Sunday, October 07, 2018

Narrative history no good?

The Verge publishes an interview in which the philosopher-neuroscientist-historian Alex Rosenberg argues that the narratives out of which we build our underdtanding of other peopple's motives are entirely inadequate to the job. An excerpt:
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.

[Interviewer Angela Chen]

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

           [Neuroscientist-historian Alex Rosenberg]
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.

Rosenberg's ideas are treated at length in his book, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, just out from MIT Press.
Image Herodotus, Father of History, Father of Lies. This is not what he really looked like, but what do you expect?

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