It’s not often you get a honest account of the foundation of modern science. To be honest, accounts of science, especially those given to second year initiates” is often more polemic and ego that it is science and rationality. But here’s an account that exposes the irrational roots of our rational inquiry. Science, it seems, is as much founded on the irrational (and often egoic and competitive) pursuit of fantasy and imagination than the cold hard facts of reality. And in fact that’s a good thing because, as Tim points out, without fantasy and imagination to drive us, we’d not have achieved the technological wonders of the modern world. It is interesting though. If imagination can bring us the technological world of Captain Kirk, can’t it also bring us the social world of the future as well, a world where money is abolished, everyone is provided for, and nobody suffers or goes hungry. Perhaps you’ll say its just “human nature,” but perhaps its really just a failure of imagination!
Currently, scientists argue that more than 90% of the universe is made up of dark substances. Dark matter and energy are phenomena that remain persistently inaccessible to direct observation. Substantial and pervasive as they are theorized to be, scientists have not been able to design any means through which to verify the existence of exotic particles, such as WIMPs (“Weakly Interacting Massive Particles”), or dark energy. Yet, though they remain undetectable, scientists are convinced that dark matter and energy do exist. In large part, this is because, at present, there is simply no other way to account for the anomalous behavior of the cosmos: if not for dark energy, then how can one make sense of the accelerating expansion of the universe? Nevertheless, the problem with such fanciful speculations is that they threaten to transgress the boundary between fantasy and reality.
By way of comparison, let’s say that I am convinced that fire-breathing dragons exist. Although most rational thinkers would dismiss such a claim as the product of an overworked imagination, I might insist that my belief is at least as legitimate as the scientific faith in dark matter and energy. While it is true that I cannot produce direct evidence of fire-breathing dragons, a similar lack of direct evidence has not dissuaded scientists from embracing the concepts of dark matter and energy. In addition, as is the case with dark physical phenomena, there is an abundance of indirect evidence which supports the contention that fire-breathing dragons actually walk the earth. Indeed, if anything, mythical dragon spoor is substantially more tangible than the residues of dark matter and energy.
For centuries, dragons have animated the folklore of many cultures. Indeed, their images are so pervasive that practically every consumer of popular culture has a clear conceptual grasp of the fearsome visage of a fire-breathing dragon. Whereas, on the other hand, dark matter and energy remain conceptual constructs that are intelligible to only a small number of ivory tower scientists. As such, of the two fantasies, one could argue that fire-breathing dragons have a substantially stronger footing in reality.
Generally speaking, in scientific endeavors, empirical observation serves as a means to generate and evaluate knowledge claims, e.g., zoologists observe lions and zebras on the African savanna and, as a result, establish (among other things) the truth of their predator-prey relationship. Thus, the relative truthfulness of various knowledge claims is usually equated with the degree to which the phenomena in question are observable. Relying upon observation as a means to evaluate knowledge claims has a strong intuitive appeal. Human judgment is profoundly influenced by sensory observations: we tend to have faith in those things that we can see, smell, hear, taste, or touch, whereas phenomena that defy observation (e.g., the Abominable Snowman, fire-breathing dragons, dark matter and energy, etc.) tend to tax credulity.
Although scientists often insist that science is a purely fact-driven endeavor, in reality, scientific progress is often generated more by the pursuit of fantasy than facts. Take, for example, the space race during the 1960s. In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy announced that the US would land astronauts on the moon by no later than 1970, JFK’s prognostications were based more upon fantasy than good science. As of 1961, the US lacked the necessary technology–much less, a workable plan–to achieve such a remarkable goal. In spite of those shortcomings, Kennedy’s lunar landing problematic created an unprecedented opportunity for NASA’s super-adaptable community of scientists to redefine the future: Kennedy’s problematic stimulated the US to reinvent itself as the world’s unparalleled leader in space science—which then created additional, unforeseen opportunities to become the leader of the information society.
Rational thinkers who insist that truth must be based upon facts would certainly have had grounds to object. If truth must be supported by facts, then NASA’s race to the moon throughout the 1960s was one of the most highly-publicized fantasies ever invented. Yet, for super-adaptable humans, it turns out that truth is not a product of facts alone; what determines the truth in the synthetic landscape of human experience is the combination of imaginative thinking and practical application. Truth is indeed founded upon facts, but not necessarily by the facts that exist at any one point in time. For super-adaptable humans, truth is often redefined by the facts that, via the magic of problematics, they are inspired to invent.
Of course, some flights of imagination serve no purpose beyond providing a convenient creative outlet, e.g., daydreaming about wonderlands (Carroll, 1897). This is a point that Jean Baudrillard dwelt upon at length. That is, Baudrillard argued that, in a mass-mediated society, Americans had become particularly adept at concocting elaborate fantasies, or simulations (Baudrillard, 1989). Baudrillard contended that post-industrial Americans vastly prefer consuming—and being consumed by—simulations than living within the dull confines of the unanimated real world. For Baudrillard, the American obsession with simulations was an indicator of the futility of the postmodern era: when people care more about illusions than reality, the significance of human endeavors dwindles to vaporous insignificance.
While I concur with a number of Baudrillard’s observations, I differ regarding the utility of simulations. Certainly, many simulations are largely devoid of worthwhile content; television is, in many respects, a vast wasteland. Nevertheless, some simulations have helped to inspire the most remarkable feats ever achieved by humankind. Thus, it is a fact that on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. However, Armstrong could never have left his boot prints on the lunar surface if Kennedy had not dared to propose his future-building fantasy.
Therefore, crazy as it may seem, fantasies represent the most productive means through which to generate scientific progress. Whereas Karl Popper (1959) and others have defined truth as knowledge that is supported by the facts, time and again, humans have concocted problematics that are, at least in their initial stages, utterly unsupported by the facts (e.g., a passion for heavier-than-air flight, conjectures about atomic weaponry, or dreams of traveling through the lifeless void of space, etc.). After concocting fantastic visions of alternate realities, knowledge-seekers have often, by sheer dint of will, generated the facts that have transformed those flights of imagination into hard and fast truths. Strange as it may seem, imagination is often more important than facts in the process of establishing new truths and transforming reality. The more far-fetched the fantasy (à la Jules Verne), the more scientifically-productive the process of realizing the fantasy will be. For example, Martin Cooper has claimed that he was inspired to invent the cell phone after watching Captain Kirk use his wireless communicator on Star Trek.
So, dream big. The future is a fantasy, and science is a mechanism through which we transform fantasies into reality. Sure as there be dark matter, so there be dragons.
Baudrillard, Jean. America. New York: Verso, 1989.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland. Boston, MA: Barta Press, 1897.
Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Basic Books, 1959.
About the Author: Tim McGettigan is a professor of sociology at Colorado State University – Pueblo. The Socjournal is an outstanding resource for all things sociological. Too often, the media examines social issues from a singularly economic perspective. If you really want to understand how the social world works, it's better to use a broader, clearer lens. In this column, I will discuss a variety of forces (technological, scientific, political, cultural, and, yeah okay, economic) that are currently reshaping the globe. Whether or not the world is changing for the better is an open question — and, thus, it's a question that I look forward to debating at length in this column.