Belief and Skepticism

jrlewis's picture

Julia Lewis
Professor Dalke

Belief and Skepticism

In this course our first directions for reading Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, was to treat it as a novel.  Such instruction proved problematic for students, myself include, for a variety of reasons.  One reason is that reading a novel or enjoying any other work of art requires the reader to willingly suspend their disbelief.  In this paper, I would like to explore how the idea of willing suspension of disbelief is challenging to translate into studying a scientific text. 

Coleridge coined the term “willing suspension of disbelief” to describe how people relate to art.  It is the audience/reader’s acceptance of the rules of the fictional world created by the artist/author in order to better appreciate an art object.  Suspension of disbelief can occur at several levels.  In their brain, the reader of a novel transforms the words on the page into images of characters and settings.  Then, the reader must take on the foundations of the fictional reality differing gravitational laws, technological advances, cultures and much more. This act of penetrating into another reality requires a conscious choice on the part of the audience/reader.  It is a little risky to allow oneself to be gullible, however; the reward promised by art and literature is often great. Art and literature provide people with new perceptions about the world and therefore increases the breadth of their summary of observations about the world.  The most controversial works of art and literature supply unanticipated observations that require people to revise their stories. 

It is important to note how this account of art closely parallels Professor Grobstein’s story of science as a story.  Both characterizations consider the unanticipated observation to be a source of change and progress for the summary of observations.  The chief difference between art and literature on the one hand and science on the other hand is the concept of skepticism.  Professor Grobstein goes so far as to say, “science as skepticism … a way of making sense of what is but even more of exploring what might yet be.”  If a scientist is synonymous with a skeptic, then how can a scientist ever willingly suspend their disbelief?  Is it incorrect to read a scientific text in a state of suspended disbelief?

In order to place this conflict within a scientific context, I would like to consider the notion of scientific progress.  A radical type of progress occurs when one scientific story is exchanged for another.  Thomas Kuhn characterizes such occurrences as scientific revolutions.  When the paradigm or story of a discipline is no longer consistent with a number of observations, then new paradigms are created to summarize the relevant observations.  These new paradigms compete with the established paradigm for loyalty from the scientists. 

Different paradigms are associated with distinct world-views; they consist of their own constants, laws, variables, and interesting questions.  Essentially, each paradigm represents a unique reality.  From this perspective, a paradigm might be analogous to an individual person’s reality and experiencing controversial art is stepping into another paradigm.  Any two paradigms are incommensurable; simple communication between them is impossible.  The act of embracing a new scientific paradigm parallels the willing suspension of disbelief necessary for engaging with a work of literature.  So theoretically, there is no inherent conflict in the instruction to read On the Origin of Species as a novel, only a mixture of scientific and literary language.

I would like to examine the text at greater length to determine whether or not the content and style are consistent with an author concerned with the reader believing their story.  Darwin’s chose an enticing title for his book; On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.  It promises to present the potential reader with an interesting story, if the reader will only buy, borrow, or otherwise obtain the book.  That action is analogous to Kuhn’s leap of faith by scientists who embrace a paradigm in its earliest stages.  There isn’t a significant amount of evidence to indicate that anything productive will follow.  In buying a book based on its title, the reader, essentially, is trusting the writer to tell them a good story. 

After perusing several chapters of On the Origin of Species, the reader may become bored with the work.  The content is overly explicit, laying out an extremely structured theory of evolution.  Darwin’s authoritative tone is consistent with the enormous mass of information he provides in support of his theory.  As the number of pages read increases, the amount of data increases.  The factual content of the work indicates a well-researched scientific story.  Darwin’s story of evolution is almost a completely mature scientific theory as it is presented in his book. It becomes clear that On the Origin of Species is primarily a scientific text written to inform and subsequently persuade naturalists and scientists of evolutionary theory. 

There is an abundance of evidence in the text for the skeptic to consider. However, Darwin addresses scientific skepticism by a more direct method in his writing.  His style suggests less a story and more a conversation between himself and the reader.  By switching between the first person singular and the first person plural, the narrator is better able to draw the reader into the argument.  In some instances, Darwin actually places comments or questions in the skeptic’s mouth.  He raises concerns inconsistent with his story, enters counter arguments showing that these concerns are consistent with his story, and then adjudicates between the two perspectives.  The adjudication always comes out in the favor of Darwin’s story.  This is an effective structure for presenting a strong argument.  It also allows the Darwin to translate the significance of specific naturalist observations between the two competing scientific stories.  However, his style demands an active and skeptical reader to fully appreciate its virtue. 

