The origin of story

Science provides us with a modern creation myth, a story of the origin of the universe and of ourselves within it. Author and historian David Christian is one of the founders of the “Big History” movement. He intentionally provides such a just-so story in his 2018 book Origin Story: a big history of everything. Inadvertently, his account is useful for another purpose as well. It demonstrates the utter anthopocentricity of human thought, essential to telling such a story. Indeed, it points to the key importance of story in science writing today, as it has been in every aspect of culture in every age. This is no surprise, given that the great volume of works in print is dominated by fiction, the novel.

Telling a story, more than presenting facts or ideas, seems to be the key to holding the general public’s ever more elusive attention. Perhaps that’s as it must be for popular science writing such as Origin Story, which trades on anthropomorphic expressions like “a billion years after the big bang, the universe, like a young child, was already behaving in interesting ways.” Or: “Like human lovers, electrons are unpredictable, fickle, and always open to better offers.” Such similes serve to capture imagination and interest. They are evocative and entertaining. However, they are also subtly misleading. Humans are intentional beings. So far as we know, electrons and the universe are not. Stories of any sort are based on human intentions and human-centric considerations. However, the evolution of matter is not—if objectivity is possible at all. To the extent that history is a story told by people, it reflects the tellers of the story as much as objective events. It can mislead to the extent that fact is inseparable from interpretation and even from the structure of language.

Science writing and reporting is one thing. The inherent dependence even of strictly scientific discourse on human-centered elements of story-telling is quite another. These elements include metaphor and simile, idealization, the physiological basis of fundamental concepts, the tendency to objectify processes or data as entities, the tendency to formalize theory in a conceptually closed system, and the tendency (in textbooks, for example) to pass off the latest theories as fact and the current state of science as a definitive account. Underlying all is the need for a narrative about the external world as the proper focus of attention. That focus is what science is traditionally about, of course. It is also what story is usually about. But science is also a human activity of questioning, observing, investigating, speculating, and reasoning. There is a human story to be told and science writing often includes that too. The point that I wish to raise here is less the human-interest story behind discoveries than the dominance of ontology over epistemology in scientific thought itself.

Science is supposed to transcend the limitations of ordinary cognition, to provide a (more) objective view of the world. But if it is subtly subject to those same limitations, how is that possible? Modern cognitive psychology and brain studies clearly demonstrate that human perception is about facilitating the needs of the organism; it is not a transparent window on the world. Science extends and refines ordinary cognition, but it cannot achieve an account that is completely free from biological concerns and limitations. Just substituting instruments for sense organs and reason for intuition does not disembody the observer. “Reason” is intimately associated with language, and data from instruments continue to be interpreted in terms of “objects,” “forces,” “space,” and “time,” for example. These are cognitive categories rooted in the needs of an organism and reflected in language. The impersonal notion of causality, for example, derives from the early childhood experience of willing to move a limb, and with that limb to move some object within reach. This personal experience is then projected to become the seeming power of inert things to influence each other. We think in nouns and verbs, things and actions—of doing and being done to—which says as much about us as it does about the world. By focusing only on the world, we ignore such epistemic aspects of scientific cognition.

Science is an inquiry about the natural world, which includes the human inquirer. Whereas ontology is about the constitution of the world, epistemology is (or should be) about the constitution of the inquirer. It should ask not only ‘how do we know?’ in a given instance, but also what is the meaning of “knowledge” in the scientific context? How does scientific cognition mirror the purposes of ordinary cognition, and how is it subject to similar limitations? Certainly, science often leads to new technology, which increases human powers in the external world. It facilitates prediction, which also seems to be a fundamental aspect of ordinary cognition. (We often literally see what we reasonably expect to be there.) Having a confident story about the world gives us some security, that we can know what is coming and possibly do something about it. Perhaps that is part of the motivation for a comprehensive trans-cultural origin story in a time of global insecurity.

