Critiquing the Concept of Suspension of Disbelief as an Essential Feature of Knowledge in Science and the Arts

Subject: Science
Type: Critical Analysis Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1775
Topics: Scientific Method


One controversial area that requires analysis in the field of theory of knowledge concerns the issue of suspension of disbelief, and its place in science and aesthetics. Here, the willing suspension of disbelief is a concept often used in reference to the mechanisms of assimilation required for one to participate in an invented scenario, especially in a fiction film or drama (Abelman & Atkin, 2011). In other words, the willing suspension of disbelief implies, overlooking certain factors that would otherwise erode belief. A general look at the literature shows that, while the concept of suspension of disbelief has received considerable attention in relation to knowledge related to the arts and aesthetics, there has been a minimal attempt to understand its implications for scientific knowledge. The widely accepted narrative is that scientific knowledge is more credible in relation to truth compared to artistic knowledge since art is subjective while science takes an objective approach. In this essay, we conduct a critical review of the place of suspension of disbelief in both science and arts. A distinction is also made between scientific knowledge and artistic knowledge. I contend that, due to its subjective nature, artistic knowledge is indispensably true, while scientific knowledge can never the truly proven. Assuming, as argued in this essay, that suspension of belief can be involved in both artistic and scientific knowledge, is such suspension essential to these areas of knowledge?

Defining Scientific and Artistic Knowledge

The very idea of comparing scientific and artistic knowledge, in itself, supposes a specific knowledge inherent in Art, and that such knowledge is an irreducible characteristic of Art. As argued by Arthur Schopenhauer, Art, which goes beyond the cultural and historical features, is generated with the goal of producing an aesthetic experience, which is subjective and transcendental (Schopenhauer, 2012). Science, on the other hand, is more concerned with seeking causal explanations and verifiability of knowledge, and is more concerned with objective truth. Schopenhauer captures the difference between natural science and Art, using mutability as the criterion for distinguishing between the two fields (Vandenabeele, 2015). Science is primarily concerned with change, while art contemplates the eternal. 

Is Suspension of Disbelief an Essential Element of Knowledge in Science and the Arts?

The notion that the ‘suspension of disbelief’ must play some role in the analysis of the way we respond to fiction has been widely propagated by the literature on arts and fiction. One of the main premises supporting this idea is that the such a suspension helps individuals dissolve or resolve a puzzle raised by the way we respond to fiction (Duffy & Zawieska, 2012). Without such suspension of disbelief, then we have a hard time explaining being moved by what we do not believe ever really occurred or existed. 

The problem with applying the suspension of disbelief perspective to scientific knowledge as entrenched in the principle of objectivity is that it is impossible to have 100 percent verified knowledge through science. As indicated by Audi (2010), modern science undertakes to understand and explain how the natural or empirical world functions. Here, empirical implies what can be detected through the senses, and which is detailed and has a high predictive power. However, taken this way, science is limited to the natural world, and cannot explain metaphysical events or beings. In fact, the very questions and problems regarded by scientists as important at any given time are reflective of sociological, intellectual and political considerations, which change over time.

As previously indicated, when watching a fictional movie, suspension of disbelief helps you enjoy the events in the movie, and thus have an aesthetic experience. The conundrum of which suspension of belief is called to resolve can be explained in this manner. In the general scenario of emotional responses and belief, there are two irrefutable things: 

(A) knowing involves believing, and 

(B) responding emotionally presumes some belief about the object of your response. 

When watching a fictional movie, it may be clear that some characters do not and have never existed in real life. We must also have beliefs to that effect (see A). Yet we are, at least in some instances, genuinely moved by the fictional characters and the events they go through. It appears, therefore, (from B), that we must hold beliefs that some people are involved in certain events. 

It could be argued that since A and B are correct, then the fact that we are moved by events that we clearly know are fiction (like crying when watching a tele novella), then the response if misdecribed, and we respond differently to fiction compared to real-life events. It is impossible to deny that our response to art has dimensions that are different from the way we respond to real life. However, this is not the point of contention. The main concern here is the respect to which our responses to art appear similar to our responses to real life events. In such situations, then suspension of disbelief can be used to explain how one is moved by fictitious events that they know for certain are not real. 

However, there are some elements of artistic knowledge and aesthetics where suspension of belief may not be essential. This is particularly true for art forms that do not have fictional elements. For instance, one does not need to suspend belief to enjoy good music. It can be inferred, therefore, that, while suspension of disbelief can apply for certain forms of artistic knowledge, particularly those that have fiction, it is not an essential requirement for all forms of aesthetic experience. Does the same principle apply to scientific knowledge?  

To understand the applicability of the concept of suspension of belief applies to knowledge in the natural sciences, it helps to go back to the distinction between artistic and scientific knowledge, particularly in relation to objectivity. Artistic knowledge can be seen as irrefutable since it is experienced subjectively by the individual (Kessler, 2007). For example, each individual enjoys music differently from others, with what you consider interesting appearing boring to others. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, claims objectivity, and can always be disputed. 

