Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Primordial Role of Stories in Human Self-Creation

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

The Primordial Role of Stories in Human Self-Creation

Article excerpt

Abstract: We now have a paradoxical situation where the place and status of stories is in decline within the humanities, while scientists are increasingly recognizing their importance. Here the attitude towards narratives of these scientists is defended. It is argued that stories play a primordial role in human self-creation, underpinning more abstract discourses such as mathematics, logic and science. To uphold the consistency of this claim, this thesis is defended by telling a story of the evolution of European culture from Ancient Greece to the present, including an account of the rise of the notion of culture and its relation to the development of history, thereby showing how stories function to justify beliefs, situate people as agents within history and orient them to create the future.

Keywords: Narrative; History; Science; Culture; Complexity Theory; Hegel; Ricoeur; Carr; Kauffman

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There is a peculiar inversion taking place between the sciences and the humanities. The humanities traditionally have given a central place to stories or narratives, either historical or fictional, and sought to defend them as offering at least an equivalent status in knowing the world to the mathematical thought and reductive analysis of the natural sciences. This defence runs from Giambattista Vico through Johann Herder and Wilhelm Dilthey to Paul Ricoeur and David Carr. This has been in opposition to the proponents of mathematical physics from Rene Descartes through to the logical positivists who have dismissed stories as at best a form of entertainment, at worst, as delusional. The human sciences traditionally have been divided between those who wished to reduce them to a branch of the natural sciences and exclude narrative as 'unscientific', and humanistic approaches celebrating human creativity, which have aligned themselves with the humanities and given a central place to narrative. But narratives are now under attack within literature, history and the humanities. There is a crisis of narrative in novels, while in film, narrative is being subordinated to the image. (1) Perhaps more significantly, history has been in a crisis for some time, and a number of historians have denigrated the cognitive claims of historical narratives. (2) Postmodernists have embraced this decline in narratives, particularly metanarratives, as in some way liberating. It would seem that narratives, and the humanities, have finally been defeated by the cognitive claims of the scientists.

Within the natural sciences, however, there is increasing disquiet about the ultimate goal of science to develop a mathematical 'theory of everything', and along with this, increasing skepticism about the role of mathematics within science. (3) This skepticism has found eloquent expression in a short essay by Stuart Kaffman, 'Emergence and Story: Beyond Newton, Einstein and Bohr?' Kauffman points out that Newton, Einstein and Bohr shared the assumption that to explain anything we must first pre-state its configuration space; that is, the set of all possible solutions. In Newtonian mechanics we prestate the initial and boundary conditions, the particles and force laws and with them, the configuration space. In the general theory of relativity the configuration space is the set of possible solutions given the initial and boundary conditions along with Einstein's equations. In quantum mechanics we also pre-state the configuration space of all conceivable observables. But if the universe is really creative, and it seems that the biosphere in particular is creative, then it is impossible to pre-state its configuration space. In fact, Kauffman noted, biologists seldom do science as Newton taught, although they do so occasionally in limited domains. In the biological world, which includes biologists, things are more complex. As autonomous agents, people muck through, making a living, and to describe this, they tell stories. As Kauffman put it:

   If we cannot have all the categories that may be of relevance
   finitely prestated ahead of time, how else should we talk about the
   emergence of the biosphere or in our history--a piece of the
   biosphere--of new relevant categories, new functionalities, new
   ways of making a living? … 
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