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Why Not Just Tell the Stories?

An occasionally wise erstwhile friend once told me he thought there were three important things in life to think about. While his expression was somewhat more profane, I took him to mean scientific discovery, creative expression, and one’s intimate relationships. “Anything else is mere commentary.” We both understood that the human default, and often the most difficult and challenging of the three, was our personal relationships; I think we also both tacitly understood that most of what we did in our professional lives was commentary. While he was a philosopher and I was trained as a research psychologist, my training was also in a graduate program in which understanding what was and was not an empirical question was taken to be of paramount importance, in part because that question is one too rarely asked in my field. And indeed, my graduate training also included plenty of philosophy, taking courses in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of social science, to say nothing of seminars on symbolic behavior, much of which were also philosophy. My first refereed post-doctoral publication was on “Metatheoretical Issues in Cognitive Science,” which I was warned against publishing by my graduate chair, who believed that establishing a program of empirical research was the only way to survive and prosper as a scientific psychologist. True, it was probably my empirical research that ultimately got me tenure. However, aside from supervising student research, I haven’t really pursued any serious empirical projects since then, however productive I would become in the scholarship of Science-and-Religion. The last empirical study I ever published, with a student co-author, was the same year that I began teaching a “Junior-Senior Colloquium” (JSC) on Narrative and Identity. No surprise, I guess, that I wrote the proposal for the JSC, the course that was my metier for over 15 years, and through three incarnations, culminating in a course-length seminar on Neuromythology, and the publication of a well-cited article on the same topic in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. But it was my philosopher friend that told me I should read Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System before attending a conference in Cancun featuring its author, Alicia Juarrero, as one of the speakers. We talked a lot, a conversation that would continue for years.

Alicia’s book articulated some of the discomforts produced by my study of the philosophy of science and social science from grad school days. Primary among these discomforts is that the received nomological-deductive model of science, the model which we teach to undergraduates, provides a taken-for-granted box outside of which most of my colleagues in “scientific psychology” are incapable of thinking. For them, this now-anachronistic model of science is taken to be constitutive of “doing science,” a model of science that even evolutionary biology has been outgrowing for decades. I think it was Ludwig Wirttgenstein who wrote, back about the time I was born, "in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion." No wonder much of my own empirical research, and that of my colleagues, seemed ephemeral and trivial. For a number of years I was part of a team of students, alumni, and faculty from engineering, computer science, and biology, who played “Trivia” at a local pub. I suppose it couldn’t help but make me feel alienated from my colleagues when I would hear them talking about their research and could only think “Sorry, I play Trivia at the Black Gryphon on Wednesday nights, and don’t need to hear it at school.”

It isn’t just Psychology. In 2012, the brilliant Annemarie Van Stee would win the student prize at the European Conference on Science and Theology in Tartu, Estonia, for her doctoral work at the University of Utrecht on “Understanding Self-understanding in an Age of Cognitive Neuroscience.” Despite taking a degree in cognitive neuroscience in Nijmegen, including a year at Max Planck, after being frustrated with how trivial the phenomena of consciousness were being operationalized in looking for “neural correlates,” she left neuroscience to study the philosophy of existential selfhood in Harry Frankfurt, Soren Kierkegaard, and Charles Taylor. She was subsequently a visiting researcher at the Center for Subjectivity Research in Copenhagen. Even more darkly, an American colleague, despairing of finding funding in a neuroscience which failed to produce any systematic theorizing, or many attempt to understand the existential impact of the field, took her own life.

As Alicia points out, standard physical explanations tend to assume closed, isolated, near-equilibrium systems, explanations which run into difficulty with open-ended, dissipative, nonequilibrium, living systems. A different logic of explanation is required for historical, contextually embedded processes, including evolved biological adaptations and human actions, which are capable of producing novel and surprising emergent properties. Covering law models are inadequate because the precise pathways that will be taken by complex adaptive systems are ineradicably unpredictable.

