Philip K. Dick on Philosophy: A Brief Interview
Conducted by Frank C. Bertrand
The following interview was conducted by mail in January, 1980. Intended to be but the beginning on a long,
in-depth discussion and exploration of P.K. Dick's interest in philosophy and the manifestation of that interest in
his stories and novels, it was cut short by a disagreement over how to best continue, by letter or by phone.
Nonetheless, what P.K. Dick has to say is a brief but informative overview of his interest in philosophy.
FCB: I would like to start by asking a cliché question phrased a bit differently. How do you define Science Fiction? In asking this, though, I do not seek a dictionary-type definition, but rather what is it about a work of fiction that when you read it causes you to say, "This is Science Fiction"?
PKD: SF presents in fictional form an eccentric view of the normal or a normal view of a world that is not our world. Not all stories set in the future or on other planets are SF (some are space adventures), and some SF is set in the past or the present (time-travel or alternate world stories). It is not mimetic of the real world. Central to SF is the idea of dynamism. Events evolve out of an idea impacting on living creatures and their society. The idea must always be a novelty. This is the core issue of SF, even bad SF. That events accord with known scientific truths distinguishes SF from fantasy. Good SF tells a reader something he does not know about a possible world. Thus both the news (novel idea) and possible world (setting) are inventions by the author and not descriptions. Finally, SF makes what would otherwise be an intellectual abstraction concrete; it does this by locating the idea in a specific time and place, which requires the inventing of that time and place. Characters need not differ from characters in non-SF; it is what they encounter and must deal with that differ.
FCB: Why is there Science Fiction? That is, why is it written, why is it read? Would literature be better or worse off if it had never come into existence? Just what function does SF fulfill in literature and for those who choose to read it, or write it?
PKD: There is SF because the human brain craves sensory and intellectual stimulation before anything else, and the eccentric view provides unlimited stimulation, the eccentric view and the invented world. It is written because the human mind naturally creates, and in creating the world of an SF story the ultimate in human imagination is brought into use; thus SF is an ultimate product of and for the human mind. The function of SF psychologically is to cut the reader loose from the actual world that he inhabits; it deconstructs time, space, reality. Those who read it probably have difficulty adjusting to their world, for whatever reason; they may be ahead of it in terms of their perceptions and concepts or they may simply be neurotic, or they may have an abundance of imagination. Basically, they enjoy abstract thought. Also, they have a sense of the magic of science: science viewed not as utilitarian but as explorative. The writer of SF has in his possession ideas not yet committed to print; his mind is an extension of the corpus of already-written SF. He is SF's probe into the future, its vanguard. There is not a vast difference between reading SF and writing it. In both cases there is a joy in the novel -- i.e. new -- idea.
FCB: Would you please recount just when it was that you first became interested in philosophy? Was it a particular course or book or idea that initially generated your interest? Or a particular teacher? In high school, before, after?
PKD: I first became interested in philosophy in high school when I realized that all space is the same size; it is only the material boundaries encompassing it that differ. After that there came to me the realization (which I found later in Hume) that causality is a perception in the observer and not a datum of external reality. In college I was given Plato to read and thereupon became aware of the possible existence of a metaphysical realm beyond or above the sensory world. I came to understand that the human mind could conceive of a realm of which the empirical world was epiphenominal. Finally, I came to believe that in a certain sense the empirical world was not truly real, at least not as real as the archetypal realm beyond it. At this point I despaired of the veracity of sense-data. Hence in novel after novel that I write I question the reality of the world that the characters' percept-systems report. Ultimately I became an acosmic pantheist, led to this point of view by decades of skepticism.
FCB: Once your interest in Philosophy was sparked, how did you then pursue this interest? What books did you at first read? What courses if any did you take in philosophy?
PKD: I dropped out of college very early and began to write, pursuing my interest in philosophy on my own. My main sources were poets, not philosophers: Yeats and Wordsworth and the seventeenth century English metaphysical poets, Goethe, and then overt philosophers such as Spinoza and Leibnitz and Plotinus -- the last influencing me greatly. Early on I read Alfred North Whitehead and Bergson and became well-grounded in process philosophy. I did take a basic survey course in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, but was asked to leave when I inquired as to the pragmatic value of Platonism. The Pre-Socratics always fascinated me, in particular Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus and Empedocles. I still view God as Xenophanes viewed him. Gradually my interest in philosophy passed over into an interest in theology. Like the early Greeks I am a believer in panpsychism. Of all the metaphysical systems in philosophy I feel the greatest affinity for that of Spinoza, with his dictum, "Deus sive substantia sive natura;" to me this sums up everything (Viz: "God i.e. reality i.e. nature.") After flirting with bitheism for years I've settled down to monotheism; I regard even Christianity and later Judaism as heavily dualistic and hence unacceptable. To me the truth was first uttered (in so far as we know) when Xenophanes of Colophon, an Ionian, stated, "One God there is…in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. He stays always motionless in the same place; it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that. But, effortlessly, he wields all things by the thought of his mind." My interest in Pythogaras came from reading Wordsworth's "Ode," and from there I passed on to neo-Platonism and to the Pre-Socratics. The German Aufkl @
rung influenced me, especially Schiller and his ideas of freedom; I read his "Wallenstein" Trilogy. Spinoza's views regarding the worth of democracy also influenced me. Especially I studied the Thirty Years War and the issues involved, and am sympathetic to the Protestant side, in particular the valorous Dutch. When I was twenty-one I wrote a piece on the superiority of the American governmental system of checks and balances, praising it above all other systems of governments either in modern times or in antiquity; I sent a copy to the then governor of California, Earl Warren, to which he replied, "It is a gratifying experience to receive such an expression of appreciation of the government for which all of us work and serve. And although it may be that many others have the same depth of feeling you expressed, few are so articulate. Certainly your letter is unique in my experience, and I have received many through my years in public office." That was in the year 1952, when my first stories were published. It coincides, therefore, with my appearance as an author in the world of SF.
"Philip K. Dick et la Philosophie: une courte interview," tr. Sylvie Laine. Yellow Submarine, No. 41, September, 1986, pp. 22-24.
"Philip K. Dick -- Interview." Niekas, No. 36, 1988, pp. 30-31.
"An Interview with Philip K. Dick." For Dickheads Only, No. 5, 1994, pp. 26-27.
"Philip K. Dick on Philosophy: A Brief Interview," in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, ed. Lawrence Sutin. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995, hc, pp. 44-47.
"Philip K. Dick on Philosophy: A Brief Interview," in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, ed. Lawrence Sutin. New York: Vintage Books, 1995, pbk., pp. 44-47.