Ben Okri

Ben Okri

Writer

‘Maybe one of the worst things that we can do is to diminish the possibility of the universe in our insistence on our description of it.'

FULL INTERVIEW 47 min

How narrative shapes knowledge

‘We have no instrument by which to record the absolute nature of reality, because whatever instrument will, at some point, be filtered through the lens of consciousness, and narrative is a natural part of consciousness and a natural part of the way the mind works.'

Transcript

HOW NARRATIVE SHAPES SCIENCE

David: One of the things that a lot of the scientists and mathematicians that we've talked to over the last few weeks have said is that mathematics is woven into the universe. Do you think something similar can be said about narrative?

BO: I would say narrative is woven into the universe to the degree that the universe is perceived by consciousness.

Narrative is a natural part of consciousness and a natural part of the way the mind works. It’s completely inevitable. It's there in dreams. It's there in unconsciousness. It's there in all the states of living being. We can speak of narrative, even in terms of matter that doesn't have consciousness, the minute something disintegrates: the fall of a rock; the altered movement of a stream; the changing patterns of a wave – they're all elements of narrative.

Ard: One or two people we've interviewed said, ‘Well, you know, these stories mislead us. Narrative is a bad thing because it fools us.’ But I think you're saying something different. Am I hearing that right?

BO: Well, everything fools us, let's be clear about that. For one very simple reason: we have no means of knowing what objective reality is – it's just simply not possible. We have no instrument by which to record the absolute nature of reality. There's no instrument, because whatever instrument that is will at some point be filtered through, or looked through, the lens of consciousness, of us.

So as long as that is happening, we are always constantly limiting reality as we perceive it, because any perception of reality that we can have is limited to our senses and our faculties. So we don't know the absolute nature of reality. So whatever it is we perceive of reality, we're always being deceived. We're always being deceived because we don't have the total picture.

What narrative does… narrative is, I believe, a great neutral power. On the one hand it has this extraordinary power to create patterns, which then become patterns of perception. It bypasses the intelligence. It goes straight to some primal part of us, of our emotion, of our unconscious. It bypasses all of our filters. It's partly because it works through images, through symbols and through the structure by which we perceive reality. It's a very, very powerful thing.

So, on the one hand it does that, but on the other hand it helps us shape reality. It helps us actually grasp what it is that we're experiencing. Without a sense of narrative locked into our DNA, locked into every part of our cells and our minds, reality would be a great mess of nonsense. We have no way of actually… This conversation would be meaningless without a sense of narrative.

David: Do you think science itself has a narrative, which it sometimes thinks it doesn't have? Because scientists like to say, ‘Well, we've got facts.’ They don't so often say, ‘but we also have a narrative, a story of science.’

BO: Oh, I think science has a narrative. It's unavoidable. I'll give you a very simple example: the whole idea of a wave and particle. The minute you have images, you already have the beginning of narrative, because you have the beginning of the shaping of the way something can be perceived.

I think those are actually two great poetic ways of perceiving reality: the wave and the particle. With one we perceive reality in its density and with the other we perceive reality in its immeasurability and its dream-like qualities, so that both those two images, which are poetic and a narrative, also, I think, conform to two great ways of looking at the world which you have in in literature.

Ard: I want to ask a slightly different question about narrative and mathematics because I've heard you speak on this. So how are mathematics and narrative similar and how are they different?

BO: Well, maths and narrative have quite a few things in common and quite a few divergent elements. They have progression, symmetry, a sense of a journey actually. Mathematicians always speak about the journey of a problem, not only the journey of the solving of a problem, but the journey of a problem through other people having worked through it, worked with it.

I think another similarity is there's an intuitive element to both of them. Mathematicians always speak of the intuitive. Sometimes they arrive at the truth intuitively before they have solved it physically. There's an intuitive element.

Where they diverge? There are many areas where they diverge. Narrative allows for imaginative expansion. Mathematics is more crystalline. Narrative always wears the human flesh. It's always embodied. That's how I always think of mathematics as being very pure in that sense.

The truths of maths are absolutely implied in the equations. It has nothing to do with consciousness in that… it has to do with consciousness, in the sense that mathematicians, the human being, is alive, but it is implied in itself, whereas the truth of literature is partly brought by the reader. It's shared. If it's not shared, it does not exist. A story does not exist if there's no one to hear it.

Truth and Beauty in Art and Science

‘I think it's the nature of perception that we're only capable of seeing that which we've seen before. And when a slightly new order of perception comes along we can't see what it is.’

Transcript

Truth and Beauty in Art and Science

Ard: I liked the way you said, ‘the crystalline part of mathematics’. So mathematics has a certain austere beauty. I was just curious whether you think that narrative has a different kind of beauty sometimes, or maybe richer forms of beauty than just mathematics. A lot of mathematicians talk about beauty in mathematics, and you've spoken about this as well.

BO: What do you think mathematicians mean when they talk about beauty in mathematics?

Ard: Well, I think I recognise beauty in mathematics, and the interesting thing is we all, all of us mathematically orientated people, tend to agree on the beauty, and we tend to think this is more beautiful than that. But when you say to me, define it exactly, it's hard to put. I can recognise it without necessarily always being able to define it.

BO: Okay, I have a question for you then. Can the beauty in mathematics, in an equation, can it be there even when the mathematics is wrong?

Ard: Sometimes it can be. So sometimes we speak about a very beautiful theory which is ruined by experiment: an ugly fact. But in general, this is definitely true... there are very beautiful theories that are wrong, but, in general, if I have two competing theories for the same bit of nature I need to explain, the more beautiful theory is more likely to be the true one.

BO: But have there been cases where the ugly theory has turned out to be the truth?

Ard: Unfortunately it has.

BO: Because you have quite a few of that in literature. You do. Things are ugly. The first people who read Moby Dick didn't see its beauty. The first set of people who saw Demoiselles d'Avignon didn't see its beauty. We still don't see the beauty in a lot of cubism. A lot of modern music we still think of as being too fractured for us. So sometimes something can seem ugly.

Ard: But there are mathematical things that seemed ugly or seemed trivial at the time but ended up being very profound later, so part of that is just our inability to perceive.

BO: It's the same with literature, absolutely the same with literature.

Ard: There are mathematicians whose work was forgotten while they were alive, and then after they died we realise there was something unbelievably profound.

BO: I think it's also the nature of perception that we're only capable of seeing that which we've seen before. We're only capable of perceiving that which we've perceived before, and when a slightly new order of perception comes along, we can't see where it diverges. We can't see what it is. And because it doesn't conform to what we've seen before, we think it's either trivial, unimportant, insignificant or not beautiful at all.

You think of the great works that people did not understand at first. You think of something like Waiting for Godot, or you think of many Shakespeare plays that people didn't understand, didn't think beautiful at first, but which we've come to learn to perceive its correct inner beauty.

Ard: Is there a logic to narrative or to poetry that has to be conformed to or...?

BO: The best poetry and the best novels, the best narrative, absolutely. You can almost create a divine logic. What you're struck by, more than anything else, is the shocking clarity of thinking. You read Dante and from one line to another there are no absurd leaps. Everything has to come; it has to add up. Let’s just say there's a great rigor to the best parts.

You can always tell when a writer is faking it because the images don't add up. The narrative doesn't add up. It makes like sudden leaps that are not prepared for meticulously.

Ard: As if it's less beautiful somehow? Is that what you're saying? It's less beautiful, less aesthetic? Or is that the wrong way...?

