What is scientism?

David: Alex, can you tell us what you mean by scientism?

AR: Right. So scientism, as the word is normally used, is a term of abuse, and what it means is the unreasonable and unwarranted crediting of science with powers to explain – that it is, by many people, not so credited – and the exaggerated respect for science’s methods and science’s findings.

Now take that definition and remove the word ‘exaggerated’ and you’ve got my definition of scientism. Scientism is the view that science is our best guide to the nature of reality. Its methods and its findings are our best account of the nature of reality.

I’ve taken the word ‘scientism’ and tried to turn it into a non-pejorative expression, in the way that we’re familiar with from the way the LGBT community and others have taken words like ‘queer’ and made them into badges of honour instead of terms of abuse.

Ard: And do you think that scientism, the way you view it, is that a common view in the university, for example?

AR: I think that it’s not a common view in the university. And even among those who embrace it, there’s a certain amount of trepidation about going public, because when you do so, you tend to step on the feet of those who think there are ‘many ways of knowing’, and that science already has such imperialist pretensions as to threaten other disciplines. And for that reason those who embrace it, even in the comfort and privacy of their own minds, are reluctant to be publicly associated with it.

Ard: But you’re not afraid to be.

AR: No.

Ard: Why is that?

AR: Well, I was a physics student as an undergraduate and I made a conceptual mistake which drew me into philosophy. And by the time I’d figured out the mistake, it was too late to go back into physics.

But the kinds of questions that have held my attention throughout my entire academic life are these questions that are raised by the sciences, and which I think the sciences can ultimately answer, and are now, especially as a result of what’s happened in the last 30 or 40 years, in a position to take away from philosophy and give answers to them.

Ard: So you think it was a… You said you made a mistake moving into philosophy?

AR: A conceptual mistake that led me away from physics and into philosophy.

Ard: What was that mistake?

AR: I don't know that I should say in public.

Ard: Okay!

AR: No. The mistake, I think, is one that is not uncommon. It’s twofold. One: demanding of science – especially physics – that it show not only the nature of reality, but that reality somehow, the way it is, necessarily, that it couldn’t have been otherwise; that the inverse square law of gravitation couldn’t have been the inverse cube law.

The demand that physics say why things are the way they are to a level of determination and necessity that no science is capable of is a mistake, but it leads you to be dissatisfied with scientific explanations and try to seek deeper ones; or at least acknowledge the existence of deeper ones. And that was my mistake: to suppose that there were deeper explanations than those that the sciences provide.

Ard: So you basically realised that there are no deeper explanations?

AR: Correct. That’s what scientism says: there are no deeper explanations than those that science provides, and science provides explanations for a broad range of questions that many people might look to philosophy or to religion for answers to.

AR: As science pushes back its frontiers, of course, the bigger the frontier, the more unknowns there are. But in some respect we begin to be able to answer questions that had long been held as the privileged domain of philosophy.

David: So what are some of these questions that you think people say, ‘Ah, we must look to other things for…’ which now you think science can…?

AR: Oh, well, consider the list. After, you know, does God exist? The questions about does the universe have a meaning? What’s the purpose of life? What’s the nature of right and wrong? How does the brain relate to the mind? Do we have free will? What does moral responsibility consist in? That’s a whole list of questions that constitutes the lion’s share of philosophy, and I think all of them have answers that are given by science.

AR: So, is there a God? Of course not. What is the meaning of the universe? It doesn’t have any. What is the purpose of life? Ditto. Is there a difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There’s not a moral difference between them. What is the nature of the relationship between the mind and the brain? They’re identical. The mind is the brain. Is there free will? Not a chance. Do the lessons of the past have any particular bearing that would help us cope with the future? Less and less, if it ever had any at all. So, that’s a nice list.


David: Reductionism, determinism: do they, when you put them together… A lot of people say, ‘Ah, what that means is we see ourselves as machines’, which, I think, people are quite happy to look at an ant and go, ‘Yeah, it’s a little machine with legs’. Is that what those two parts of modern science force us to think?

