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.
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 http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/biographia.html
3. Grobstein, Paul, “EvoLit: A Work in Progress.” Serendip. Jan. 2009. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/evolit/s09/intro
4. Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chiago Press, 1996