Links and Comments: Nature and Human Brains; Science Fiction and Mental Resiliency

Scientific American, Caleb A. Scharf: A Failure of Imagination, subtitled, “Nature does not have to play fair with our puny human brains.”

A favorite theme of mine: how there’s more to the universe than humans are aware of; how there may be more to the universe that humans can be aware of, or be aware of but not comprehend. Scharf, author of The Zoomable Universe and The Copernicus Complex, begins by recall H.G. Wells and his dictum that each [science fiction] should include only one extraordinary assumption, which would then be rigorously extrapolated.

The fascinating thing is that Wells’s ‘law’ for storytelling is very much associated with our modern scientific method: We look to strip away all but the central leap of imagination and construct a common-sense narrative around that. It’s clear that we’ve done this with Newtonian mechanics, with electromagnetism, with relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and more. And, of course this has been enormously, demonstrably successful. Our present planetary civilization (good and bad) is in large part a consequence of our capacity to assess the world around us and to make accurate predictions about the properties and behavior of matter and energy; all flowing from our focused scientific stories.

And yet,

Yet at the very heart of all of this – in Wells’s law and our need to create a streamlined narrative – is an imposition on the nature of reality. An imposition that we’ve variously justified as ‘beautiful’ or ‘natural’, or ‘elegant’, when a particular narrative seems to help unlock our understanding. The catch is that we really don’t know if this streamlining is truly justified, or indeed if it ever truly applies to reality in anything but special cases or in approximation. It could even be that this instinct of ours, sculpted in service of biological survival and keeping us from being cognitively overwhelmed, is far from optimal for decoding more than the superficial functioning of the world.

Precisely. Science has been spectacularly successful in humanity’s understanding and manipulation of the world, but perhaps that’s because we’re only asking the questions that make sense from our limited pespective. The author discusses some example areas of inquiry. (This reminds me of philosophical questions about why mathematics works so well, and if some cosmological theories based on math are necessarily true, just because the math works. Sean Carroll, somewhere, points out that there have been occasions in past decades of math thought merely abstruse that did in fact turn out to describe new physics.) Narrative bias:

But that is part of our narrative bias; our inability to imagine that our imagination may not be so good after all.


The Conversation: Science fiction builds mental resiliency in young readers.

While many people may not consider science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction to be “literary,” research shows that all fiction can generate critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence for young readers. Science fiction may have a power all its own.

Science fiction and fantasy do not need to provide a mirror image of reality in order to offer compelling stories about serious social and political issues. The fact that the setting or characters are extraordinary may be precisely why they are powerful and where their value lies.

From the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series to novels like Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” and Nancy Kress’ “Beggars in Spain,” youths see examples of young people grappling with serious social, economic, and political issues that are timely and relevant, but in settings or times that offer critical distance.

…the critical thinking and agile habits of mind prompted by this type of literature may actually produce resilience and creativity that everyday life and reality typically do not.

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