David: Or is it less truthful?

BO: It always feels less truthful, and it is. Sometimes something can be wrong in its inner logic and still have beauty, and I think that's because beauty partially transcends logic. I think it's implied in it. I think beauty is implied in logic. I think that which we find to be beautiful is something which is logical to our aesthetic sense.

Experiencing the sublime

‘I think the sublime points at this sense of something greater than us that we didn't make. But it also points to something in us that is greater than what we normally feel, that we haven't shaped.’

Transcript

EXPERIENCING THE SUBLIME

David: We we've talked to people about the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. What do you think the sublime points at? That feeling of the sublime?

BO: I think the sublime points at this sense of something greater than us that we didn't make. But it also points to something in us that is greater than what we normally feel, that we haven't shaped. So it's like an hour glass in a way: so the sublime is both that which inspires it, as that which is the feeling of that inspiration.

And that's why the idea of the sublime is so important and why it enlarges us and why it temporises us. At best we're six by two and a half, but the sublime really makes you feel like an inward cathedral. The sublime really brings to the feeling of being human something much greater than being human. That's what's extraordinary about it.

David: Have you felt it?

BO: Yes, I felt it at Niagara Falls. I felt it at the foot of mountains. I've felt it with books. I've felt it with night skies.

Ard: And do you think there's something when we respond to the sublime that sometimes makes us afraid? Is terror or fear a part of it?

BO: Yes, there's definitely terror as an aspect of the sublime. All truly great things have an age of terror to them. That's where the idea of Pan came from. You could be in the mountains and you have this Pan feeling. That's where panic comes from. You have this Pan feeling. I had it the other day. I was in the mountains up in South Wolds. I was walking up. There was nobody there. There was absolutely nobody, and I was like, ‘Ah, lovely day.’ I was climbing and then suddenly the immensity of that landscape, the emptiness of it, was terrifying; it was threatening. Why? Nothing was going to happen to me, but suddenly I bolted. I literally ran and there was nothing to run away from. Yes, there is an edge of terror and I don't know what that terror is.

David: Have you ever felt it in your own creation, where you've felt that something you're creating has touched on it or?

BO: You're asking me to wander into very indelicate area.

David: Okay.

BO: But yeah, the sense of the sublime is something I constantly work with

Writers, narrative and emergence

'There's a great nervousness with poets and novelists about this emergent idea. I mean, a lot of writers want to be in control of their material. They want to say, "I shaped this."'

Transcript

WRITERS, NARRATIVE AND EMERGENCE

David: Do you think when you write narrative, or when you read great narrative, is there some discovering of something rather than just completely creating it?

BO: Yes, I think it's a wonderful image and idea, and I think you do discover it. It emerges through the rigor of, for want of a better word, the mathematics of your story. Sometimes a narrative or a poem goes somewhere you did not entirely intend it to go because of its own inner logic. And this could be also the emergence of the theme – not just where the story goes – actually what it is about. You discover it in the process of doing it. It's quite terrifying; quite wonderful.

Ard: So is it that sometimes the narrative surprises you? Does it do something you didn't expect?

BO: Yes, it surprises you because the narrative is not an external thing: narrative is what emerges. I think it's two things really: it's what emerges from you, because every story you tell is drawing upon the deeper, as well as the superficial, aspects of your mind, your psyche, all of what makes you.

So you might start very deliberately, but because you've started, all sorts of unsuspected lower, deeper, subterranean elements come into play. People who write can't get over that fact that you start with something quite simple and something turns up that you hadn’t… There's no way you could've dreamt that it'll emerge, and then you have to shape that.

Ard: You use that word ‘emerge’, and I thought that was interesting. Scientists talk about ‘emergent phenomena’. So you put a lot of things together, a lot of individual little units, and sometimes, from the collective, something emerges that was a surprise.

BO: That sounds like a lot of story-tellers.

Ard: Okay, yeah.

David: But the scientists are very, very nervous about it. They're really not sure whether it's true, and they're not sure if they even want it to be true.

Ard: Some scientists love it.

David: Some do, but there's a great nervousness about this emergent idea in science.

BO: Well, there's a great nervousness with poets and novelists about this emergent idea. I mean, a lot of writers want to be in control of their material. They want to say, ‘I shaped this. This came from me. This was a deliberate act.’

They don't want to be surprised by Anna Karenina. That's the last thing. I like to be. I work to be surprised wide awake. And I can see why the emergent idea you speak of is worrying to scientists, because it has to do with the element of control and the element of objectivity, the element of truth. But I think it's part of the wonder of what we do.

Retelling Plato's Cave

‘I think this allegory tells us that actually we can't know ultimate truth. We in our mortal condition at best can deduce what that is like from what we're seeing on the cave walls.’

Transcript

RETELLING PLATO’S CAVE

David: Plato's Cave. The philosophers and scientists love telling us about Plato's Cave.

BO: Why? It's such a great, great story.

Ard: Do you want to tell us that story?

BO: Well there are many sides to the story. I want to know why they like the story first.

David: Well it's this sense that people like Roger Penrose particularly, or Greg Chaitin, the mathematicians, they say, ‘Look, there are the truths, there are things which are just absolutely true. Just because we can't see them, doesn't mean they're not there. We've just got to not get fooled by thinking that there’s just the flickering images we're seeing on the wall. That is to limit your imagination.’ And that's why they tell it.

BO: Shall I tell the story? Okay. My telling of the story is, of course, going to be imperfect. I think every storyteller… It's the beauty of story that we bend it a little bit in accordance with how we’re perceiving the world in that particular moment.

Anyway, these people have been in this cave. Let's think of them as prisoners, or they they've been in this cave for a while. The light comes from behind them, and they're in this cave in such a way that they can only see in the cave and see the images passing by on the cave wall.

And one of the things that I think people have taken from it is a great question of illusion and reality. The things that we're seeing, that they're seeing on the cave wall, is that truth? That's what you're saying. Or is that which creates the shadows, is that truth?

David: And what do you think of it? What does it say to you?

BO: I think it's one of the greatest stories, and it's a story rich with truth. It's one of those stories incredibly soaked in the truth of life, because that's what we do: we're constantly looking at things and taking them for absolutes. I think the story is one of the great… it is an allegory. It is an allegory of knowledge, but I think it's also an allegory of perception. And I think it's also an allegory of ultimate truths. And I think this allegory tells us that, actually, we can't know ultimate truth. We, in our mortal condition, at best can deduce what that is like from what we're seeing on the cave walls.

David: Yeah, that's what science says it does.

BO: If we were to turn round and walk out into what is creating that reality – what's creating the shadows on the wall – we now have to leave all of the orders of knowledge as we know it and enter into the orders of enlightenment of higher kinds of spiritual ecstasy, visionary states: things that don't belong to the conversation of science. And yet, at the same time, how is it strange that some of the great scientists were visionaries themselves?

Ard: And do you think in Plato's Cave we're looking at these shadows, and so that's all we see, and they can be distorted? Do you think that people find that sometimes a frightening thought? That all they are seeing are the shadows? Or do you think that people, maybe, sometimes also think that the shadows are all that there is?

BO: I think we have come to think that that is all there is. And I think atheism, at its worst, tells us that that is all there is, because you can see it. I mean, one of the great arguments of atheism keeps coming back to: ‘I can't see it. There's no evidence for it. I can't touch it.’ It goes back to evidence, and once we start to deal only with evidence, we're talking about shadows on the wall. We can see them; we can't see what's causing it. We can't deal with the source of the images on the wall. Evidence ends up being its own limitation.