Nobody in biological science is up in arms that evolutionary biology cannot predict the next adaptation. Stu Kauffman, a systems biologist who also spoke at the Conference in Tartu in 2012 made clear, if you try to make a list of the potential functions of even something as simple as a brick (building material, paperweight, weapon, ad infinitum), you have a potentially open, uncountable set. So which of similarly adumbrated biological functions will prove to be adaptive? Such systems, out of which intentions emerge, have behavioral trajectories that are in principle unique, contingent and nondeterministic even in stable states, and unpredictable across phase transitions or more catastrophic transformations (like conversions or other life-changing events). Given such unpredictability, the only explanation can be an historical, interpretive story that retrospectively retraces the actual changes in dynamics, including their embedding in historical and structured environments, including the technological and informational. These may produce plenty of the “just-so” stories for which evolutionary theorists are infamous, but that’s part of the point. They are unavoidable, in open systems, embedded by feedback in contexts and history, embodying the sedimentation of the contingencies and idiosyncrasies experienced over history and development.

For phenomena that are essentially contextual and historical, the logic of explanation must be hermeneutic, rather than deductive, involving an interpretive circle that runs from parts to wholes and back again, not a reduction of purposive acts to non-purposive elements, of reasons to the causes that they constrain. “Causality does not exhaust meaning” has been a mantra of mine since. Having read about all this in Alicia’s book, and then had it reiterated and embellished in discussions at the conference, I asked her, “Why not just tell the stories?” She thought that was a good question, which made it easier to recruit her as one of the speakers for a conference I was co-organizing for the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science on “The Mythic Reality of the Autonomous Individual.” It was also the question that led to my getting a Faculty Grant to a workshop in Florence on writing. I thought I should work on my storytelling. Narratives are not alternatives opposed to scientific naturalism, but the context in which scientific accounts must be understood if they are to have any meaning at all, a point I argued at length in a paper I presented in Sweden in 2008, and published in Zygon in 2010, entitled “Narrative and Meaning in Science and Religion.”

We understand human behavior only in the context of the intentions it serves--or fails to serve. Philosophers since Franz Brentano in the 19th century argued about the irreducibility of intentional language in making sense of human action. This is what Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance,” over and above asking causal questions about how something is made up or how it came to be, or design questions about its role or function in some larger system. We account for human actions in terms of the beliefs and desires of human agents and the intentional human ends that those actions serve. I think it provides a rather interesting perspective on Freud’s positing “unconscious intents” to make sense out of an action that might otherwise be experienced as an accident, or as having “just happened.” Well, if you did do it on purpose, what purposes might it have served, and might you not be able to make more sense out of your actions to allow that there could be intentions of which you were not aware at the time, which were indeed being served by you? In some sense this is what we mean by meaning. This is not an account that is an alternative or opposed to physicality or design, but an additional requirement for comprehensibility, for meaningfulness.

It may well be a product of the evolution of our social intelligence that we can construct such narratives. Social intelligence must include anticipating the consequences of our own behavior, including the likely behavior of others, in contexts in which the physical evidence is rapidly shifting, ambiguous, and also can change as a consequence of one’s actions, and in interaction with others capable of such constructions (Humphrey 1984). As philosophers of language like John Searle (1969) have made clear, the very meaning of communication is apprehended only by the attribution of speakers’ intentional states. Hence, narrative sequences of such intentions are essential to the construction of meaningful lives. Erik Erikson (1958), an important theorist of modern identity, equates adulthood with an identity constructed in terms of a life story. Becoming an adult in contemporary western culture means being able to make one’s own behavior intelligible to oneself and others. Hence our frustration with a teenager who, when asked “why did you do that,” can only respond “I dunno.” We make our behavior intelligible by rationalizing it in terms of intentions served, being able to give reasons for why we did what we did, whether or not those reasons actually played a conscious, causal role in producing the behavior. A narrative, “what’s the story?” is how we make sense of our actions and those of others, and may underlie any sense of a unitary self. Dan McAdams’ research on the narrative construction of self shows how we explain important parts of ourselves by telling stories, shared in intimate conversation, internalized and evolving, imbuing our lives with purpose and meaning. Stories also create a shared history, linking people in time and events, an unfolding drama that is made more in the telling than in the events themselves. Culturally meaningful stories of defeat and victory, contamination and redemption, exile and homecoming, of alienation and reunion, betrayal and forgiveness, sacrifice and bliss can provide a meaningful integration of scattered, dissociated, painful, and otherwise uncontrolled images and emotional responses into coherent form. In doing so, they can provide psychological healing for sufferers of posttraumatic stress (Shay 1994), or even, as James Pennebaker’s research shows, improved physical health in college students.

