Why Reality Is Stranger Than Fiction (art versus science)


EXCERPT: Critics and philosophers often argue that art estranges reality, thereby drawing attention to the way we organize our lives and perceive things. Reality, however, frequently outsmarts fiction because the human imagination struggles to come to terms with its weirdness.

[...] Art has the unfortunate disadvantage of being illusory, untethered to reality. Fiction cannot solve the key dilemmas of life, unless we are ready to deceive ourselves into acting out its masterful fabrications, which may take the form, for example, of religion or political ideology. Some artists think they can provoke and disrupt our perception and cognition, but their efforts fail to illuminate the world, only scratching the surface of what is truly extraordinary about the human condition. To make sense of life, we will be better served by doing science—or, at least, by accepting that rather than estrange it, art makes the incomprehensible universe more hospitable to the feeble human mind. Fiction is familiar and soothing, a respite from the harsh prose of life, and we should not mistake it for a reliable source of true knowledge and revelatory experience. After all, reality is stranger than fiction.

In his 1917 article “Art as Device(PDF),” Viktor Shklovsky argues that writers estrange language in order to disrupt the automaticity of life and help people grasp reality. Since routine activities retreat into the subconscious, ordinary speech cannot be fully heard. We no longer pay attention to the intricacies of verbal communication because it has become a habit and thus flies beneath the radar of critical thought. This automaticity is generally characteristic of human cognition. According to Shklovsky, “this is how life becomes nothing and disappears. Automaticity eats things, clothes, furniture, your wife, and the fear of war.” Therefore artists use their skills to make life strange again:

[...] As I was writing about the oddness of art, I came across the news that “scientists have cured alcoholic rats by shooting lasers at their brains.” You could not make this up. Science reveals the awe-inspiring potential of reality. The estrangement theory gets it wrong—the outlandish nature of art is not unique and cannot be juxtaposed to the apathy and bleakness of the modern world, since reality is more complex and multifaceted than we imagine. Life regularly disrupts our habitual practices and reveals how little we understand it.

The world might be too complicated for humans to unravel its mysteries—science enables us to recognize this conundrum. Today, scientists are exploring the limitations of our knowledge of the universe. Huw Price and Peter Atkins argue that there may be questions that our brains are not capable of answering. They hypothesize that artificial intelligence might be better equipped to solve scientific problems. In his article “Now It’s Time to Prepare for the Machinocene,” Price writes that AI “might help us to solve many of the practical problems that defeat our own limited brains.” And Atkins, in his aptly titled essay “Why It’s Only Science That Can Answer All the Big Questions,” opines that the problem of consciousness can be tackled only by an ingenious contraption: “Maybe our comprehension of consciousness will have to be left to the artificial device that we thought was merely a machine for simulating it.” From quantum mechanics to the enigma of consciousness, reality far surpasses the strangeness of fiction. Science lets us untangle the befuddling riddles and attack the paradoxes that challenge the mind. In search of true bewilderment, we might be better advised to turn to scientific tools, which are stranger and more arduous to master than the crude instruments of art.

Scholars may say that literature is estranged from reality, but what they mean is that artists experiment with the form, not the substance of art. Such formal estrangement is entertaining, yet even here science offers more productive approaches. Scientists should be able to construct devices that can wield artistic tools without conscious regard for canonical patterns and convincingly outperform humans in formal creativity.

Artworks are known entities that become meaningful in the context of culture. There are social norms and aesthetic principles that shape artistic imagination and expression. The knowledge of art can be used to interpret the bizarre reality in which we live. In a recent opinion piece for the Financial Times, Robert Cooper sketches out the state of Western politics by alluding to popular works of fiction: “Welcome to Disneyland. Leading Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg is playing Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice from Fantasia; Theresa May is the wicked witch from Snow White—though she is short on magic. Across the pond, an evil ogre known as Donald Trump is waiting to eat us all up.” Our cultural background makes it possible to imagine the surreal political landscape that Cooper wishes to explain. Thus, art domesticates the wild disarray of politics.

As the social world appears to grow more volatile, dangerous and polarized, people will turn to comedy shows that play with the incongruity between reality and imagination. [...] Humor is a great escape from modern troubles, yet it does not offer real solutions. It trivializes the risks and repercussions of human behavior, and helps people tolerate the unbearable present and the unpredictable future.

[...] Reeling away from alienating reality, we find ourselves at home in art. No wonder we are so susceptible to fake news and fictional narratives: they present imaginary events that confirm our entrenched beliefs and self-perpetuating prejudices. These fictions pander to conventional thought. It takes courage to exercise judgment and confront the messy world, piercing the comfortable bubbles of safe, fictional spaces. Making sense of reality is laborious and requires bravery. Immanuel Kant asserted that the Enlightenment encourages people to do just that—dare to know!

What happens in reality can be stranger than any plot imagined in a work of literature. For every extraordinary event in modern fiction, one can find dozens of freak accidents and unbelievable occurrences in the daily news. [...] Life is weirder than art. Fiction cannot do justice to the convoluted tapestry of reality, which confounds human imagination. Truth cannot be found in fiction: we need to rely on science and engage with reality to comprehend it... (MORE - details))
I believe not only is reality incidentally stranger than we expect, but in essence stranger as well. The very essence of reality is to defy our expectations and shock us awake, a winding path of rhythmic and zen-like surprises nudging us to our own becoming realer and more authentic. Our pet illusions and habitual beliefs are what comfort us and keep us numb and complacent. Reality comes along and blasts thru that artificial veneer with entirely novel and surreal twists to our soul journey. "Wake up" it says. "You're not dreaming."

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Quote:No wonder we are so susceptible to fake news and fictional narratives: they present imaginary events that confirm our entrenched beliefs and self-perpetuating prejudices

I like this line. I take it to mean that despite all that’s not real, somethings are, and would include the fake itself.

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