Science, stories and truth

Frances Ashcroft:  “I’m fascinated by this divorce of philosophy from science because I think that in a way we’re all trying to tell stories about how the world works and I just think that the stories that science tells are perhaps a little bit closer to the truth than the ones that philosophy can come up with at the moment.”

Julian Baggini“The questions philosophy has been left with now […]  are not the kind of things where you can establish a truth with that crystalline clarity. Rather I think what you’re trying to get from philosophy is the most truthful understanding of these phenomena as possible.”

Start the Week, BBC Radio 4, 25 June 2012

This exchange between the physiologist Frances Ashcroft and the philosopher Julian Baggini, in a recent radio discussion, caught my attention for several reasons.

The scientist’s confidence in being closer to the truth than the philosopher is so widely shared nowadays that to question its basis – which of course is not the same as questioning its truth – is to risk being seen as ignorant or simply pre-modern. But the claim’s frequency should not obscure its boldness. After all, it implies a concept of truth that is difficult to imagine without recourse to philosophy. Closer is a scientific term; truth is not.

At the same time, Frances Ashcroft uses the metaphor of telling stories to describe the scientist’s work. It’s a very useful way of describing how human beings try to make sense of the world: I’ve often used it in relation to my own work. But the youngest children know that there is a difference between what is and what is told. A story is a construction. It relates to reality (or truth) but, in doing so, acknowledges that it cannot be reality (or truth).

The test of a story is whether that relation to reality is illuminating. Itself a more or less conscious, more or less admitted fiction, does the story make reality clearer? Which, of course, is the task that Julian Baggini sets for philosophy: not of establishing a truth but of gaining a more truthful understanding of reality.

So the ontological difference between the scientist and the philosopher seems less secure than it might appear. Their methods are different but both create narratives that hold for a time until better ones – stories that seem to find a more truthful understanding of reality – are told.