Literature and Science

One of the strange things about being a writer is that you become sucked into having a stance upon scientific endeavour, and its relationship with literature. As far back as primary school, you’d become aware of the tension between these two schools of thought and be forced to pick a side. Yes, it’s the typical Literature versus Science debate. What I find amusing, frankly, about this argument is that firstly there is no need for there to be an argument, and secondly, that scientific endeavour has a great habit of exposing people’s insecurities about their own paths. This whole topic I’ve found is brought up more by writers, English Literature students and other affiliated parties than those with a grounding in or an actual career in scientific fields. That tells you something in itself.

As a writer, I’ve got the worst history I think you could possibly get. Instead of starting writing early and being fascinated with stories, I actually spent most of my childhood interested solely in science. In school my best marks where always in the sciences, I always enjoyed doing science, and I hated doing English and creative writing. Ironically, I simply couldn’t write creatively and at that point I was convinced I wanted to do something in the sciences for a job. Now things are totally the flip side – I’m studying English Literature at university and I spend my time writing. I fit the mould for being a writer better now yet the thing is, I’ve sat on both sides of the camp for this topic. Quite honestly, this whole issue is a laugh for me because it’s not an issue at all.

In several of my lectures so far, I’ve been bombarded with a bit of literature propaganda as I’d like to coin it. I’ve had Shelly’s quote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” repeated more times than I care for (even though that number is one – its such a vain quote) and lectures dealing with the issues of scientific enquiry, each with the veiled implication that literature isn’t pointless. What strikes me about the tone of these lectures is the implicit self-justification, the underlying tone that seeks to reassure both the speaker and the vested interested of the students listening. The message varies, but the overall trend is the same, that literature has a point in the face of science.

What’s interesting is how the perception for such arguments is that science is hostile to all other modes of thought, that it is trying to prove all other schools of thought wrong. That’s an entirely unjust categorisation. The goal of science is to learn the truth about things (a huge generalisation), but the crucial distinction to make is that it seeks to understand and arrive at what can be proved as truth. Thus, it only deals in the physical and the material. Issues of belief and thought are not it’s concern, because no test can be determined to prove a thought true. Therefore, it is not out to prove other modes of thought wrong. Ironically, those knowing in the operation of language should be savy to this distinction. In scientific enquiry, it is determined that a theory can be tested and by confirmation of test results, proved to be correct beyond reasonable doubt. It therefore operates in the psychical world, not the world of ideas. A great example would be that science is not out to prove religion is false, because there is no test that can be devised to prove the existence of deities. The conclusion is that science is a way of determining the properties of the physical world, but it is not in the same realm as philosophy, art or literature. Philosophy deals with thoughts, mostly questions of why. Art and literature cross into philosophy, but they’re also about aesthetic pleasure. Studying English is simply learning a mode of analysis and thinking – just with a different subject matter.

In the end, it becomes clear that Literature and Science are on two obviously different paths, aims and fields. They could not be more different, and thus more separate. One cannot transgress and try to disprove the other because they have no overlapping currencies. This means that yes, arguing that one field is more important than the other is irrelevant. What it only reveals, as I said in the introduction, are the insecurities of individuals. Science can determine what cake is, while language explains what cake is. One is about what it is, the other is about what it means. Both however at first deal with what it is, and it’s the small distinction in what “is” or “being” can mean that you must remember.

 

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