“Pray, oblige me, by removing to this other bench, and I venture to assure you the proper light and shadow will transform the spectacle into quite another thing.”
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The spiritual world is nowhere but here, wherever ‘here’ refers to.” (9)
- Robert Solomon
Spiritual for the Skeptic (2000)
Having become an amateur science enthusiast over the last 15 years, I have come to see that science produces narratives of a certain kind; experiments, research, and exploration, as well as essays and books elucidating devout thinking about the results of experiment, research and discoveries—can all be narrative and can inspire stores. Yet these stories are different from those told by poets and the writers of fiction.
What is the difference between ‘fictional’ and ‘scientific’ stories?
Fictional stories – those resulting from an imaginative, creative act of narrative formation – are usually grounded in the author’s experience – imaginative-experience as well as lived-experience – though they may also be anchored in research into various topics dealt with in the story (e.g., an historical novel must know enough about a particular time and place to make it believable – for anyone familiar with history – as well as worth reading). The key aspect of fictional stories, however, is that they are always imagined into existence, more or less. They are more than the presentation of a researched account.
The truth of a fictional story arises primarily from its internal coherence and then – secondarily – from how well it reflects life. “That’s true,” we say of a work of fiction, a poem or film because of what it says about human existence and the choices we have to make in the course of living life, not usually because of how well its ‘facts’ match up with the ‘facts’ of objective reality. The truth of fiction comes from the narrative itself, and the world it constructs; it becomes a parallel to life-as-lived and elucidates our situation as mortal beings in an often precarious universe.
Scientific stories, on the other hand, result from the assimilation and comprehension of the results of research, discovery and experiment. When the results of the scientific investigation and exploration of Earth & Cosmos inspire the telling of stories, the narrative that results is dependent upon the data that underlies it at every point, and must correspond to the research that founds it, changing when new data arises. There are no final stories where science is concerned; there is only the best stories that can be told at the moment. The imagination’s role in scientific stories is constructive – just as it is in fictional storytelling – always striving to make the story agree with the data about what is known.
The truth of a scientific story depends primarily on its correspondence to what is known about the objective world in which we all find ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not. A “true” account of scientific discoveries must be as free from ideological bias as possible. It must present “the facts and nothing but the facts,” as the old expression goes; especially when it couches these ‘facts’ in a narrative—they must be accurately re-presented in the account. A scientific story must also be internally consistent – like a fictional story – but its truth arises primarily from its correspondence with what is actually known about the universe as ourselves as a part of the universe.
Both of these kinds of story may change, but for different reasons. Fictional stories change mainly due to a new need, either in the author or in the audience. Scientific stories change mainly because of a change in understanding of the phenomena being studied; owing to new research results and discoveries in the field. A scientific storyteller may also, of course, alter the narrative or its mode to suit an audience (perceived or intended), yet the primary responsibility of this storyteller is to make sure that the story is aligned with the research; with what is known at this point in the process of discovery and reflection on those discoveries.
Science and Literature both reveal the Given; and so the stories told in each tradition have a common ground—yet differing approaches. Science reveals the Given in quantitative, empirical and objective ways. Literature reveals the Given in qualitative, experiential and poetic ways, while always having some degree of correspondence to the objective dimensions of our world in the background. Thus, science and literature both talk of the Given, each in their own way; and these discourses can be complementary.
Scientific and fictional stories surround and embed us; integrate us into—our subjective and inter-subjective realities. As a way of exploring this further, let me tell you a about a wonderful afternoon a few years ago when, while sitting on the porch reading George Elliot’s The Mill on the Floss, I was blessed with an impromptu and quite unexpected conversation with five interlocutors—
There was a small flowerbed in front of our house, and one day when I was sitting outside reading on a cool, clear-skied afternoon, a man stopped in his saunter to look at the Cone Flowers, the Oswego Teas and all of the Jacob’s Ladders twining themselves in and out and around the other denizens of the garden. He said he was always struck by the interaction of the various organisms in a small niche, how one species relates to another, and how they each (a) depend upon one another and (b) compete with one another for resources. He pointed out various insects crawling about and others – bees and then a hummingbird – landing on the flowers. He pointed out the tracks of a rabbit and a couple of chipmunks that had recently.
The man – a biologist as it turned out – and I talked about how planting certain flowers in the same bed creates a certain environment, with its own unique character and community of users (bugs, beetles, rodents, etc), who feed upon, fertilize and even protect the garden). He noted how the insects that use and benefit from_ and also prey upon_ the flowerbed, form a ‘biotic community.’ And then we went to a deeper level and talked about plant physiology, cells, photosynthesis, and so on—what makes a plant an plant.
A young boy and his mother were then passing by and heard some our discussion. They stopped and the woman suggested a story of her own. She told me how the plot of ground where the flowerbed is now growing used to be full of evergreen shrubs, and how a previous owner of the house tore out the shrubs, but never planted much, and then how she has watched as I have created this flowerbed over a period of years. She said she liked how ‘wild’ the flowerbed looked, and yet how it was obviously ‘ordered’. I said “yes, I try to plant in such a way that there is initial order, and then let things grow in their own ways” – and that “I am always amazed at what finally comes out of the intent to order things in nature.” He’s was an historical account of the flowerbed, based on memory and recollection of ‘how things used to be’ – and complemented the scientific ‘story’ the biologist and I had been telling.