Proof, Truth & Science

‘I wouldn't say that truth is only that which can be proven. I think that which can be proven is that which can be proven; truth is something else.’

Transcript

Proof, Truth and Science

David: Do you think literature gets at truth? Because this resonates through the series. Science is very happy with proof – things that are proven – and then this word ‘truth’ comes in, and it starts to get murky and people get worried faces.

BO: Yes, that's because we're talking about different kinds of truths and different layers and levels of truths. Absolute truth is – let's just put this on the table straight away – absolute truth is beyond all of us – scientists, metaphysicians – absolute truth is beyond all of us.

Truth is a problem, I think, in almost all spheres of endeavour from science to philosophy. I think truth is a problem.

David: Oh, you see, the scientists think they've got truth and that nobody else does.

BO: Well, I will say the scientists, if they are honest with themselves, they know that they're wrong, because they've had this perception of truth for the last two, three hundred years and it keeps changing. It keeps evolving in relation to how much they know, in relation to what new principles, new ways of reading the world, new measurements, come about. So science itself, and its perception of the world, it evolves.

There are very few absolute truths that we have now that were there at the beginning of the scientific endeavour. Our sense of absolutes just keeps changing. I think what science can claim to have is the pursuit of all objective truth, as much as possible: measurable objective truth. But even that, I would contend, is constantly behind absolute truth, because the tools of our measurement are primitive compared to the infinite subtleties of the manifestations of the great laws of nature.

David: Alex Rosenberg, particularly, said, well several of them said, ‘Look, science has truth. We can prove things, and the only things you can prove are truth. Art and literature that's make-believe.’

BO: I wouldn't say that truth is only that which can be proven. I think that which can be proven is that which can be proven, truth is something else. That which can be proven is more in the order of fact. It is more in the order of… We need another word for that truth. Again, this is why I come with the order of truths. There are some things that will, unless our science undergoes astronomical, phenomenal developments, there are some things that will be beyond proof.

But about ‘make-believe’; we need another phrase for it. I would use the word ‘imagination’. I always say that a story is not just make-believe: a good story, or a good poem, is not just a fantasy. The thing about a good story, especially one that has fascinated us for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, and the reason why they go on fascinating us, is because they carry within them, for want of a better word, these archetypes, these patterns, these shapes of human lives.

And I think really great stories have the, kind of, accumulated wisdom of the human race passed on. So it's not make-believe. These are things that are drawn from the great well, the great river of experience of living and being here on this planet. So it's not make-believe at all. These are great inward truths of human life.

Ard: John Cottingham talked about being porous to things: so opening yourself up and allowing yourself to receive knowledge. And there are things that we know, but if we insist that's not real knowledge, we actually lose something.

BO: Maybe one of the worst things that we can do is to diminish the possibility of the universe in our insistence on our description of it. I think there should always be a tentative space left open in how we tell the story of truth and of the universe. There should always be this tentative space that says we don't know just yet. And that space, I think, is the most dynamic space in in the human story, in human civilisation. It's that space that we really pass on from one generation to another, not just facts.

Why this is important is two ways of dealing with knowledge, of dealing with truth, of proof, of our different endeavours. I think it's important because of the structures of belief that make it possible for us to be receptive.

If you believe that the world is completely explicable and is completely as it is, you are less likely to be receptive to the intuitive. I think your belief, therefore, has a great impact on whether you're an insistent, an obsessive, thinker, grabber, shaker, shaper, grasper – and you believe that's the only way in which something can be known – or whether you're someone who can also be receptive to the possibility of dreams, of intuitions, of hints from all manner of things. So I think one’s belief has a great impact on the ability to know.

Meaning-seeking beings

‘Apart from storytelling beings, we are also meaning-seeking beings; we're purpose driven being. You give people everything and they still feel something's missing.’

Transcript

MEANING-SEEKING BEINGS

David: The other thing that [John] Cottingham said… he said look we're the only creatures who when you've fed us and watered us and given us somewhere to live we still feel incomplete, there's still a yearning, which he described I think as wanting to know what's over the horizon, wanting to know why, and I wondered what you thought of that because I was very taken with that when he said it.

BO: Apart from storytelling beings we are also meaning-seeking beings. We're purpose-driven beings. You give people everything, and they still feel something's missing. Many of the great stories are just about that: you have everything but something is missing, and one day you leave your home to go find out what it is.

BO: Meaning is a very, very strange thing. Meaning is… I can see how it's a problem for science. I really can see that. But meaning is essential for us humans. If you were to ask me the relationship between meaning and truth, which is really another problematic area, I would say that meaning is like the temporary resolution of certain psychological, philosophical and spiritual tensions that we have inside us at any given point. I don't think meaning is ever final. I think meaning is evolutionary. I think it's continuous. I think it unfolds, it grows, it opens out into doubt and confusion again, and then is resolved again and it continues like that: like a flower constantly opening.

David: Do you think it's lesser because it doesn't have that absolute certainty which truth and proof claim to have?

BO: Well, you see, proof can have certainty, because it's dealing with something that is objective. But meaning, you cannot have certainty because you're dealing with the numinous nature of being alive and of being human. It would be wonderful if we could apply the scientific method of proof and certainty to our moral dilemmas, all of those questions… but there is no scientific way of dealing with the questions of life, there isn't.

All we have are these grey things that we sometimes feel we wrestle over, we have intuitions about, we make mistakes and we try and correct them. It’s very fluid. It's this fluid nature of life, and of our moving through it, that puts it in an order, very different from that of science, which is why we envy science. We envy science its objective certainty. The fact that you can manipulate, and move with, and deal with, these things that you can look at with absolute certainty. It's enviable, but bring that into the realm of life and it dissolves. It's meaningless; it's of no help to us whatsoever.

How do we know moral truth?

‘How do we know the moral boundaries of life? How do we know if you live in a place where no one has told you, “Don't do that. That's going hurt somebody?”'

Transcript

HOW DO WE KNOW MORAL TRUTH?

Ard: Do you think story is an important part of finding our moral sense or moral compass?

BO: Profoundly, actually. How do we know the moral boundaries of life? How do we know? If you live in a place where no one has told you, ‘Don't do that, that's going to hurt somebody’, how would you know? We only know because people tell us. And even when they tell us, we don't really know. We only begin to know when we can start to feel how the other person might feel.

There are not that many ways of getting me to feel what you can feel; there are just not that many. One of the few truly great ways of doing that is story. It is one of the most miraculous things about it.

You write a story: ‘One day I went out into the street and I saw this girl,’ and I'm reading it… I'm not reading it from your point of view, I'm reading it from my point of view. I'm reading it from my consciousness. So the act of reading is an act of automatic empathy: it is literally wearing someone's skin. It is literally entering into someone's consciousness.

Forgive these absurd gestures, but it is an emersion into a slightly different order of reality – actually one quite different from yours. But suddenly you get to see it from someone else, and you think, oh my goodness, is that what that feels like? And that's one of the most powerful places for the birth of the moral, of the moral sense, because if we don't know what someone else feels like, why should I care, really, what I do to you?

You see the thing about a story that is very, very strange is that the minute you begin to tell a story, a whole universe comes into being, because every good story brings with it a complete world. Even if it's very short, the implication of a complete world is in there. And that's where the moral structure comes from, because it's giving the idea of a complete world. All our ideas about society are implied in the stories that we tell.

