Why one should keep the science in fiction. Hint: it's largely fiction! Or, the fiction in science!
Dear Bratty friends,
My highly highlighted copy of Huston Smith's “Forgotten Truth” was calling to me from the bookshelf in the office the other day. It said, “Yvette! Yvette! Here I am. Remember me and all my good parts?”
(Heh heh, I said “good parts!” Now that's a Beavis and Butthead moment for sure.)
And indeed I do recall enjoying the book quite a bit. For those of you that haven't read it, Smith argues that the Western mind has been deluded by the techniques and miraculous findings of science into believing that science can provide all the answers mankind seeks when in fact it merely provides a small portion of a certain kind of answer – those geared towards the scientific question. We don't need to throw it away, Smith suggests, just assign it to its correct place in our world view. There's nothing wrong with science per se, but it can only get us so far in the search for the meaning of life, or at least in producing a meaningful pattern to help us understand life as it truly is. (Truly is, that's the catch, enit?)
And I think, subconsciously, we all know that. Think for a moment of all the movie and book plot lines you've seen where science runs amok (Jurassic Park) or creates monsters that ultimately don't help mankind, instead they harm (Terminator). Or, they take a cold and heartless view towards some natural phenomena in the name of trying to take it apart and understand it, boil it down to a hypothesis, or, even better, a nice fat round measurable number! (I hate to say this, but I saw E.T. in the theatre and actually stood up and started to walk out when they had poor little E.T. on the experiment table. So sensitive....aren't I?) Usually these plot lines have a “shortsighted scientist” who is in love with his/her work for its own sake. Or they take on the notion – as per Terminator -that science, once unleashed will get away from our control and cause us harm. The story lines usually end with the scientist being destroyed by his/her own creation and the world being saved from “the horror of science.” Yet we are all a little bit like mad scientists in that we are all still in love with each new creation always hailed to be the savior – or at least major time/life simplifier - that rolls off the Taiwan manufacturing line. So even if we do not fully believe science, we still swoom over it quite a bit.
Thus....science fiction continues to be a hot genre which itself has spawned other genres such as Steampunk and, I think, Apocolyptic fiction (i.e., Planet of the Apes). And science fiction romance – as author Linnea Sinclair puts it, the bastard stepchild of scifi and romance – which is gaining in popularity these days.
Over all, one can't really deny that the allure of science exists, so I think we should keep writing about it. But I urge you to keep in the back of your mind as you do so the many ways in which science is limited, not just scary or an unhealthy lifestyle choice for mad scientists. You don't have to write a mad scientist story to shed light upon science's dangers/shortcomings or failures. You need only consider the how science can make fragile or seek to eliminate the alternatives to science – such as religion, symbol systems, language, mystical knowledge – in order to write a book decrying the finality and absolute authority of science in a different way.
To aid in your consideration of science as not being the end-all it is oft touted to be, I provide for your Thursday Thirteen consumption 13 quotes from the book to mull over as you consider maybe writing some SciFi for this year's NaNoWriMo.
On science's ability to captivate the mind and its inherent shortcomings:
In the preface Smith asks, “People have a profound need to believe that the truth they perceive is rooted in the unchanging depths of the universe, for were it not, could the truth be really important?” And that's a good question. It demands a good answer. Unfortunately, he says, we have for the most part chosen science as our method of obtaining answers, and in doing so “misread science” - expecting more of it than it could provide.
- “Our mistake was expecting science to provide us with a world view, when we now see that it shows us only half the world – its physical, calculable, testable, significantly controllable, half. And even that half is now unpicturable.....Postmodern science gives us not another model of the universe, but no model at all.”
- “The alternative to numbers is words. Whereas numbers are signs, words are symbols, and therefore by their very nature equivocal; their ambiguity can be reduced but never eliminated. This bars them from the needle's eye of absolute precision, but the loose ends that prevent them from piercing that eye endow them with a texture that numbers cannot match.”
- “The despair of the logicians is the humanist's glory. From the adversity of verbal ambiguity, opportunity opens. The multivalence of language enables it to mesh with the multidimensionality of the human spirit, depicting its higher reaches as numbers never can.”
Okay, what's he talking about here? Let's back up a minute. Numbers v. words, that should be quite plain. But why is he talking about the human spirit? Good question! After all, I've never heard of a scientist being able to measure the human spirit. Food for thought there, eh?
But back to the original argument – does science provide us with the whole and unvarnished “truth” or are their other ways we come closer to the knowledge of the divine? And what's wrong with science exactly? I mean, why doesn't Huston Smith just love and accept it like everybody else?
- “That the scientific outlook should, in Carl Becker's word, have 'ravished' the modern mind is completely understandable. Through technology, science effects miracles: skyscrapers that stand, men standing on the moon... There was the sheer noetic majesty of the house pure science erected, and above all there was method. By enabling men to agree on the truth because it could be demonstrated, this method produced a knowledge that was cumulative and could advance. No wonder man converted. The conversion was not forced. It did not occur because scientists were imperialists but because their achievements were to impressive, their marching orders so exhilarating, that thinkers jostled to join their ranks.”
Well, because after joining, did they stop and take a good look at what the new god of science actually provided to them? What kinds of answers? What kind of truth? Or did people just march blindly to the piper and forget....forget.....(as Spock intoned to a sleeping Kirk).
Science's answers are narrow and focused, and leave out a lot, Smith argues. Maybe we should notice that.
On the limitations of science:
- “His [Karl Popper at the University of London] image likens science to a searchlight scanning a night sky for planes. For a plane to register, two things are required: it must exist, and it must be where the beam is... The point of this image is, of course, to make plain the restricted nature of the scientific quest. Far from lighting up the entire sky, it illuminates but an arc within it.”
- “Norbert Wiener used to make the point by saying: 'Messages from the universe arrive addressed no more specifically than 'To Whom It May Concern.' Scientists open those that concern them. No mosaic constructed from messages thus narrowly selected can be the full picture.”
- “The view that appears in a restricted viewfinder is a restricted view.”
- “It presumes to control too much and to disclose more of reality than it in fact does.”
- “...man possesses reason while at the same time exceeding his possession: reason is his tool, not his definition.”
- “What science shows, a physicist has recently observed, is that our view of things has no chance of being true unless it is astonishing.”
But where to look for answers then? Where do we find clues about how the world really is if not through scientific observation? If you ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he will give you a different answer than a particle physicist. but one nearly as elusive as as the ones particle physics delivers. The deeper science delves into the microcosm of life, the less substance it finds there, and the question-to-answer ratio jumps sky-high. Who's sorry now, I wonder? Yet science in this case has not done us a terrible disservice, it has merely fallen flat on its face and showed us there are other ways back home.
What an alternative world view would include:
- “Taken in its entirety, the world is not as science says it is; it is as science, philosophy, religion, the arts, and everyday speech say it is. Not science but the sum of man's symbol systems, of which science is but one, is the measure of things.”
- “Since reality exceeds what science registers, we must look for other antennae to catch the wavelengths it misses.”
Lastly, do any of you know who said this famous line?
- “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
That was John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, a British-born geneticist and evolutionary biologist. He was one of the founders (along with Ronald Fisher and Sewall Wright) of population genetics.
Pity he didn't write any scifi!
Only two days left till NaNo! Good luck everybody!