Science and literature arenâ€™t that different â€“ both attempt to elucidate the intricacies of ourselves and our universe. This event saw a union of two very different authors, raising questions on the connections between fact and fiction. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus presents a world where the language of children is toxic. In the absence of a scientific solution, the narrator attempts to make a cure. Charles Fernyhoughâ€™s A Box of Birds is narrated by a neuroscientist, questioning the cultural impact of physicalist models of consciousness.Â
Both authors read extracts of their works. One page of The Flame Alphabet demonstrated a sophisticated story of a man trying to save his family. The central theme â€“ the mephitic nature of language â€“ echoed through the narratorâ€™s desperate, fruitless attempts at pharmacology. Fernyhoughâ€™s piece offered a well-crafted account of a scientist, but I found his narrator a little mawkish. Nevertheless, both stories offered a jumping off point for a varied and entertaining debate on the interplay of science and fiction.
A range of ideas were discussed over the hour. Perhaps the most notable topic was language as a medium for communication, with the power of both toxin and elixir. Marcus made comparisons with excavation, describing a well-arranged sentence as â€˜a pathway into a space Iâ€™ve not yet foundâ€™. Fernyhough asked if changes in neuroscience will lead to a paradigm shift, not unlike Darwinism and psychoanalysis, and noting fiction as a potential means for testing this.
I left this event with questions. Fernyhough spoke of materialism and reductionism together on a couple of occasions, an area I felt deserved more scrutiny (while I agree these concepts tend to go together, do they have to?) On the language side, there was little discussion on what of our reality is constructed by language and discourse, and whether or not our philosophical problems are linguistic. To have questions is no complaint, however. Leaving an event curious is more satisfying than thinking you have all the answers.