There is another aspect of this story worth telling. Science follows sequences of events in the world. These external events are naturally mirrored and mapped by internal events in the brain, where they are transformed according to the needs of the body and its species. Understanding the human scientist as an embodied epistemic agent could be as empowering as understanding the external world. They are inseparable if we want a truly comprehensive story. Science developed as a protocol to exclude individual and cultural idiosyncrasies of the observer—by insisting that experiments be reproducible, for instance. It avoids ambiguities by insisting on quantitative measurement and expression in a universal language of mathematics. It does not, however, address the idiosyncrasies common to all human observers, by virtue of being a primate species, or being an organism in the kingdom of Animalia, let alone simply by being physically embodied as an organism.

Embodiment does not simply mean being made of matter. It means having relationships with the environment that are determined by the needs of the biological organism—relationships established through natural selection. We are here because we think and act as we do, not because we have a superior, let alone “true,” grasp of reality. The victor in the evolutionary contest is the one that out-reproduces the others, not necessarily the more objective one. On the contrary, what appears to us true is biased by the compromises we have necessarily made in order to exist at all—and in order to dominate a planet. That would be a story well worth telling. It would be challenging even to conceive, however, and not especially flattering. It would include the story behind the very need for stories. It would require a self-transcendence of which we are scarcely capable. Yet, the fact that we do conceive an ideal of objectivity means that we can at least imagine the possibility, and perhaps strive for it.

Science helps us understand and even transcend the limits and biases of natural cognition. Can science understand and transcend its own limits and biases? For that, it would have to become more self-conscious, leading potentially down an infinite hall of mirrors. The description of nature would have to include a description of the scientist as an integral part of the world science studies—a grubbing creature like the others, with interests that may turn out to be as parochial as those of a spider. The only hope for transcending such a condition is to be aware of it in detail. Which is not likely as long as science, like ordinary cognition, remains strictly oriented outward toward the external world.

Natural language reflects ordinary cognition. We perceive objects (nouns), which act or are acted upon (verbs), and which have properties (adjectives). Language is essentially metaphorical: unfamiliar things and processes are described in terms of familiar ones. It also abstracts: ‘object’ can refer to a category as well as to a particular unique thing; ‘action’ means more than a particular series of events, just as ‘color’ does not refer only to a particular wavelength. The structure of language is reflected even in the structure of mathematics, no doubt because both reflect the general structure of experience. ‘Elements’ such as integers (nouns or things) can be grouped in sets (categories) and be acted upon by ‘operations’ such as addition (verbs). This is how even the scientific mind naturally divides up the world. The elements of theory are entities (nouns) which act and are acted upon by forces (verbs), measurable in quantities such as velocity and mass (adjectives). Concepts like position and velocity depend on the visual sense, while concepts like force derive from body kinesthesia. That is, scientific knowledge of the world is a function of the bodily senses and biological premises of the human organism. Like all adaptations, ideally it should at least permit survival. In that context, it remains to be seen how adaptive science is.

What other kind of knowledge could there be? Could there exist a physics, for example, that is not grounded in human biology? What would be the point of it? To answer such questions might seem to require that we know in advance which adaptations do not permit survival. We already have pretty good ideas which human technologies constitute an existential threat to the human species: nuclear and biological warfare, artificial intelligence, genetic and nanotechnologies, for example. We know now that technology in general, combined with reproductive success, can be counterproductive in a finite environment such as our small planet.

The kind of knowledge that transcends biology is paradoxical, since its overriding aim must be species survival. It is informally called wisdom. To be more than a vague intuition, it must be developed by recognizing specific aspects of our biologically-driven mentality that seem counterproductive to survival. We see the effects of these drives, if not in science, then in society: greed, status, tribalism, lust, etc. We must assume that these drives have their effects upon the directions of science and technology—for example, in commercial product development and military-inspired research. Our physics, as well as our industry, would be quite different if it explicitly aimed at species-level utopia instead of corporate and national power and profit. Story could then serve a different purpose than the distractions of entertainment. As well as dwelling on the past, it could look with intention toward a future.