When we read a book or watch a film we aim to achieve
a minimal aesthetic distance, which
is the gap between our conscious reality and the fictional reality presented in
the work of art. This gives us the paradox of fiction–being emotionally moved
by something that we know is purely fictional. The condition for this is that
we, the viewers, must suspend our disbelief. Willing “suspension of disbelief”
is simply the sacrifice of logic and realism done in order to believe these
characters and events are real. It is an essential feature of theatre, where
the audience commonly sees different locations unraveling on the same stage as
well as characters whom the audience knows are just actors delivering lines. With
the help of a storyteller, the audience can suspend its disbelief to go along
with the premise and have a stronger emotional response. Translating this onto a
more general context, suspension of disbelief allows for a far deeper
understanding of the work of art, the viewer ultimately gaining and developing
more knowledge. This suspension of disbelief that is essential to the arts is
not the only type, however. In other areas of knowledge, suspending disbelief
can also serve as a method of gaining and developing knowledge. It can especially
be used for great benefit in the natural sciences and the human sciences. In
those areas, when alternative ways of knowing reach their limits, suspension of
disbelief can often circumvent those obstacles. Suspension of disbelief is thus
essential to the development of knowledge in the natural sciences and the human
sciences.

 

There are cases in the natural sciences where
critical pieces of knowledge can be obtained solely through the suspension of
disbelief. This year, a physics class school trip took me to see CERN, the
world’s largest particle physics laboratory, in Switzerland. While it wasn’t part of our class
syllabus, I was more curious to speak to the visiting lecturer and researcher
we met there about dark matter. She
told me that we can “infer and theorize dark matter’s existence, but cannot yet
see and definitively prove it’s there”. I had been hoping for more in this
lecturer’s explanation, but I came to understand that conventional ways of
knowing of the natural sciences would have us conclude dark matter does not
exist at all. This prompted more research on my part. The problem which
introduced dark matter is that stars orbiting on the edges of galaxies are in
apparent violation of Newton’s laws, which instead predict they would be flung
away from their galaxies considering the speed at which they travel (“Evidence
for Dark Matter”). The total mass observed by our scientific instruments and
with our sense perception is simply not enough to create the gravity holding galaxies
together. The choice to be made by the scientific community was thus to either
challenge Newton’s laws–perhaps rewrite them–or to question the reliability of
our sense perceptions and theorize a different solution. In 1933, Swiss astrophysicist
Fritz Zwicky chose the latter option when he inferred the existence of unseen dark
matter (Ostriker). He concluded there must be another type of matter that
accounts for all the extra, unexplained gravity holding the galaxies together. The
name “dark” matter refers to its quality of not
interacting with the observable electromagnetic spectrum, which means it is invisible
and practically undetectable. In this situation sense perception, the basis of
observation 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. To
circumvent this, we suspended that disbelief, using imagination to suggest an
alternative, which finally prompted some empirical research to reason that there must be something out
there. This is what suspending belief looks like in the natural sciences, and
it is thus an essential feature in this area of knowledge.

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A counterargument to the success of suspending
disbelief in theorizing dark matter lies in the methodology of the natural sciences. Conventionally, the scientific
method requires experimentation and repeatability for the produced knowledge to
be considered accurate and thereby valuable. With reference to that scientific
method, I concede that there appears to be a significant dead end in the dark
matter discussion at the 3rd step: experimenting. First, the observation is
made that the galaxies don’t act in the way we expected them to. Second, using
our imagination we formulate a hypothesis that explains this phenomenon. But, we
are then unable to continue with an experiment because dark matter cannot be at
all observed by our many scientific instruments, let alone our own sense
perception. This is a misconceived notion, however, and is only disguised as a
flaw of suspending disbelief. While suspension of disbelief is a product of a
situation where experiments are difficult, it often ends up prompting the
necessary experiments. It can inspire new thought, advancements, and ultimately
experiments that follow the scientific method, where we can use our sense perception and scientific instruments. The
defense for dark matter here is that scientists have found the Large Hadron
Collider (LHC) particle accelerator at CERN could provide more information
about dark matter. Dark matter particles, if created in the LHC, would escape and
carry away energy and momentum with them. From this, physicists could infer dark
matter’s existence from the amount of energy and momentum missing after the
experiment (“Dark Matter”). Without first suspending disbelief and imagining
its existence, scientists would never have conducted this experiment. Therefore,
the counterargument that highlights a weakness in its methodology is invalid
because suspension of disbelief can ultimately bring about those needed
experiments.

 

The suspension of disbelief is also vital to the development
of knowledge in the human sciences. In this area of knowledge, empirical and
certain science often need to be sacrificed to achieve more abstract discussion,
and to thereby gain knowledge on a deeper level. I personally had such a
discussion in my Theory of Knowledge class this year which was focused on
reaching an agreed-upon definition for ‘consciousness’. We understood
consciousness to be defined as our awareness of our own being and thoughts, and
somewhat like the spiritual brain–the
mind. This introduces the duality of the mind and the brain (Guttenplan 266). When
we bordered on discussing neuroscience, we asked how consciousness could be put
in terms of the human anatomy, and where exactly in the brain it was located. Research
however shows we cannot yet prove there is a tangible embodiment of this type
of consciousness inside our bodies. From this, with reason it is inferable that
it is not there. But, we all experience it constantly and therefore it must be
there. We thus have to set aside certain science and use imagination to move
the conversation on consciousness forward. In these kinds of cases, the
approaches to thought that will lead to most development in our knowledge are
only made possible with suspension of disbelief and imagination.

 

I do concede that, in support of dualism, I very quickly
denied that the mind is simply the brain or vice versa, as the notion that there
is only a single entity at work is unintelligible. This intuition can be misleading
and, in theory, I could have a more certain answer if I used empirical evidence.

A relevant counterargument is therefore that suspending disbelief here produces
unreliable knowledge. This is understandable as the process heavily involves
both faith and intuition–ways of knowing often claimed to be subjective and
thereby potentially unreliable. Furthermore, methodology in the human sciences
also involves the experimental method, which the process of suspending
disbelief here lacks. But, the refutation of this is simply that suspending one’s
disbelief is the only option here. It
has been tried and tested and still consciousness and subjective experience remain
unable to be explained using the current concepts of physics (Nagel). The study
of 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 this
consciousness we all have. Thus, consulting reason and our sense perceptions
here would be fruitless, and we are better off deviating from the conventional
methodologies. Suspension of disbelief can therefore be essential to gaining
knowledge in the human sciences.

 

            Suspension
of disbelief is therefore useful in a wide variety of ways. While it is a convention
of the theatre and other forms of art, suspending disbelief can also be vital
to the process of gaining and developing knowledge in other areas of knowledge.

In the natural sciences, suspension of disbelief is at work whenever our sense
perception puts us at a dead end and forces us to theorize a solution. This can
require imagination, like in the inference of dark matter’s existence. Granted,
suspension of disbelief lacks the conventional methodology of the natural
sciences (involving experimentation), but it can be a tool that circumvents
obstacles created by other ways of knowing regardless. In the end, suspending disbelief
can prompt empirical research anyways, which means it can still use the said
methodology but with its steps reordered. It is also utilized heavily in the
human sciences, where more subjectivity and demand for imagination is often to
be expected. If suspension of disbelief were to be applied too generously in
either of these areas of knowledge, I concede that a point would be reached
where its risks would outweigh its benefits. But, when done just right, suspension
of disbelief can become an essential tool in the gaining and developing of knowledge
in the natural sciences and human sciences.

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