Science as Storytelling (and a Story that Excludes the Supernatural, at That)

A picture of me teaching my Biology class. Am I simply telling stories, or am I attempting to teach reality to my students?

B. R. Bickmore and D. A. Grandy are the authors of a paper titled, “Science as Storytelling.”[1] The purpose of their article is to provide a useful definition of science. Of course, science being a significant and diverse topic, it takes sixteen pages to explain all of the necessary details of science. The premise of the article is that science can be thought of as storytelling. Specifically, it is “the modern art of creating stories that explain observations of the natural world, and that could be useful for predicting, and possibly even controlling, nature.”[2] Their approach of treating science as storytelling is unusual. However, Bickmore and Grandy deliberately chose the word “story” to “emphasize the idea that the explanations scientists come up with are not themselves facts.”[3] 

I believe that the observation that scientific explanations are not facts is excellent. Science and scientific theories are not reality, they are our attempt to describe reality. For example, objects near the surface of the Earth fall at an acceleration of 9.80 meters per second squared not because Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation tells it to. Rather, Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation is an attempt to explain the observation that all things near the surface of the Earth fall at a constant acceleration (and things that are further away from Earth fall at different rates, and that a force of gravity exists between all objects with mass). The gravity existed long before Sir Isaac Newton come up with his laws: his laws were simply an attempt to explain and predict what he, and others before him and after him, were observing.

Back to Bickmore and Grandy’s article, after giving a definition of science, they then explain that as a literary genre, science must follow certain rules. This is akin to a work of science fiction following certain rules and expectations, or a murder mystery following a certain set of rules and expectations. The genre determines what we expect the story to be like.

Bickmore and Grandy give several rules for the stories of science to follow, but there is one in particular that I want to address. That is “Rule #4: Naturalism.” They give the rule this way: “Scientific explanations do not appeal to the supernatural. Only naturalistic explanations are allowed.”[4] Bickmore and Grandy do not give this rule lightly. They give specific reasons for why scientific explanations must exclude the supernatural. First, “supernatural explanations tend not to generate precise new predictions.”[5] Their argument is that a supernatural agent need not follow natural laws. In fact, the supernatural is, by definition, above nature. Therefore, the supernatural is inherently unpredictable and irreproducible. Furthermore, Bickmore and Grandy had already given reproducibility as the very first rule of the genre of science, so to be consistent with that rule, supernatural explanations should be excluded.

The second given reason for excluding the supernatural is because “it is very difficult to place limits on which supernatural explanations are acceptable.”[6] The reasoning here is that a supernatural agent must be understood in order to predict how it will act. Bickmore and Grandy give a specific example: “if we say that God created the world, we can generate predictions about what the world is like only if we know something about what God could have and would have done during the Creation.”[7] In case you are wondering, “But doesn’t God tell us in the Bible not only what He could do but also what he did do?” you need to understand that Bickmore and Grandy are open to any possible explanation of who or what god is. This openness is reflected in their last objection. “Since different groups ascribe different attributes to God and other supernatural agents, if we allowed supernatural explanations in science we would end up with various versions of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish science, to name but a few.”[8] Since there are several different descriptions of who or what god is, then it is impossible to know how a god “should” behave, and thus predicting how a god would interact with the world is impossible. Furthermore, since there are multiple descriptions of what a god or gods is like, then if science would attempt to include these various versions of god, there would be a multitude of different sciences (a Christian science, a Muslim science, a Hindu science, and so forth). To Bickmore and Grandy, this is just too much variability within science. Better to just disqualify the supernatural from the beginning and avoid the problem altogether.

As you may suspect, I disagree with Bickmore and Grandy about this particular rule. There are several ways their arguments can be addressed. However, I want to focus on just two. One of these arguments I will call the soft argument and the other I will call the hard argument.

