Science is a really, really good story

I read two essays by Philip Pullman this morning, from his collection Daemon Voices. The essays were ‘Soft Beulah’s Night’, about William Blake and the importance of magic, and ‘Writing Fantasy Realistically’, about how fantasy is ‘a load of old cobblers’ unless it serves the purpose of realism. Reading these two essays, back to back, made me realise something about science and creativity which I have long struggled with.

What follows is an explanation of my thought process after I read these essays. Stick with me, there is a point at the end!1

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Let’s get started.

Something I think about a lot is the idea that science (read also: logic, rationality, scepticism) is somehow fundamentally opposed to art (also: creativity, beauty, wonder). This hasn’t come out of nowhere – the world is riddled with arguments for this dichotomy. Many people claim that science takes the wonder out of things, and art is enshrined as something mysterious and non-scientific. I’ve always felt that this divide between science and art is quite unnecessary, but I find it difficult to articulate why. Maybe I’m groping my way towards some kind of answer now.

The first essay of Pullman’s, ‘Soft Beulah’s Night’, made an argument which roughly corresponds to: ‘science is all well and good up to a point, but it cannot explain everything, it cannot account for the magic and mysticism in our souls’. But rather than try to paraphrase Pullman, let me give it to you in his own words. (In this quote he is talking about four types of ‘vision’ as named by William Blake in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell):

Fourfold vision is a state of ecstatic or mystical bliss.

Threefold vision arises naturally from […] the place of poetic inspiration and dreams, ‘where Contrarieties are equally True’.

Twofold vision is seeing not only with the eye, but through it, seeing contexts, associations, emotional meanings, connections.

Single vision is the literal, rational, dissociated, uninflected view of the world. […] Single vision is deadly. Those who exalt reason over every other faculty, or who maintain that other ways of seeing (the imaginative, the poetic, etc.) are fine in their place but the scientific is the only true one, find this position ridiculous. […] Single vision [will] not do. ‘I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.’

There is, in this argument, the core idea that the scientific is opposed to the poetic; not just that, it strongly implies that the scientific is lesser than the poetic (it is ‘deadly’). Maybe this is something a literal, rational, dissociated, uninflected person would say, but where is the argument that poetic vision, on its own, is deadly? People who make the argument of science vs. art often claim that science alone cannot explain everything, but they rarely argue the other way, that art on its own cannot explain everything either.

So, there it is, an idea that comes up again and again: that science is very good at explaining the world, but it is fundamentally separate from creativity and beauty. This argument is summarised perfectly in the quote Pullman uses from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’: ‘I will not Reason & Compare, my business is to Create.’

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Are you with me so far? Feel free to take a breather with this gif of someone running in a bear costume.

I read that first essay, and then I went onto the next, ‘Writing Fantasy Realistically’. In this essay, Pullman describes how he felt ’embarrassed’ when he first found himself writing fantasy, because – although not a big reader of fantasy himself (‘I didn’t begin to write fantasy because I was a great reader of it’) – he has always thought that it was ‘a low kind of thing, a genre of limited interest and small potential’, and that the greatest works of literature are built around realism.

(I will leave aside, for this blog post, the Ian McEwan-esque theme of Pullman’s essay, where a writer who admits that he does not read much in the genre he was written a book in claims that he has done something profound and unusual in his work that others in the genre should pay attention to. If he’d only read more widely, he would know that other writers in the genre have been doing this for centuries.)

The main thrust of Pullman’s argument in this essay is that great stories are those that feel the most real. The characters seem like they could truly exist in the world; their personalities and behaviour grow organically out of the situations they find themselves in. In this way, fiction allows us to access truth – none of these things actually happened, but they feel like they did and thus they help us to understand ourselves and the world a little better.

I agree with him. And this – I would argue – is also what science does.

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Yes, here it comes.

These two essays helped me to realise that, at its root, science is a story. It’s a really, really good story – the best story we have, in fact, to explain our world.

Poor stories are so much gloss and spectacle: they entertain us for a while, maybe make us feel fuzzy or scared, but they don’t access deeper truths, they don’t help us to learn.2 The best stories, as Pullman says, serve the purpose of realism – not necessarily in their setting, or the appearance of their characters, or the technology in the world, but in what they tell us about life and meaning and the human condition. And what does this more perfectly than science? Is this not, indeed, the entire goal of science in the first place?

I would argue that non-scientific things like the supernatural and pseudoscience are simply poor stories. They are powerful, they can make us feel certain things – ghost stories offer us the comforting idea that death doesn’t mean death; moon landing conspiracies allow us to think that we are special and awake in a world of sleepwalkers – but they don’t get us any closer to the true heart of things. Science does this, by using rationality and scepticism and, crucially, evidence to build up – layer by layer – an increasingly accurate picture of the world as it is. (Science has the added bonus of being based upon things that actually happened. Non-scientific stories may have their place, like entertaining fiction, but they step beyond their bounds when they claim to be literally true.)

I am not claiming to be some specially enlightened being while everybody else is stupid and wrong. Believe me, I’ve dabbled in plenty of supernatural, pseudoscientific stuff in my time. I’ve had serious conversations about star signs, tried to meditate in order to access memories from my past lives (when I was a pre-teen, I thought I might have been a lion in a previous life) and tried out witchcraft and spells. But all these things fell by the wayside for me because they are poor stories. I always felt like I was grasping at something that was ultimately baseless, because there was no good explanation for any of it. From a narrative point of view, it made me feel nice, comforting, exciting things, but it was full of plot holes and the characters were unconvincing. If you read a book where the author threw in a magic system without coming up with a good, solid grounding for it, you’d probably be unconvinced. That’s a good principle to apply to real life too.

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What do we say to pseudoscience?

Science, on the other hand, is a really well-crafted story. We know it is a story because humans have created it to make sense of the world. We know it is a really, really good story because we haven’t invented it out of whole cloth: we’ve started from a few basic ideas and gradually built it up using evidence, filling in plot holes as we uncover them, rewriting parts that don’t make sense, always, always going back and editing when we realise something new about the players involved. Science is no slapdash first draft; it’s not trying to distract you from its flaws with bells and whistles and pretty feelings. No, it is a careful, meticulous, ongoing process of creation and revision that grows organically out of what has come before, owns up to the things it doesn’t know yet, and builds up to create the most truthful and realistic story ever told.

To bring this thing full circle, let me return to that first essay of Pullman’s, which claims that science and art are fundamentally different. I don’t think that’s true at all. Science is art. Mathematicians describe equations as ‘beautiful’ all the time. Scientific theories are stories in themselves. I think this division of science and art into two separate camps needs to stop: one is not pure rationality and the other is not pure creativity. They’re inextricably bound up together, serving each other to the point that they can’t even be separated any more. This is what so rankles me about the Blake quote, ‘I will not Reason & Compare, my business is to Create’. I think reasoning and comparing is, ultimately, an act of creation. Rationality does give rise to art, just as creativity gives rise to truth.

I, too, will sum up with a quote from a poet, this time John Keats: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’

1Quick disclaimer: it seems that I do a lot of Pullman bashing in this blog post. Let me just make it clear that I love Pullman’s writing: many of the essays in this collection are genuinely inspiring, and His Dark Materials is my favourite book of all time. But that doesn’t mean I can’t disagree with him now and again, as I do here.

2Let me be clear that by ‘poor stories’, I don’t mean mean genre fiction: there are good and bad stories across every genre. Neither am I saying that there isn’t a place for these stories – we can’t learn profound truths from morning to night, it would be exhausting.

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