New York Times ex-science journalist Virginia Heffernan has said that she is a creationist, because she prefers the narrative of creation to that of science. David Sessions has a good discussion of the issues here. She is basically taking the line that one chooses one’s narrative of the world. This is shocking for a science reporter, but given her literary studies background, understandable.
In their book series Science of the Discworld, Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen posit an element in the Discworld universe, narrativium, that is lacking in our own (Round)world. In that world narrativium is that which drives stories to have the right ending and magical creatures to have the right traits. The magicians note that Roundworld (our universe) entirely lacks this element, and yet we humans make the stories come out right anyway. Stories are what we make and construct to understand ourselves and the world. So is Heffernan right?
Yes, and no. We do choose our narratives. As Sessions notes, everything we know is an interpretation and a construct. Scientists often, usually unconsciously, construct narratives of their hypotheses or reconstructions of the past. It’s inevitable. We live, as it were, in a linguistic prison, and as soon as we represent our world, any critique of those representations is a metarepresentation, and so we end up trapped in a semantic ascent. This is a term of art in philosophy, based on Quine’s thought that every time one discusses a sentence, one is in effect using a higher order language to mention the sentence. So instead of getting further into the world, we abstract away from it. The more we seek to establish the truth conditions of our best knowledge sentences, the less concrete they are.
Is science therefore just a simple construct? Can we choose whatever narrative we like? Well, we can, but our narratives have to be grounded in the reality we inhabit, or we end up in schizophrenic or psychotic worlds of our own construction that have no relation to the worlds of others around us. And as this applies to the schizophrenic individually, it can also apply to entire cultural traditions. Heffernan notes that the stories of the Bible are still with us. This gives her confidence they are useful narratives, and from this she infers they have some truth. This is what I call, with my colleague Paul Griffiths, the Milvian Bridge argument: that the success of a narrative is reason to think it is true (Constantine won the battle at that bridge so Christianity is true).
But narratives serve many functions, and few of them are the literal truth. Reality (at least in this universe) is not narrative driven. As any lab or field scientist knows, it is often dull, boring, overwhelming in its detail and senseless. When we make narratives, we impart meaning and simplicity to the world. We select what we want to focus upon. Stories can persist for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts, such as cohering social groups (consider the role of the Exodus in Jewish culture). It is not because they are true, but because they are useful.
I don’t want to attack the “postmodern” culture Heffernan appeals to. Postmodernism is a weasel word that can be used in too many way to be clear, and anyway, most “postmodern” concerns are also raised by traditional (i.e., analytic) philosophy of science. What I’d like to discuss is why it is that science is not just narratives and representations.
It seems obvious: science attends to facts. It takes measurements, compiles data, analyses these in as objective a fashion as we can, and generates models of the world. Now, many people think this, too, is a kind of linguistic prison – what we choose to observe and the ways we observe them are themselves bound to theory, to the narratives, interpretations and representations of the science. But this cannot be right. Science was done before theory, and the narratives that those who did it accepted were often undercut by the observations. If you are merely constructing a story, then the data that you select on the basis of that story should not routinely undercut the narrative. And in science, they do routinely undercut the narrative. Consider dark matter and dark energy.
I think that the way to escape the linguistic prison is to tunnel into the foundations, for linguistic prisons all rest, in the end, on the empirical world, and we have at least a partial access to that world independently of our constructed worlds. Knowledge, in short, is based on our pre-theoretic experience.
The problem with choosing creationism (however Heffernan defines it) because she likes the narrative, is that this is the hallmark of a schizophrenic world view. We don’t get to choose any old narrative – only those that fit into the factual landscape. Creationism, as defined by literalistic interpretations of this or that sacred writing, fails that test, and simply is not available to a healthy mind.