Contemplation: Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism
The New York Times this week has been running a three-part examination of the life and philosophies of the late science fiction author Philip K. Dick. Simon Critchtley, the editor of The Stone blog for the NYTimes wrote the three pieces about Mr. Dick and they are, in order:
Together these three pieces give a pretty good introduction to the philosophies and ideas of gnosticism as well as a general over view of the weird and wild life and works of Philip K. Dick.
I was mostly attracted to these pieces because I have long been a big fan of the works of Philip K. Dick (though, admittedly, I have only read a small fraction of his works and he was quite the prolific author in his lifetime). From my encounters with Dick’s works, I have recognized a singularly unique voice in the genre of science fiction. While many of the elements (robots, aliens, spaceships, time travel) riff on familiar themes, the nature of Dick’s stories have always struck me as different from most (if not all) of his contemporaries in the genre. There is overwhelming paranoia and pessimism in his stories. His characters are rarely self-confident role models of a better way of life, but instead are often loners, stifled with self-doubt, and constantly on the fringe of full mental breakdown. The futures he painted with his words were rarely beautiful or inspiring, and while not always apocalyptic (though occasionally that too) they are dismal, dirty, and dark. The worlds of Philip K. Dick’s imaginations are almost wholly places we’d rather avoid. And if you accept Mr. Critchley’s thesis of Philip K. Dicks gnostic tendencies, then this is what you would expect in the works of the tortured soul of a man.
Personally, I tend to consider Philip K. Dick more as an interesting lunatic rather than an visionary madman. Certainly, his ideas and stories are worthy of fascination and further discussion, but I am not certain that there is an overwhelming reliability or validity to the ideas. The paranoia is a little too prominent, and much of it reads like the rantings of an unhinged conspiracy theorist rather than a person of grand philosophical insight. That all being said, I still find the works enjoyable.
In much the same way I find an interest in the ideas of gnosticism. Though there are many variations and concepts involved in gnostic world views, the main central theme is the idea that humanity is being deceived by some malevolence, and thus are denied access to a real and better world or existence. Personally I can see much of the appeal in gnosticism, especially in that it moves the guilt of “evil” out of human control and places the blame on some other entity. However, as an open and honest atheist, I take issues with a number of the more religious elements of a lot of gnosticism.
Perhaps then that is why gnosticism is effective as a philosophy in the works of science fiction. In these stories the deception need not be some innately divine or religious occurrence. The deception can just as much be the work of some alien intelligence, some thinking wicked thinking-machines (see “the Matrix” for a great example of this), or from the poor luck of just being a bunch of brains in jars (also see “The Matrix”). The idea of the world not being all that it seems to be, and that in fact there is a malevolent intent in the deception, is a very common theme throughout much of science fiction, in part because it sets up a grand conflict to be faced. I am currently in the process of rereading another work of sci-fi/fantasy that plays heavily with the gnosticism themes, that being the grand series by another horse-lover, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” books.
Gnosticism provides part of its appeal in that we can explain our imperfect knowledge of the world on some exterior force that is actively trying to prevent us from this all-knowing (the divine). I can see the draw to that. The idea that one could be enlightened to divinity if only he or she could transcend the deceptive malevolence of cruel and misleading forces. However, I personally think that this is banking on a lot of assumptions about the universe and existence. My personal views on grand knowledge of things tends to be much more agnostic, in that I think it is less of a matter of a direct deception, and simply the nature of humanity that there are things we just won’t or can’t know (bleak in its own right perhaps, but in the very least it avoids the assumption that there is some evil in existence that is purposely targeting us with cruel and controlling illusions, which I consider to be significantly more bleak).
Anyhow, if you claim to be a fan of science fiction then I strongly recommend that you pick up some Philip K. Dick (I’d recommend “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” simply because it is the novel on which “Blade Runner,” one of the greatest sci-fi films of all times, is based). I’ll admit that Dick can be a bit difficult to read at times, mostly because there is a lot of rambling tangents and distractions for both the characters and in turn for the audience, but if you can get past the often unfocused writing style, there are some very neat science fiction ideas, as well as some interesting philosophical insights. Definitely worth checking out. And if you are into philosophy or theology, reading up more on gnosticism is worthwhile, whether you agree with it or not.