Wednesday, 21 April 2010

On narrative…

I can’t stop talking about this book Consilience by the Harvard biologist and philosopher of science, Edward. O. Wilson. I first picked it up last summer and even now I find it echoing daily in my consciousness, informing whatever I’m thinking about. It’s kind of a map of everything; an intensely readable (but in no sense dumbed-down) guide to the current state of the natural sciences coupled with a thoughtful analysis of the possibilities for their unification with the social sciences and the humanities.

As my title suggests, I really wanted to write something about narrative. It’s just that whenever I’ve tried to write anything about anything recently, something from Consilience has popped into my head. Here’s the particular passage currently intriguing me:
Short-term memory is the ready state of the conscious mind. … It can handle only about seven words or other symbols simultaneously. The brain takes about one second to scan these symbols fully, and it forgets most of the information within thirty seconds. Long-term memory takes much longer to acquire, but it has an almost unlimited capacity, and a large fraction of it is retained for life. By spreading activation, the conscious mind summons information from the store of long-term memory and holds it for a brief interval in short-term memory.
The long-term / short-term distinction is pretty familiar to most people, I’m sure, but what really gets to me about this passage is just how limited the short term memory is: seven words (or other symbols) at a time! How on earth are you or I supposed to comprehend our daily lives, let alone the universe, if we can’t even hold the entirety of this very sentence in our heads at once? Our long term memory may stockpile a huge amount of information and experience, but we can never truly take account of the whole, only continue to wave the tiny flashlight of conscious thought erratically over its vast and dark expanse.

Reading a little more about the subject, I’ve encountered some controversy about what exactly constitutes a symbol, and whether our brains might deal with different sorts of symbols with varying efficiency. But these sorts of quibbles don’t detract from the central idea that present-tense mental activity may be essentially limited and linear in comparison with the brain’s total capacity. We don’t need science to tell us this; I just think about song lyrics. I might know every single word of a given song, but I'll still need to sing it right through in order to recall the second line of the third verse. Certainly, the way we talk about our mental life in everyday conversation – as a ‘train of thought’ or a ‘stream of consciousness’ – would seem to hint at an experience of a single path moving through a wider cerebral landscape.

Enter narrative. Narrative is our only hope, I think. Unlike the real world, in which each instant emerges out of the baffling array of forces at play in its immediate antecedent, a narrative will guide our one-track minds along a single path of causation from beginning to end. No wonder so many people prefer religion to science; stories to charts and diagrams.

But, of course, scientists are human too; scientific understanding cannot and does not literally transcend the tiny bandwidth of the brain. When I say that Consilience provides a ‘map’ of reality, I would inadvertently describe Wilson’s view as birdlike, surveying the conceptual scene from on-high. But that is not the case. He is on the ground with the rest of us, although he is certainly not lost. Every sentence of his book follows the previous one; step by step through from the laws of physics to the chemistry of cells to the biology of organisms to the workings of human minds and thenceforth to the generation of culture. Science succeeds to the extent that it allows our monkey-brained species to comprehend the complexity of the universe, and to that end it is necessarily a narrative in itself. We may never truly map the territory from above, but we may at least beat solid pathways through the undergrowth. Or hum our way through the tune to the point at which we are to start singing.

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