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.
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.