David: I think that's a very important word, though, when you say ‘implied’, because it's often the implicit which are the most powerful because they take root in you. It's different to the explicit. I mean, the difference between the two is a joke is implicit, the funny part is implicit, and when some nitwit comes along and makes it explicit, it's not funny.

BO: It's ruined it, exactly. It's the power of suggestion as well and the implicit. I love the word implicit because implicit implicates you. You're the one who gives it life, actually. You're the one who makes the joke. If you tell me a joke, you're not the one who's making the joke. It's me who gets it who makes the joke. That's why people love hearing jokes because they get to be funny. It's me who's laughing who's the one.

And it's an act of imagination. The implicit pulls the imagination in more. The imagination is one of the most extraordinary faculties that we have. It's not an objective faculty, even though it draws its material from the objective. But it's the faculty through which we are able to be slightly more than just ourselves.

David: I like that notion, because it's something that you [to Ard] have mentioned in terms of religious feeling. You've often said to me, ‘There have to be things which point beyond themselves.’ And what you've just said, about the imagination, you've said exactly that. It’s something we can do but which points beyond us.

BO: Yeah, the other thing that fascinates me about all of this is if we think of ourselves as separate individuals, and unconnected, in a way, why should I care about you? Why should you care about me? Why? How can we begin to have a society? Do you get what I'm saying?

BO: Regardless of whether you believe in the religionists or the metaphysicians who say there's an invisible link that connect us, imagination is one of the most powerful links that enables us to slowly manage the equation between our individuality and other people's necessity: the navigation of our different freedoms. The birth, the growth of civilisation itself is a constant act of imagination, and for me storytelling and imagination are very intrinsically bound.

David: Do you think that has an effect back on us? You could imagine: here I am and I tell a story, and there you are, and we're both exactly the same person we were at the end of the story as at the beginning – it's just we've heard a story – or the telling of a story changes us. Do ideas have the power to change the person who...?

BO: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely .The teller is changed by the telling; the hearer is changed by the hearing. If the story resonates with you, in any way, something has been, not given to you or added to you, but awoken in you. Something has been inwardly expanded in you that wasn't there before. I personally, I'm even going to go slightly further than this and say that I believe stories affect reality. I believe that the stories that we tell, themselves slowly actually change our realities.

This sense of wonder

‘I think there's been too much of a misunderstanding about how the religious sense is conveyed. It could actually be just this sense of wonder: the sense of the inexplicability of the vastness of it all.’

Transcript

THIS SENSE OF WONDER

BO: Ard, you're a scientist that has a feeling for the numinous, for some idea of God, how is this reconciled?

Ard: I think that believing in God is both… it's intellectually satisfying, so I think there intellectual reasons why we ought to believe in God. It's also existentially satisfying. It touches something deep inside of me.

BO: Tell me about the intellectual satisfaction.

Ard: So I think, for example, there are questions like, why is there something rather than nothing? Which I think is a very profound question.

BO: It is. I've always felt that to be one of the greatest questions. How can something come out of nothing?

Ard: And the classic answer to that is our physical world, the world that we see, must have come from something outside of the physical world: something beyond itself; something which is totally other. So that’s one thing it's very hard to imagine: how you would have a kind of materialist account of that, because you need the material to account for it, and so where did the material come from?

BO: Yes, you have an infinite regress. It's the most terrifying infinite regress. I'm surprised scientists don't have a nervous breakdown.

Ard: Well, interestingly, there are a lot of scientists who are believers in my department in Oxford. Physics is probably the department that has the most Christians in it who are serious about their faith. And I think physics and being religious are somewhat connected. Even my atheist colleagues, I think, have a religious sense. They're looking for something beyond themselves. Maybe you were that way when you were a fourteen-year-old when you wanted to study physics because you were interested in the big questions?

BO: Yeah, it's a wonder. I think there's been too much of a misunderstanding about how the religious sense is conveyed. I don't think it has to follow a creed or a belief in a trinity or anything specific like that. It could actually be just this sense of wonder, the sense of the inexplicability of the vastness of it all. Just that sense, I think, already is a religious sense, already is a spiritual sense, because it's a sense of something that we cannot entirely account for. I think, for me, that's where it starts: that we cannot totally account for how all of this came from none of this.

Can I ask you now David, what is the absolute rock-bottom of your atheism?

David: Simply because the idea of God, it's never taken root in me.

BO: But how do you define God?

David: The supernatural. I find myself in the weird position… Ard berates me for this all the time, that....

BO: But why does he have to be supernatural?

David: Well I don't know, but....

BO: I mean, why does the idea of God have to be supernatural?

David: I suppose because all the people I've talked to about God have painted God as a supernatural thing: something that stands outside of the material world and outside of its rules. There's the stuff, and then there's the supernatural one. It's just never worked for me.

But when you speak about that that spiritual feeling, or a religious feeling, I think those things are not only true, but very important to the kind of creatures we are. And so what I would like is a science which gets past trying to trying to explain them away, and instead says these are real parts of being human. And that sense of yearning, which John Cottingham talked about, this is real. Let's not try and say, ‘Oh, it's a misfiring of your neurons. Oh it's something that natural selection tricked.’ Or that language which claims to explain, but actually just demeans and sort of poo-poos it… I hate that.

BO: It is an avoidance.

David: I would say all these things are definitely true: they're part of being human. And I also think that notion that people have, which Ard and other people we've talked to have, that you come across an idea and you realise that a) it was there before you got there, and b), it’s immense.

Greg Chaitin talked about it being like climbing to the top of a mountain – that's your idea – but from there you see a mountain range which you suddenly realised is there. And these ideas were there before you. They're all true. There are truths out there, you just haven't got to them. And somehow they're older than you, and some of them are wiser than you. And I think all of that is true, and that's why I get on with Ard, I think. But it's just the supernatural business, that's the only thing.

BO: Let me let me address the supernatural. I think one impulse religion has come from almost the same place that science comes from. It's just that we have lost the truth behind the symbol. Let me explain what I'm trying to say. We have this sense, at some point our very distant ancestors looked up into the sky at the moon and the sun and at the great passing of time and at the stars, and had this sense of something vast beyond them, includes them, inexplicable to them. And being human, and being human to the degree that we cannot be totally comfortable with that which we cannot grasp, we proceeded to try and give it a form. We gave a symbol to each aspect of reality that we divined, that we perceived.

That's where the idea of the gods came from. That's where the idea of a god with a beard came from. It's just that the form took over. We then taught these forms. We told stories about these forms, and then people now think the form is the thing.

A lot of atheists I speak to say, ‘Oh, I don't believe in a god up there with a beard.’ That was just a symbol expressing something that if it did not have a form, we would not know how to pass it on. So it actually comes from the same materialistic belief that only by embodying something can we begin to experience it, or actually have an idea of it. Remove the anthropomorphic and all we can talk about is wonder.

Ben Okri

Novelist and poet Ben Okri was born in Nigeria and lives in London. He is widely recognised as one of the greatest writers in the English language. His novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for fiction in 1991, and he has received numerous other international awards. Growing up as a child in Nigeria, Okri had dreams of becoming a physicist, but eventually turned to writing instead, and his work is infused with an understanding that reality is much more than we can simply see, observe and measure. Okri was awarded the OBE in 2001. 