In teaching my Colloquium on “Narrative and Identity,” I learned something very helpful about the process by which the “coming of age” of students leaving their parents, and spending four years in the “long-house”of College, might be enculturated to adulthood by their occasionally wise elders. The course began with students writing what I came to call their “naive autobiography,” just writing the “story of your life.” No writer’s block here, as a generation of narcissists (from which I do not exclude myself), even prior to social media and the culture of “selfies,” had no problem talking at length, and sometimes ad libitum, about themselves. What I came to learn, however, was that most of these stories took the form of “this happened to me, and then this happened to me, and then this,” as if there were some obdurate self sustained through it all, rather than identity in the process of being invented. I used to love telling students, and their parents, at admissions events, that if their college education made it possible to fulfill their dreams, then it will have failed them. That what a real education should do is not to merely imbue them with the skills and abilities to fulfill the dreams of high-school students, but enable them to dream of (and reach) possibilities they never might have imagined.

What do you call someone to whom things happen, to whom things are done? The opposite of a patient is not a physician, it is an agent. A “patient” in a story is one to whom things happen, to whom things are done. The one doing the operating, the one making the decisions, acting on them, and then taking responsibility for the consequences, are agents. There is an old joke, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” “Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to be changed.” Most psychologists do not call the people they work with “patients” upon whom they might “operate,” but clients. Why? Because like with lawyers, it is the people that hire them who are taking the (legal in this case) action. The lawyer merely helps with the means to do so. But in a sense, psychotherapy really is about repairing agency, about learning about the consequences of one’s own choices, one’s own actions, and whether accepting them or figuring out how to behave or act differently, for different consequences, and then dealing with them. I loved the character in the television series House, really a horribly flawed human being who was a genius diagnostician, because even though he made mistakes all the time, he kept doing things until he found an answer. So, after a semester of learning about personality and its development, about the narrative form of identity, and learning about how stories get constructed, playing with genre and perspective, and voice, the “final paper” was to include a rewritten autobiography, using a different genre, a different person, or a different voice, not only to figure out what it meant to be an agent, a protagonist, but also what it meant to be the author of one’s own life. Therapy isn’t about checking the truth of a client’s story (though sometimes coping with self-deception is part of it), but about helping a client rewrite their story in a way that might make their life more livable, more productive, even more loving and happier. I think I only failed once, when a student who had been abused by her boyfriend couldn’t figure out how to see herself as anything but a victim, and finally could not bring herself to accept help.

It saddened me that even in a psychology department, ultimately in service not just of a scientific discipline but of a healing profession, there was so little attention to real healing. It was rare that a classroom discussion would “get real,” in any way that would passionately engage students’ lives. In the semester I retired I was told, by a middle-eastern refugee, that I was the only professor he had that “really talked to us like we were adults.” Teaching the “Science of Psychology” too often sticks too closely to causes, and has a hard time with reasons. It sticks too closely to explanations and to the methods by which explanations might be obtained, rather than to meaning, to meaningful lives, and how they might be constructed. We also live in an era where, by virtue of the dependence of students and so many others on text-based communication, non-literal discourse often has to be explicitly framed so as not to be misunderstood. The philosopher of mind Owen Flanagan (2002) once wrote: “The arts work our imaginations with all the playful tricks of language, allegory, metaphor, and metonymy that science, for its purposes, doesn’t much care for.”