AR: Well, yes, unless you’re going to put too much weight on a machine, because a machine is an artefact, and an artefact requires a designer, and the designer in our case was Mother Nature operating through the principle of blind variation and natural selection.

Ard: I think there’s no ambiguity. We believe that the machines…

AR: But the machine includes our brain and therefore our minds, and we’re descendant, all of us, from the same struc…

David: Okay.

AR: That’s one of the key ideas of Darwin’s discoveries.

Ard: So maybe someone would say… So we’re animals. I think nobody dis…

AR: Without a divine spark.

Ard: Without a divine spark. We’re animals, but there’s nothing… If we’re looking in that category, there’s nothing beyond the fact that we’re animals. We’re no different from animals.

AR: Yes, right.

David: But unlike a lot of animals, we have thoughts.

AR: Yes, unlike a lot of animals, but like a lot of animals.

David: Yes, but there’s a qualitative difference in the thinking which we are capable of than most of the rest. So in other words…

AR: I think I just…

David: Yes, we’re animals. But something has emerged in our evolution…

AR: I just don’t think I’m going to grant that. If you want to use the words ‘emergent’ or ‘irreducibly complex’ or ‘valuative’, then I think these are placeholders for questions on the agenda of science. At this point we don’t have a good handle on the details of the answer to this question that I favour. And you, holding an alternative view, have probably even less grounds for confidence.

Ard: So David doesn’t believe in God at all?

AR: No, but he does believe in the existence of emergent properties, shall we say.

David: Well, I think that’s…

Ard: Do you think that’s something he should let go of, emergent properties?

AR: Yes.

David: Why?

AR: Alternatively, I think you should treat emergent properties as a signal, or a flag, that indicates a domain, or a terrain, in which science has some work to do.

David: Could there not be a proper science which did include emergence, which would be scientific? Why couldn’t that be? I feel open-minded about it.

AR: My confidence here is based on induction, and I could be wrong, because inductive arguments are arguments that are not truth-preserving. They’re arguments from a finite body of data to expectations about the future.

David: Yes, it’s been true up to now, and so…

AR: When I look at the history of science, I look at the history of people drawing lines in the sand and challenging science to transcend them, and science successively doing it. And the most famous example is this: Kant, the great German philosopher who wrote The Critique of Pure Reason proved, or purported to prove in that book, that the only possible way to conceive of the universe was in the way that Newton had. He was a total determinist and mechanist and reductionist about the physical world. But then he said, ‘There will never be a Newton for the blade of grass.’ And what he meant by that was when it comes to the biological domain, we will have to employ teleological or purpose-driven theory, because the properties of life and of the means-and-ends economy of biological nature are impervious to physical explanation. And 22 years later in Shropshire, England, the Newton for the blade of grass was born.

David: Mm-hm.

AR: Charles Darwin. Okay? And it’s a perfect example of how people say, ‘Reduce this. I dare you.’ And science eventually finds a way to do it.


Ard: Do we have souls?

AR: Of course not. Not only do we not have souls, but I think that contemporary cognitive neuroscience suggests that we don’t even have selves.

David: Well that’s disturbing because I was sure I had a self when I walked in.

AR: Right. You did have a self, but it may well be different now – a different self in your body.

Ard: Is that the science that’s telling us this?

AR: Yes, I think that a good deal of neuroscience is telling us this. Now, David, you were pretty confident that you had a self when you walked in, and you’re still confident that you have a self, and you will be confident tomorrow, and we, all of us, are victims of a vast range of illusions foisted upon us by conscious introspection, of which the belief in an enduring self is probably one of the most difficult to undermine or dislodge.

David: Why would I want to undermine it though?

AR: In fact, you probably wouldn’t want to undermine it, and it is the result, most probably, of a process that is highly adaptive in our species. Okay? But if you now go on to say, since I have this firm conviction, it must be true…

David: Right.

