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A philosopher explains how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history

A philosopher explains how our addiction to stories keeps us from understanding history


How History Gets Things Wrong

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Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.
Image: Wikipedia Commons

“I myself am a victim to narrative,” says Alex Rosenberg, a Duke University philosophy professor whose new book hopes to convince readers that narratives — and especially narrative history — are flawed as tools of knowledge.

Rosenberg is a philosopher of science and a writer of historical fiction. How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, out this week from MIT Press, does not deny that stories can be wonderful as art and effective at eliciting emotions that then push action. But, Rosenberg tells The Verge, stories also lull us into a false sense of knowledge and fundamentally limit our understanding of the world.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Photo by Alex Rosenberg

You’re a professor of philosophy with appointments in biology and political science, and you’re also a novelist, but you’re not a neuroscientist or a historian. So how did you come to write this book?

I’ve always been besotted by history, but it’s not part of my academic credentials in any way. I am a philosopher of science, and, at one point, I went back to graduate school to study molecular biology, anatomy and physiology, and evolutionary biology. These are fields that have the tools and data and theories that have burgeoned over the last 30 years and which have begun to be able to finally shed light on the brain and human cognitive capacities and abilities. My interests have been carried along by developments of sciences that have been increasingly employed in areas like neuroscience to address some very traditional questions that philosophers have been interested in.

The real imperative of my book is to try to get people to see that neuroscience has, in the last 20 years, begun to teach us about the nature of the brain and its relation to the mind and, of course, how this undermines theory of mind [the ability to guess other people’s thoughts and motivations]. There have been startling developments that have won Nobel Prizes and begun to answer the most profound questions people have been asking about human thought as far back as Aristotle and Descartes: how the brain could be the mind, exactly what it is about the machinery of neural circuitry that constitutes thought and cognition. If you pay attention to research and developments in these areas, you discover the way the brain actually realizes the cognitive properties that govern human experience is nothing like what consciousness tells us it is.

Before we get into the neuroscience part, how exactly does history get things wrong? And why do you find narrative so unconvincing?

I myself am the victim of narrative. I love narrative. It’s the only thing I read, and it’s fantastically seductive. When I say “narrative,” I don’t mean a chronology of events; I mean stories with plots, connected by motivations, by people’s beliefs and desires, their plans, intentions, values. There’s a story.

The problem is, these historical narratives seduce you into thinking you really understand what’s going on and why things happened, but most of it is guessing people’s motives and their inner thoughts. It allays your curiosity, and you’re satisfied psychologically by the narrative, and it connects the dots so you feel you’re in the shoes of the person whose narrative is being recorded. It has seduced you into a false account, and now you think you understand.

The second part is that it effectively prevents you from going on to try to find the right theory and correct account of events. And the third problem, which is the gravest, is that people use narratives because of their tremendous emotional impact to drive human actions, movements, political parties, religions, ideologies. And many movements, like nationalism and intolerant religions, are driven by narrative and are harmful and dangerous for humanity.

Photo by Alex Rosenberg

Your key argument on the neuroscience side seems to be that we’re hardwired to have theory of mind — basically trying to read and guess other people’s emotions — and that makes narratives enjoyable even if they’re wrong or impossible to prove. Can you tell us a little about theory of mind and how it works?

Theory of mind emerges from a much earlier mind-reading instinct that’s common to most mammals. It’s highly adaptive. It’s a quick and dirty solution to the problem we have of predicting the behavior of other Homo sapiens and potential predators and prey. It works well on the African savannah in environments of early adaptation, but only for people and other primates in our immediate vicinity in a very short space of time. It continues to work today in dealing with people face-to-face and hour-to-hour over limited periods.

But when you start to generalize and apply theory of mind across time and the environmental space, it begins to be so crude and so imprecise that it becomes useless as a tool for controlling and collaborating with other people. But we’re still stuck with it as an explanation because it satisfies our curiosity.

If narrative history gets things wrong because it relies on projection and things we can’t know for sure, how should we be trying to understand history?

There are a lot of powerful explanations in history and social sciences that don’t involve narrative. They involve models and hypotheses that are familiar in structure to the kind that convey explanation in the natural sciences. For example, take Guns, Germs, and Steel, which gives you an explanation of a huge chunk of human history, and that explanation does not rely on theory of mind at all.

Another example is that historians and cultural anthropologists have wrestled with the question of foot binding in China and how it persisted for thousands of years despite its harmful impact and then completely disappeared in less than 10 years. Gerry Mackie has shown that this can be explained using the ideas of game theory and coordination. That also illuminates what goes on in history without using theory of mind or narrative.

So when are narratives positive? What role do they have?

I want to say, on balance, they are more harmful than they are positive. But it’s fatuous to discuss what role they ought to have because we are not going to be able to stop them from continuing. I think what we should do is try to use sources other than narrative to guide, to inform, instruct, and shape events in the future.