The Blurry Line Separating Science and Literature
Distinction between fact and fiction has become so important in our daily lives. Whatever knowledge we gather, we always have to categorize it first, whether it’s fact or fiction, before we can make use of it in any way. Ordinary people basically understand fiction as a lie, while fact is truth. Science, as the objective search for truth, stands for fact, while literature which is formed by the subjective mind of the author is fiction (Spiller 1). However, both science and literature are just forms of language and both help to define our experience of the world.
Literature helps us understand the difference between fact and fiction, but at the same time undermines it. The line separating fact from fiction has not always been so clear-cut. In fact, the words “fact” and “fiction” both come from Latin words that virtually mean the same thing: “to make. ” It was not until the nineteenth century that people came to know fact as something actively done. In contrast, fiction came to be known as something that is stable or unchanging, like a name or a noun (Livingston 43). It’s easy for ordinary people to distinguish between fact and fiction.
Events that can be objectively identified as happening are considered fact, while things that are merely created by the subjective thoughts of people are considered fiction. The sun rising in the east is a fact, but the sun being the rebirth of a god is a fiction. Science can verify the objective truth of a fact through scientific method, while there’s no way to verify fiction. The rising of sun from the east, for example, can be measured using scientific equipment, but there’s no way to measure the claim that the sun is a god’s rebirth.
The problem with this distinction though, is that it is only true within a given cultural context and period in history. The fact that the world is round will be considered “fiction” in ancient times, when people thought the world is flat and is placed over a giant turtle. At that time, the statement that the world is flat may be considered more as the “fact” rather than the “fiction” of the two statements. Scholars have repeatedly encountered the problem of identifying fact from fiction. One example is the problem of categorizing historical narratives (Bercovitch and Patell 434).
Historical narratives tell about the history of a place or the world. However, the “facts” that make up the history written in a book comes from different places and views. These facts may be products of research or personal accounts of certain people. Some sources of such facts are possible to verify, others not. From this view, what then are historical narratives? Are they fact or fiction? They certainly tell of things that have happened, but the way in which events are told may be far from how things actually happened.
Consequently, many scholars came to consider historical narratives as fiction. Historical narratives can then be considered literature (Bercovitch and Patell 434). Historical narratives are public narratives because they tell the history of a people or a place. Its public nature however, doesn’t factor in any way to its identification as fiction. An autobiography is a personal narrative about one’s own life, but it can be considered as fictional as a public narrative. The real question is not whether a thing happened or not, but how can we measure or verify that a thing happened or not.
It is wrong though not to read history or give it much importance just because we can consider it as fiction. Although it is made up of snapshots of events taken from different angles, those snapshots still represent reality. People wouldn’t have an idea of how things came about if they don’t know history. Only with a historical background could people make sense of their present realities. In many ways, other types of literature are as significant as historical narratives because they also represent reality. Novels, for example, can be considered as true as any historical narrative (Bercovitch and Patell 434).
When an author writes a novel, he draws from personal experience to write the content of his work. That experience is not grounded on any other reality but the one other people experience. He takes facts from his personal experience, such as the sun rises in the east and the world is round, and arranges them in such a way to form something that only he, at least initially, is able to experience in his mind. The product of that activity becomes fiction. This personal rearrangement of facts to form fiction points to the idea that the distinction between fact and fiction is merely wordplay.
The use of language ultimately determines whether a thing is fact or fiction. If a person uses scientific language to describe the shape of the earth, then what he says will be fact only in the context of science. Someone who doesn’t know the language of science and what the discipline means won’t be able to say if the statement “the earth is round” is factual or not. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Great Britain, people used the term “novel” to refer to both factual and fictional events (Eagleton 2).
The modern world’s obsession on objectivity however, seemed to have pushed the novel into the category of literature. Still, many novels are very accurate depictions of things in the “factual world. ” “Crime and Punishment,” for example, clearly paints a picture of Russia during its time of publication, including its streets and landmarks. While the events in the novel didn’t really happen, many elements in the novel truly exist in real life. In a way, a novel tells the truth and lies at the same time.