AR: …you then begin to worry about questions to which the answers are either negative, or they turn out to be pseudo-questions.

Ard: It looks like it’s troubling you, David, if you don’t have a self?

David: Well…

AR: But wait, wait. Look…

Ard: I mean, what does that mean?

AR: We’ve got this word, and we’ve got this continuing stream of memories. It’s fairly defective, broken up, and out of this we cobble together a conception that we call the self. Okay? This conception has important use for us in our daily lives, but it doesn’t have a foundation in the nature of psychological reality. It’s another one of those confabulations of introspection that have a payoff in adaptation, but which don’t have a grounding in reality.

There are many things that we believe, and that humans have believed since we began to have beliefs about the nature of reality, that are highly adaptive and quite false. One obvious one is that things are coloured. Colour only comes into existence somewhere in our visual cortex.

Ard: But that doesn’t make it unreal.

AR: It doesn’t make the sensation unreal, but it makes that belief false and our beliefs about ourselves and the world are widely false in that way. Adaptive, useful, but based on mistakes.

David: I get the sense that you’re saying, ‘Look, what’s real is the stuff that’s out there. And the stuff that’s in here is somehow not real?’

AR: No, the stuff that’s in here is composed of the same constituents as the stuff that’s out there.

David: Yeah.

AR: Everything’s just fermions and bosons, including the neurology of our brains.

David: But I have thoughts.

AR: Yes.

David: I’m fairly convinced I do.

AR: Yes.

David: And I feel that those thoughts, they have a reality as well. So my thoughts, my feelings, my ideas, they seem real, as real as this stuff, just real in a different way.

AR: Well, they’re real in that sense that they are represented in your brain in complex neural circuitry, which fires in a way that produces behaviour in you, including the verbal behaviour that you just engaged in. And so, of course, it’s real.

David: Yes.

AR: But the spin that we put on those neural circuits, that’s been pretty consistently mistaken ever since people started thinking that there were minds and that they were distinct from brains.


Ard: So there are thoughts that are quite constrained, like mathematical thoughts. So I say 1+1=2, but the fact that 1+1=2 is independent of whether or not my brain does those things, right? So the mathematics is true, regardless of whether bosons or fermions exist. Isn’t that right?

AR: Yes. And there, I think, you have the major problem on the research programme of scientism.

Ard: Okay.

AR: The scientistic world view, I think, has very good answers to a huge range of the questions that really trouble human beings when they can’t get to sleep at night, and they’re looking up at the ceiling and wondering about themselves and their place in the universe. The domain in which we have the most trouble is not a domain that most people are interested in: it’s the nature of mathematics and our knowledge of mathematical truths. As you just said, it looks very much like mathematical truths are true, independent of anybody ever having thought them.

Many people are inclined to think that mathematics is just ideas in the head, but it can’t be, for a lot of reasons, and we’ve recognised this ever since Plato. And the one thing that we scientistic philosophers don’t yet have a good account of is how we can have knowledge of mathematics, because we think that knowledge is a causal process that involves an interaction between us and the objects of knowledge. And two, and equals, and prime number, these are abstract objects that do not exist in space and time and that therefore we can’t have a causal connection to. And so our knowledge of mathematics is a deep mystery.

Ard: Doesn’t it trouble you that you need mathematics so much to do science?

AR: Yes.

Ard: So, it’s not just…

AR: When I said it’s a deep mystery, I meant it’s not just a fly in the ointment. It’s a big project on the agenda of naturalistic philosophy. We need an answer to this question. Now, I’ve been wrapping my head around this problem, a bit. Not as much as the philosophers of mathematics, who are much more deeply steeped in the difficulties of the subject. But the interesting thing is, as often the case in science, what really troubles the people who are at the frontiers of the discipline is so arcane and so alien to the interests of most people that it’s even hard to keep them awake long enough to explain the problem.

Ard: So would you say…?

AR: But it’s a big problem.

