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.