The fragility of the distinction between fact and fiction is even easier to see when we start to think of news reports (Eagleton 2). Like historical and personal narratives, news reports tell us of objective things that happened. We may see a video of a hurricane in real time destroying homes and other properties. The story may also be corroborated by witness accounts of the hurricane. Still, even with this amount of verifiable information on hand, the experience of the hurricane is different for all people. The experience then becomes subjective and the news ultimately becomes literature, fictional.
What the novel, news report, and historical and personal narratives show is that fictional writing contains a lot of facts (Eagleton 2). Thus, literature only obtains validity and meaning if it is created against a framework or background of facts (Spiller 1). While science tries to distinguish itself from literature, it cannot be denied that both make use of human language. It is only through language that both acquire meaning. Literature cannot survive without science because it won’t be intelligible to its readers without facts backing up its claims.
Science though, also needs literature to survive (Eagleton 2). Literature or any kind of fictional writing is the means by which people imagine the unexplored areas of experience. People are able to formulate the hypotheses necessary for the execution of the scientific method through thinking about their experiences in life, rearranging them, and also making stories about them. Science fiction, for example, has long blazed the path for science in seeing and predicting the things that people may experience in the future. In many ways, science has followed imaginative, fictional thinking.
If literature is imaginative, does that mean that science is unimaginative (Eagleton 2)? Does creativity only occur in literature and not in science? Clearly, this is not the case since science may also explore unknown knowledge through the scientific method. In fact, science may even be more creative than other works of literature. Religious texts, for example, may be considered literature by some experts, but these are unchanging doctrines that restrict the imagination. Science is a very flexible and absorbent discipline that assimilates all kinds of knowledge as long as they are gathered through the scientific method.
It is clear from all of these examples that fact and fiction, though separate now for many applications in real life, are still inextricably tied up together. It is important for people to know that there is no significant difference between the two, so they won’t harshly discriminate one and favor the other. It’s easy to favor science because there is that question, what would anyone gain from a lie or fiction? Science and literature though, both provide us with ways to experience the world. People don’t only need facts to survive, they also need fiction.
Truth is not always a good thing, especially if a greater good can be achieved by delaying the revelation of truth or facts. Sometimes, people need fiction or literature to help them appreciate the facts of their lives more. Science however, doesn’t seem to want to abolish the distinction between fact and fiction. The subjective must never corrupt the objective for science to work and be of use to the world. From this standpoint, literature seems to be the one who is responsible for blurring that line between fact and fiction. It is the more open-minded of the two and constantly undermines the distinction in its open-mindedness.
Literature helps people see the world in a different light by redefining the facts in their lives. The ordinary factual existence of an office building, marketplace, coffee shop, or theater may shine under a new light in the pages of a novel or a short story. When a person reads that literary work, he experiences all these places in a new way. He may begin to see things that he hasn’t seen before in these places. The places themselves are factual but the experience of the person is fictional. That distinction though, didn’t make the person’s experience lesser.
In fact, reading about such familiar places enriches his knowledge about the world he’s living it. The novel told him the truth and a lie at the same time, but its effect is simply a more varied experience of the world. Perhaps one day, when the technological limitations of science have been finally broken, people will be more able to realize that fact and fiction are not separate. Someday, people will have the ability to craft entire realities in their minds. Fact and fiction will merge one day and people will see that there’s no harm in erasing their boundary.
Works Cited Bercovitch, Sacvan and Patell, Cyrus R. K. The Cambridge history of American literature: prose writing, 1940-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Eagleton, Terry. Literary theory: an introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Livingston, Ira. Between science and literature: an introduction to autopoetics. Urbana- Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Spiller, Elizabeth. Science, reading, and Renaissance literature: the art of making knowledge, 1580-1670. Cambridge University PrSample Essay of PapersOwl.com