terça-feira, 19 de maio de 2009

Science Fact and Science Fiction - An Encyclopedia - Brian Stableford



An encyclopaedia of science would be a huge project to undertake nowadays, as would an encyclopaedia of fiction. Either would require several volumes to do any justice at all to the range and depth of its subject matter. An encyclopaedia of the connections between science and fiction, on the other hand, can still be contained within a single volume without seeming stupidly superficial. This testifies to the extent of fiction’s abiding unconcern with science and technology, by comparison with other aspects of human thought, action and sentiment.

The volume of both scientific and fictional publication has increased dramatically over time, accelerating remarkably in the twentieth century when a series of other media were added to text and oral culture as significant conveyors of fiction. There is a sense in which the fictional reflections of science and technology have also increased dramatically in volume over time, similarly accelerating in the twentieth century, when it became commonplace for the first time to identify a genre of ‘‘science fiction,’’ but the similarities between these historical processes are outweighed by their differences.

A modern encyclopaedia of science would have to give due credit to the intellectual achievements of centuries earlier than the twentieth; it would, however, regard them as transitory phases en route to a fuller understanding, whose triumphs have all been integrated into more elaborate patterns of ideas. A modern encyclopaedia of fiction could not see history in the same light; it could not regard the works of Homer, William Shakespeare, and Marcel Proust as transitional achievements that have been further elaborated, but as enduring monuments constituting the core of its concerns.

Both encyclopaedias would have to omit a great many minor works and their authors from the preserved historical record on the grounds that they are of merely peripheral interest, but they would do so on different grounds.

The encyclopaedia of science would filter the heritage of the past to exclude or marginalise the incorrect and the repetitive, while the encyclopaedia of fiction would filter the heritage of the past to exclude or marginalise material considered less valuable in aesthetic terms. Whereas encyclopaedias of science inevitably favour the contemporary, as the highest level of attainment, encyclopaedias of fiction are often critical of the contemporary, comparing it unfavourably with the antique.

Encyclopaedias of fiction, moreover, routinely represent themselves as encyclopaedias of literature, in order to emphasise that their selection process is the work of connoisseurs of value–connoisseurs who are inevitably suspicious of popular fiction, whose value is often thought to be prejudiced because it appeals to a wide audience.

One of the consequences of aesthetic filtration is the near-erasure from modern encyclopaedias of literature of the great majority of works containing any significant reflection of science and technology, which are routinely considered to be aesthetically valueless by virtue of their choice of subject matter. This generates problems for any project attempting to bring the connections between science and fiction into clearer focus.

From the viewpoint of science, such a project is bound to seem unnecessary, since it hardly matters to scientists whether or not they are represented in fiction.

From the literary viewpoint, such a project is likely to seem worthless, in that it would be bound to devote much of its attention to science fiction.

In spite of these problems, the compilation of a broad overview of the connections between science and fiction is a useful project, because it helps to illuminate the history of science and the history of fiction from an unusual angle, which may reveal aspects of both that are normally obscured. It also helps to illuminate the reasons why the overlap between the two histories is so slight and so odd, and why the two histories have diverged even more markedly as time has passed.

If it is desirable to construct and maintain bridges between the cultures of science and fiction, then a volume like Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia will hopefully constitute a significant bridge in itself as well as mapping the existing ones, and might be of some assistance in building more.

Science and Literature
To some extent, at least, the histories of science and literature have run parallel; their rates of evolution have varied according to roughly similar patterns. Insofar as their histories have been related, however, the relationship has more often seemed inverse than correspondent, not merely traveling in different directions but actively in conflict with one another—but that serves to underline the fact that there is a significant relationship between the two histories.

The anxiety that the progress of science has devalued or devastated the poetic element of the human imagination—by ‘‘unweaving the rainbow’’, as John Keats put it—is as strong now as it ever was, and as plausible. The fact that prose has displaced poetry to such a drastic extent in the literary marketplace is certainly not unconnected with the development of the scientific method and the scientific worldview—but to regard science and literature as antithetical forces pulling in opposed directions would be a distortion as well as an oversimplification.