The soft argument is simply that some sciences already study the supernatural. The fact that these sciences exist demonstrate that some supernatural agents can be predictable and operate within defined limits, thus eliminating Bickmore and Grandy’s first two arguments. Now, most people will scoff at the idea that there is any legitimate science that studies the supernatural. However, it all depends on your perspective. Consider archaeology. What does archaeology study? Human artifacts with the purpose of defining and studying human cultures. An archaeologist might study the art produced by an ancient culture and use changes in art styles over time to define different cultural periods.

Now, where does art come from? More specifically, does art come from the physical body of a human or does it come from his spiritual body? Clearly, since art exists in the physical world, the human physical body had to make it. But where did the inspiration or the creativity for the art come from? Was it the chemical and physical operations within the brain of the artist? Or did it come from deep within the artist’s soul? I would argue that humans are able to create because we were created in the image of God (Genesis. 1:27). The very first task God gave to Adam was to name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20), which surely demonstrated the creative ability of Adam. Why was Adam able to create the names of the animals? Because he was made in God’s image: Adam was a little creator, a finite reflection of the infinite Creator God. Since God’s ability to create is supernatural, it stands to reason that humanity’s ability to create also stems from his spiritual body.

If human creativity truly does stem from his supernatural body, then studying art is studying the effects of a supernatural agent. Yet, archaeologists have no problem classifying, describing, and predicting art styles across time and cultures. Archaeologists study the supernatural (or at least, the effects of the supernatural), yet they are in no way hindered in their science. Hence, Bickmore and Grandy are wrong about the irreproducibility of the supernatural and the inability to put limits on the supernatural.

I am calling this the soft argument because it is very easily defeated. All one has to do is deny that humans have spiritual bodies. If humans have no spiritual body, then it must be that art is somehow derived from the physical body of humans, and thus archaeology simply studies natural laws, as expected of a science. Of course, I disagree with this assessment because I began my reasoning from the Bible. By taking the creation account of Genesis at face value, I concluded that archaeology studies the supernatural. My argument began with the presumption that the Bible accurately describes the nature of humans. Thus, for someone who does not take Genesis as a true account of history, my argument is dismissed before it even begins.

By noting that my soft argument is easily defeated, I do not mean to imply that it is a worthless argument. Far from it. Noting how a belief in Genesis changes our interpretation of science is significant, for if we want to defeat a naturalistic approach to science, we must be able to replace it with something else. Such a soft argument shows that there is a replacement and that creationists are not merely obfuscating. Plus, some people may object to Genesis because, “It just doesn’t make sense.” A soft argument shows that Genesis can make sense, if you accept it as a premise and explain the world through it. While such a soft argument may not be definitive, it certainly helps answer critics.

The hard argument takes a different tact. The hard argument attempts to make Bickmore and Grandy explain themselves. Even though Bickmore and Grandy explained that one of the rules of science is that all explanations must be natural, they shied away from actually claiming that the supernatural does not exist. In fact, they noted that “many scientists believe in Judaeo-Christian, Muslim, and other concepts of God and spirituality along with most of the rest of the world.[9] They appear to want to avoid criticizing scientists who do believe in a god: perhaps they themselves are among those scientists. The fact that they leave the reality of the supernatural unanswered allows us to ask them, “Do you believe that the supernatural truly exists?”

Their immediate answer would probably be, “Whether or not the supernatural exists is irrelevant to science.” But it is. Recall that Bickmore and Grandy described science as the art of telling stories. If science specifically excludes the supernatural and if the supernatural actually exists, then Bickmore and Grandy have excluded part of reality from having any impact on the story of science. Thus, science may very well be wrong.

