Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fact stranger than fiction? Thank you A. Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes in "The Five Orange Pips....Image via Wikipedia
The adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his assistant Dr Watson provided me with much enjoyment once a upon a time. I remember being struck by the conversation between Sherlock and Watson; fact is stranger than fiction. At that point I gained an insight into reality and a faith in reality that has never left me in doubt that there is indeed a world out there, a world were everything is not always as it seems.
So cop this one all you whale and dolphin lovers out there; crows are in the same group of intelligence as these sea going mammals. That right, the humble crow can consistently escape from a cage when provided with nothing other than a piece of wire from which to design and furnish a key. No instruction or prompting. Just a cage with a lock and a bit of wire. The crow can get out of captivity, desires freedom above all else. How human is a crow? Not much,. Perhaps it's better to ask, how crow-like is the human?

Facticity of this research driven 'scientific' type is indeed strange, but Conan Doyle's character himself was fictional. His fictionality in fact was so powerful that people still walk up and down Baker Street in London looking for evidence of his existence. The same, too, is true of Verona's most famous virginal heroine, Juliette, which sees hordes of people looking for the balcony where she was seduced by the amorous young Romeo. Indeed, in these cases and many others, fictional reality threatens the stability of the factual world.

The difficulty for me is that reality has been so written by the fiction of scientific fact, that sometimes I loose sight of what is right before my very eyes. I can get so lost in the situation, denatured by the unending investigations and discourse that has become part of my thought processes often unwittingly, that I could very well be taken off by a false signal like the television set while the toast is burning. My focus and senses are distracted from what could be an actual threat to my well being and a potential fire hazard, to something else that is totally unnecessary but foregrounded against a background of expectation and desire: Who is going to win the match tonight?

The beauty of fictional characters is that they are very much drawn from the historical facticity that has given rise to their creation. At some other time when there is an intuitive convergence of events that coincide in some indirect way with the original characters milieu, suddenly that fiction becomes foregrounded in a totally new background, which also drags forward from the past the historical background of the times that it was created in.

An example in point is Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Here we have a stage character who has risen to power, and overcome by hubris brings about his own downfall. It was written around the time of the fall from grace of the elected Athenian oligarch Pericles. It was no wonder then, that when President George Bush started to rule by fear and hubris, the name of Oedipus came to mind. In an act of synchronicity I thought to myself, 'Yes, Oedipus Bush', only to find that when I did a Google search on those keywords, I was confronted with pages and pages of entries returning to my search request.

So, fact can be stranger than fiction at times and fictional characters more real than those we encounter in everyday life at other times. The problem is one of language. Fiction is a fact of human society and has at times been just as prevalent in the factual world of science as at the local book club. reality can only be grasped through a process of discourse, and yet discourse itself may fog the perception of any human, scientists included. Facts exists through a particular historical consensus at a given point in society. Today the sky is grey and the air still where I am. I don't think there are many who would argue with me on that (though there are always some).

So, just accept that crows, dolphins and whales are in a way equals. They are not that removed from us. They also at the same time very different from us and each other. Scientific fact can determine reality or it can obscure it. It can do this like any other form of human enquiry. To the extent to which it clarifies or obscures it does so through the complexities of language.

Scientific fact is as prone to historical context as fiction, while fiction has the possibility of remaining real for a much longer period of time, and in a variety of historical milieux. All human knowledge requires a context in which to be read. It is possible to read things out of their context, but do so at your own peril. While there may be such a thing as concrete knowledge, anyone who thinks they have a grasp on that knowledge is a potentially dangerous person indeed.

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