Monday, March 22, 2010

A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

I borrowed this phrase from William Coleridge who said that the enjoyment of fiction requires "A Willing Suspension of Disbelief". In other words, you have to believe, at some level, that the fictional representations are or could be true. If you read fiction with skepticism, you may fail to fully appreciate the literary experience. However, I would also like to apply this phrase to the advancement of knowledge.Which, in my opinion, also requires a willing suspension of disbelief.

At any given moment in time, most of what most people believe is not fully true or possibly out right wrong. We are constantly changing, updating and modifying our shared bodies of knowledge. These changes can come in huge jumps like Newton's theory of gravity or Einstein's theory of relativity. And they can come in little hops like the decision to exclude Pluto as a planet. Personal knowledge changes as well. Anyone can attest from their own personal experiences that things that they used to believe no longer seem to hold. The question is - how do we get from one position on what we believe to be true to another position on what we believe to be true?

It seems to me that this can be done, generally, in one of two ways: proactively or re actively. We do it re actively when we simply cannot hold an old view any longer. We do it proactively when we allow for the fact that new evidence may arise and that we may have to change our minds about some things. If we are being really proactive, we can anticipate the implications of new information and consider what might possibly be true as a result. And if we wish to be proactive, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief.

I am not going to judge whether it is better to be proactive or reactive. This is probably a matter of personal taste, personality, disposition, flexibility and any number of other things. I can say that for me, the preference is very much in the proactive camp. I prefer to know what might be true long before it becomes established. However, for the sake of fairness, I am going to look at the pros and cons of being reactive versus being proactive. Then I will develop an example - apocalyptic thinking. Yes, it could be true.

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