Science Verses the Fantastical? Why the Hell are we Fighting?

Posted: June 7, 2010 by eibonvale in Articles

Why do science and the fantastic have to be at odds?  Or, to put it another way, why should the questioning mind of science and the irrational and imaginative mind be somehow opposite sides?  I don’t think science and the irrational contradict at all to be honest.  Both are inevitable parts of the human condition, so why is there a feeling in some quarters that they are incompatible?  Or somehow damaging to each other?  Myself, I am a scientist AND a fantasist at heart after all!  And quite happy to be both!  I see no contradiction.  Anyone who knows me at all, knows how I love the irrational and the random!  But there’s nawt wrong with science and learning about the world either!!  And, more importantly, that eternal questioning of the world.

Though of course, how the human race as a whole uses science is another matter.  Science didn’t cause humanity’s problems.  How the culture as a whole uses (or fails to use) what science tells us is what landed us in all our messes.  Big companies, the military, the governments, politicizing everything, those idiots who treat it as a kind of substitute religion or as a weapon – all that is pretty ludicrous and does little service to either science or the wondrous irrational depths of the human mind!  Indeed, I think any real scientist has nothing but contempt for that rubbish.  It’s worth remembering though that everything is a dance of ideals and corruption.  Art can become propaganda.  Writing can become bogged down in mainstream prostitution.  The visual medium can even become the TV (shock, horror)!  And science can become corrupted into something destructive or a tool for something else (climate change debate anyone?).

Another annoying thing is the way that science can be treated as some kind of elite thing that ‘ordinary’ people can neither understand nor trust (look at the craziness surrounding the LHC for proof of that!).  It was that kind of attitude that led to the fall of the library of ….Alexandria…. and all the disastrous consequences of that.  Science became something elite and rarified – abstract and removed from ordinary life – and when the revolution came nobody had any compunction whatever about just burning the building to the ground, causing almost unthinkable damage to the entire history of human culture since then.  Essentially taking us back to a ‘comforting’ world of unthinking and unquestioning blindness that lasted centuries and which we STILL haven’t fully emerged from.

Take Richard Dawkins for instance – he was a great guy once.  Had some very interesting things to say.  It was him who created and defined the term ‘meme’ – the “postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena” (Wikipedia) – and where would we be in art and culture without that?  I find memes infinitely fascinating and very interesting for my own writing.  Now though he just seems to have got bogged down in some pointless battle that means nothing.  I can’t see why religion and science have to fight at all!  They have nothing to do with each other.  Religion shouldn’t try and explain reality and science shouldn’t butt into people’s fantasy lives.  Of course though, in a way, Dawkins has taken on a distinct cultural role that many of us are very glad to see filled on some level.  In the great debating chamber of the world where, for a long time, all we heard is one party hammering away, he and others have suddenly stood up on the other side and started hammering right back.  Both yelling and slagging each other off and going purple in the face.  But maybe he will provide a kind of balance – two extremes rather than one and, out of those two opposing forces, some new sense may one day emerge.  But, in taking on that role, he has rather left ‘science’ behind and entered a world closer to politics.

In contrast, look at Carl Sagan, scientist and novelist.  Of course, he was very much a project of his times and science has moved on a lot since his heyday.  But he still remains one of the best examples of the scientist who has never lost that sheer awe and sense of poetry about how the world works.  Sagan’s approach is filled with wonder and the desire to know – and also an admirable ability to avoid becoming dogmatic and to consider the far-out with reason and sense.  I shall also be forever indebted to him for adding one rather less familiar entry into the list of humanity’s flaws – blind obedience of leaders.  Which again goes right back to that thread of unquestioning acceptance that I mentioned earlier.  For all we talk about the horrors of war and the vast tides of political forces, the fact remains that some individual person had to fly the Enola Gay – some individual person had to arrest those Jews and send them to ..Auschwitz…  And some individual person had to release the gas canisters.  So Sagan’s point is a very significant one, even today.  Perhaps especially today as our privacy and liberty are eroded like never before.  As a species, we never seem to be able to ask ‘why are we doing this?’ or ‘why are we putting up with this’ and – well – stopping it.  Instead, as a group, we just grumble about those leaders even as we still blindly follow them.

I dunno – I believe in science, even though I am a fantasist at heart!  I look at the world out there, and I want to know about it!  I want to see what happens down deep.  I want to see the bottom of the deep sea and I want to KNOW what that bizarre thing that the Eltanin photographed is – and I am quite happy knowing it isn’t an extraterrestrial artifact (it’s a sponge – and isn’t that amazing?  A sponge that looks like that?  Sitting in the middle of the pitch black abyss?  That causes a throb like any surrealist painting).  I am also quite happy knowing a bit about the human dream patterns, surrogate religious urges and etc etc that makes us so keen to believe in extraterrestrials and UFOs.  I also want to ‘see’ a Bose-Einstein condensate (though it can never be seen under any circumstances because light kills it instantly).  They make those things by holding a few atoms in a magnetic field cup – I mean, if that doesn’t stretch the imagination, what does?  A few atoms in a virtual cup?  I LIKE knowing why an airplane wing lifts, because looking at the damn thing, it seems to have no right to get off the ground at all – it’s as big as a warehouse.  The Japanese recently tested a new experimental air break system on their shinkansen train – looks JUST like their bloody cat ears!  A cat eared air break?  Bloody marvelous!  And I like knowing how it works (or doesn’t, as it turned out) as well as what it looks like.  [link: http://x–kh-r.narod.ru/nekomimi_shinkansen.jpg]  And I like knowing the mating habits of leopard slugs (you would not believe . . .). It is just a part of the awe of nature and the world.  I mean – where would we be without that wonder?  It’s a part of us!!!  As kids we like to poke around under logs seeing what is there and how it works.  That’s what freakin’ science is!  (heheh)  And we ask questions.  And for me, questioning everything is just the most important thing in the world!  Without questions we wouldn’t have any art either – or much else!

Yet for some reason that blind acceptance remains programmed into us – slowly the questioning and the awe dies, thanks to some kind of cultural pressure – and that’s so sad! That’s the death of science right there before our eyes.  That’s the flames licking through all the knowledge of ancient times in the Alexandria library and about to plunge us into a grotesque dark age.  What is this stupid urge people have to accept everything?  Without even thinking about it!  Personally, I blame that one single trait for a vast percentage of the misery of human life both now and throughout history.  And it is so nice that, in spite of everything, some people still manage to overcome that – and make Bose-Einstein condensates or put ears on a train to see what happens, or look under that log or under that ocean and maybe see something that nobody else has ever seen before.  And it is also so nice that people can cast their minds free and dream up worlds of the imagination or human activities for us all.  Whether it is surrealist art or extreme ironing, guerilla knitting or Lovecraftian horror stories.

Without science, we are effing FINISHED, mate!  It’s that simple.

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