With no doubt, there are ways in which disbelief may function both in favour and against acquiring knowledge. Some may argue that suspending disbelief — especially in the light of contemporary scientific method — can be considered a form of ignorance. However, it is often essential to take no notice of doubts in order to finally achieve the aim of gaining knowledge. It surely happens in theatre on multiple levels — from the substantial ignorance of the dark space around the stage, to the trust in authenticity of characters’ emotions. But not only does the “suspension of disbelief” applies to Arts, but it can also find its use in other Areas of Knowledge such as Natural Sciences and Religious Knowledge Systems. Nevertheless, it should be underlined that applying “suspension of disbelief” may lead to both excessive ignorance and cause misunderstanding; thus, it can be beneficial but is not essential in other AOKs.
Before elaborating on different AOKs, it would be highly beneficial to define firstly the “suspension of disbelief” and secondly its role in theatre. Concerning the former, “suspension of disbelief” is, above all, a literary term with its strictly literal meaning — it can be loosely understood as a willingness of a person to overlook the limitations of a given medium and for the moment believe the unbelievable. Subsequently, with regard to the latter, experiencing theatre is a phenomenon which would not exist without the notion of “suspension of disbelief.” As mentioned, its significance is visible in nearly all aspects of theatre. The concept of theatre is, generally speaking, a mutual agreement of convention between the artists and the audience. Braking its conditions results in provoking the failure of a unique experience. Moreover, a notable role is here played by three distinct Ways of Knowing: Reason, Language, and Emotions. The clash between them to huge extent influences the way in which we perceive the reality.
The role of “suspension of disbelief” differs significantly depending on which AOKs is concerned. In the world of Natural Sciences, the thought behind the “suspension of disbelief” is at the first sight considered a weakness of the investigative method. It results from the conviction that one should not underestimate either the existence or lack of any variable or data in the research. However, “suspension of disbelief” occurred to be of high efficiency in the discovery of Higgs Boson which revolutionised the study of Physics. When it comes to the study of the Religious Knowledge Systems, one may find entirely distinctive views on the application of “suspension of disbelief”. It can be demonstrated by the controversy over the manner in which holy texts should be read – in Christianity there are both direct and indirect (metaphorical) approaches to read the Bible, while in Islam, the Koran has to be necessarly read directly. However, in the field of Social Sciences – especially of History – “suspension of disbelief” often cannot be accepted. If applied to History, it leads to misinterpretation or even creation of “fake facts1” as it once happened in the famous story of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church’s door – in fact, it was proven that such an act had never taken place.
Among many physicists, the Higgs Boson is often regarded to be the biggest discovery of the last one hundred years; yet a mysterious one. Initially suspected to exist in 1960 and confirmed in 2013, the Higgs Boson is the elementary particle responsible for other particles to gain mass. It was discovered only by human imagination as no one had ever in any way experienced its existence before the official recognition. Even before the discovery, it was often called a “famous” or “God Particle” which clearly suggests that scientists already trusted its existence simultaneously having no proper proof. Here, a question arises: How can one make use of “suspension of disbelief” in accordance with reason? It can be claimed, that the essence of scientific advancement is that the ideas are theorised and “put forward” before they can be proven. In such a matter, the reason is the only tool which is able to find the balance between relaying on pure facts and suspending one’s disbelief. The presence of “suspension of disbelief” can be, moreover, noted while taking a closer look on the actual language used in the articles before 2013 — all of them were written using the phrases such as: “what if”, “when you imagine” or “it can be assumed”2. Such a use of language stimulates posing the following question: What is the role of language in suspending disbelief? The language used in the mentioned texts indicate that those people are aware of the paradoxical nature of the research — they know that the object of the research exists only as a form in their imagination but, nevertheless, they do not cease. It is evident that “suspension of disbelief”, in this example, accelerates the scientific advancement.
It can be claimed — without any generalisation — that religious beliefs, in their essence, require a certain extent of “suspension of disbelief.” It results from the fact that in any religious ideas are abstract and unprovable. They have to be explained, and later sustained, in order for someone to believe in them. But even when explained with details, the act of faith is partially the act of turning oneself away from the world with a willingness to live by the strength of invisible and uncontrollable. It is often achieved by counterbalancing reason and emotions using “suspension of disbelief”; thus, the situation is in a way analogical to the theatrical experience. They both require the acceptance of a certain convention and it takes time for both to suspend the disbelief of the “audience.” Consequently, in religious beliefs, emotions are the way of basic response to a deeply grounded need for any immaterial, supreme being and are also required for an allegiance to this higher form. Reason, on the other hand, is often claimed to act against the concept of religious belief; however, if properly regulated, religious belief is not necessarily opposed to reason. Once more, it is a proper balance between Ways of Knowing which results in acquiring knowledge in its loosest sense.
The application of “suspension of disbelief” in Religious Knowledge Systems becomes more ambiguous when one takes into consideration the matter of interpreting religious texts.
For instance, a vital conflict emerged at the end of the 19th century between the biblical researchers — favouring a historical-critical method of analysis scripture — and the Catholic Church represented by Pope Leo XIII. The formers advocated for the rationalist approach in reading Bible which at the same time accepted the notion of “suspension of disbelief.” While the latter, the Pope, wrote an encyclical letter, Providentissimus Deus, which contained both a polemic against rationalism and a defence of divine authorship, inspiration, and theological meaning of the Bible; thus, he spoke against “suspension of disbelief” as a method to learn from the holy texts. In the regard of the Church of that time — which is still considered as actual — if one deprives the Bible from its literal meaning, it “has to concomitantly lose its metaphorical sense.3” Then, a substantial question to ask is: What differs the scriptures from other literary works? If faith comes from within the literature of religion – the Koran, the Bible, the Torah — is there a particular mechanism that can define a document of faith? Great novels are similar to the great religious documents in the stories and connections they make with the human condition. In this concern, for the followers of a certain religion, it may only be the abandonment of “suspension of disbelief” which allows them to treat a given text not only as a piece of literary work but as a subject of a real belief.
In the light of all presented real-life examples, it is now clear to notice the importance of “suspension of disbelief” in both Natural Sciences and Religious Knowledge Systems. Regardless of which AOK is concerned, it can play distinct roles. Applying the “suspension of disbelief” may be inevitable when no solid information is known in a given filed (as in the case of Higgs Boson) or when disbelief has to be arrested as a necessary condition (as for the believers of any religion). Nevertheless, the examples of ‘visualisation of dinosaurs’ and ‘approaches to reading the Bible ‘refute the argument that “suspension of disbelief” is nothing but essential. Being a strong tool which aids in acquiring knowledge, “suspension of disbelief” has also its limitations and has to be wisely and consciously used.
Greene, Brian. “How the Higgs Boson Was Found”. Smithsonian.com Retrieved from: www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-the-higgs-boson-was-found-4723520. Accessed on: 10.11.2017.
Leo XIII. Providentissimus Deus. Retrieved from: w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_18111893_providentissimus-deus.html. Accessed on: 12.11.2017.
Mee, Nicholas. Higgs Force. Quantum Wave Publishing, 16.11.2012, Stockport, United Kingdom.
3 Leo XIII. Providentissimus Deus.