Let me use history as an example of what I am talking about. We can think of history as storytelling like we can science. Now suppose historians were specifically instructed to tell the story of history without making any reference to the Divinity of Jesus Christ. Such a story of history would necessarily have errors within it. For those who believe that Jesus is God, excluding that key detail would radically change our understanding of Jesus’s life, ministry, and impact on the world. Even if we do not believe that Jesus is God, excluding any reference to the Divinity of Jesus would still lead to errors. It would be impossible to ignore that a man named Jesus lived around 2,000 years ago and made a profound impact on the world. But how did He make that impact? Because there were real people who performed real actions because they believed that Jesus was Divine. The actions and motives of these people must be explained in terms of the Divinity of Jesus or the story of history will be incomplete.

In a like manner, telling the story of science without the supernatural will necessarily contain errors if the supernatural exists and the supernatural has any impact on the natural world. Thus, if we want to claim that the existence of the supernatural is unimportant to science, then we must be willing to admit that science will be incomplete. Moreover, without knowing what the supernatural is like, we don’t know where science may be wrong. Which means we must, effectively, admit that we cannot know what part, if any, of science is true.

Now, Bickmore and Grandy may respond with, “We never said that science is true.” Indeed, this is another claim Bickmore and Grandy assiduously avoided making. In “Rule #3: Prospects for Improvement,” Bickmore and Grandy note that “one must first come to the realization that science is not about establishing ‘the facts,’ once and for all, but about a process of weeding out bad explanations for the facts we collect and replacing them with better ones.”[10] They then define a better story as one that “explains more observations and/or generates more predictions.”[11] 

While they are trying very hard to not say it, it is starting to become apparent that Bickmore and Grandy actually believe that science describes reality and that it is not just a mere story. After all, what is the point of generating a better story that explains more observations, unless you believe that this better story is closer to reality? They give the charade away when they eventually say, “by tying their stories to real observations of the natural world, scientists hope to at least come up with explanations that are realistic, even if they are not exact representations of reality. We try to make our stories progressively ‘less wrong,’ even if we can never tell when we have gotten them exactly right.”[12] While they admit that science is not truth, they still act like science is close to the truth. The admitted errors but only insofar as some details may be wrong. Correct the wrong details, and the story of science gets closer to reality. There is no admission that scientists may have key parts of the story completely wrong.

That is why I asked the question, “Do you believe that the supernatural truly exists?” If they answer “Yes,” then they have to admit that science is not merely imprecise, it may be completely wrongheaded. On the other hand, if they answer “No,” then they have strayed into dogmatism and are not longer being objective observers of science.

As a quick aside, there is nothing wrong with failing to be an objective observer. I can argue just as easily that creationists are not objective observers of science because we demand that science must conform to the Genesis account of creation. In fact, I can argue that no one is truly an objective observer. However, making people admit that they are not objective observers of science levels the playing field. They can no longer claim the “high ground” of scientific objectivity and must admit that their view is as dogmatic as creationism and thus both are equally valid views of science.

If they try to answer the question by taking a middle, “It doesn’t matter,” road, they have effectively answered “Yes,” because they have admitted the possibility that the supernatural exists and that the supernatural might have an impact on the natural world and science. As we have already seen, that makes it possible that any part of science may be wrong.

This is why asking the question, “Do you believe that the supernatural truly exists?” is a hard argument. It forces the one making the claim to defend that claim. How far are they willing to take the storytelling illustration? Are they willing to admit that because science is a story, it may be false? Not merely “in error,” but just flat out wrong? Or are they merely claiming science is a story while actually believing that science describes reality and the supernatural does not exist? The hard argument forces them to admit weakness in science or to expose their dogmatism, and both of those eventualities make room for creationism.

Thoughts from Steven

[1]Bickmore, B. R. and D. A. Grandy (2007) “Science as Storytelling” version 4.2, self published

[2]Ibid. pg. 2

[3]Ibid. pg. 2

[4]Ibid. pg. 8

[5]Ibid. pg. 9

[6]Ibid. pg. 9

[7]Ibid. pg. 9

[8]Ibid. pg. 9

[9]Ibid. pg. 9

[10]Ibid. pg. 6

[11]Ibid. pg. 7

[12]Ibid. pg. 7

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