Ard: So it’s not just a few clouds on the horizon?

AR: Well, I’m inclined to say that it is a cloud on the horizon – a cloud no bigger than your hand.

Ard: Okay.

AR: But you know how these problems have a tendency to grow, the way the cloud no bigger than your hand ends up being a thunderstorm.

Ard: Yes.

AR: Now I don’t think it’s going to become a thunderstorm.

AR: But it’s a problem.

David: But…

Ard: It’s a very interesting problem also.

AR: A friend of mine once said that this is a problem on which two millennia of geniuses have laboured with great intensity and made no progress at all.

David: So let’s say when they did wrap their heads round it, they discovered, ‘You know what. It is the way it seemed. There are certain ideas which just exist in the universe, and we somehow can find them…’

AR: Right. So there’s an agen…

David: But that wouldn’t undermine science, would it? I mean, I can’t imagine how it would.

AR: Well, I don’t think it would. There’s an agenda of problems that face the philosophy of science, metaphysics, epistemology, which are generated by the sciences, questions that the sciences, at least not yet, can’t answer. And philosophy is in many ways the guardian of those questions.

Now, there are some philosophers who hold, and some theologians who hold, that these questions will never be answered by the sciences, and therefore they provide good grounds for supposing that science is somehow incomplete and that there are truths of a non-scientific kind that, in competition with scientific truths, somehow may win out. And among these there might well be religious truths.

Now here’s the thing: when I weigh the philosophical puzzles that remain, like the nature of our knowledge of mathematics, against what science has accomplished over the 400 years since Galileo and Newton, when I weigh those in the balance, it seems to me that the balance is so heavily tipped towards science and its accomplishments, by way of explaining and enabling us to understand nature and ourselves, that I cannot take these puzzles seriously.

Now, at the end of the 20th, beginning of the 21st century, there’s still a package of problems that the sciences can’t yet answer, of which I think, as I said, the nature of our knowledge of mathematical truths is one. Do I think that science will never answer them? No, that’s what scientism consists in. It’s the prediction that eventually we’re going to successfully answer these questions.

Ard: So to summarise your argument: what you’re saying is science has shown us so many advances that we should essentially trust it to answer all questions.

AR: The inductive evidence favours that conclusion more strongly than the conclusion that there’s some domain of questions – real questions as opposed to pseudo questions – to which it can give no answer.

Ard: Great.

David: Why don’t you believe that, then?

Ard: I think that the clouds on the horizon, like mathematics, but I think also moral knowledge is true. I think science’s power derives precisely from its limitations to certain types of questions. I think there are many questions… I think we actually both agree… There are questions…

AR: But you cannot allow the fact that science would give disobliging answers to those questions to rule them as out of bounds for science.


David: Can I put something to you that one of our other interviewees said? He, I think, took a very different view from you. He said, ‘Look, we’re the only animals that, once you’ve fed us and watered us and given us a house, there’s still a restlessness. And that restlessness is, I think, probably a search for meaning.’

So he felt that once you’ve dealt with all of the physical reality, this left unaddressed something very important to human beings, and felt that that’s why a purely material scientific view wasn’t enough.

AR: I don’t think that follows at all. I’m just sort of amazed at this. Science is in the position to explain why it is that human beings, once you feed us and clothe us and shelter us, should begin to worry about the nature of reality. It suggests strongly that this concern is a consequence, a by-product, of the kind of cognitive equipment that we really needed in order even to begin to survive at the bottom of the food chain on the African savanna.

One of the other consequences of that cognitive machinery is that many of us engage in these kinds of concerns: about the meaning of our lives, about moral value, about aesthetic issues. But that seems to me no reason at all to think that either there’s no good explanation for why we do so, in the sciences, or that what we come up with – simply as a result of the feeling of discomfort, the itch of curiosity that we scratch in all the ways we scratch – represents anything like the truth about the reality that produced it.

