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Telling stories and feeling the not-knowing

On Monday I was at the Royal Society, as Pepys might have said, always being at the cutting edge of the establishment of his day, for the launch of a book co-written by a friend of mine, Nicholas Beale, with the particle physicist Professor John Polkinghorne. I've not often been to that wonderfully grand, white building in Carlton House Terrace, but I never cease to be awed - once I've recovered from entering under the gaze of its founder, one of my favourite monarchs, Charles II - at the history of science which surrounds you: Newton looking mad, Faraday looking sensible, Wren, Hooke, Davy, Huxley, Kelvin, Rutherford, and so on, portrait after portrait, room after room. The book, Questions of Truth, is about the interface between two belief systems which attempt to make sense of the universe and our human experience in it: religion and science. And the launch took the form of a fascinating panel discussion between distinguished scientists, none of whom had any difficulty in reconciling the two by virtue of having thought long and hard and clearly about what that reconciliation consisted of. There were then questions from the floor, which were, for the most part, civilised and scholarly versions (as befitted a room and a platform full of FRSs) of the usual debates.

But one answer really caught my interest. The question concerned the reductiveness of a certain kind of science, which believes that everything which matters about the world and human experience can - or will be - explained, if we can only break things down into small enough particles. And one of the speakers described how biologist Denis Noble, in his book The Music of Life has said that science has spent the last forty years doing just that, and now it's time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again: to reassemble everything that we now understand so much better, and try to see what we've actually got, and how it explains the world we experience. And I was instantly and irrestistibly reminded not only of the A Level history which made me give up a lifetime's ambition to be a historian, because history, too, got smaller and smaller in the middle of the 20th Century, and then of the philosopher Richard Kearney. In On Stories he describes how narrative is formed from 'the bits and pieces of experience'. Fiction and, say, history-writing, make different claims as to the kind of truth they represent: history (like science) makes a narrative that presents the probable and the likely, while fiction presents the possible, the 'memories we don't have'. But, essentially, narrative is how we understand these things, because as Kearney puts it, 'we are storied creatures.' And narrative is how we understand science, too. It needn't be the rolling periods of Herschell or thick modern jargon describing an experiment, because even an equation is, fundamentally, a narrative: a series of bits and pieces which are put together to describe a relationship, a story with a beginning and a middle and an end, written in a language so it can be communicated. An equation is not what actually happens inside a quark (do quarks have insides?), any more than a book on your shelves is what actually happened during the Dark Ages, or in Brick Lane. And more than one narrative can be made from any set of bits and pieces, whether it's my research into Elizabeth Woodville or someone else's into the funny habits of E. Coli. But we have no other way of making sense of it.

Unfortunately, this thought only came to me as I was sitting there; I was just thinking it out, when the other face of this storiedness intruded, and complicated things still more, and I wish I could go back and say it all better: the ghosts of six generations of my FRS grandfathers were perhaps not terribly impressed. To me, intimately connected with our storied nature is the need for us to tolerate what poet and novelist Philip Gross calls not-knowing, (and it's relevant to that evening because it seems to me that the human fear of not-knowing is what drives fundamentalism among both religious and scientific communities) as much as it does learning. I know there's a connection between narrative and not-knowing: I can feel it. Is it the sense of all those other narratives one might make which is so familiar to short story writers, in particular, so that we have to live with the impossibility of any one narrative being definitive? Is it simply the realisation that we cannot, in a way, apprehend more than one bit or piece at once, rather as the human eye (unlike a camera) can only focus on one spot: in humans an image is built up in the brain from a particular sequence of such focussings, just that day, in that light? Yes, I can feel there's a connection but I'm damned if I can put it into words. I shall have to live with feeling it, but not knowing it.


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Off the top of my head (it's been a few years), stories are related to not-knowing because:

i. In our lives, and the lives of civilisations, they're chiefly unfinished - we find ourselves in the middle of them, and have to imagine the rest. They have a narrative structure - beginning, middle, end; departure, arrival; seduction, climax, glow; etc - but they're often only parts of larger stories, which keep unfolding beyond us.

ii. We know there are other ways of understanding things, but we can't seem to grasp them any other way - we emplot the world, but we keep seeing things in the 'gaps'.

iii. We also know there are other stories: of individuals and other societies, past and present - they compete and collude with our own. This reinforces the limits of our understanding.

iv. (Related to iii.) At their most radical, or unfamiliar, they suggest arbitrariness: that our own stories could easily have been otherwise - yet they're all we have. Outside them is the great unfathomable nothing. Stories are our dance above this abyss.

Emma Darwin

Damon, thank you, that all makes lots of sense. (brain cogs whizzing even at this grimly early hour).

i is true. Of course the novel was invented as consolation for the fact that we'd just realised that God might still exist, but he certainly wasn't down with us organising us individually into a well-shaped story.

ii seems to me relevant to the do the other night: in a sense, what all the scientists were saying is that for them the two belief systems are complementary, explaining some of the gaps which the other leaves empty.

ii and iv are very familiar to a creative writer, I think, in a paradoxical way. On one hand, the story that arrives at the end of our pen seems very whole, as if it existed before. It has its own integrity and wholeness (when we get it right), like the stories we make in emplotting the real world. Because it latches into our sense of the 'real world', though, it also has our 'real world' sense that there are other stories to be made from the same bits and pieces. And yet there aren't: this imagined world doesn't exist except in as far as it's invented by us. Do those 'other stories' exist, if we don't imagine them fully or even write them down, or not?

Jacqui Christodoulou

I think the key to the link between narrative and not knowing may be the 'enemy' of the belief systems of science and religion, namely relativity in terms of postmodernism.
Both science and religion rely on one truth. In my view, narrative emerges from the self based on uniqueness of experience and consequently there are as many narrative truths as there are people. I feel that this is where the sense of 'not knowing' comes from, as although a writer is communicating their narrative truth, it can never be fully understood on the same context by another person.

Do the 'other stories' exist in the concept driven language that lies in our perception of our experiences, perhaps memory? Maybe the reason that we don't fully understand cognitive function is because we look at it through the lens of 'truth'? I see narrative as a scaffold that tentatively hold up these concepts in a commonly understood form, a sort of HTML of the mind! After all, we all have a scripted narrative that we play out in terms of identity, and our storied concepts are an extention of our creative identity, either fiction of non fiction.

sarah fox

Subliminal narrative 'truths' and the option of varying paths is a fascinating idea... and wasn't it Graeme Greene who said that the moment your character does or says something you hand't intended them to, they are 'alive'. In such a way, many scientific discoveries arise from a 'hunch', a sense of knowing before the proof of seeing which leads on to further research and discovery.

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