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.
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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