Life Coach

Dr Peter L Nelson

Science as Story

Science and mathematics are ways of knowing, not reality itself.
There has been a tendency since the advent of modern science to view mathematics as a kind of ‘ultimate’ reality. From this perspective the mathematical description of so-called physical relationships moves from being an epistemic shorthand for observed quantitative relationships to the ontic core of the universe itself. This reification of mathematics occurred primarily because these descriptions are often predictive of what is yet to be observed. They say, “If you do the following experiment Y, you will observe phenomenon X.” The success of mathematics in sending scientists to the next ‘scene’ of discovery, especially in physics, has been great and thus has been the primary driver for the belief that mathematics and reality are one and the same.

In this philosophical framework the human observer and knower, s/he who perceives and writes the equations, is not a significant issue. The person is merely the recording instrument of what is offered up through the manipulation of equations. It is a powerful tool and, for those who practice it, a mesmerizing activity. I remember taking the simple mathematical description of the behavior of a single nerve cell and algebraically manipulating it and ‘discovering’ a modified version of the mathematical description known as the Weber-Fechner Law, a quantitative statement of the relationship between stimulus intensity and perceived stimulus strength first observed in the 19th century. This ‘discovery’ was thrilling and made me aware of the power of mathematics in the practice of science.

In spite of the power of mathematical methods, I would argue that what we know as a result or our equations remains a story, a metaphorical description, that we tell ourselves in order to create understanding. The equations are not reality itself, rather they are pointers that we interpret within a frame of reference, which itself is a collection of ‘just-so’ stories about the way things are. We really only can understand stories that bring our perceptions and knowings together in a manner that fits within our limited, human capacity for knowledge creation.

An integral part of our human framework for knowing a ‘true’ story is that it gives us a felt sense of coherent connectedness, in which events and players fit together in a way we often call ‘commonsensical’. This is the quality that gives our stories veracity because it contains what appears to be a logical storyline that encompasses sufficient elements that necessarily create a causal chain that does not violate our sense of what is thought to be reality (a story that usually remains implicit). In other words, these stories are metaphorical descriptions of what is, and how things work, that carry a sense of ‘rightness’ because of the way they pragmatically fit with what else we know and believe.

Calling our understandings derived from science ‘stories’ is not intended to diminish them. It is my attempt to suggest that whatever story we tell ourselves about science, it remains a human one enmeshed in the matrix of human knowing. The idea that we stand apart from the world and observe it objectively (whatever that is), describing something that has nothing to do with the knower, is an idea that, when dogmatically held as the one, absolute truth, is no less insane than any other fanatical, fundamentalist religious belief.

And, finally, mathematics is a language of that human story that works well in a particular context—the perceptual story we experience as physics—but not at all well in the milieu of the storyline we know as art. Not that one is right and the other wrong. It is that they are stories that serve different types of knowing, each of which opens a type of understanding in the human world of knowing.