When we read a book or watch a film we aim to achievea minimal aesthetic distance, whichis the gap between our conscious reality and the fictional reality presented inthe work of art. This gives us the paradox of fiction–being emotionally movedby something that we know is purely fictional. The condition for this is thatwe, the viewers, must suspend our disbelief. Willing “suspension of disbelief”is simply the sacrifice of logic and realism done in order to believe thesecharacters and events are real.
It is an essential feature of theatre, wherethe audience commonly sees different locations unraveling on the same stage aswell as characters whom the audience knows are just actors delivering lines. Withthe help of a storyteller, the audience can suspend its disbelief to go alongwith the premise and have a stronger emotional response. Translating this onto amore general context, suspension of disbelief allows for a far deeperunderstanding of the work of art, the viewer ultimately gaining and developingmore knowledge. This suspension of disbelief that is essential to the arts isnot the only type, however. In other areas of knowledge, suspending disbeliefcan also serve as a method of gaining and developing knowledge. It can especiallybe used for great benefit in the natural sciences and the human sciences.
Inthose areas, when alternative ways of knowing reach their limits, suspension ofdisbelief can often circumvent those obstacles. Suspension of disbelief is thusessential to the development of knowledge in the natural sciences and the humansciences. There are cases in the natural sciences wherecritical pieces of knowledge can be obtained solely through the suspension ofdisbelief. This year, a physics class school trip took me to see CERN, theworld’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Switzerland. While it wasn’t part of our classsyllabus, I was more curious to speak to the visiting lecturer and researcherwe met there about dark matter.
Shetold me that we can “infer and theorize dark matter’s existence, but cannot yetsee and definitively prove it’s there”. I had been hoping for more in thislecturer’s explanation, but I came to understand that conventional ways ofknowing of the natural sciences would have us conclude dark matter does notexist at all. This prompted more research on my part.
The problem whichintroduced dark matter is that stars orbiting on the edges of galaxies are inapparent violation of Newton’s laws, which instead predict they would be flungaway from their galaxies considering the speed at which they travel (“Evidencefor Dark Matter”). The total mass observed by our scientific instruments andwith our sense perception is simply not enough to create the gravity holding galaxiestogether. The choice to be made by the scientific community was thus to eitherchallenge Newton’s laws–perhaps rewrite them–or to question the reliability ofour sense perceptions and theorize a different solution. In 1933, Swiss astrophysicistFritz Zwicky chose the latter option when he inferred the existence of unseen darkmatter (Ostriker). He concluded there must be another type of matter thataccounts for all the extra, unexplained gravity holding the galaxies together. Thename “dark” matter refers to its quality of notinteracting with the observable electromagnetic spectrum, which means it is invisibleand practically undetectable. In this situation sense perception, the basis ofobservation in the natural sciences, halted the process of gaining knowledge,as it would have us believe there is nothing there–or, be in disbelief of the existence of this other kind of matter.
Tocircumvent this, we suspended that disbelief, using imagination to suggest analternative, which finally prompted some empirical research to reason that there must be something outthere. This is what suspending belief looks like in the natural sciences, andit is thus an essential feature in this area of knowledge. A counterargument to the success of suspendingdisbelief in theorizing dark matter lies in the methodology of the natural sciences. Conventionally, the scientificmethod requires experimentation and repeatability for the produced knowledge tobe considered accurate and thereby valuable. With reference to that scientificmethod, I concede that there appears to be a significant dead end in the darkmatter discussion at the 3rd step: experimenting.
First, the observation ismade that the galaxies don’t act in the way we expected them to. Second, usingour imagination we formulate a hypothesis that explains this phenomenon. But, weare then unable to continue with an experiment because dark matter cannot be atall observed by our many scientific instruments, let alone our own senseperception. This is a misconceived notion, however, and is only disguised as aflaw of suspending disbelief. While suspension of disbelief is a product of asituation where experiments are difficult, it often ends up prompting thenecessary experiments. It can inspire new thought, advancements, and ultimatelyexperiments that follow the scientific method, where we can use our sense perception and scientific instruments.
