We humans live by the stories we tell. They contain and convey our history, our purpose, our char­acter, our journey. Ultimately, our narra­tives derive their value from the fact that they are in some way rele­vant to the real world we live in. A story can be a window, or a mirror, an X‑ray. It can offer perspec­tive, solace, insight, relief, hope—every aspect of the human condi­tion.

But in addi­tion to being tale-tellers, humans are also fact-finders. We are all born homo fabu­lator, story­telling man, as well as homo scrutor, inves­ti­gating man. Human beings are at once both minstrels and detec­tives.

We want to know what lies under the grass, beyond the horizon, inside the atom. We revel in revealing knowl­edge that is not just partic­ular to our own situ­a­tion, but that applies to all people at all times. And we pass on this knowl­edge in the hopes that our chil­dren, and their children’s chil­dren, may benefit from it as well.

A Tale of Two Natures

In the realm of story­telling, anything goes: the limits of the narra­tive world are the limits of our imag­i­na­tion. This is a domain that can include every­thing from a giant three-headed dog guarding the Underworld to a teenage wizard playing Quidditch on a broom­stick. No holds are barred.

In our inves­ti­ga­tion of the natural world, however, the rules are different. Here, we are bound by the limi­ta­tions of objec­tive reality. The universe is as the universe is, regard­less of how we can imagine it. No matter how hard you believe that the Earth rests on a giant turtle, it still won’t make it so.

To embrace the full­ness of our humanity, I believe we need to embrace both of these elements of our nature. The story­teller and the inves­ti­gator, the narra­tive world and the mate­rial world.

But we should also never forget that these are sepa­rate realms. It would be a mistake to think that there is actu­ally a wizarding school called Hogwarts out there; just as it was mistake to believe, as the ancient Egyptians did, that the sun dies every day when it sets and is reborn the next morning. By the same token, we would be wrong to think that radioac­tivity was just a figment of Marie Curie’s imag­i­na­tion, making it perfectly safe for us to sleep on a bed made of uranium; just as we were wrong to believe, as many smokers did, that evidence of the harmful effects of tobacco on human health was just scare­mon­gering.

The true value of these two approaches to making sense of the world lies in the very fact that they are not the same, that they comple­ment each other. Neither one will ever make the other obso­lete.

Entangled Domains

This is not to say that the minstrel­verse and the detec­tive­v­erse don’t affect each other. They do, and therein lies the rich­ness of the human expe­ri­ence.

In a sense, the stories we tell use the knowl­edge we have acquired by scru­ti­nizing the world as a launch pad and take flight from there, using imag­i­na­tion as their fuel. Jules Verne could not have told his exciting tales of adven­ture and explo­ration without the fruits of scien­tific progress in the preceding centuries.

And in a sense, our efforts to under­stand the fabric of reality often start with fabu­lous conjec­tures, using scien­tific analysis to vali­date or disprove our ideas. Isaac Newton could not have come to the insight that the same force that makes an apple fall to the ground also makes the moon orbit the Earth without a great leap of the imag­i­na­tion.

No wonder then that we contin­u­ously expe­ri­ence and eval­uate both domains, in part, through the lens of the other.

We often think of the devel­op­ment of our knowl­edge of the world as a “story”. Science as a great journey of discovery–with heroes like Eratosthenes and Rosalind Franklin; foes like super­sti­tion and igno­rance; wrong turns like phrenology and helio­cen­trism; great rival­ries and battles like ratio­nalism vs. empiri­cism or the war of the currents; dramatic missteps like the Fleischmann-Pons exper­i­ment or Einstein’s biggest blunder; and inspiring victo­ries like the discovery of ellip­tical orbits or Pasteurization.

And we also often think of fictional worlds as if they were real, holding them to stan­dards of authen­ticity that need not apply. On the one hand, we will­ingly buy into the suspen­sion of disbe­lief that makes fiction possible at all—but on the other hand, even imag­i­nary worlds are held account­able for their internal consis­tency. We fret about plot holes in books, errors of perspec­tive in paint­ings and conti­nuity mistakes in movies, and are amused by a child actor who covers his ears in North by Northwest because he knows a shot is about to be fired.

A Singular Confluence

So where does that leave us? If these two essences of our nature are so inex­tri­cably inter­twined, how do we recon­cile our inner fabu­lator with our inner scrutor? The answer, perhaps, is that we don’t. That we can’t.

I like to think of the story­teller and the inves­ti­gator as comple­men­tary constituents of our humanity. This is one of those axes between seeming oppo­sites that harbor a rich continuum of wisdom and expe­ri­ence. Learning how to navi­gate that axis is part of the secret of life.

You can learn things from reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being that you would never glean from any scien­tific trac­tate. And you can see things through the Hubble tele­scope that no amount of poetry could ever disclose.

The trick is to embrace the value of both streams of insight and appre­ciate their pres­ence in us as a singular conflu­ence that is an essen­tial part of who we are: a minstrel and a detec­tive.

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Image credit: NASA (source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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