On science, society, philosophy and literature by George Zarkadakis
Monday, April 27, 2009
Immanuel Kant held that there is a world of “things in themselves” but owing to the its radical independence from human thought, that is a world we can know nothing about; thus stating the most famous version of constructivism. Thomas Kuhn took the point further by stating that the world described by science is a world partly constituted by cognition, which changes as science changes. Constructivism as an idea becomes very obscure when one tries to determine the connection of “things in themselves”, e.g. the “reality” of, say, electrons, and the “scientific concept” of an electron. My take of the problem is that science is a human endeavor and therefore inherently and implicitly bound by our brain’s capabilities, however, we do not “imagine” the world. The world exists, it is just not catalogued. Things become a lot less murky when we shift from science to literature. Here, the author does not pretend to understand “things in themselves”. The literary agenda differs from the scientific one because it is assumed to be human-made. Books and book-worlds are of the imagination and for the imagination. Whenever I read about a flower I know that it is not the flower “out there”, in the “real” garden, but it is an imaginary flower, a rose inside the imagination of the writer given to me to sample and behold in my own imagination. Thus, free of scientific intentions and false pretensions about realities, literature is constructivist by its own nature. The writer constructs her own world. There are no electrons in that world, only thoughts, of electrons, sometimes, perhaps – but words nevertheless. But, what is the real difference between a literary and a scientific narrative? There is much difference, one would argue. The Big Bang could be described by words, and therefore constitute a narrative in a literary sense, however, that narrative is underpinned by observation, experimentation and – most importantly perhaps – mathematicalization. Yes, math seems to make the big difference. The mathematical correspondence between scientific theories and the ticking of natural events, is the definitive factor that appears to differentiate a scientific narrative from a literary one. But does it, really? Can’t one “translate” maths into narratives too? I would suggest that it ispossible. Even the most obscure of mathematical entities can be described in words, and indeed it must be described in words if it is to be understood. If one draws a parallel between math and music, then yes music is beyond words, but so is everything else of the Kantian “things in themselves”, and only when music is descriptively articulated (as an “experience”), it becomes part of the communal pool of ideas. Therefore, one arrives at a scientific narrative that is multi-layered and has many subplots, but starts to look like a literary narrative more and more. Could we then take the point one step further and suggest that, as literary criticism is the evolutionary force of literature, guiding it towards new directions, scientific peer review does similar wonders with determining directions of scientific research, shifting paradigms, and revolutionizing theories (i.e. narratives)?