There is no simple causal relationship between the evolution of science and the evolution of fiction, and changes in the two fields cannot usually be linked in any simple fashion to more remote causes by which they are both affected. Even so, they are not as mutually irrelevant or hostile as their separate introspective narratives sometimes make them seem.

Hopefully, a book of this kind might be useful in making their relationship clearer.
Fact and fiction are often defined as fundamental opposites. In the most brutal sense, facts are true and fiction isn’t. Adding ‘‘science’’ to the summation helps to illustrate the complications that arise when the definitions extend beyond brutal simplicity, because it introduces the question of how facts are established as true, and the corollary question of whether facts are the only things that qualify as truth.

Science affirms (for it cannot swear on oath) that it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: an account of law-bound nature strictly derived from the evidence. It is, however, often argued that truth is more complicated than scientific testimony will allow. On the other hand, defining fiction as mere untruth is a drastic oversimplification. All the major forms of fiction—including myth, legend, and folklore, as well as literature—aspire to a greater ambition than merely telling lies. It is not simply that there is an element of attempted truth mingled with their fabrications, but that it is that attempt that constitutes their raison d’eˆtre, fabrication being merely a means to an end.

The universality of fiction reflects its utility, and that utility is dependent on the conviction that there is more to truth than fact, and more to knowledge than science can obtain.

Science is a method: a process of certification leading to a stamp of assured quality. The method can easily be anatomised into three components–hypothesis, observation and experiment–but the order in which the three components are best arranged is open to question. It was once generally supposed that observations came first, generating hypotheses that were then subjected to confirmatory experiments, but it is now more commonly agreed that ‘‘observation’’ is a problematic business, routinely conditioned by preexistent frames of perception and intellectual organisation.

In this view, the speculative construction of hypotheses either precedes observation or is inextricably mingled with that process, and the proper function of experimentation is not to seek confirmation, but to set up rigorous tests in order to cast out mistaken hypotheses and misconceived observations. However the three components are mixed, they are obviously not alike. Hypothesis formulation, or speculation, is a creative process. Experiment is, by contrast, a judgmental process.

Observation seems, at first glance, to be merely cumulative, neither creative nor judgmental, but more careful analysis suggests that it involves both creative and judgmental elements.

When the process of fact gathering is broken down in this fashion it becomes easier to draw useful comparisons with fiction—or, at least, with the component of fiction that aspires to be more than lies. Fiction also has its hypothetical, observational and judgemental components, whose appropriate balance has long been a matter of controversy.

Fiction is not judgemental in the same way as scientific experimentation, having more to do with moral than factual judgement, but intellectually respectable fiction nevertheless aims to put its assertions and evaluations to a kind of stern proof.

The creative element of fiction is more likely to be seen as an end than a beginning, but that does not mean that it is reckless.

The great difference between scientific and fictional observation lies in the manner in which the combination of observation and judgement generates a coherent ‘‘worldview’’.

The testing of scientific observations ruthlessly eliminates mistaken hypotheses from consideration, while setting moral judgments aside in order to concentrate narrowly on what is, but the testing of fictional observation is intimately concerned with moral judgment, and not nearly so ruthless in its treatment of hypotheses.

Fiction is by no means unconcerned with what is, but it usually tries to consider what is in a broader context of what might be and what ought to be. There is more necessity than choice in this distinction.

In order to support its method of determining facts, and the theories that render them coherent, science needs to make certain basic assumptions about the extent to which the world is ordered, and the nature of that order. The whole edifice rests on a few fundamental observations, one of which is the assumption that the laws of nature do not discriminate—that they apply to everything, and to everyone, in exactly the same way.

One corollary of this is Jesus’ observation in Matthew 5:45 that the sun rises and the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. In the world of experience— the world of scientific observation—virtue has no naturally guaranteed reward, and vice no naturally guaranteed punishment.

This is not a situation of which anyone approves; indeed, it is arguable that the primary employment of the human mind since the dawn of intelligent consciousness has been to compensate for the deficit. The compensations have been both pragmatic, consisting of the institution of artificial rewards and punishments within social organisation, and imaginative, often involving the assertion that appearances must be deceptive, and that there must be a world beyond that of experience in which the moral accounts are ultimately balanced.