An important aspect of scientific knowledge that we should consider is its reliance on inductive reasoning. In relation to scientific knowledge, the situations in which I may ordinarily suspend belief would be of this nature. I could suspend belief in K, for instance, where I start to suspect that there is some reason for believing that not-K may be the case. In the same breadth, suspending disbelief in K may be the outcome of some new evidence that has come up showing that K may, indeed be the case after all. In such scenarios, it may be accurate to say that one suspends judgement until swayed in one direction or the other by evidence. 

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Anyhow, the suspension of disbelief does not ordinary leave intact any claims of knowledge as they are suspended too. What this means is that, for scientific knowledge, there is suspension of belief at one point, and suspension of disbelief at another, based on its reliance on inductive reasoning. Here is an example. If I started off with the belief that I had £10, and this belief was founded on my knowledge that the amount was contained in the wallet in my pocket, then the suspicion, whilst I am walking in a crowded street, that my pocket has just been picked makes me to suspend the belief that there is money in my pocket, but also my knowledge claim, until after I have had the chance to investigate. 

Empiricist epistemology is largely dominated by a foundationist perspective since, at least the seventeenth century. For those who advocate for a rational inductive approach to reasoning, foundationism leads to the search for a justifiable primary inductive method, such as the one proposed by Karl Popper.  According to Popper’s methodological perspective, there is no method needed for knowledge (Popper, 2014). It is enough that the methods used for validation in science permit scientific investigation to proceed in an orderly fashion. The justification of any scientific hypothesis is not determined in accordance to any foundation, but rather by the rules that given the processes through which the entire body of accepted scientific claims grows and changes. 

Popper talks about falsifiability as the criterion to use in demarcating empirical science from non-scientific undertakings like arts, mathematics and logic. His postulation was in response to the criterion put forward by the Vienna Circle, which had indicated that scientific knowledge only covers what is empirically verifiable (Audi, 2010). When you look at knowledge from the view of the logical empiricists, you could argue that traditional metaphysics and theology do not fit as they do cannot be formally demonstrated and are not empirically verifiable. The doctrine, which can be traced to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Hume’s Enquiry, can be criticised on the basis that scientific theories are typically universal generalisations, which cannot be verified using any finite amount of evidence. In fact, as indicated by Hume, causality can never be observed directly through the senses (Beebee, 2006). 

In relation to universal statements, there is an asymmetry between falsifiability and verifiability. There are certain universal hypotheses, which are open in principle to empirical falsification, but cannot be verified empirically (Moore & Kenneth, 2011). For instance, existential statements can be verified, but may not be unfalsifiable. It is also important to note that universal generalization cannot be verified empirically, although several auxiliary hypotheses are introduced. It can be inferred, therefore, that epistemic requirements and evidential grounds for knowledge are unnecessary fantasies.  As such, it makes little sense to argue that a hypothesis can be accepted only if that hypothesis has been rejected. In fact, the inverse is true. A hypothesis can be rejected only if it has already been accepted (entertained).  


This article explores whether suspension of disbelief is an essential element of knowledge in the natural sciences and the arts. From the discussion, it is apparent that suspension of disbelief is involved in both artistic and scientific knowledge. However, in relation to the question on whether it is essential to artistic knowledge, such importance is only seen in relation to producing an aesthetic experience in art forms with fictional elements. I, therefore, disagree with the assumption that suspension of disbelief is essential to acquiring artistic knowledge. In the case of natural sciences, the discussion shows that a leap of faith is needed to move from particular observations to universal laws of nature, which cannot be accessed through the senses. All that an investigation does is to reject what had initially been accepted. It can be inferred, therefore, that suspension of disbelief is essential for scientific knowledge. 

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  1. Abelman, R., & Atkin, D. J. (2011). The televiewing audience: The art and science of watching TV. Peter Lang.
  2. Audi, R. (2010). Epistemology: A contemporary introduction to the theory of knowledge. Routledge.
  3. Beebee, H. (2006). Hume on causation. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
  4. Duffy, B. R., & Zawieska, K. (2012). Suspension of disbelief in social robotics. In RO-MAN, 2012 IEEE (pp. 484-489). IEEE.
  5. Kessler, G. (2007). Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Philosophy Reader. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  6. Moore, B. & Kenneth, B. (2011). Philosophy: The power of ideas. New York, NY:  McGraw-Hill.
  7. Popper, K. (2014). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. routledge.
  8. Schopenhauer, A. (2012). The world as will and representation(Vol. 1). Courier Corporation.
  9. Vandenabeele, B., 2015. A companion to Schopenhauer (Vol. 49). John Wiley & Sons.
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