It was an important lesson when, to stay up on some of the knowledge overlap with my biologist wife, I would borrow and read her copy of Robin Baker’s Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles. The book is based on an academic tome written in 1995 with a colleague, full of jargon, data, graphs, and tables, with the usual multiple-page bibliography. But Dr. Baker wanted to more widely share ideas which provide a valuable perspective on some of the massive contributions of evolutionary biology to understanding the forces affecting our bodies, often leaving our consciousness well behind, and us often confused about our own behavior. The scientific evidence shows that sperm from two different men will compete to fertilise an egg, and that most male behavior can be understood either as attempting to avoid exposing his sperm to such warfare, or giving it the best chance of winning. The bottom line is that less than 1% of male sperm are actually egg-getters, the remainder being “kamikaze” sperm which mainly evolved to prevent other sperm from winning the war. The barriers and assistance provided by a woman’s body are no less interesting. Behind the resulting conceptions are a range of stories of human behavior which produce the result. So this 1996 book, and a second edition in 2006 does away with all but a series of over 30 vignettes telling the various stories. Many of these include amoral or even criminal behavior, which the author hardly condones, but for which causal explanations exist. The book was criticized much for this. However the book sold well in much of Europe, and has been translated into twenty languages.

In the US, while it sold well in New York and California, the book met with much resistance, not so much because he swore or was coarse, and because the book avoids being pornogaphic, it also was not resisted for discussing genitals or orgasms, or even because it used the word “sperm.” It was because Baker suggested, “soberly and earnestly,” why women sometimes find themselves having sex with more than one man in the space of days, generating the sperm wars that are the subject matter of the book. Never mind the data that this is not only not infrequent, but that one in five or so people are not the product of routine sex. The book was fascinating, managed to result in substantially greater dissemination of the ideas expressed, and resulted in its author leaving academia in 1996, never again to “contemplate reverting to writing for academia.” When the first edition disappeared from bookstore shelves, second hand copies were selling on the Internet for over 90 dollars each. We are given two maxims in the preface to the second edition: 1) that since academic opponents never change their minds, the only victory is to outlive them and 2) that if anything one writes isn’t being talked about ten years later, then it wasn’t worth writing in the first place.

I have no idea whether anything I say or write ever has or ever will be talked about ten years after, but I am certain that had I remained in academia, it never could. That and the image of an older (or even not so old) colleague, who spent years of blood, sweat and tears producing scholarly work, costing unhappiness, loss of family and friends, and the sacrifice of many of the pleasures of life, finding the work given even to the institutional library, for sale on a table of uncirculating items. Years ago, when I was still struggling for tenure, a friend who left academia reminded me not to become ossified, my work left in musty journals on library shelves.

Tim O’Brien, in his novel The Things They Carried, includes some self-conscious commentary that what he wants to do in the kind of writing he does is “to make you feel what I felt,” to make things present both for himself and for his readers, to attach faces to “fear, and love, and pity and God.” A liberal arts education can, if it does its job, teach students to appreciate and even construct logical arguments, to worry about evidence, both for and against a position, and to think critically in learning to evaluate the flaws in such argument, and in the evidence, both in the reasoning of others and in their own. But finally it cannot teach them to make what they learn their own, not as something to take in, or something they carry, but as something that is part of them, that is their own, not just the regurgitation of something from somewhere or someone else. Even the most basic of people’s beliefs are too often “what I’ve always been told,” or what was given to them, not what they constructed for themselves in making sense of their own lives and those around them. We rarely really convince people by argument or evidence, unless they already were looking for it, already wanting to make it incarnate. We often fail, both in teaching -- and in public discourse more generally -- to really change people’s hearts and minds. It is the stories we make part of our own story that really matter. As Bruno Bettelheim said in his analysis of the psychological power of fairy tales (1977), they can help us deal with grief, loss, and fear by giving us models of how to make sense out of them. Robert Coles, in his work on the moral imagination (1989), highlighted the integrative functions of stories in healing what is sick or broken, bringing together what is shattered, helping us to cope with stress, and moving us toward fulfillment and maturity. “They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to stave off illness and death.” -- Leslie Marmon Silko

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