Science, by definition, can have nothing to do with the latter kind of compensatory endeavour; it is concerned with the order that exists, not one that might be preferable.
Even its dealings with practical compensation are limited and problematic. It can certainly concern itself with the effects that social institutions actually have, but runs into difficulties when it tries to deal with the hopes and intentions that they appear or claim to embody.

Science can only admit the hypothesis of a morally interested creator of the natural world by placing such an entity outside the world of experience; it cannot admit one that routinely interferes with the indiscrimination of its own natural laws.

Accommodating the hypothesis of morally interested creators of the social world can be awkward too, because the assumption that people act for the reasons they give in justification is often dubious.

The world within a fictional text, on the other hand, is organised in a way that is intrinsically accommodating to creative interference, not only at the level of the author’s powers of determination, but at the level of the characters’ motivations.

The author not only has the power to determine on whom the rain falls, and when, but the authority to state without objection why characters do what they do. There is far less restriction on what can be stated in words than there is on what can happen in the world of experience, and fiction is therefore flexible in ways that the world of experience is not. If the world of experience were flexible in that fashion, then science would have no foundation.

In the ‘‘world’’ contained within a fictional text, it is not only possible for the sun and the rain to discriminate between the just and unjust, but perfectly routine. All that the literary creator has to do to make sure that the virtuous thrive and the wicked suffer is to say so—and that fact is sufficient to create a considerable expectation on the part of an audience that things will turn out that way. ‘‘The good ended happily and the bad unhappily,’’ as Miss Prism explains to Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, ‘‘that is what fiction means.’’ In fiction, ‘‘poetic justice’’
is not always delivered, but it is always potentially accessible—which is why its deliberate withholding gives rise to the frustrating emotional sensation of tragedy.

Whereas science cannot deal with moral order, fiction must. That is, indeed, ‘‘what fiction means’’; it is, at any rate, a far better definition of fiction than ‘‘lying.’’
This difference does establish a fundamental dichotomy between science and fiction, although it is not nearly as simple as the apparent dichotomies between truth and untruth.

The existence of such a dichotomy does not mean that no connections can be made or comparisons drawn between science and fiction, but it does complicate the process. It also helps to explain the near-nonexistence of a science of fiction, and the essential awkwardness of fictional treatments of science.

Fiction seems so resistant to scientific analysis that attempts to carry out such a task have always been tentative, and have commanded very little attention either in the realm of science or the republic of literary studies; what is generally called ‘‘narrative theory’’ or ‘‘narratology’’ is a very delicate touching point. The narrative of science is not undeveloped–indeed, it is in some respects very highly developed—but it sternly insists on representing itself as a nonfictional narrative.

It is not merely that the narrative of science represents itself as a history rather than a mere story, but that it represents itself as a particular kind of history that has far less fiction in it than history as a whole—history as a whole being extensively polluted by myth, legend, folklore, accidental misinformation, and deliberate disinformation, in a manner that is a constant source of irritation and anxiety for scientifically inclined historians. The history of science, like science itself, aspires to be a true history, and is inevitably disturbed by the suggestion that there might be no such thing, or that it might be unattainable in practice even if it were theoretically conceivable.

Fiction’s dealings with the concept of ‘‘true history’’ are far more complicated than science’s dealings with moral order, which merely attempt its absolute exclusion. The complexity in question is, in fact, neatly illustrated by an item of fiction whose title is usually translated as True History: an imaginary voyage penned by the Greek satirist Lucian, which describes a trip to the moon. Lucian called his story True History precisely because it was not, in order to make fun of the propensity of travellers’ tales to exaggerate, embroider, and embellish in the interests of telling a more exciting story and making the teller seem more interesting and more heroic.

In the republic of fiction, the concept of true history is intrinsically ironic.

Science, by definition, is implacably hostile to irony, entirely dependent on statements meaning exactly what they say. Fiction not only accommodates irony but welcomes it, determinedly extrapolating the principle that statements can imply more than they actually say, and are quite capable of implying something entirely different.

In other words, science is pedantic, and fiction is anti-pedantic. From the literary viewpoint, science is bound to seem rigid and humorless; from the scientific viewpoint, fiction is bound to seem mercurial and perverse.

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