meters. That's a lot, but it's hardly the end of the human race.

2. That it is possible—indeed, inevitable—for all of this water to be released in a single cataclysmic event.

Nope. Even if global temperatures rose 20 degrees overnight, it would take decades—maybe even centuries—for all that ice to melt. Think of a picnic cooler on a hot summer day; by sundown you may still have a little bit of ice left, because every kilogram of ice takes 300 Joules of energy to liquefy, and the sun just doesn't put out that much energy that fast. Now think of a hundred trillion picnic coolers bathing in the slanty sunlight of an Antarctic summer, and ask yourself how quickly we could melt it all, even if we wanted to.

3. That "hard" sciences like geology, climatology, planetology, astronomy and physics are, in some way, incapable of foreseeing the disaster, or of comprehending it when it happens.

Hmm. Yes. We know enough about fluid mechanics to make special effects of a drowning Earth, but not enough to measure how much water there is on Earth, or where it would go.

4. That pre-Columbian Toltec priests, along with certain Renaissance scholars (specifically French pharmacist Michel de Nostredame and Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci) did somehow have access to this knowledge, by a mechanism we no longer understand, enabling them to predict the exact date of the end of the world.

This is interesting because in the early 1500s when da Vinci and Nostradamus were doing their thing, people still believed the Earth was made of four basic elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and that it was the center of the universe and was orbited by sun, moon planets and stars. As bright as these men may have been, they knew nothing of chemistry or stellar evolution or Newton's laws of motion, and were no more qualified to predict a global disaster than, say, the barbers who cut their hair.

Anyway, attacking the specifics of these movies is not really my goal here; what I'm after is the mindset behind them. It takes hundreds of people and millions of dollars to make a blockbuster motion picture, and in a very real sense these films are cultural ambassadors that both reflect and shape public opinion. So it's more than a little annoying to see Roland Emmerich at it again, with bright people like Tim Burton following close behind, pushing the opinion that our civilization went horribly wrong at the Industrial Revolution, and the only way to restore its balance is to retreat all the way to the Middle Ages, or even the Bronze Age.

Science is the cause of all our woes and the solution to none! Only mysticism can save us! Emmerich can't be dumb enough to believe this himself, or he'd be holed up in a Tibetan monastery, not flitting between luxury homes in L.A., N.Y.C, Stuttgart and London. Bronze-age technology could not feed seven billion people, so who gets to decide who lives and dies? And if he looks out the window or reads the reviews of The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich should know the public is not, for the most part, buying his bull.

But it's an easy sell to Hollywood investors, and if it causes some collateral damage to the science that might actually make this world a better place, well, so be it. Back to alchemy it is.

Garraty, John A. and Gay, Peter: The Columbia History of the World, Harper & Row, 1986
Jones, Judy and Wilson, William: An Incomplete Education, Ballantine Books, 1995 edition
Morris, Richard: The Last Sorcerers, Joseph Henry Press, 2003
Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia ( Horcrux, Roland Emmerich
The Encyclopedia Britannica 2008 Untimate Reference Suite: "Golem", "Homunculus"
The Internet Movie Database ( 9, 2012 9, 2012

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available as a free download.