Science and storytelling are the foundations of civilization. We investigate the world around us and we tell stories about that world and ourselves in it.
We seek the truth in both.
We want to know about the world around us, for practical reasons as well as for the deeper satisfaction of the mind and spirit. We learn how to look deeper and see what we haven’t seen yet. We learn how to investigate better and better, developing a method to help us avoid mistakes. We follow the advice, knowingly or unknowingly, of the late 12th century philosopher, physician, and jurist Moses Maimonides: “Seek the truth wherever it may be found.”
We need stories to tell us about ourselves. We know that who we are cannot be reduced to numbers. We know that we are not merely investigators, looking into the world from the outside, but participants in the world’s life. Our lives are stories that we are meant to tell others. One story joins another, and another story joins ours, until we have a great shared story that tells us who we are as a whole. As in a great book, each character’s development adds to the strength of the whole story, so too, our individual story adds to the story of the larger group. In the storytelling, we resolve the conflict between individual and the group. We know that just as our stories are intertwined, so too are our lives. We find our own meaning in joining with the stories of those who have come before us and those who will follow us as we uncover our purpose.
Both our science and our stories are at risk today.
The risk to science is not new. In the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides criticized a thinker of his day for an error similar to many we have seen today.
More than a millennium earlier, Aristotle had described the heavens as a series of perfectly concentric circles around the earth. The heavens are a place of perfection, not like this earth where everything is continually growing and then decaying. The stars, the sun, and the moon, however, showed what seem to be perfect constancy.
A circle is the most perfect motion, thought Aristotle, for although it changes, as do all things that move, it is yet as unchanging as a motion can be. And for many centuries, this vision was persuasive to the many scholars who read his books and those of his students.
A millennium or so before Maimonides, the astronomer Ptolemy made comprehensive observations of the motions of the heavenly bodies. And it was quite clear that some of the most visible heavenly bodies do not move in a circle around the earth, to the point that the planets can sometimes be observed to move backwards in the sky. Ptolemy constructed a complex theory to account for the irregular motions.
The early 12th century, Islamic thinker ibn Bajja (Avempace) objected. These observations contradicted the beautiful picture Aristotle had painted. The data must be wrong or must be forced to yield a different explanation. No, said Maimonides. If the observations were made well, as could be confirmed by anyone who cared to repeat them, then it matters little how great or important the man was whose theory was contradicted. We must follow the truth. Even if that pursuit requires perplexity and discomfort, it is far better than freezing ourselves out from the unending quest.
Maimonides chided ibn Bajja. We don’t know all of G-d’s ways. His creation as well is not entirely comprehended by us. We should be honest about what we don’t know and not ignore observations that don’t correspond to what we think we know. Wrestle with the truth. There is dignity and hope in that kind of engagement.
Maimonides’ frame of mind has been missing in so much of the fearful and angry talk around COVID. Intellectual humility, the driving force of science, is at a premium. People claiming the mantle of science contradict themselves in their pronouncements, but expect to be followed slavishly nonetheless. Politicians seeking to enhance their own power claim the mantle of science, but care not for truths that do not fit their ends. Debate is conducted in an imperious and high-handed manner, with the conclusions already foregone, and dissent barely tolerated, if at all. Think of how many scholars of repute were canceled and de-platformed for asking to investigate the possibility of a lab origin for COVID. Apologies have been few. Intimidation makes for bad science and bad science infects a civilization, as disrespect for truth brings disrespect for the moral truths latent in it. Defile the search for truth and civilization itself is defiled.
Storytelling was respected and revered long before science made a name for itself. It too must relentlessly pursue truth or lose its power. The brittle stories of many ancient societies did not outlast their fall. We may read them and see what inspired life for a time, but also see a lack of truth-seeking that did not test the story and make it deeper.
The extraordinary nature of the Bible is that it continuously tests the story by which it binds the people who live in it and pushes them deeper towards the truth. It is not short of the severest criticism for even its greatest heroes, and does not allow self-congratulation. Yet neither does it endorse wallowing in guilt as a solution to the mistakes that the people have made, individually or collectively.
Its story is of a continuous rededication to ideals that are only clarified and made more urgent by failure. It relentlessly pushes us to confront our shortcomings and failings, but always with the goal of return.
Thus, the civilization that it inspired can fall seven times and rise again and again. Always stronger and more focused. Its people can be exiled and despised, but, learning from what went wrong, outlast great empires and fierce tyrannies until a day dawns when they find their story shared and resonant, changing the face of the world.
From its fundamental idea expressed in its very first chapter that humanity is created in the divine image comes the mighty idea that we can recognize truth, in the world and in each other, and build a civilization not on the whims of the favored elites but on the assent of free citizens joining together of their own good will to fulfill their highest aspirations together.
Our times are filled with bad storytelling. Those who will not tell the stories of our American failures underestimate the resilience and the moral strength of our people, who want and need to right real injustice and heal real hurt. And those who tell only the bad destroy our story as well, for they create new injustices.
The racism of Antifa and their fellow travelers is no less noxious than what they rightfully point to in our history. But they have ignored the most basic line of our great story, which is its vision of redemption, that pushes us to never let our sins have the last word. By divorcing themselves from the great and overarching theme of our story, they have excluded their own version of the story as being anything other than a violent and passing aberration.
Stories take time to develop and science, too, requires patience. Americans and citizens of the world make their own investigations and tell their own stories. The truths that last are the ones that will be told and affirmed. Do not despair, tell the great story, seek the truth, and we will be a part of the unfolding redemption. We the people know that great story as our own.
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