Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On the Deception of Dichotomies

I love math and physics. Science is, to me, absolutely beautiful. I agree completely with the following:
Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order.
-Albert Einstein, “On Scientific Truth”
However, I also identify as a writer, more specifically, as a writer of fantasy, who grew up on myths and fairy tales and has never quite relinquished the childhood wish to turn into a dragon and fly off and have adventures.

The fact that I had to use "however" is a problem.

Feynman disses poets. Fantasy writers of all sorts say things about science that, quite frankly, enrage me. This post will have two parts: first, I will rant and rave against the vilification of science. Second, I will offer an alternative viewpoint.


Part One: Science Slandered

When I get around to writing a personal manifesto, right near the top by "fear complacency" and "you can make whatever you want" will be this line:

Disagree boldly with those you respect.

Ever since coming back from the mountains, I’ve been cutting loose from what I see as the fantasy old guard: the group that finds resonance in Green Men and fae and medieval music sung by women with long red hair. Their work is valuable. However, I cannot agree with much of it.

Examples time.

Terri Windling, a writer I respect immensely (her book The Wood Wife was stunning), posted some quotes back in April on her blog Myth and Moor from writer Joanne Harris. As I read them my ire rose.

I’m going to spend a while explaining exactly why the quotes anger me, so I want to stress: this is not an ad hominem attack. Windling’s work in the fantasy community was and remains important and inspiring. I think she’s damn awesome. Harris’s book Runemarks was entertaining (though not compelling enough that I want to read the sequels). I am not attacking them, I am seeing where we disagree. In some cases I’m not disagreeing precisely with Windling and Harris, but rather a widespread point of view that the post suggests.

As my dear Italian teacher said, Se non c’e’ il conflitto non ci sara’ il progresso.

All right. Caveats over. Quotes are from Harris unless marked.

Originally part of a matriarchal oral tradition, [fairy tales] became legitimized as a more patriarchal literary convention -- much in the same way that traditional magic (feminine) was later absorbed by the (primarily male) science of alchemy before shedding its magical elements altogether and becoming the science of chemistry.
I take Harris’s point that more "learned sciences" were not accessible to women. Furthermore, Windling explains in reply to some comments that Harris is discussing fairy tales specifically, which were, historically, generally passed along by women; Harris is not dismissing males in the oral tradition. In short: nothing for me to get angry about.

However, I’m going to take this quote as a gateway. There seems a belief that magic/intuition = female while science/reason = male. Yin and yang, right? However, the implications of such are that men lack intuition/creativity while women lack intellect/reason. Given the number of awesome male artists and awesome female scientists, clearly this is wrong.

When something is wrong, censoriousness needs no other explanation. Next quote.

…our concept of magic has adapted to fit a more rational world. We now have a need to rationalize our need to believe in magic, as our world picture and our understanding of possibility continues to expand. But as the science-pendulum begins to swing back - with particle physics seemingly bringing us back ever closer to what once was called 'magic,' I think that the literal-figurative debate will become increasingly less relevant, as will the division between 'conventional literature' and the oral tradition. These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power.
I’m going to take this point by point.

1) "rationalize our need to believe in magic"
I would argue that we need not to “rationalize” but to “find legitimate reasons for” doing things. Do you believe in magic? If so, why? The reasons must hold up under scrutiny, under experiment. Scientific thinking is not trying to kill wonder, it’s trying to get closer to the truth. If you can’t come up with real reasons to believe something, then maybe it’s wrong.

Someone call me out on this. Ask me to defend a belief of mine. If I can’t come up with a good enough answer, maybe I’ll have to reconsider whether I really believe it or not. (But please, nothing like “is the world real?”)

2) "as the science-pendulum begins to swing back"
Oh, goodness. I get the point: that particle physics is downright weird (in a fascinating way) that seems to gel more with “magic” than the Newtonian world-machine (which I personally find beautiful, though incomplete) does. However, the way this phrase is used suggests that science made a mistake and people who believe in magic were right all along - which appalls me. Science does not exist to support ideologies. The object of science is truth.

Feynman, please help me:
Physicists are trying to find out how nature behaves…Suppose people are exploring a new continent, OK? They see water coming along the ground… and they call it ‘rivers’. So they say they’re exploring to find the headwaters …But lo and behold, when they get up far enough they find the whole system’s different…As long as it looks like the way things are built is wheels within wheels, then you’re looking for the innermost wheel - but it might not be that way, in which case you’re looking for whatever it is that you find!
-Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p. 192

The more personal problem for me is that I agreed with a lot of what was said in the post. Take the last line of the Harris quote above: "These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power." I agree that the most intellectual story that leaves a reader cold is not as good a story as any of the old fairy tales. Stories that play with archetypes (I’m thinking of Jung’s collective unconscious) are imbued with power.

So you see (meta level now), even as I pull away from this mythic arts community, there is still much that is valuable in it. But there is enough that cuts against what I am that I cannot view myself as a newcomer at their golden hall - instead I am the traveler who slips in, listens for a bit at the threshold, and then goes back out because I seek my companions and they are not within.

Le sigh.

Next point. Children’s books have a shorthand of characterization that goes something like this: likes books, dresses sloppily, pets dogs = good character; cares about appearance, likes math = mean character. My question: why? I agree: appearance isn’t everything (though there is something wrong with the idea that just because someone cares about how they look, they're automatically shallow/unworthy). But why vilify math?

In Anne Ursu’s book Breadcrumbs, which is a retelling of the Snow Queen story, after the boy gets the mirror shard in his eye he starts liking math. I believe I did a literal facepalm once I saw what was going on, and it colored my opinion of what would have otherwise been a most excellent book.

Conversely, when I read Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore, the titular character’s head for numbers made me so ridiculously happy that I knew it couldn't just be because I’d found someone who was like me. It was because math-loving main characters are rare.

Why is it that much of the fantasy community (not all, and maybe it’s a problem of my perspective) looks askance at STEM? I place some of the blame on the number of dichotomies that get thrown at us: left v. right brain, yin and yang, Dionysus v. Apollo. This or that, using “or” in the vernacular sense: one of exclusion.

But I love math, and in math (and coding), “or” is inclusive. Or means “at least one”.

Yin or yang? Left or right? Dionysus or Apollo? Yes.


Part Two: Integration

One quote can sum up my entire alternate viewpoint:
How often people speak of art and science as though they were two entirely different things, with no interconnection. An artist is emotional, they think, and uses only his intuition; he sees all at once and has no need of reason. A scientist is cold, they think, and uses only his reason; he argues carefully step by step, and needs no imagination. That is all wrong. The true artist is quite rational as well as imaginative and knows what he is doing; if he does not, his art suffers. The true scientist is quite imaginative as well as rational, and sometimes leaps to solutions where reason can follow only slowly; if he does not, his science suffers.
-Isaac Asimov
(With much thanks to D.)

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