The Power of Narrative, for Better or Worse

Dear Reader,

Alex Rosenberg, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, has recently published a book entitled How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories which describes why we are so attracted to narrative and how it can lead us astray. I have not (yet) read the book but only some articles on it. The two I have run across are: Rosenberg, Alex, “Humans are Hardwired to Tell History in Stories. Neuroscience Tells Us Why We Get Them Wrong,” Time (Oct. 10, 2018), and Chen, Angela, “A philosopher explains how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history,” The Verge (Oct 5, 2018). Though my introduction to his work has been brief, I would like to examine Rosenberg’s ideas a bit.

Rosenberg’s contention is that we humnas “like to have all our knowledge packaged in stories — narratives with plots that involve people (and animals) with reasons and motives, carrying out their aims and designs, in cooperation or conflict, succeeding or being thwarted” (Time). This instinct, he says, leads us astray because we attribute emotions and motives to people when we cannot possibly know if they are accurate. His theory has a distinctly evolutionary basis — we have this propensity to ascribe motives to others because it helped us in a primitive environment (he mentions the African savannah). But to do so is false because: “neuroscience shows that in fact what’s “going on” in anyone’s mind is not decision about what to do in the light of beliefs and desire, but rather a series of neural circuitry firings” (Ibid.). “So,” he continues, “the brain can’t “contain” beliefs at all.”

Now obviously there is a lot here that from our Christian context we must reject wholesale. But there is also a kernel of truth that I think we need to acoount for.

On one level, I respect Rosenberg’s science. Most godless [1] evolutionists end up inconsistent. They want to believe in something beyond the physical though their presuppositions do not allow for a spiritual element. Rosenberg admits that his worldview is a purely physical one and that physical causes must account for all things — even what we term beliefs and emotions. Because of this, he does not just say we wrongly guess others’ motives; he actually says we cannot guess motives because there are no motives, only the products of neural firings.

As Christians,it is pretty fundamental to our belief system that there is a spiritual element to creation, and to humans in  particular, for which the physical alone cannot account. We also believe that we humans are capable of true belief [2] and that we do have motives, i.e. reasons we do things, even if our reasons are not always reasonable.

We may agree with Rosenberg, however, that narrative is instinctual to our race and that it is powerful. Charlotte Mason (whose educational philosophy I have blogged on extensively though I do not agree with her in all things) relies heavily on narrative as the basis for learning for just the reason Rosenberg cites — because we are programmed to learn informaiton through stories. The biblical text supports this view; narrative more than any other mode is how God Himself has chosen to communicate with His people. Our faith is largely belief in a story and this story is a powerful one (Heb. 4:12). So, while we do not come at the issue from the same direction, we can agree with Rosenberg that narrative is both fundamental and powerful for people.

Rosenberg goes one step further and argues that narrative is deceptive and even manipulative. As mentioned above, we do not need to reject all narrative as false as Rosenberg does because we do believe in motive. But he is correct is saying that narrative can be deceptive, whether deliberately or unintentionally. To that extent that such deception is deliberate it is also manipulative. In all honestly, even true narratives can be to some extent manipulative in that they are used to create a change in the audience.

Though there is a spectrum, narrative is apt to add to its subject matter. A historical novel often invents entire characters and situations. A biography may stick to real people and events but may makes unfounded surmises about how people felt and why they did things. A textbook may not take such liberties but often ends up as a dry compendium of facts which, as I think Rosenberg would agree, is hard to learn from.

Those of us who seek to use “living books” in our schools and homeschools (as I argued we should here)  need to take this crisitcism seriously. Too often we choose books based on the recommendations of others or from various lists which circulate and do not consider whether what they have to say is true. I remmeber reading two books about the pilgrims when my children were little and finding that they gave some very different versions of basic facts, even names and dates. These things were relatively easy to fact-check, though if I hadn’t been reading both books I would never have known there was anything to fact-check. And the more a book gets into motives, the more we are at the author’s mercy.

We have spoken some on the past of the need to vet our authors – and to use caution with those whose worldview differs from our own. Now we must add to that list: check their academic credentials and propensity for honesty. Sad to say, I find it is often the “Christian” historical fiction which seems to go the farthest in terms of inventing people, events, and feelings or motivations. A certain level of sentimentality anda tendency to explain the feelings and thoughts of others shoudl raise red flags for us to proceed with caution and a grain of salt. This does not mean we need to reject narrative-style living books altogether; there are books which use narrative but do a better job of sticking to the facts without assuming motivations and thoughts. Rosenberg admits as much citing Guns, Germs, and Steel as one such book (The Verge).

On a day -to-day in the trenches basis, this is a pretty thorny issue. If I were a university professor developing a class which I would be teaching again and again, I would spend a fair amount of time researching my sources and making sure that they balance narrative with truth. As a homeschooling mom who needs to find new books for multiple kids to read in about eight subject areas every twelve weeks and who is limited by what’s available at the local library and used off Amazon, I don’t have the time or resoucres to find the best of what’s out there every time.

I do think we can use a little discernment, however. With practice and with an awareness of the problem, we can make some fairly educated guesses about which books seem to give accurate acocunts and which clearly are supplying lots of suppositional information.

In sum, then, Rosenberg has raised some concerns which we need to take seriously. Though there are apsects of his theory which Christians cannot accept, he is correct that narrative is fundamental to how we learn and that it is powerful. Like most power, it can be used for good or ill. While I do not agree with him that all attempts at finding motive are in vain, it is true that we often make wrong suppositions about others’ motives and that narrative can thus be deceptive and even manipulative.

Nebby

[1] I do not mean this term derogatively. I am simpy refering to those who accept an evolution without any divine mind behind it. Those who believe in a divinely-guided evolution would not fit in this category.

[2] This is not a statemnt about total depravity and our capacity for good, but simply about our ability to believe in anything.

One response to this post.

  1. […] such things as the age of the child we are educating. We also took a bit of a side trip to examine the power of narrative, for good or […]

    Reply

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