“Science is a bossy bully, literature the dreamy geek in the corner.”

 

I do not like science. I’ve never liked it. This may have something to do with the fact that when I was eleven years old, an odious boy in my biology class put earwigs in my glasses case. Or it may have something to do with the fact that science has always seemed, in a vague way I’ve never really bothered to articulate properly, to stand against what I love most about art. It seeks to state, rather than to question. To close things down to facts, rather than open them up to possibilities. To say (mangling the words of Virginia Woolf) that “someone [or something] was this or that”. Literature, my most beloved form of art, has always seemed to be about the opposite of saying that things were this or that. It seems to be about taking the thisness or thatness, and prizing it apart to show the contradictions, the inconsistencies, the room to reframe or reinterpret. Science is a bossy bully, literature the dreamy geek in the corner. Oh, of course it’s NECESSARY. I owe science one every time I turn on my bedside lamp or log into my beloved Twitter. But that doesn’t mean we need to TALK about it.

What I say above is, of course, in itself a statement. Perhaps a rather silly one. In recent years, following my re-entrance to academia and the current vogue (an entirely worthy one, in my book) for interdisciplinarity, I’ve started to wonder whether my instinctive prejudice against the scientific bullyboy is misguided. Counterproductive. Whether perhaps my dislike for science is born more of fear (all that jargon! all those graphs!) and envy (so NECESSARY! so INDISPENSABLE! so … government-funded!) instead. I’ve started to take a tentative interest in one particular branch of science – psychology. What I’ve found has surprised and (cautiously) delighted me. Psychology, it seems to me, might be the story of the mind. Which gives it something rather in common with literature. 

This is another, more eloquent way of putting it. 

“No professional group is more interested in the workings of the human mind than writers of fiction. Novelists as different as David Lodge, Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan have turned to the language of neuroscience in exploring venerable ideas about human experience. Even those writers without any overt interest in the mind sciences face the daily challenge of representing human consciousness on the page. The problem with mental states, for writers as much as for psychologists, is that they are unobservable. Confronted with the task of portraying the unportrayable, writers do what scientists do: they build models and reason from analogy. Writers’ most powerful tool in this respect has been metaphor, the likening of mental processes to non-mental, usually physical, entities. But have these metaphors kept pace with the advances made by cognitive scientists? Can literary metaphors of mind shed light on our unspoken assumptions about what goes on in our brains?”

That is the psychologist / novelist Charles Fernyhough speaking – you can read the full article here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/15/scienceandnature.society It’s rather old (2005) and Charles has done a lot of other stuff since then, but it was enough to convince me and my fellow Strange Bedfellows coordinators that we wanted to ask him to be our first speaker in the SB speaker series that kicks off on Thursday. The mission of the Strange Bedfellows project is to investigate and clarify the relationship between creativity and analysis. Who better to address this relationship than a scientist/artist, somebody who not only practices both disciplines but also sees a powerful and persuasive linkage between them? I’m looking forward to hearing how Charles separates the different strands of his professional life, forces or encourages them into interaction, and perceives the similarities and differences between them; to having him no doubt demolish my woffly objections to science’s stranglehold on the truth, but also perhaps to query convincingly whether science is concerned enough with beauty. 

Come and join us if you’re in York on Thursday and it sounds like your kind of thing. See the poster below for details. You can find out more about Charles here http://www.charlesfernyhough.com/about.html and more about the Strange Bedfellows project (including the recent fantastic posts from our interdisciplinary blogger team) here http://strange-bedfellows.org/?page_id=25.Image

 

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