On Neuroscience and Storytelling
In the last five years, it has appeared very likely that literature and storytelling as we have known them for thousands of years will be affected radically, even if only gradually, by the findings of neuroscience. As an amateur but a very engaged one, I’ve read widely in this field–at least as it’s represented in popular science writing. And it seems to me that what have for centuries and centuries and centuries been regarded as “givens” about human nature and behavior–ideas about character, responsibility, evil, virtue, courage, cowardice, etc., all of them crucial ingredients of literature–will be undermined by a more substantiated neurological view of consciousness and behavior and decision making than we have ever known before. It will become harder and harder to defend such concepts as spirit and soul and heroism, because actions that embody such concepts will be increasingly shown to be the results of physical/chemical brain processes instead of the productions of what Gilbert Ryle called a “ghost in the machine.” The only way to resist this erosion of these concepts under the scrutiny of neuroscience is simply to ignore that erosion and carry on as usual–to insist on admiring Sidney Carton for his self-sacrifice, for example, and to condemn Iago for his perfidy and deceit. That is, to have a sort of two tiered set of responses to human actions–one scientific in nature, the other moral, characterological. And that is what I think we will probably end up doing, at least for a long while. Tellingly, this double standard mirrors the dualism of mind and body that we now know almost for a certainty is untenable. Maybe we will never be able to dispense with judgments and praise and blame, in literature or in life–it’s no doubt part of what our brains need to do. But our drive for empirical knowledge appears to be in greater conflict every day with our psychological need for narrative and responsibility. If they continue to coexist, it will be with greater and greater unease.