His publications include: The Famished Road (1991); Songs of Enchantment (1993); An African Elegy (1992); The Age of Magic (2014).

Quotes from the interview 

The thing about a good story, especially one that has fascinated us for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, and the reason why they go on fascinating us, is because they carry within them, for want of a better word, these archetypes, these patterns, these shapes of human lives. And I think really great stories have the, kind of, accumulated wisdom of the human race passed on, distilled. So it's not make-believe.
We have no means of knowing what objective reality is. It's just simply not possible. We have no instrument by which to record the absolute nature of reality. There's no instrument, because whatever instrument that is will at some point be filtered through, or looked through, the lens of consciousness of us.
I think it's the nature of perception that we're only capable of seeing that which we've seen before. We're only capable of perceiving that which we've perceived before. And when a slightly new order of perception comes along, we can't see where it diverges. We can't see what it is. And because it doesn't conform to what we've seen before, we think it's either trivial, unimportant, insignificant or not beautiful at all.
Maybe one of the worst things that we can do is to diminish the possibility of the universe in our insistence on our description of it. I think there should always be a tentative space left open in how we tell the story of truth and of the universe. There should always be this tentative space that says we don't know just yet.

 

BEN OKRI FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

INTRODUCTION

Ard: I think when you were fourteen you tried to go to university to study physics?

BO: That's right, yeah.

Ard: So tell us a bit about that.

BO: Well I wanted to be a scientist. That was one of my earliest… slightly afterwards I wanted to be a pirate.

Ard: You wanted to be a scientist?

David: That's great!

BO: And a composer. But I was fascinated with mathematics and by how things actually come to be and the kind of explanation of the universe. I was very, very curious. I was constantly asking questions about things. Why? Why do things stand the way they do? Why is it that when we touch things, our hands don't go through them? Kind of primary baby questions like that, and it was just a little trick of fate that just turned me in a different direction.

But one thing I have carried over is a, kind of, scientific attitude to literature. I'm very, very rigorous. I'm naturally a poet, but I think there's inside poetry a tremendous feeling for the aesthetic of fact, for the aesthetic of things, for the aesthetic of things in their right order. I think I am very lucky to have had something of a mathematical mind.

1.28 – HOW NARRATIVE SHAPES SCIENCE

David: One of the things that a lot of the scientists and mathematicians that we've talked to over the last few weeks have said is that mathematics is woven into the universe. Do you think something similar can be said about narrative?

BO: I would say narrative is woven into the universe to the degree that the universe is perceived by consciousness.

Narrative is a natural part of consciousness and a natural part of the way the mind works. It’s completely inevitable. It's there in dreams. It's there in unconsciousness. It's there in all the states of living being. We can speak of narrative, even in terms of matter that doesn't have consciousness, the minute something disintegrates: the fall of a rock; the altered movement of a stream; the changing patterns of a wave – they're all elements of narrative.

Ard: One or two people we've interviewed said, ‘Well, you know, these stories mislead us. Narrative is a bad thing because it fools us.’ But I think you're saying something different. Am I hearing that right?

BO: Well, everything fools us, let's be clear about that. For one very simple reason: we have no means of knowing what objective reality is – it's just simply not possible. We have no instrument by which to record the absolute nature of reality. There's no instrument, because whatever instrument that is will at some point be filtered through, or looked through, the lens of consciousness, of us.

So as long as that is happening, we are always constantly limiting reality as we perceive it, because any perception of reality that we can have is limited to our senses and our faculties. So we don't know the absolute nature of reality. So whatever it is we perceive of reality, we're always being deceived. We're always being deceived because we don't have the total picture.

What narrative does… narrative is, I believe, a great neutral power. On the one hand it has this extraordinary power to create patterns, which then become patterns of perception. It bypasses the intelligence. It goes straight to some primal part of us, of our emotion, of our unconscious. It bypasses all of our filters. It's partly because it works through images, through symbols and through the structure by which we perceive reality. It's a very, very powerful thing.

So, on the one hand it does that, but on the other hand it helps us shape reality. It helps us actually grasp what it is that we're experiencing. Without a sense of narrative locked into our DNA, locked into every part of our cells and our minds, reality would be a great mess of nonsense. We have no way of actually… This conversation would be meaningless without a sense of narrative.

David: Do you think science itself has a narrative, which it sometimes thinks it doesn't have? Because scientists like to say, ‘Well, we've got facts.’ They don't so often say, ‘but we also have a narrative, a story of science.’

BO: Oh, I think science has a narrative. It's unavoidable. I'll give you a very simple example: the whole idea of a wave and particle. The minute you have images, you already have the beginning of narrative, because you have the beginning of the shaping of the way something can be perceived.

I think those are actually two great poetic ways of perceiving reality: the wave and the particle. With one we perceive reality in its density and with the other we perceive reality in its immeasurability and its dream-like qualities, so that both those two images, which are poetic and a narrative, also, I think, conform to two great ways of looking at the world which you have in in literature.

Ard: I want to ask a slightly different question about narrative and mathematics because I've heard you speak on this. So how are mathematics and narrative similar and how are they different?

BO: Well, maths and narrative have quite a few things in common and quite a few divergent elements. They have progression, symmetry, a sense of a journey actually. Mathematicians always speak about the journey of a problem, not only the journey of the solving of a problem, but the journey of a problem through other people having worked through it, worked with it.

I think another similarity is there's an intuitive element to both of them. Mathematicians always speak of the intuitive. Sometimes they arrive at the truth intuitively before they have solved it physically. There's an intuitive element.

Where they diverge? There are many areas where they diverge. Narrative allows for imaginative expansion. Mathematics is more crystalline. Narrative always wears the human flesh. It's always embodied. That's how I always think of mathematics as being very pure in that sense.

The truths of maths are absolutely implied in the equations. It has nothing to do with consciousness in that… it has to do with consciousness, in the sense that mathematicians, the human being, is alive, but it is implied in itself, whereas the truth of literature is partly brought by the reader. It's shared. If it's not shared, it does not exist. A story does not exist if there's no one to hear it.

Truth and Beauty in Art and Science

Ard: I liked the way you said, ‘the crystalline part of mathematics’. So mathematics has a certain austere beauty. I was just curious whether you think that narrative has a different kind of beauty sometimes, or maybe richer forms of beauty than just mathematics. A lot of mathematicians talk about beauty in mathematics, and you've spoken about this as well.

BO: What do you think mathematicians mean when they talk about beauty in mathematics?

Ard: Well, I think I recognise beauty in mathematics, and the interesting thing is we all, all of us mathematically orientated people, tend to agree on the beauty, and we tend to think this is more beautiful than that. But when you say to me, define it exactly, it's hard to put. I can recognise it without necessarily always being able to define it.

BO: Okay, I have a question for you then. Can the beauty in mathematics, in an equation, can it be there even when the mathematics is wrong?

Ard: Sometimes it can be. So sometimes we speak about a very beautiful theory which is ruined by experiment: an ugly fact. But in general, this is definitely true... there are very beautiful theories that are wrong, but, in general, if I have two competing theories for the same bit of nature I need to explain, the more beautiful theory is more likely to be the true one.

BO: But have there been cases where the ugly theory has turned out to be the truth?

Ard: Unfortunately it has.

BO: Because you have quite a few of that in literature. You do. Things are ugly. The first people who read Moby Dick didn't see its beauty. The first set of people who saw Demoiselles d'Avignon didn't see its beauty. We still don't see the beauty in a lot of cubism. A lot of modern music we still think of as being too fractured for us. So sometimes something can seem ugly.

