‘Disbelief,’ why would one not trust what someone would say? It is usually because you would assume that the propositions of another are so hyperbolic and far-fetched, that they have to be etched in fantasy or the grasps of a science fiction film. When situations such as these appear, we tend to refuse to believe and dismiss their tangibility quickly. Such examples are usually magical beasts, alien abductions or the emergence of secret organizations such as the Illuminati. When confronted with such extraordinary claims, we require, according to Carl Sagan, extraordinary evidence to support them1: a real dragon in a zoo who can actively be viewed by many. In this sense, to ‘suspend’ our disbelief would make us more open to the ideas of magical beasts, aliens, and secret societies. ‘Suspending disbelief’ is a faculty which involves us setting aside our critical judgment and reasoning leaving us open to the possibility of strange and weird knowledge. However, suspending disbelief is not a request to place aside your reasoning faculties to the point of mental numbness and indulgence in emotion without reason. For example, consider how the poet S.
T Coleridge famously introduced us to the idea of ‘poetic faith’ which invited readers willingly to suspend disbelief as a way of accessing the more supernatural elements of the romantic poetry. Coleridge suggested poems might describe, things that reason cannot explain, that defy our usual perceptions of the world and that may be unimaginable in the context of our day to day work.2 If we are not to be overawed and overwhelmed by such descriptions, then we must put aside our tendency to doubt and question things that appear to be extraordinary to access a more emotional perspective about human nature. In short, suspending disbelief means ‘be open to the extraordinary’; it means ’empathize with people and situations you don’t immediately understand.’ In the natural sciences often times the clichéd view of science and scientists is that emotion should be avoided and reason favoured.
The stereotype of the mad scientist is one who is obsessed with her theory and is unable to take on another’s perspective and lacks imagination. However, Einstein proposed that imaginative leaps, as much as rational steps, are central to the progress of scientific knowledge. In the same way, do scientists make intuitive judgments? Thomas Kuhn3 explores how such leaps in thinking are made possible through the notion of scientific paradigms. Such as the theory of evolution. And yet, the main point of science is NOT to suspend disbelief; it is to question things that don’t make sense to our reason and to ask for physical evidence. In this way scientists explore particular phenomena and trace patterns in the flow and flux of the material world. They also experiment on our surroundings to produce data to prove/disprove their theories about the world.
Sometimes these theories are developed through intuitive judgments about the way the world works alongside perceived data that is used in the service of inductive and deductive reason to confirm or refute scientific theories. When these approaches go wrong, it is usually the in- built mechanism of collaborative peer review that provides ‘correctives’ or ‘checks and balances’ to extraordinary knowledge claims about the natural world. In this way, a scientist’s need to know and understand the world creates technological breakthroughs that help to shape that world differently. The strength of science can inadvertently be seen in its way to shape some scientists ‘suspension of disbelief’. The natural sciences are solely based on fact, but it is the scientist’s capability to suspend their own disbelief in what they are pursuing and refuting the claims of others that they inevitably stumble upon a new discovery.
In the same sense, it is the peers of this scientist who expend their own disbelief in the scientist’s new discovery to put into gear the process of seeing whether it is fact or fiction. Fact and fiction appear not to fit together when mentioning the pursuit of knowledge. Because events can, much like fiction be made up and creatively manipulated. Although as a learned species can’t we see an instance where the pursuit of knowledge is the culmination of both fact and fiction? We must remember that ‘Suspending disbelief’ is a faculty which involves us setting aside our critical judgment and reasoning leaving us open to the possibility of believing fiction.
4 But how can one justify a knowledge claim with fantasies and stories? Although when examining the history of science one might suspect and realize that we have merely moved from the mythical creation stories about how the universe started to highly complex mathematical stories about the origin of the cosmos. One main difference between these stories is that the more modern scientific stories are more highly probable in being accurate descriptions of the facts than the ancient creation myths. Now consider the history of art. Writers can tell both fictional stories, such as in novels, and factual ones, such as in autobiographies. But things get more complicated when someone decides to write a fictional autobiography, like Jane Eyre5, which gives the illusion of being based on real lives and real events. Literary stories are, of course, often an imaginative transformation of a writer’s different experiences and thereby grounded in ‘real facts’ about human nature.
What is the moral of this introduction? Humans are natural; storytellers who use this facility to make sense of a chaotic world of facts. Nevertheless, you cannot imagine something out of nothing. ‘Suspending disbelief’ on its own does not meet the requirements needed to be effective in the collection of knowledge. It overall needs to be embedded in truthful human experiences and circumstance with its ideas and experiences.
For example, to make an imaginary world and use it to embed knowledge it needs to be sourced from our own human experiences and ideas. There is no empathy without reasoning. Jonathan Gottschall invites us to ponder a thought experiment to understand how humankind evolved through language use. Imagine early human society is divided into two tribes. They are the same in all respects except in their names: the creative ‘storytelling people’ and the more mechanical ‘practical people.’ As with a range of evolutionary scenarios, one group is going to die out, whereas the other is going to survive.
6 The tribes are similar in that they both hunt, gather and procreate. Here’s how they are different: the storytelling folk gets bored quickly and when tired out by the day’s activities often spend long evenings sharing stories about the day, or what happened some time ago, or about their dreams and plans for the future. They even have a hoot of a time entertaining themselves with wildly make-believe stories or fictions, while the Practical people shun them and ignore this petty behaviour from their neighbours. Indeed, the gathering trip is successful and so that they continue to mate. When they tire at the end of the day, they drop into bed to conserve their energy in readiness for the next day’s practical survival work.
Gottschall points to the fact that we know which tribe survived. The storytelling people survive; they are homo sapiens (us!) And the purely practical people, if indeed they existed at all, are no longer around. However, if we hadn’t known the outcome from the beginning and had been asked to predict which of the two groups would have survived, surely we would have predicted that the practical people would have survived, because their reliance on practicality and efficiency and value system appear to be more than a match for playful storytellers. The fact that this didn’t happen Gottschall calls ‘the evolutionary riddle of fiction.
‘7 The gathering of knowledge stems from our fundamental ability to believe or disbelieve and in some case suspend or disbelief to achieve more significant understanding. Science and the Arts have proven that both are just as informative in our constant quest for knowledge and it is the culmination of both fact and fiction that form the basis of our intellect.