Monday, June 30, 2008

Of Babies and Bathwater

Francis Sedgemore quotes the following passage from a New Scientist article by Lawrence Krauss, in which the physicist at Case Western Reserve University tackles contemporary anti-scientism:

If this poetry of nature does not change the way we view our place in the universe, providing not mere facts but new meaning, then we are truly spiritually bereft. Yet too many people feel that they must invent alternative realities to justify human existence.

As a literary scholar - i.e. a person who makes a living from "alternative realities" - I find the latter statement not only bewilderingly naïve, but also fundamentally offputting. Krauss may make this point in the context of a more general critique of religious thinking, but, as Francis rightly points out, by extending a critique of religion to an attack on myth (i.e. the literary imagination) as a whole, Krauss fails to acknowledge the more general cognitive significance of our ability to create alternative realities.

I find this surprising, as I have been under the impression that the human mind’s fiction-making abilities have been one of the pet interests in the cognitive sciences in recent years – giving an entirely new (and timely) meaning to the term “constructionism”. Take the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, for instance, who has long emphasised the (unconscious) constructive and interpretive processes of the brain that allow humans to successfully navigate the world.

Furthermore, it seems plausible that our more conscious engagement in fiction-making may have cognitive and hence evolutionary significance, too. Storymaking and -telling are cross-cultural universals, a fact that has led evolutionary psychologists and humanities scholars influenced by evolutionary psychology to speculate on their adaptive significance. Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, for instance, suggests that (in our ancestral past) selection might have favoured groups in which vital information could be exchanged in particularly effective ways, notably in the form of stories.

Our storytelling ability seems to be related to the human brain's cognitive specificity. The cognitive psychologist Alan Leslie and the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have explored the implications of our brain's apparent and reliable ability to distinguish between fact and fiction - what is known as "decoupled cognition". Cosmides and Tooby have used this capacity as their point of departure to argue that our ability to create fictional realities is crucial to the ongoing (and pleasure-inducing) training of the human brain’s evolved architecture. We are not only able to create and enter fictional worlds, we have evolved to do so - and get a kick out of it to boot (see their essay "Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?").

As the narratologist H. Porter Abbott put it in an essay on the evolutionary basis of the human capacity for storytelling (in Narrative 8/2000), this evolved capacity has helped shape human consciousness, developing not only our ability to represent lived experience, but also to imagine that which we have not yet experienced (and maybe never will):

Historical narrative, by its nature, extends away from what we are empirically aware of in the present; it goes back into the past where we cannot see or touch things yet still affirm them as true. It is a habit of mind that allows us to do what no other animal would think of doing – construct the truth. And it is also, of course, only a short remove from the fashioning of the immense analepsis which we call history to extend a world of time proleptically into the future, often with the same remarkable ability to make it true, despite a complete absence of empirical verifiability.

Religion, too, takes place on the level of narrative prolepsis; in that sense, it is intrinsically related to literature - and ought to be seen in this light. It is a fallacious argumentative leap to conclude (as Krauss seems to be doing) that all alternative worlds inevitably lead to dangerous scientific naivety. To the contrary (and that is the anti-ideology message that I torture my poor students with), the engagement with fictional worlds may actually train our critical abilities, asking us to explore the sources and intentions of ideas put forward within alternative worlds - however pleasant and comfortable we might find them.


Anonymous said...

I can't help feeling that both you and Francis are rather missing the point of what Krauss actually said. It seems to me that all three of you are agreeing that myth has its uses, but that the excesses of religion are not always beneficial.

Krauss did not actually write "All people feel that they must invent alternative realities to justify human existence.”, but "...too many people...". That's not the same thing, and yet Francis and yourself seem to conflate one with the t'other.

And as evidence for a contrary view of Krauss' standpoint, allow me to introduce for the defence the statement by Krauss in today's article in the Guardian on the Large Hadron Collider:

"Science, like great art, music or literature, compels us to reassess our place in the universe - to question where we come from, and where we are going. To turn our back on these questions is to dismiss our cultural inheritance. We should thus consider continuing our explorations of the universe as a cultural imperative."

That doesn't seem to me to be denying the role of myth in our explorations, but to consider it as one valid path.

Unknown said...

Maybe I was being overly selective in my comment on Krauss (which really only served as a launch pad for my own, egocentric ramblings). What I definitely did not want to do was question his credentials as a scholar.

However, it seems to me that one part of the "poetry of nature" of which he speaks in the Guardian article, and which ought to lead to a reassessment of where we are in the universe, is precisely our myth-making capacity - be it naive or sophisticated - the extreme forms of which he criticises. If our place in the universe may be one source of humility (that's how I read the idea of "reassessment"), the seemingly inevitable recourse to naive explanations of this condition is another, connected one.

I don't think that humans will ever transcend that recourse. Oddly enough, therefore, your first formulation ("All people feel compelled ...") rather than the more dismissive "too many ..." seems to me the more appropriate one. It's a question of how you define "alternative realities" and my suggestion was to take the term in a more secular sense.

Ashok said...

Thank you for bringing up this issue! This was quite a nice response. Only one small criticism --

Independent of "what Krauss meant," I wonder: does saying it is an empirical fact we tell stories and this matters in some "adaptive" way really save the literary imagination?

There is a stronger defense, I suspect.

Unknown said...


Thanks for your comment!

I'm not so sure that I'm on a saving-the-literary-imagination mission - not least because I'm convinced that the literary imagination will endure without my or anybody else's intervention.

The observation that stories are everywhere is merely my point of departure. I'm more interested in explaining the pleasure that literature induces. And it's the latter that might be our strongest argument for it. We love literature, both for proximate ("I fancy Heathcliff") and unconscious, ultimate ("it's good for the brain") reasons. But, as a literary scholar I'm mainly interested in the former.

Thanks for stopping by.