Well Reasoned Words (II)

This is the conclusion to the blog Well Reasoned Words.  In that blog we looked at a scientist’s view of why science and reason are essential to any political debate or national policy decision.

The second essay which I think is a worthy read appeared in the 25 September 2011  New York Times  Opinionator section: ‘Quixote,’ Colbert and the Reality of Fiction written by William Egginton.    Egginton is responding to another essay which was touting scientific knowledge as the only way to know anything.

“In his contribution to The Stone last week, Alex Rosenberg posed a defense of naturalism — ‘the philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge’ — at the expense of other theoretical endeavors such as, notably, literary theory. To the question of ‘whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding,’ Professor Rosenberg’s answer is as unequivocal as it is withering: just like fiction, literary theory can be ‘fun,’ but neither one qualifies as ‘knowledge.’”

Egginton takes total exception to Rosenberg’s interpretation of scientific materialism and says literature including fiction does give us real knowledge about what it is to be human:

“Does their fictional art not offer insights into human nature as illuminating as many of those the physical sciences have produced?

As a literary theorist, I suppose I could take umbrage at the claim that my own discipline, while fun, doesn’t rise to the level of knowledge. But what I’d actually like to argue goes a little further. Not only can literary theory (along with art criticism, sociology, and yes, non-naturalistic philosophy) produce knowledge of an important and even fundamental nature, but fiction itself, so breezily dismissed in Professor Rosenberg’s assertions, has played a profound role in creating the very idea of reality that naturalism seeks to describe.”

Egginton offers a point with which many humans, not just theistic ones:  you might be able to define the exact chemical composition of a human being through science, but this still will not tell you what it is to be human.  Insights into being human and human beings is real knowledge and an important part of what knowledge humans are capable of attaining beyond what science can say.

You can read Egginton’s comments which are a wonderful essay which ties in Cervantes and Stephen Colbert as part of the human effort to reveal truth and knowledge.  Egginton cites Colbert’s portrayal of then President George W Bush as evidence of fiction giving us knowledge:

“’The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady,’ Colbert said, standing in front of the president of the United States. ‘You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.’ Colbert’s routine mocked the administration’s slippery relation to truth (what happened Tuesday), and identified the president’s famous ‘resolution’ as the character trait that the administration relied on to sell their version of reality.”

We do come to get insight into our human existence from sources other than science.  And Egginton argues that we need fiction, irony, and humor to really gain insight into ourselves.

“As Cervantes realized in the context of the newly born mass culture of the Catholic, imperial, Spanish state, irony expertly wielded is the best defense against the manipulation of truth by the media. Its effect was and still is to remind its audience that we are all active participants in the creation and support of a fictional world that is always in danger of being sold to us as reality.”