The pursuit of knowledge, especially academically, requires a certain skepticism.
However suspension of disbelief, defined as “a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment” goes far beyond mere skepticism. The suspension of critical faculties, or the “ability to make judgements about what is good or true” would not classically be considered desirable in the pursuit of knowledge, however within the area of knowledge of art, this suspension is deemed to be essential. The necessity of suspension of disbelief within one area of knowledge merits a further exploration of its importance within other areas of knowledge. First, however, the importance of suspension of disbelief in art must be considered.
In art, specifically theatre, suspension of disbelief truly is essential. Suspension of disbelief is what makes unrealistic elements of a play, things that are impossible in reality, believable within the context of the play. However suspension of disbelief in theatre is not universally forgiving, for audiences are critical of highly unlikely occurrences with regards to the characters, the audience will “believe the impossible but not the improbable.” In this way suspension of disbelief grounds theatre in reality, but does not discourage innovative ideas showing that people are open minded towards possibility. Extending this concept back to other areas of knowledge it becomes clear that in order to learn or to be exposed to knowledge outside of the ordinary, suspension of disbelief is necessary to some extent. In order to gain an understanding of how suspension is disbelief drives the forwards progression of knowledge in other areas of knowledge, the areas of knowledge of history and mathematics will be considered. Investigating the composition of history is relevant when addressing suspension of disbelief.
Herodotus believed that knowledge of history should be the culmination of history and memory. This is to say that Herodotus gave as much weight to the actual sequence of events as to the later perception of these events. In this way, Herodotus reveals what he considers to be history; Herodotus saw history as a story beyond “factual truth.” If he thinks a story is wrong, Herodotus would always let the reader know but he did not erase it from his history, instead reporting that the lie was told. In conducting historical research this way, Herodotus suggests that every person’s perspective is justified and that if someone is lying they must have a reason to do so. Through inclusion of even the most ludicrous perspectives Herodotus shows how he believes in a democratic history in which all can take part, and if people tell a false history this becomes history in itself, for their deception is deliberate. This grants a great deal of power to imagination, something unconventional in most academic disciplines. The merit of this can be seen by exploring a story from The History, in which Herodotus tells a tale of giant ants which dig up gold in the Himalayas.
This seems to be a fantastical story, however in recent years, an explanation has arisen which verifies Herodotus’ history. As Herodotus did not speak Persian, his report of the creatures as ants was a mistake in translation, as reports of marmots that dig up gold have recently surfaced. Through his historiography, Herodotus demonstrated his belief in the necessity of suspension of disbelief to a complete history. Herodotus himself suspends disbelief in researching stories with uncertain truths, however asking a historian to suspend disbelief is merely good historical practice. Herodotus’ history can be said to find suspension of disbelief essential as Herodotus asks his readers to suspend their disbelief and believe the unbelievable, not in the sense of truth, but in the sense of possibility.
In asking his audience to consider that a history is possible Herodotus does not force readers to believe ludicrous perspectives. Both through framing history as a story to be enjoyed and including perspective which contribute nothing to the factual truth of the story Herodotus asks his readers to suspend disbelief and enjoy the area of knowledge that he contributes to. Both Herodotus and Thucydides, the Greek historical philosopher who followed Herodotus, employed responsible methodologies when writing their histories, with their accounts differing most with the extent that they believed suspension of disbelief was necessary. Similarly to Herodotus, Thucydides believed in the need for history to have an “unresolved tension” rather than a clear answer, and therefore his history was an extremely detailed version of the history he had found on all sides that formulated the truth. However, Thucydides stated how he wished to avoid myths, instead searching for an absolute truth in history. Thucydides finished history was as close to the truth of an event as he believed possible.
Therefore this did not ask people to suspend disbelief because all of Thucydides’ claims were researched and supported by evidence. This is not irresponsible for Thucydides does not suggest one perspective is the truth, moreover he suggests that his rendition, researched to the fullest extent, is the truth. There is no ambiguity nor belief in the unbelievable, there is no suspension of disbelief. Thucydides has rejected the notion that intuition, which often accompanies suspension of disbelief, should be present within history, and so he has removed the need for intuition presenting his ideas with evidence, which inherently negates the need for the sacrifice of realism.In the creation of his Incompleteness theorems, Kurt Gödel suggests that suspension of disbelief within mathematics is essential. Gödel’s theorem tests the logic which is essential for determining whether or not a statement in math is true or false. When a logical statement references itself it becomes paradoxical, such as the classic Liar’s Paradox: “this statement is false.” Gödel found logical contradictions within Principia Mathematica, the comprehensive attempt of Russell and Whitehead to prove mathematical axioms.
In this way Gödel proved that the axioms of mathematics as they are cannot be proved without resulting in a paradox, meaning that he believed suspension of disbelief was necessary in mathematics. Gödel saw that there was no way to perform mathematics without suspending disbelief and believing in statements which logically may be unbelievable. Beyond this, mathematics can be used as a near perfect model for the world.
If axioms are changed to the point that they are provable there is no guarantee that math will have the same shocking simplicity, and work in the same subtly powerful ways. In the world of finance, math is used extensively to predict outcomes to a fairly high degree of accuracy, just as in the natural sciences math is used to model scientific phenomenon from populations to the motion of objects to the behavior of gases. The way in which current mathematics can so concisely represent the world, and the possibility that changing axioms to the point that they are provable could destroy the many useful applications of mathematics. If however disbelief is suspended and axioms are accepted as true as Gödel believed, math and its unique symmetry to the world can continue to exist. However, to some mathematicians purity of language and provability should eliminate the need for suspension of disbelief. For mathematician David Hilbert this was especially true: Hilbert is famously quoted saying “in mathematics there is no ignorabimus”, a reference to a statement which translates as “we do not know and we will not know.” Hilbert created a proposal for the foundation of classical mathematics, whose dogma it was to render mathematics completely logical, removing any need for intuition or faith.
To ensure this purely logical mathematics Hilbert wished to prove that mathematical axioms could never lead to contrasting or paradoxical results. Mathematics to the mathematicians who believe in such provable axioms is boundless for there is nothing that cannot be solved in a logical manner. Within such a math there is no need to suspend disbelief and believe the unbelievable for everything has a basis within logic and the unbelievable or impossible would not exist. Therefore, Hilbert was of the belief that the need to suspend disbelief in math merely meant that more existed to be learned. This is exemplified by the fact that Hilbert also wished to solve all the great unsolved problems in mathematics. Hilbert and Gödel’s ideas differ fundamentally, for Hilbert’s belief is in a purely logical system where suspension of disbelief is not necessary, and Gödel’s is the same system of mathematics that has existed eternally, depending upon the belief in the unbelievable and unprovable in order for the system to function.
Overall in mathematics, the need for suspension of disbelief suggests that either constraints on the knowledge in the area of mathematics exist or that foundational knowledge is missing. Contrastingly, in the area of knowledge of history suspension of disbelief contributes to a wider understanding of perspectives and knowledge. According to Herodotus suspension of disbelief is necessary for a complete story of the history, and by reporting unbelievable perspectives Herodotus reports on what is possible within the realm of history.
Thucydides however, refrained from suspension of disbelief through the critical support of every historical perspective. Within the area of knowledge of math, mathematicians like Hilbert believe in a pure mathematics where suspension of disbelief is rendered unnecessary by a base of logic. However there are also mathematicians like Gödel who believe in a math that is highly functional without axioms. Therefore suspension of disbelief is necessary to some extent to promote the forward progression of knowledge for without some suspension of disbelief it is impossible to examine knowledge in the same way.