Ard: But there are mathematical things that seemed ugly or seemed trivial at the time but ended up being very profound later, so part of that is just our inability to perceive.

BO: It's the same with literature, absolutely the same with literature.

Ard: There are mathematicians whose work was forgotten while they were alive, and then after they died we realise there was something unbelievably profound.

BO: I think it's also the nature of perception that we're only capable of seeing that which we've seen before. We're only capable of perceiving that which we've perceived before, and when a slightly new order of perception comes along, we can't see where it diverges. We can't see what it is. And because it doesn't conform to what we've seen before, we think it's either trivial, unimportant, insignificant or not beautiful at all.

You think of the great works that people did not understand at first. You think of something like Waiting for Godot, or you think of many Shakespeare plays that people didn't understand, didn't think beautiful at first, but which we've come to learn to perceive its correct inner beauty.

Ard: Is there a logic to narrative or to poetry that has to be conformed to or...?

BO: The best poetry and the best novels, the best narrative, absolutely. You can almost create a divine logic. What you're struck by, more than anything else, is the shocking clarity of thinking. You read Dante and from one line to another there are no absurd leaps. Everything has to come; it has to add up. Let’s just say there's a great rigor to the best parts.

You can always tell when a writer is faking it because the images don't add up. The narrative doesn't add up. It makes like sudden leaps that are not prepared for meticulously.

Ard: As if it's less beautiful somehow? Is that what you're saying? It's less beautiful, less aesthetic? Or is that the wrong way...?

David: Or is it less truthful?

BO: It always feels less truthful, and it is. Sometimes something can be wrong in its inner logic and still have beauty, and I think that's because beauty partially transcends logic. I think it's implied in it. I think beauty is implied in logic. I think that which we find to be beautiful is something which is logical to our aesthetic sense. 

13:11 – EXPERIENCING THE SUBLIME

David: We we've talked to people about the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. What do you think the sublime points at? That feeling of the sublime?

BO: I think the sublime points at this sense of something greater than us that we didn't make. But it also points to something in us that is greater than what we normally feel, that we haven't shaped. So it's like an hour glass in a way: so the sublime is both that which inspires it, as that which is the feeling of that inspiration.

And that's why the idea of the sublime is so important and why it enlarges us and why it temporises us. At best we're six by two and a half, but the sublime really makes you feel like an inward cathedral. The sublime really brings to the feeling of being human something much greater than being human. That's what's extraordinary about it.

David: Have you felt it?

BO: Yes, I felt it at Niagara Falls. I felt it at the foot of mountains. I've felt it with books. I've felt it with night skies.

Ard: And do you think there's something when we respond to the sublime that sometimes makes us afraid? Is terror or fear a part of it?

BO: Yes, there's definitely terror as an aspect of the sublime. All truly great things have an age of terror to them. That's where the idea of Pan came from. You could be in the mountains and you have this Pan feeling. That's where panic comes from. You have this Pan feeling. I had it the other day. I was in the mountains up in South Wolds. I was walking up. There was nobody there. There was absolutely nobody, and I was like, ‘Ah, lovely day.’ I was climbing and then suddenly the immensity of that landscape, the emptiness of it, was terrifying; it was threatening. Why? Nothing was going to happen to me, but suddenly I bolted. I literally ran and there was nothing to run away from. Yes, there is an edge of terror and I don't know what that terror is.

David: Have you ever felt it in your own creation, where you've felt that something you're creating has touched on it or?

BO: You're asking me to wander into very indelicate area.

David: Okay.

BO: But yeah, the sense of the sublime is something I constantly work with.

16:21 – WRITERS, NARRATIVE AND EMERGENCE

David: Do you think when you write narrative, or when you read great narrative, is there some discovering of something rather than just completely creating it?

BO: Yes, I think it's a wonderful image and idea, and I think you do discover it. It emerges through the rigor of, for want of a better word, the mathematics of your story. Sometimes a narrative or a poem goes somewhere you did not entirely intend it to go because of its own inner logic. And this could be also the emergence of the theme – not just where the story goes – actually what it is about. You discover it in the process of doing it. It's quite terrifying; quite wonderful.

Ard: So is it that sometimes the narrative surprises you? Does it do something you didn't expect?

BO: Yes, it surprises you because the narrative is not an external thing: narrative is what emerges. I think it's two things really: it's what emerges from you, because every story you tell is drawing upon the deeper, as well as the superficial, aspects of your mind, your psyche, all of what makes you.

So you might start very deliberately, but because you've started, all sorts of unsuspected lower, deeper, subterranean elements come into play. People who write can't get over that fact that you start with something quite simple and something turns up that you hadn’t… There's no way you could've dreamt that it'll emerge, and then you have to shape that.

Ard: You use that word ‘emerge’, and I thought that was interesting. Scientists talk about ‘emergent phenomena’. So you put a lot of things together, a lot of individual little units, and sometimes, from the collective, something emerges that was a surprise.

BO: That sounds like a lot of story-tellers.

Ard: Okay, yeah.

David: But the scientists are very, very nervous about it. They're really not sure whether it's true, and they're not sure if they even want it to be true.

Ard: Some scientists love it.

David: Some do, but there's a great nervousness about this emergent idea in science.

BO: Well, there's a great nervousness with poets and novelists about this emergent idea. I mean, a lot of writers want to be in control of their material. They want to say, ‘I shaped this. This came from me. This was a deliberate act.’

They don't want to be surprised by Anna Karenina. That's the last thing. I like to be. I work to be surprised wide awake. And I can see why the emergent idea you speak of is worrying to scientists, because it has to do with the element of control and the element of objectivity, the element of truth. But I think it's part of the wonder of what we do.

19:31 – RETELLING PLATO’S CAVE

David: Plato's Cave. The philosophers and scientists love telling us about Plato's Cave.

BO: Why? It's such a great, great story.

Ard: Do you want to tell us that story?

BO: Well there are many sides to the story. I want to know why they like the story first.

David: Well it's this sense that people like Roger Penrose particularly, or Greg Chaitin, the mathematicians, they say, ‘Look, there are the truths, there are things which are just absolutely true. Just because we can't see them, doesn't mean they're not there. We've just got to not get fooled by thinking that there’s just the flickering images we're seeing on the wall. That is to limit your imagination.’ And that's why they tell it.

BO: Shall I tell the story? Okay. My telling of the story is, of course, going to be imperfect. I think every storyteller… It's the beauty of story that we bend it a little bit in accordance with how we’re perceiving the world in that particular moment.

Anyway, these people have been in this cave. Let's think of them as prisoners, or they they've been in this cave for a while. The light comes from behind them, and they're in this cave in such a way that they can only see in the cave and see the images passing by on the cave wall.

And one of the things that I think people have taken from it is a great question of illusion and reality. The things that we're seeing, that they're seeing on the cave wall, is that truth? That's what you're saying. Or is that which creates the shadows, is that truth?

David: And what do you think of it? What does it say to you?

BO: I think it's one of the greatest stories, and it's a story rich with truth. It's one of those stories incredibly soaked in the truth of life, because that's what we do: we're constantly looking at things and taking them for absolutes. I think the story is one of the great… it is an allegory. It is an allegory of knowledge, but I think it's also an allegory of perception. And I think it's also an allegory of ultimate truths. And I think this allegory tells us that, actually, we can't know ultimate truth. We, in our mortal condition, at best can deduce what that is like from what we're seeing on the cave walls.

