Story of Our Stories: Part IV

(Continued from Part II)

Science As Meta-Narrative

If we cannot depend on ourselves alone, we often think that we can depend on science.  

Usually, when you see a criticism of a scientific study or fact, it’s coming from a political position. We can laugh or rage at people who think that climate change isn’t real, or that the world is only thousands of years old. But science itself is a meta-narrative. It is the idea that if we think empirically, we can discover universal truths. These truths can tell us the ideal way to do everything. They can tell us how to live.

Central to it, in Lyotard’s mind, is what you and I might think of as clarification, he presents as a death of ambiguity.

In science, or the meta-narrative of science, everything must be proven. We have tools for proving things, but we hear most about data and studies, which can be really powerful, especially when you’re understanding the natural world around us, and how to create new tools. But what science cannot bear is meaning.

It’s comforting, in a way. The computer on which you’re reading these words is driven by the idea of zero and one. On its most basic level, a computer is an addition and subtraction machine, hence the word ‘computer.’ It computes.

But a computer, in its guts, cannot bear a ‘-1’ or as Bill Watterson put it ‘imaginary numbers.’ It cannot bear a thirty-twelve, or an eleventeen. It cannot hold two ideas in its head at once. It will test one small piece, denying the confounding factors that are so often present.

You see this ad-absurdum when science tries to tell us the right way to think, eat, or live. There’s so little room for meaning and depth that it makes men into machines eating food and spitting out energy and waste.

Take, for example, this article from the Telegraph: Money CAN buy happiness – if you spend in the right way, according to ‘groundbreaking’ Cambridge study. The article talks about how money can, in fact, buy happiness. It does so on the evidence of a study.

The study, Money Buys Happiness When Spending Fits Our Personality, was constructed like this: a 625 person cohort took a personality test that measured five personality traits, which were openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. With that in mind, they tracked the spending habits of the 625 people for six months, and found that there was a correlation between how closely a person’s spending aligned with their traits.

This study is so strange because takes all the complexity that is a human being and flattens them out completely. Then, on top of that, they take happiness, probably the most complex of human goals and emotions, and boils it down into a ‘report of higher levels of life satisfaction.’

There’s the problem. Science can’t tell us what an optimal life is, because its tools are not adequate to the task. You cannot tell a human being how to be happy or how to live well any more than you describe a human being by their social security number. Who you and I are is much more than that.

So, while science can get us to the moon, it can’t tell us why we’re going.  

This is what meta-narratives afford us. They afford us ways to create meaning out of life. And meaning is what we need to survive, like water, air and food.  

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