Thedefense for dark matter here is that scientists have found the Large HadronCollider (LHC) particle accelerator at CERN could provide more informationabout dark matter. Dark matter particles, if created in the LHC, would escape andcarry away energy and momentum with them. From this, physicists could infer darkmatter’s existence from the amount of energy and momentum missing after theexperiment (“Dark Matter”).
Without first suspending disbelief and imaginingits existence, scientists would never have conducted this experiment. Therefore,the counterargument that highlights a weakness in its methodology is invalidbecause suspension of disbelief can ultimately bring about those neededexperiments. The suspension of disbelief is also vital to the developmentof knowledge in the human sciences. In this area of knowledge, empirical andcertain science often need to be sacrificed to achieve more abstract discussion,and to thereby gain knowledge on a deeper level. I personally had such adiscussion in my Theory of Knowledge class this year which was focused onreaching an agreed-upon definition for ‘consciousness’. We understoodconsciousness to be defined as our awareness of our own being and thoughts, andsomewhat like the spiritual brain–themind.
This introduces the duality of the mind and the brain (Guttenplan 266). Whenwe bordered on discussing neuroscience, we asked how consciousness could be putin terms of the human anatomy, and where exactly in the brain it was located. Researchhowever shows we cannot yet prove there is a tangible embodiment of this typeof consciousness inside our bodies. From this, with reason it is inferable thatit is not there.
But, we all experience it constantly and therefore it must bethere. We thus have to set aside certain science and use imagination to movethe conversation on consciousness forward. In these kinds of cases, theapproaches to thought that will lead to most development in our knowledge areonly made possible with suspension of disbelief and imagination.
I do concede that, in support of dualism, I very quicklydenied that the mind is simply the brain or vice versa, as the notion that thereis only a single entity at work is unintelligible. This intuition can be misleadingand, in theory, I could have a more certain answer if I used empirical evidence.A relevant counterargument is therefore that suspending disbelief here producesunreliable knowledge. This is understandable as the process heavily involvesboth faith and intuition–ways of knowing often claimed to be subjective andthereby potentially unreliable. Furthermore, methodology in the human sciencesalso involves the experimental method, which the process of suspendingdisbelief here lacks.
But, the refutation of this is simply that suspending one’sdisbelief is the only option here. Ithas been tried and tested and still consciousness and subjective experience remainunable to be explained using the current concepts of physics (Nagel). The studyof neurons in the brain explain many of our functions and instinctive desires,such as reaching for the cup of tea when thirsty, but it does not explain thisconsciousness we all have. Thus, consulting reason and our sense perceptionshere would be fruitless, and we are better off deviating from the conventionalmethodologies. Suspension of disbelief can therefore be essential to gainingknowledge in the human sciences.
Suspensionof disbelief is therefore useful in a wide variety of ways. While it is a conventionof the theatre and other forms of art, suspending disbelief can also be vitalto the process of gaining and developing knowledge in other areas of knowledge.In the natural sciences, suspension of disbelief is at work whenever our senseperception puts us at a dead end and forces us to theorize a solution.
This canrequire imagination, like in the inference of dark matter’s existence. Granted,suspension of disbelief lacks the conventional methodology of the naturalsciences (involving experimentation), but it can be a tool that circumventsobstacles created by other ways of knowing regardless. In the end, suspending disbeliefcan prompt empirical research anyways, which means it can still use the saidmethodology but with its steps reordered. It is also utilized heavily in thehuman sciences, where more subjectivity and demand for imagination is often tobe expected.
If suspension of disbelief were to be applied too generously ineither of these areas of knowledge, I concede that a point would be reachedwhere its risks would outweigh its benefits. But, when done just right, suspensionof disbelief can become an essential tool in the gaining and developing of knowledgein the natural sciences and human sciences.