David: Yeah, that's what science says it does.

BO: If we were to turn round and walk out into what is creating that reality – what's creating the shadows on the wall – we now have to leave all of the orders of knowledge as we know it and enter into the orders of enlightenment of higher kinds of spiritual ecstasy, visionary states: things that don't belong to the conversation of science. And yet, at the same time, how is it strange that some of the great scientists were visionaries themselves?

Ard: And do you think in Plato's Cave we're looking at these shadows, and so that's all we see, and they can be distorted? Do you think that people find that sometimes a frightening thought? That all they are seeing are the shadows? Or do you think that people, maybe, sometimes also think that the shadows are all that there is?

BO: I think we have come to think that that is all there is. And I think atheism, at its worst, tells us that that is all there is, because you can see it. I mean, one of the great arguments of atheism keeps coming back to: ‘I can't see it. There's no evidence for it. I can't touch it.’ It goes back to evidence, and once we start to deal only with evidence, we're talking about shadows on the wall. We can see them; we can't see what's causing it. We can't deal with the source of the images on the wall. Evidence ends up being its own limitation.

23:53 –PROOF, TRUTH and science

David: Do you think literature gets at truth? Because this resonates through the series. Science is very happy with proof – things that are proven – and then this word ‘truth’ comes in, and it starts to get murky and people get worried faces.

BO: Yes, that's because we're talking about different kinds of truths and different layers and levels of truths. Absolute truth is – let's just put this on the table straight away – absolute truth is beyond all of us – scientists, metaphysicians – absolute truth is beyond all of us.

Truth is a problem, I think, in almost all spheres of endeavour from science to philosophy. I think truth is a problem.

David: Oh, you see, the scientists think they've got truth and that nobody else does.

BO: Well, I will say the scientists, if they are honest with themselves, they know that they're wrong, because they've had this perception of truth for the last two, three hundred years and it keeps changing. It keeps evolving in relation to how much they know, in relation to what new principles, new ways of reading the world, new measurements, come about. So science itself, and its perception of the world, it evolves.

There are very few absolute truths that we have now that were there at the beginning of the scientific endeavour. Our sense of absolutes just keeps changing. I think what science can claim to have is the pursuit of all objective truth, as much as possible: measurable objective truth. But even that, I would contend, is constantly behind absolute truth, because the tools of our measurement are primitive compared to the infinite subtleties of the manifestations of the great laws of nature.

David: Alex Rosenberg, particularly, said, well several of them said, ‘Look, science has truth. We can prove things, and the only things you can prove are truth. Art and literature that's make-believe.’

BO: I wouldn't say that truth is only that which can be proven. I think that which can be proven is that which can be proven, truth is something else. That which can be proven is more in the order of fact. It is more in the order of… We need another word for that truth. Again, this is why I come with the order of truths. There are some things that will, unless our science undergoes astronomical, phenomenal developments, there are some things that will be beyond proof.

But about ‘make-believe’; we need another phrase for it. I would use the word ‘imagination’. I always say that a story is not just make-believe: a good story, or a good poem, is not just a fantasy. The thing about a good story, especially one that has fascinated us for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, and the reason why they go on fascinating us, is because they carry within them, for want of a better word, these archetypes, these patterns, these shapes of human lives.

And I think really great stories have the, kind of, accumulated wisdom of the human race passed on. So it's not make-believe. These are things that are drawn from the great well, the great river of experience of living and being here on this planet. So it's not make-believe at all. These are great inward truths of human life.

Ard: John Cottingham talked about being porous to things: so opening yourself up and allowing yourself to receive knowledge. And there are things that we know, but if we insist that's not real knowledge, we actually lose something.

BO: Maybe one of the worst things that we can do is to diminish the possibility of the universe in our insistence on our description of it. I think there should always be a tentative space left open in how we tell the story of truth and of the universe. There should always be this tentative space that says we don't know just yet. And that space, I think, is the most dynamic space in in the human story, in human civilisation. It's that space that we really pass on from one generation to another, not just facts.

Why this is important is two ways of dealing with knowledge, of dealing with truth, of proof, of our different endeavours. I think it's important because of the structures of belief that make it possible for us to be receptive.

If you believe that the world is completely explicable and is completely as it is, you are less likely to be receptive to the intuitive. I think your belief, therefore, has a great impact on whether you're an insistent, an obsessive, thinker, grabber, shaker, shaper, grasper – and you believe that's the only way in which something can be known – or whether you're someone who can also be receptive to the possibility of dreams, of intuitions, of hints from all manner of things. So I think one’s belief has a great impact on the ability to know.

30:07 - MEANING-SEEKING BEINGS

David: The other thing that [John] Cottingham said… he said look we're the only creatures who when you've fed us and watered us and given us somewhere to live we still feel incomplete, there's still a yearning, which he described I think as wanting to know what's over the horizon, wanting to know why, and I wondered what you thought of that because I was very taken with that when he said it.

BO: Apart from storytelling beings we are also meaning-seeking beings. We're purpose-driven beings. You give people everything, and they still feel something's missing. Many of the great stories are just about that: you have everything but something is missing, and one day you leave your home to go find out what it is.

BO: Meaning is a very, very strange thing. Meaning is… I can see how it's a problem for science. I really can see that. But meaning is essential for us humans. If you were to ask me the relationship between meaning and truth, which is really another problematic area, I would say that meaning is like the temporary resolution of certain psychological, philosophical and spiritual tensions that we have inside us at any given point. I don't think meaning is ever final. I think meaning is evolutionary. I think it's continuous. I think it unfolds, it grows, it opens out into doubt and confusion again, and then is resolved again and it continues like that: like a flower constantly opening.

David: Do you think it's lesser because it doesn't have that absolute certainty which truth and proof claim to have?

BO: Well, you see, proof can have certainty, because it's dealing with something that is objective. But meaning, you cannot have certainty because you're dealing with the numinous nature of being alive and of being human. It would be wonderful if we could apply the scientific method of proof and certainty to our moral dilemmas, all of those questions… but there is no scientific way of dealing with the questions of life, there isn't.

All we have are these grey things that we sometimes feel we wrestle over, we have intuitions about, we make mistakes and we try and correct them. It’s very fluid. It's this fluid nature of life, and of our moving through it, that puts it in an order, very different from that of science, which is why we envy science. We envy science its objective certainty. The fact that you can manipulate, and move with, and deal with, these things that you can look at with absolute certainty. It's enviable, but bring that into the realm of life and it dissolves. It's meaningless; it's of no help to us whatsoever.

33:56 – HOW DO WE KNOW MORAL TRUTH?

Ard: Do you think story is an important part of finding our moral sense or moral compass?

BO: Profoundly, actually. How do we know the moral boundaries of life? How do we know? If you live in a place where no one has told you, ‘Don't do that, that's going to hurt somebody’, how would you know? We only know because people tell us. And even when they tell us, we don't really know. We only begin to know when we can start to feel how the other person might feel.

There are not that many ways of getting me to feel what you can feel; there are just not that many. One of the few truly great ways of doing that is story. It is one of the most miraculous things about it.

You write a story: ‘One day I went out into the street and I saw this girl,’ and I'm reading it… I'm not reading it from your point of view, I'm reading it from my point of view. I'm reading it from my consciousness. So the act of reading is an act of automatic empathy: it is literally wearing someone's skin. It is literally entering into someone's consciousness.

