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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 t