Alex Rosenberg


Why understanding science is hard and seduction by the humanities is easy

Cover Interview of December 13, 2011

Unfortunately, we are all suckers for a good story—a narrative that strings events into a plot with characters driven by motives. If information doesn’t come in story form, we have trouble understanding it, remembering it, and believing it.

Unfortunately for real science (and for science writers!), its real explanations never come in the form of stories. Religion almost always comes in the form of stories. So religion has a huge psychological advantage over science.

Evolutionary anthropology combined with neuroscience shows that the stories we tell one another to explain our own and other people’s actions and to answer the persistent questions are all based on a series of illusions. That should be enough to forestall our innate penchant for stories.

Our ancestors evolved to love stories—narrative plots, with intriguing beginnings, thrill-packed middles and satisfying conclusions. But science reveals that stories are just part of a quick and dirty solution to an evolutionary challenge—predicting other people’s behavior well enough to get cooperation going. Without them we would never have climbed from the bottom of the African savanna food chain to the top, in less than a million years.

Neuroscience, computer science, and cognitive science show that the stories we think convey understanding are all illusions. They show why consciousness tricks us into thinking that narratives actually produce understanding when they do little more than relieve the itch of curiosity. This goes for stories in every day life, in history, biography, literature and the arts.

When it comes to human affairs, the humanities don’t have much to teach us, no matter how entertaining they turn out to be.