The young boy, we then noticed, was fascinated with something in the flowerbed, and when we asked him what he saw, he said the bed was home to a troop of faeries and that they were trying to build ramparts (the twining Jacob’s Ladders, we suspected, were these imagined defenses) against a Dragon, which – he said with confidence – lived “within the mountain” (represented by the porch foundation wall). He pointed to three or four sandstones that I had arranged along the porch wall (to keep skunks out from under the porch and where the chipmunks had managed to make a door to their own abode) – as the “door” of the Dragon’s Lair.
“Very interesting,” the scientist said, and we all smiled appreciatively at the imagined world the boy was creating. “A totally valid way of seeing the flower garden,” he said, pleasantly amused by the contrast between our conversation and the boy’s imaginings. When we asked, the boy elaborated his story even further, and we could tell it was unfolding in his head as he spoke.
No one of these stories cancels the others out; each approaches the flowerbed from a different hermeneutic angle. Science, fantasy and history each add something to our understanding of the Given; the flowerbed as it is at this moment. The flowerbed is just ‘there,’ it is the x with which each interpreter is engaged. Each of these interpretations can co-exist with the others. The scientist and the mother deal more with what is objectively given than does the boy, yet even he is responding to the external, perceived reality of flowerbed and is inspired at the moment to overlay a fictional story upon it. This is a more literary approach. The mother’s approach is more ‘scientific’ to the extent that it relies upon knowledge – facts about the history of the flowerbed that either could or could not be verified. At the point the story is told, it is unknown whether the mother’s account is factual or fictional; indeed—did she make up this story on the spur of the moment for some reason undisclosed? Yet I know she was basically correct; though that knowledge is itself does not completely move the story from the category of ‘anecdote’ to ‘historical account.’
Now, another man walking by, and having heard some of our discussion, asked if he could tell his own story of the flowerbed. We said, “Of course!” The man identified himself as a Christian, and he talked about our human stewardship over Nature; granted to us by God—and said how a well arranged Garden is like a well-ordered soul. It is also a symbol of God’s Creation as it should be. The Flower Garden – Nature arranged by human artifice – is like what Nature is like as God’s Creation.
A woman who had stopped a couple minutes earlier, having overheard this last account, stepped up to offer her counter-story! “Rather,” she said, “the Earth is the body of the Goddess, and the flowerbed is a crossroads between our ability to create and the presence of Goddess in the flowers, insects and the very soil itself.” She told us how relishes the interactions between the elements – as do the Christian and the scientist – and spoke of the ‘matrix’ that is life.
Each of these two “religious” stories also represents a particular hermeneutic angle on the flowerbed, couched in metaphorical, allegorical and symbolic traditions of understanding that – like the boy’s fantasy tale – are overlaid upon the Given. They do not help us to understand the objective dimension of the flowerbed; the Given per se—but illuminate the Given interpreted as a template or touchstone for a belief system.
These latter two stories – like the boy’s story – are “true” as fictional accounts of an x, and they are valid responses so long as they don’t attempt to make themselves out to be an ‘empirical’ account of the physical nature of the flowerbed. Religion, at one level, presents the accumulation of traditions of interpretation about our experiences in life and what it means to be human. A religion is a symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical construct, paralleling experiential reality, and is an attempt – in a fictional, narrative mode – to “explain” the life it parallels. Seen from this angle, a religion can be just as “true” as any other fictional narrative, so long as it doesn’t pretend that its narrative is an explanation of the Given; of the physical world itself.
Each of these five stories ‘explain’ the world in a particular way. The crucial thing is not to confuse the narrative modes, their grounding and their method with one another. Does any one of these stories take precedence over the others? Only if you prioritize what you want to learn regarding the Garden. For the boy and for the religious visitants to the flowerbed, their fictional stories inform their lives and hopefully allow them to live more fully; to become more realized as individuals in a particular community within the large global human community. One would hope that they do understand that ‘behind’ or ‘below’ their fictional mode of interaction with the flowerbed, there is an objective story that everyone on the planet can share in common, regardless of our fictional hermeneutics; i.e., the scientific account of the physical universe.
For the scientist – with his biological account – and the mother – with her historical account – their non-fictional engagement with the flowerbed may also promote well-being and encourage the living of life to the fullest. Science provides us with an Epic Account of the Earth & Cosmos that inspires wonder and promotes awe. Cosmology and Evolution constitute a Big Story; one more-than-roomy-enough for us to inhabit and find fulfillment in. In the end, a scientific and historical account of the objective dimension of our existence may be enough to promote well-being.
Yet I also find fictional interpretations and engagements with life’s ongoing adventure to be inspiring and fructifying of my own self-realization, whether these stories come from the literary or mythological traditions of our species. So I would never deny the tellers of fictional stories their constructions! Fantasy, imaginative construction of alternate worlds and the creative re-imagining of our lives are all part of what makes us human, and these abilities constitute in many ways a survival technique. When faced with a crisis or a life-changing opportunity, we have the ability to re-imagine ourselves and creatively work through our circumstances and our choices. Fictional narratives are one extension of this unique ability our species possesses.
Literature and religion – especially its mythology – are human universals; fictional constructs and extensions of this ability to re-imagine ourselves and our worlds. The truth of religion and fiction can be found in how they help us deal with life’s vicissitudes and vagaries, giving us a chance to negotiate the rapids of our lives. So long as these stories are not mistaken for an objective account of the Earth & Cosmos, they can be healthy responses to life. Scientific and fictional stories are different in their referents and in the material from which they are constructed, but they can both be true in their own way.