Ard: So what you’re saying is we have this desire to look beyond ourselves, but science has explained that as a kind of misfiring of our…

AR: Misfiring is the wrong word. Science explains it, and what it produces is a set of cultural institutions of tremendous value that produce the enjoyment and the satisfaction and the happiness and the grief of human life that move us to action ‒ okay? ‒ but which can’t be taken seriously as descriptions of what’s really out there.

Ard: But when you use the word, you say, ‘They’re made of great value.’ What does that mean?

AR: I mean they are fun. They are entertaining. They are enjoyable. It’s like when you listen to Beethoven’s Ninth and you hear the Ode to Joy. It makes you cry, okay? Nobody can deny that it makes you cry. Scientism doesn’t deny that it makes you cry. But to think that there’s some world-historical meaning beyond the emotional impact of a great work of art on us, that’s what I think is the mistake, and the mistake that science reveals to us.

Ard: And science tells us that when we’re moved by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, that’s nothing more than an emotional response.

AR: It’s the acoustical disturbance produced by the condensation and rarification of oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere pushing on our eardrums.

Ard: And when you say ‘value’, the value that it has is, for example, its ability to emotionally give us pleasant experiences.

AR: Yes, right.

Ard: But nothing beyond that?

AR: No. And now, I’m not a utilitarian. I don’t think that moral value consists in happiness or pleasure or satisfaction. The thesis is more radical. These great works of art produce such feelings in us, but there’s nothing morally special about those feelings.

Ard: And that’s what science tells us?

AR: That’s right.


David: Can I ask you about this wonderful phrase, ‘nice nihilism’. What do you mean by ‘nice nihilism’? What is it?

AR: Nihilism is the thesis which you forced me to admit to embracing: that there are no fundamental moral values. But the nihilism which I embrace, or endorse, is nice in the sense of how it is that we human beings could have evolved to be cooperative, empathetic and altruistic creatures.

In fact, we would never have survived having been thrown out of the rainforest into the African savanna, on the bottom of the food chain. We never would have survived, let alone moved ourselves right up to the top of the food chain in only a matter of a couple of hundred thousand years, if we hadn’t had certain features: the tendency to cooperate with one another that’s required by the division of labour and by the coordination of activities of people with one another.

And those behavioural dispositions are so deeply written into our evolutionary history that now we are all, except for the small number of psychopaths among us, pretty nice people, easy to get along with. We can be trusted – even us nihilists can be trusted with the family silverware – to take care of the children if there are other adults gone and not to cut moral corners, because we are driven, like everybody else, by the same emotions of guilt and shame and anger and fear, which make us all pretty decent, moral people.

Ard: So, do you think…?

AR: That’s the nice part.

Ard: That’s the nice part. So do you think cooperation is part of the evolutionary story?

AR: Absolutely. It had to have been.

Ard: We interviewed Martin Nowak who was very excited about cooperation coming out of game theory. Do you have any thoughts on those things?

AR: I think that one of the great advances in evolutionary anthropology and experimental economics that has enabled us to understand human origins is what we now know about various kinds of cooperative and zero-sum games. Inevitably it turns out that people’s behaviours are not narrowly short term, economically self-interested, rational: they’re always cooperative.

We are playing games, and game theory is probably the worst name for the most important theory in social science. We’re playing games. We’re engaged in strategic interaction all the time, and the optimal ones are the ones that produce niceness in us.

Ard: What you also say is one of the ways that it does this, that we feel shame and other…

AR: Guilt.

Ard: Guilt, which prevents us from behaving in ways that people might call immoral.

AR: Mm-hm.

Ard: But don’t you worry that once you’ve explained this away, that people will think…?

AR: No, no. So the difference between shame and guilt. We know the difference between shame and guilt?

Ard: Yes.

AR: Shame is when you’re caught, and guilt is when you’re not caught.

Ard: Yes.

AR: And these are so hard-wired into our psychological make-up that even knowing that they are evolutionary…

Ard: Tricks?

