There is a saying that fact is often stranger than fiction. This is often taken to mean that no matter what convoluted fantasies our writers can come up with, life will often throw up events that even the masters of the dark art of fiction would struggle to create. And of course, fiction is often looked down on as just ‘stories’. I remember a doctorate friend of mine saying he had never read a work of fiction, just ‘useful’ books. The implication was that the works of greats like Dickens and Dostoevsky were just tales; pleasant enough escapism, but not to be taken seriously.
Conversely, one of the most respected masters of fact is Richard Dawkins. In ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, Dawkins uses the analogy of a dismembered aircraft to illustrate how life arose by chance. A Boeing 747, an incredibly complex piece of machinery has been scrapped in a breakers yards. Its millions of pieces are lying scattered around in random order. Dawkins compares the rise of life on earth to those pieces of the aircraft reassembling themselves in the correct order; a minute probability perhaps, but hey, it must have happened because we’re here, right. And I went along with it. My thinking said, the universe is infinite. As the universe is infinite there must be an infinite number of planets with an infinite number of aircraft being reassembled. As there were an infinite number of attempts, at some point, no matter how unlikely, the aircraft must have been reassembled, or life must have begun.
I was convinced (more or less) until I read Gerald Schroeder, ‘Has Science Discovered God?’ In this he refers to an experiment conducted by the British National Council of Arts. This attempted to replicate the monkey theory, which uses the analogy of a multitude of monkeys banging away on keyboards to produce a Shakespearian sonnet to defend the possibility of life arising by chance. Six monkeys, one computer and one month produced not a single word (including the words ‘a’ and ‘I’). Extrapolating these result, purely by chance there would not be enough time since the universe began to write a Shakespearean sonnet, let alone for life with all its infinite complexities to arise. Now one experiment does not disprove a theory, but it is enough to cast doubt on it. Therefore what is commonly accepted to be fact may not be wholly true The line between fact and fiction may not be as clearly defined as we like to think. Fact is like fiction; as it is perceived by humans, it is subjective. What we perceive as fact is an expression of how we interpret the reality around us.
Indeed science uses fiction a great deal. We will all have learnt about the structure of the atom at school; electrons going around a neutron/proton in beautifully symmetrical, elliptical orbits. This is Rutherford’s theory of the atom, and is used in school and even university textbooks. It is however, completely wrong as John Gribben points out in ‘In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat.’ Whatever the inside of an atom looks like, and we do not know for sure, it is pretty certain it does not look like a miniaturised version of our solar system. Yet this model is still taught because it provides a structure that enables us to grasp deeper and more profound truths about the atom. At the risk of being polemical, this could be compared to the Genesis story. I respect all those who take it literally, and indeed it would be incredibly arrogant of me to dismiss it, seeing as I, nor nobody else has no way of knowing for certain what happened at the beginning of the world, but many Christians use Genesis as a type of fiction. The Bible was never written as a book of science; the Genesis story is a myth but a myth that enables us to have a deeper and more profound understanding of the God that created the world and everything in it.
I do not reject science, or for that matter the theory of evolution, but it would do well to remember that it is just that; a theory. It should not dictate how and why we behave the way we do, which in today’s science orientated culture is a clear danger. To be fair, Dawkins himself recognised this, which is why he wrote in ‘The Selfish Gene’, ‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish’. Yet this is a pointless platitude; if we are born selfish, how can we make ourselves altruistic, and would it indeed be right to do this; to deny our selfish natures that have actually, according to Dawkins, have proved so successful in creating such amazing creatures and such a beautiful earth. It is an absurd statement and as Camus remarked in ‘The Rebel’, there is a straight road from the absurd to Auschwitz. If we are to follow the logic of the selfish gene and natural selection, we would indeed resurrect the concentration camps for those who could or would not compete in this world; the disabled being an obvious target.
And to be honest, it makes absolutely no difference to me, or to any of us whether evolution is true or not. The point is that we are here now, and what is important is how we make the best of this world we are in. How I should behave, how I should treat the people around me; these are the important questions in life which science ignores. And this is where fiction comes in.
One of my favourite films is ‘The Green Mile.’ In it, Joseph Coffey, (as Stephen King says in ‘On Writing’, initialled after the only innocent man who ever lived, and who also sacrificed himself), risks and actually endures death in order to try to save the lives of two young girls. There is compassion throughout the film; although he is on Death Row, Joseph heals, endures the spiteful barbs of the prison guards and eventually goes uncomplainingly to his fate, demonstrating compassion all the way. This book carries more weight, and more meaning, more than any argument about how life began. For me, fiction is truer because it reflects eternal truths about the human soul . Even the worst fiction is a mirror of the man who wrote it and we can learn more useful things from it. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which specifies what humans need in order to survive and be fulfilled, require a very low level of technology but a great deal of wisdom if they are to be reached. So if we want to achieve truly useful knowledge read more. And not just ‘useful’ books, but works of fiction. Those that tell us what it means to be human.