In conclusion, I think On the Origin of Species was written to give Darwin’s controversial story all the evidence necessary to convince scientists that it is worth exploring further.  It is a persuasive piece of writing with clear argument; the story is too mature.  It can not best be appreciated by reading in a passive state of suspended disbelief.  However, the act of suspending disbelief when reading a scientific work is not always incorrect.  There is an appropriate time and place in the development of novel scientific story for reading the story more as a novel. 
Works Cited

1.    Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Ed. Joeseph Carroll. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2003
2.    Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria.  Feb. 2009
3.    Grobstein, Paul, “EvoLit: A Work in Progress.” Serendip. Jan. 2009.
4.    Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Chicago: University of Chiago Press, 1996


Anne Dalke's picture

interesting questions...

...and they make me think about how so much of literature--that is, the stuff that lasts-- is actually read not by the contemporary audience it's written for, but by folks reading 100's of years after, through entirely different lenses, that the author could not possibly have anticipated....
jrlewis's picture

If I was going to extend

If I was going to extend this paper and attempt to answer your questions, then I would probably investigate how the "On the Origin of Species" evolved over time.  It went through eight additions right?  Herbert Spencer's phrase "survival of the fittest" was added, I think.  Also, Darwin's introduction increased in length with each edition.  Greg Davis has a whole book about it!  I think there are a lot of questions about interpretation and authorial intent here.  Enter literary theory and philosophy of art?
Anne Dalke's picture

theorizing literarily....

It would be interesting to trace those stylistuc changes. According to the current review in American Scientist, "Darwin's revisions to the Origin eventually compromised it, so keen was he to respond to critics. Not only did he defend, he attacked."
jrlewis's picture

an alternate conclusion...

I wonder whether a modern reader of Darwin can ever truly satisfy such demands.  Depending on their level of education and discipline, the modern reader may be over-informed about the theory of evolution.  Darwin’s name, his story of evolution, and current scientific understandings of evolution are discussed not only in biology, but other fields of science, social sciences, humanities, and popular culture.  With an awareness of the plot, setting, and criticism of a story it is possible for any reader to suspend their disbelief or their skepticism?  Is it possible for the reader to consciously suppress their conscious and unconscious knowledge of a subject?  Is another method of approaching the text called for? 
Anne Dalke's picture

Reading Skeptically

You set this up as an either/or question: either we suspend disbelief (as when we read novels), or we read skeptically (as when we encounter a science text). You play with the possibility that the two states might “loop”—i.e., that a scientific text might go through a phrase (of writing? of reading?) when it invites belief, before proceeding to the (more mature?) phase of skepticism. All that works quite nicely, and you give good evidence to show that Darwin is enticing us into being active, skeptical readers of his text.

But the small “crack” that I fall through, when reading your argument, is signaled by your closing characterization of the state of suspended disbelief as “passive.” I’m not so sure. I’d hazard that it actually takes an active reader, one willing to engage in an act of faith, a risky wager that believing might lead them into an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise, might bring them into a fuller, richer life. It’s not just (as you say) that the readers’ “acceptance of the rules of the fictional world” allows them “to better appreciate an art object,” but rather that it allows them to experience it more fully, to know it—and so the world, and themselves—more fully.

I am thinking here of James Elkins’ essay, “The Ivory Tower of Tearlessness,” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 9, 2001--which is all about being educated OUT of an imaginative, emotional response.

You might also be interested in looking @ aseidman’s paper on “Darwin’s Literary Voice,” for a slightly different take on this matter of Darwin as a “fiction” writer.

jrlewis's picture

back again

After finishing the Sontag reading for this week, I would really like to read the James Elkins essay you mention above.  It seems that they are talking about similar phenomena, how humans respond to art.  However, I couldn't find the paper online?  Any suggestions? 
Anne Dalke's picture

multiple means of access...

The Tri-Co Libraries have multiple ways to access The Chronicle of Higher Education Online; see EBSCOhost Professional Development; Collection; LexisNexis Academic; Miscellaneous Ejournals; and ProQuest Research Library...

Failing all that, there ARE print copies!

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.