AR: …adaptations, has no tendency to weaken their hold on us. Learning that pulling your hand away from a fire because of the pain is an evolutionary adaptation, isn’t the slightest reason to stop doing it.

Ard: It’s easy to think, well, we’re all nice and we’re cooperating, but when you’re in a difficult situation, where life is a lot harder and the payoff that you get by cheating is a lot bigger…

AR: Of course there will be circumstances, environments, in which today’s adaptations become tomorrow’s mal-adaptations. Are we likely to face such circumstances? We certainly have in the past. I think that the explanation, the adaptational explanation for these moral norms, helps us unravel them and reduce their grip on us, given the actual environment that we’re in, which is so different from the environment in which they evolved.

Ard: But it…

AR: And, of course, I’ll have to be honest in answer to your question. If the environment changes over the long haul in such a way as to make cooperative, altruistic, empathetic motivated behaviour mal-adaptive, it’s going to disappear, of course.


Ard: What does science tell us about questions like euthanasia or abortion or war, for example?

AR: So science can answer a lot of empirical, factual questions about these matters, okay? But what science can also do is explain why the debates about these issues between two people who fundamentally disagree are intractable, and it’s a mistake to look for resolution of these disputes, and those who hold one side or the other aren’t either morally right or morally wrong: that the search for this more fundamental basis on which we could absolutely adjudicate these questions is a mistake.

Ard: So what should we do then? Given that, say, David and I really disagree about something…

AR: I think it’s an important factor for moral toleration of these disputes. And, at least in some cases, we can come to understand why people have held them over time, why cultures have held to very radically incompatible mores and norms, and even identify how the environmental circumstances in which these mores emerged have changed in a way to make them no longer ones we ought to support.

Foot-binding is a nice example. And a lot of the disputes that we have, cross-culturally, about differences in moral norms are to be unravelled and understood in the way that we now understand foot-binding as a practice which, at its start, was adaptive for individuals and by the end was mal-adaptive for everybody.

Ard: And so your argument is to say we shouldn’t do foot-binding anymore because it’s not adaptive, or should we…?

AR: No. I don’t think that it is in a position to tell you what we ought and ought not do: it is in a position to tell you why we’ve done it and what the consequences of continuing or failing to do it are, okay? But it can’t adjudicate ultimate questions of value, because those are expressions of people’s emotions and, dare I say, tastes. And we understand now what the basis of those differences are from what we understand from neuroscience, or at least we’re beginning. I mean, when I say what neuroscience or cognitive neuroscience can teach us, I’m talking about what my projections and hopes are for the future of a science which has only just begun.

Ard: I think what we both agree on is that science does not answer questions like, ‘What is the value of a human being?’ I think what Alex says is, thus, that question, ‘What is the value of a human being?’ is in fact not a very well-posed question. Whereas I would say…

AR: To some extent these questions are ill-posed. To some extent they are pseudo questions, and to some extent they can be answered by science. That’s what I hold, and there’s no residue left after those three categories are exhausted.


Ard: So what is the value of a human being?

AR: If you’re using the word ‘value’ to mean some ultimate, intrinsic value, then the answer is there’s no such thing as ultimate, intrinsic value. And so either the question is ill-posed or the answer is none.

Ard: So I think where Alex and I agree, and we probably disagree with you, is that we both think that if the world is made of nothing but atoms and molecules, then such conclusions are inevitable. I, on the other hand, believe that there is a transcendent reality, a god, and that these kinds of values, like the intrinsic value of a human being, come from outside the natural world. But I believe that if you don’t believe that’s true, I think Alex’s logic is impeccable.

AR: Now, I think that if you use the standards of reasoning which you are accustomed to employing in the sciences, that you cannot come reasonably to the conclusions that you just identified. Unless you can provide a good reason why you should cease to employ the principles of logic and the standards of evidence and reasoning that you employ in doing empirical science, when you raise these questions about the nature of value, you’re engaging either in sophistry or self-delusion. And I don’t think that appealing, for example, to the existence of a supreme being, even if there were one, would help us in any way understand the nature of value. And that’s something that’s been recognised in philosophy since the earliest and simplest of Plato’s Dialogues, The Euthyphro, in which he specifically argued against this view.