Forgive these absurd gestures, but it is an emersion into a slightly different order of reality – actually one quite different from yours. But suddenly you get to see it from someone else, and you think, oh my goodness, is that what that feels like? And that's one of the most powerful places for the birth of the moral, of the moral sense, because if we don't know what someone else feels like, why should I care, really, what I do to you?

You see the thing about a story that is very, very strange is that the minute you begin to tell a story, a whole universe comes into being, because every good story brings with it a complete world. Even if it's very short, the implication of a complete world is in there. And that's where the moral structure comes from, because it's giving the idea of a complete world. All our ideas about society are implied in the stories that we tell.

David: I think that's a very important word, though, when you say ‘implied’, because it's often the implicit which are the most powerful because they take root in you. It's different to the explicit. I mean, the difference between the two is a joke is implicit, the funny part is implicit, and when some nitwit comes along and makes it explicit, it's not funny.

BO: It's ruined it, exactly. It's the power of suggestion as well and the implicit. I love the word implicit because implicit implicates you. You're the one who gives it life, actually. You're the one who makes the joke. If you tell me a joke, you're not the one who's making the joke. It's me who gets it who makes the joke. That's why people love hearing jokes because they get to be funny. It's me who's laughing who's the one.

And it's an act of imagination. The implicit pulls the imagination in more. The imagination is one of the most extraordinary faculties that we have. It's not an objective faculty, even though it draws its material from the objective. But it's the faculty through which we are able to be slightly more than just ourselves.

David: I like that notion, because it's something that you [to Ard] have mentioned in terms of religious feeling. You've often said to me, ‘There have to be things which point beyond themselves.’ And what you've just said, about the imagination, you've said exactly that. It’s something we can do but which points beyond us.

BO: Yeah, the other thing that fascinates me about all of this is if we think of ourselves as separate individuals, and unconnected, in a way, why should I care about you? Why should you care about me? Why? How can we begin to have a society? Do you get what I'm saying?

BO: Regardless of whether you believe in the religionists or the metaphysicians who say there's an invisible link that connect us, imagination is one of the most powerful links that enables us to slowly manage the equation between our individuality and other people's necessity: the navigation of our different freedoms. The birth, the growth of civilisation itself is a constant act of imagination, and for me storytelling and imagination are very intrinsically bound.

David: Do you think that has an effect back on us? You could imagine: here I am and I tell a story, and there you are, and we're both exactly the same person we were at the end of the story as at the beginning – it's just we've heard a story – or the telling of a story changes us. Do ideas have the power to change the person who...?

BO: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely .The teller is changed by the telling; the hearer is changed by the hearing. If the story resonates with you, in any way, something has been, not given to you or added to you, but awoken in you. Something has been inwardly expanded in you that wasn't there before. I personally, I'm even going to go slightly further than this and say that I believe stories affect reality. I believe that the stories that we tell, themselves slowly actually change our realities.

40:15 – THIS SENSE OF WONDER

BO: Ard, you're a scientist that has a feeling for the numinous, for some idea of God, how is this reconciled?

Ard: I think that believing in God is both… it's intellectually satisfying, so I think there intellectual reasons why we ought to believe in God. It's also existentially satisfying. It touches something deep inside of me.

BO: Tell me about the intellectual satisfaction.

Ard: So I think, for example, there are questions like, why is there something rather than nothing? Which I think is a very profound question.

BO: It is. I've always felt that to be one of the greatest questions. How can something come out of nothing?

Ard: And the classic answer to that is our physical world, the world that we see, must have come from something outside of the physical world: something beyond itself; something which is totally other. So that’s one thing it's very hard to imagine: how you would have a kind of materialist account of that, because you need the material to account for it, and so where did the material come from?

BO: Yes, you have an infinite regress. It's the most terrifying infinite regress. I'm surprised scientists don't have a nervous breakdown.

Ard: Well, interestingly, there are a lot of scientists who are believers in my department in Oxford. Physics is probably the department that has the most Christians in it who are serious about their faith. And I think physics and being religious are somewhat connected. Even my atheist colleagues, I think, have a religious sense. They're looking for something beyond themselves. Maybe you were that way when you were a fourteen-year-old when you wanted to study physics because you were interested in the big questions?

BO: Yeah, it's a wonder. I think there's been too much of a misunderstanding about how the religious sense is conveyed. I don't think it has to follow a creed or a belief in a trinity or anything specific like that. It could actually be just this sense of wonder, the sense of the inexplicability of the vastness of it all. Just that sense, I think, already is a religious sense, already is a spiritual sense, because it's a sense of something that we cannot entirely account for. I think, for me, that's where it starts: that we cannot totally account for how all of this came from none of this.

Can I ask you now David, what is the absolute rock-bottom of your atheism?

David: Simply because the idea of God, it's never taken root in me.

BO: But how do you define God?

David: The supernatural. I find myself in the weird position… Ard berates me for this all the time, that....

BO: But why does he have to be supernatural?

David: Well I don't know, but....

BO: I mean, why does the idea of God have to be supernatural?

David: I suppose because all the people I've talked to about God have painted God as a supernatural thing: something that stands outside of the material world and outside of its rules. There's the stuff, and then there's the supernatural one. It's just never worked for me.

But when you speak about that that spiritual feeling, or a religious feeling, I think those things are not only true, but very important to the kind of creatures we are. And so what I would like is a science which gets past trying to trying to explain them away, and instead says these are real parts of being human. And that sense of yearning, which John Cottingham talked about, this is real. Let's not try and say, ‘Oh, it's a misfiring of your neurons. Oh it's something that natural selection tricked.’ Or that language which claims to explain, but actually just demeans and sort of poo-poos it… I hate that.

BO: It is an avoidance.

David: I would say all these things are definitely true: they're part of being human. And I also think that notion that people have, which Ard and other people we've talked to have, that you come across an idea and you realise that a) it was there before you got there, and b), it’s immense.

Greg Chaitin talked about it being like climbing to the top of a mountain – that's your idea – but from there you see a mountain range which you suddenly realised is there. And these ideas were there before you. They're all true. There are truths out there, you just haven't got to them. And somehow they're older than you, and some of them are wiser than you. And I think all of that is true, and that's why I get on with Ard, I think. But it's just the supernatural business, that's the only thing.

BO: Let me let me address the supernatural. I think one impulse religion has come from almost the same place that science comes from. It's just that we have lost the truth behind the symbol. Let me explain what I'm trying to say. We have this sense, at some point our very distant ancestors looked up into the sky at the moon and the sun and at the great passing of time and at the stars, and had this sense of something vast beyond them, includes them, inexplicable to them. And being human, and being human to the degree that we cannot be totally comfortable with that which we cannot grasp, we proceeded to try and give it a form. We gave a symbol to each aspect of reality that we divined, that we perceived.

That's where the idea of the gods came from. That's where the idea of a god with a beard came from. It's just that the form took over. We then taught these forms. We told stories about these forms, and then people now think the form is the thing.

A lot of atheists I speak to say, ‘Oh, I don't believe in a god up there with a beard.’ That was just a symbol expressing something that if it did not have a form, we would not know how to pass it on. So it actually comes from the same materialistic belief that only by embodying something can we begin to experience it, or actually have an idea of it. Remove the anthropomorphic and all we can talk about is wonder.

 

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