Tyler Cowen, Socrates, and How To Be Suspicious of Stories

This is a funny, insightful, and thought provokingly paradoxical 16 minute must-see talk from Tyler Cowen, wherein he talks about the dangers of both believing and telling ourselves stories and narratives. He details numerous of the ways that stories exploit and exacerbate our cognitive biases. I won’t repeat his numerous gems below but to explore their implications.

It is easy right away to see how numerous religions are positively built around story-based thinking. Sacred texts of stories, oral legends, and ritual performances of stories are far more fundamental to religions than any propositional beliefs developed through conceptual and logical analysis. Theology is driven primarily by the task of translating stories into propositions. And all the cognitive biases and oversimplifications that are built into stories get built into the structure of the resulting systems of belief.

But this is obvious to us atheists. The harder questions we should be asking ourselves is how do we as atheists tell ourselves simplistic myths that flatter ourselves, demonize our enemies, and conveniently evade the complexities of life?

And, secondly, is there any way to honestly compete with the storytellers in the public marketplace of ideas? Must we inevitably tell stories? Are there ways to tell true stories, which Cowen does not give enough attention to? Are there stories besides “good and evil” stories that we can start telling? How can our thinking and our presentations gain a formal structure which is a genuine alternative to the highly dualistic religious storytelling the Abrahamic faiths frequently engage in? How can we avoid being dualists just like them, with just an opposite devil and an opposite god?

Forgive me for telling a story that comes to mind in this context. Forgive me that it will, as Cowen warns, implicitly have a streak of dualism to it. One of the things that is most fascinating about Plato’s writings and the story of Socrates is the tension between dialectic and storytelling. The Euthyphro is a prime example. In that dialogue, Euthyphro justifies his actions in terms of a story about the gods which indicates to him what the pious thing to do is. Euthyphro basically conceives of ethics as acting like the gods do in the stories.

Socrates demands from Euthyphro a different kind of reason for what he does. Specifically Socrates demands a clear conceptual distinction about what the essence of a pious action is so that Euthyphro’s action could be assessed to see if it has that essence. Euthyphro, famously, fails repeatedly to back up his stories with clear, logically consistent, conceptual distinctions which can vindicate him. Each proposal is dialectically destroyed by Socrates’s questions.

But though Socrates’s dialectical method of reasoning perpetually undermines the neatness of narratives, Plato also has Socrates turn to stories again and again. Socrates derives his ideas through rigorous dialectical processes but then makes them clear and memorable through stories. And, quite controversially, he even suggests explicitly in The Republic that the philosophers, who he thinks should rule the city because of their devotion to dialectically discovering truth, should convey their knowledge and their laws to the people in the form of easily grasped mythic stories, presented as though they were literal truths, which would prevent the people from questioning the philosophers’ wisdom, to their own detriment.

Many of us do not trust the story that the elite thinkers and power players have the right to tell such “noble lies”. Yet we must also appreciate and take seriously how much successfully reaching the human mind inevitably requires storytelling, and so we need to be good storytellers even as we may not want to falsify in any way. This means being good rhetoricians, obviously, but it also means learning how to tell stories using more tools than simply words—like practices, symbols, and the structures of communities, as religions have known and enormously successfully done for millennia.

The challenge for those of us who are trained in dialectical and/or scientific methods for deriving ideas, and who want at all costs to avoid telling lies even when conveying our truths, is to keep our inevitable simplifications of complex ideas into narratives, structurally, logically, conceptually, and factually true while being forced to compete with those who will shamelessly say anything for a good story or their own control.

I have written much more about noble lies in my post A Critique of Noble Lies and the “Theologies” They Create.

For more on Euthyphro and The Republic, Plato’s dialogues and ancient philosophy in general, check out this podcast series.

Your Thoughts?

  • Dunc

    There is apparently some tribal creation myth somewhere which states that God created Man because he loved listening to stories…

    I don’t think you can ever get completely away from it – our entire attempt to make sense of our lives and the world around us is basically an attempt to impose narrative on an necessarily more complex and messy reality. As to whether we can tell true stories, I’d have to say it’s a “yes and no” kinda thing… Some stories are more true than others, certainly, but a story always involves selecting certain facts whilst neglecting others, and choosing a beginning and an end, and so are at best only ever partial truths.

    Then, of course, there’s the question of whether a story has to be literally true in order to communicate truth. Does it matter whether or not Wordsworth’s daffodils ever really existed? I would say not, but others might disagree…

  • http://songe.me Alex Songe

    I first encountered this line of thought in Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan”. Taleb’s conclusion is similar to Tyler Cowen’s. We have to tell ourselves multiple narratives when we’re interested in true belief. Using the facts as we see them, we should tell a range of narratives to see the kinds of possibilities available through narrative. A rational person may believe the most likely narrative, as he sees it, but a “messy empiricist” should always entertain alternate narratives as well as respect the most likely hypothesis or narrative.

    A great example I’ve seen of this is Robert M. Price’s talk about the Jesus Myth theory. He doesn’t maintain that Jesus could not have existed, but that it isn’t necessary that he existed given the evidence apologists rely on. When apologists argue against Jesus as a myth, they don’t rely on primary evidence, but on the interpretations of experts that confirm traditional beliefs about the texts. The purpose here of the hypothesis is to show the range of possibilities given some background facts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/juan.gelos juangelos

    I think this is a simplistic ‘story’ (and equivocation) about stories. What is a story? Is a story a way to express in human language a temporal correlation of events? Is ‘my job is important’ a story in this sense, or just a moral proposition? Is ‘two bodies with different mass fall with the same acceleration’ a story, or just a factual proposition? Are the stories the problem, or is it the corollaries we object? Maybe we should be talking about parables and fables.

    And we should be talking about the cognitive processes (interpretation, emotions, projection, identification, moral judgments, critical-analytical skills) credulous people go through when processing simplistic stories, and the accuracy of whatever resulting beliefs those processes leave behind.