David: Got a self-delusion, mate.

Ard: Self-delusion, yeah. So basically what you’re saying is, if I use my logic, I should let go of the idea of God. And even if I have a god, the idea that somehow that…

AR: It doesn’t help.

Ard: It doesn’t help me explain why human beings…

AR: Mm-hm.

Ard: So even though I would believe that God created human beings, and therefore their value comes from that, you’re saying that doesn’t actually help?

AR: I don’t see how, even if that Sunday school were correct, it would help us ground moral value.

Ard: Okay, okay, I disagree.

David: I thought you might.

AR: So give us an argument.

Ard: The argument would be that the morals that we have, or the value that we have… I think the idea that we’re created by God gives us value. And that value is partially linked to the goals that God has for us, which are good goals. So all the moral things that we have are linked to…

AR: Wow! This is like… It’s… I don't know where to start to deal with true theism. You know, I can deal with deism because it’s not a serious competitor to the scientific world view, but theism is actually logically incompatible…

Ard: With science?

AR: With a lot of science.

David: And by theism you mean…?

AR: I mean that God… that there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and benevolent agency who is responsible for our presence here in the universe.

Ard: So he says classic theism is incompatible with science.

AR: Yes.

David: Obviously it’s not, in some sense, because you’ve got both.

AR: No, you can keep both ideas in your head. But that’s because we all keep contradictory ideas in our heads, we’re not logically omniscient, and these two happen to be particularly obvious examples of incompatible ideas...

Ard: So do you think it’s dangerous?

AR: ...that many people keep in their heads. And how do they deal with it? Cognitive dissonance! Being a bit schizoid in their personality.

David: But maybe that’s a good thing then. I mean, maybe, if that’s what we do, and maybe that’s the way we’re evolved, then maybe it’s a very good thing that it’s like that.

AR: It might be adaptive, but that doesn’t make it true, any more than so many other beliefs that we have, that are adaptive, are not true. 


David: You seem to take issue…well you do take issue in your book about narrative – about the stories we tell. Surely the ability to tell ourselves stories is a good thing. It gives people a sense to… It makes sense.

AR: The ability to tell stories, as you just said, is a good thing in that one of the devices that we require in order to – and have since the Pleistocene, since we began to need to cooperate with one another in order just to survive – one of the things… one of the tools that we’ve needed is telling stories.

Telling stories motivates and coordinates actions, and those are the kinds of things that are required when you’re a puny little, relatively weak, slow and short creature operating on the African savanna and having to deal with hyenas and tigers and lions and things like that.

And this device of stories, which coordinates and motivates, and has great adaptive value, continues to persist and become larger and larger in our culture from that time to the present.

David: That’s not a problem though, is it?

AR: Well, let me finish. So you get Homer and you get the stories of the wisdom literature of our religions, for example. But now we reach the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, and we need guidance about how to cope with global warming, how to cope with fundamentalist Islam, how to cope with the misconduct of investment bankers. And here stories tempt us into thinking that we understand and that we know, on the basis of the stories that we tell, how to deal with these problems ‒ and they never do.

David: Never?

AR: And we now understand why they don’t: because we know about the false assumptions about ourselves and about the world on which these stories are based, and we have a good account of the nature of the processes in human culture, and, otherwise, that drive the evolution of our culture; and those processes have nothing to do with the causal factors that are actually mentioned in these narratives. And so we have to stop thinking about these narratives as having any other function in our society than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: matters that give us pleasure and enjoyment and that move us.

But now we know when we compare those stories with what game theory, for example, tells us about the actual nature of human interactions, we should begin to recognise that, for all their emotional value and for all their artistic beauty, they are not to be relied upon ‒ in the way science can be relied upon ‒ to order and arrange human institutions and cope with the vicissitudes of the future.

