Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Storytelling and Belief

In my last post I introduced the idea that storytelling is an inescapable and important element of our nature, if not a definitive one. We are in the business of piecing together elements of human experience into a narrative that fits them together. These stories are important for our lives, and they serve a wide range of functions. In my last post I ended with a question: What do stories have to do with belief?

Sometimes what we try to piece together is a set of facts or observations, and our aim is to understand what is going on by coming up with the narrative that does the best job of coherently integrating these facts or observations. The more facts or observations that are accounted for coherently by this "story," and the fewer anomolies are left unexplained, the less likely it seems that a radically different story we haven't thought of could work as well. Sometimes, of course, there is more than one story that works as well, in which case we keep looking for something that will decide the case--some new observation or bit of evidence that fits better with the one story rather than the other.

In some arenas of inquiry it seems possible to decide among rival stories in a deliberate way, because the stories not only fits the facts on offer but enable us to make predictions: We imagine "what should happen next" in the story--and what should happen next is actually something that we could, in principle, observe. If observation supports prediction, we become increasingly convinced that the story is in fact true. What may have started out as conjecture moves progressively closer to certainty. Here, we say, is a true story.

This, I think, is what is going on with scientific or quasi-scientific explanations--and while we're not in the habit of calling such explanations stories, it seems to me that the same creative mechanisms that function in all story-telling are inexcapably implicated in scientific work. In such cases there is no question about whether we believe the stories we tell. Often, we claim to know. At the very least, we claim to have good reasons to believe that they are true. 

Fictional stories, by contrast, we know to be false. We don't believe the story; but at the same time, one test of the quality of a fictional story is its believability. Even a far-flung fantasy novel, with magic and monsters, has to pass a test of believability. The magic has to follow rules that, in some way, make sense. The laws of logic must be respected even if the laws of nature are imagined to be different. More significantly, the (human or human-like) characters have to behave and think and respond in ways that ring true to what human beings are like. Good fiction, even if it is known to be false in the details, has to be "true" at some more general level on pain of failing to connect with readers.

Between these extremes is a species of storytelling sometimes called speculation. You hear that a couple from your old neighborhood is getting divorced. You remember several things you witnessed concerning their interpersonal dynamics, and you know a few facts about their recent history. And you say, "Here's what I think might have happened between them." Your speculation might not be true--but you have some reasons to think it is. At the very least you don't know that it's false in the way that you know a fictional story is false. And if the story resonates with you strongly enough there's a good chance you'll believe it. Believe it, but not claim to know it.

Then again, you might resist believing it. Perhaps you have a history of getting things wrong in these kinds of cases. Or there's someone else you know whose speculations on these sorts of matters--even when they know fewer relevant facts than you do--more often turn out correct (when it's been possible to find out "the true story" later on). This person is "intuitive." And this person doesn't agree with your speculation. Or maybe you're just are dispositionally resistant to believing "mere" speculation unless you have to.

Of course, sometimes you do "have to," in the sense that you have to make a decision about how to act, and all you have to go on is speculation. So you do the best speculating you know how to do, given the pieces of the story that are available to you. And you operate as if the speculative story you've come up with is true, and you hope for the best.

And sometimes, even if you don't "have to" believe it (in the sense of needing to make a decision), you have an instinct. You're speculation feels right. Perhaps you have a history of getting these sorts of stories right, at least on the general level. You're the one who's "intuitive." You might resist acting as if it's right if you don't have to, but in a different sense, you believe. You don't know, of course, and you don't claim to know. But in the privacy of your heart you believe.

But all cases of speculation, regardless of whether the speculative stories are believed or not, differ from fiction in important ways. One has to do with the purpose. Speculation is an attempt to offer an account of what is going on. One isn't just making stuff up in a way that fits together. One is trying to fit facts or events or experiences together. A second difference does have to do with belief: At the very least, when you speculate, you don't disbelieve. As soon as you disbelieve the story, the story is no longer your speculation.

These three--rigorously vetted explanation, speculation, and fiction--are really points along a continuum. There's fictionalized speculation (a hostorical novel about real people that tries to be faithful to the known facts but involves lots of mere invention). And before an explanation becomes well-vetted, it starts out as speculation and moves up the continuum. And how our stories relate to belief may change dependning on where on this continuum they fall.


  1. Hi Eric

    I think it's possible, and in many cases desirable, to unhitch belief from speculation. Perhaps I'm in a game show, and behind one of three boxes is an excellent prize. I'm asked to pick one, to speculate. So, in order to progress in the game and give myself a chance of winning, I must guess. This doesn't imply I will form a belief. The only thing I know for sure is that I don't know which box has the prize. It doesn't prevent me from participating fully in the game. It doesn't detract from my excitement, or lessen my chance of success.

    The thing I find puzzling, is this great tendency we have to form beliefs based on hunches. Survey people on the appropriate Government approach to the drawn out recession and you'll hear a whole lot of certainty, backed by tremendously little data or understanding. This desire for belief is then exploited by politicians as a way of shoring up their partisan support base. So, even in times of genuine desperation, we resist engaging in the careful, informed analysis the situation is crying out for.

    I absolutely agree with you that it is in our nature to speculate, and such speculation is very often necessary. But it seems to me that the move from speculation to belief involves embracing a sort of anti-intellectualism.


  2. You might enjoy Scot Atran's story about religion. It is a bracing, worthwhile read, and I can send a pdf if you lack access.

    1. Just read through the Atran/Ginges piece, which reiterates some fairly important themes about religion in the sociological sense. I agree with much of the analysis. For me, the most interesting question is how that analysis bears on religion in other senses--the more personal/experiential sense focused on by William James and Schleiermacher and Weil, or the philosophical/theological sense of religion as a speculative worldview/way of seeing subject to critical refinement in terms of coherence and fit with experience.

  3. I like this account at first reading. I'm going to have to think about it for a while. Digest it.

    It occurs to me that it leaves a legitimate place for philosophy, particularly metaphysical speculation, something that many people want to deny.

    Eric, if you are still up for sharing lunch with a truck driver some time, I come through Stillwater every Friday around 11 and stop for lunch. I'll buy just to get to share an interesting conversation with someone.

    1. I'd be happy to (although I'll need to check my wife's training schedule--she's doing an Ironman triathlon next month--to figure out which Friday would work). E-mial me at the address on my department webpage and we'll figure out what will work.

  4. Thanks for the reference, Burk. It looks interesting.

    I found the PDF here

  5. Thinking about this a little more, is there a set of criteria we might agree upon for moving from speculation into belief? One possibility is to choose to believe a speculation when there is reason to believe it is the best speculation available. So, testing against novel predictions, in the scientific context, might do this, and we might think of belief in scientific's established theories to be warranted.

    In the real time analysis for human interactions, with constantly shifting variables, a consensus may never emerge but belief may still be necessary (for example, in chosing an appropriate economic policy setting). Here, appealing to historical data as our best guide to future outcomes, in effect getting hold of as much information as possible and then basing a speculation on probability, seems inevitable.

    But what of metaphysical speculation, where public data is unavailable? Is one warranted to believe whatever feels right, essentially to adopt the most satisying fictional narrative as representative of something solid? This appears to require a metanarrative, that speaks of the way one's own feelings are more likely to describe reality than those with conflicting narratives, and that's the story I struggle to construct, leaving me with nowhere to go but unbelief. (And happily enough, the unbelief narrative suits my temperament well, suggesting perhaps reason here serves at the pleasure of personality).