David: But a lot of the scientists we have talked to have said, ‘Look, science tells stories. Narrative is central for science.’

AR: There’s a reason why scientists tell stories, and it’s a reason that every science writer knows, as far back as Paul de Kruif and Microbe Hunters, the first of the great popularisations of the history of science. And it’s because people only want stories. Every editor will tell every science writer, ‘If you’re going to tell us about the nature of reality, you have to package it in a story because it’s the only way people will pay attention.’ And that even goes for us scientists.

The great thing about the best books in science is they manage to actually avoid stories and so really communicate the science.

We know that, psychologically, stories are unavoidable, but it doesn’t make them cognitively significant, any more than our conviction that colours are out there in the world.

David: Well it does make them psychologically significant in the sense…

AR: Cognitively significant. I meant significant as a matter of identifying the true causal processes that drive reality. Psychologically significant, of course.

David: Oh, right. But psychologically is reality. Like you said, it’s as much a part of reality as my shoes; it’s made of atoms and things moving around. So if I have a thought, and it drives me psychologically, that is reality.

AR: Yes, but what it tells you about yourself and the world might be quite mistaken, in fact often is.


Ard: Many of the scientists that we speak to – in fact, I myself in my own research – think that beauty is a guide to truth in science. So, historically, many of the great scientists, like Dirac…

AR: Elegance.

Ard: Elegance and truth…

AR: Well the Dirac case is quite interesting if you’re thinking about the positron, but go on.

Ard: It was just… we interviewed Frank Wilczek, who has a whole book on this topic.

AR: Yes.

Ard: And there’s a classic argument that beauty is in some sense a guide to truth. What do you make of these arguments?

AR: So to begin with, where does our sense of beauty come from? It’s actually very interesting. There’s been some very nice studies about this, and our sense of beauty and of symmetry actually comes from the very bucolic, pleasing character of the sunset on the African savanna, or something rather like that.

But, for me, beauty, like simplicity, and other features of scientific theory are important, and they’re importance is justified largely by our inductive practices. That is to say, it has turned out in the past that those theories that are the simpler have proved to have been more well confirmed than the more complicated theories. And so we have a conviction in science that simpler is better than complicated, and we seek simpler theories.

Beauty alone is not going to be a substitute for, or treated as an invariable guide to truth: it’s just a general feature of many of the best scientific theories. Now, ask yourself why? That’s going to require an explanation, and that explanation may or may not be beautiful.

Ard: I’m wondering why. What do you think?

AR: I don't know the answer to that question. Probably because the universe… I’m inclined to think it’s because of reductionism. It’s because the universe is simple at its basement level, and because the principles of aggregation, of putting things together, are relatively simple, and so the outcomes tend to be simple.

Why is the universe simple? That’s a question for science too. We don’t even have a good metric for simplicity, still less a good metric for beauty, for us to actually be confident that more beautiful theories are, in fact, more well confirmed.

Ard: And do you think this question, of why is the universe simple, leads quickly to the kind of famous questions about why is there something…

AR: Rather than nothing? I don’t think that it does, but that’s an interesting question to which I think the sciences give an answer.

Ard: Which is what?

AR: No reason at all.

Ard: No reason at all?

AR: Quantum mechanics tells us that constantly, in this room, at every fire detector in this room, events are happening with no cause whatsoever, millions of times a second. Why shouldn’t the universe have come into existence on the same basis?

Ard: So you’re saying, why shouldn’t quantum mechanics itself have come into existence on the same basis?

AR: Quantum mechanics doesn’t come into existence. It’s a set of laws about reality. Are they the only set of laws about reality? Are they the set of laws at this universe as opposed to other universes in the multiverse? Well, let’s wait until we have established superstring theory.

Ard: Sure.

AR: And then we’ll be able to answer these questions. And until we do, anything else is just theology or speculation.