The Importance of Stories

I read a study a couple of months ago which suggested people rate research as more reliable when they agree with the policy recommendations it makes.

Of course, we would like to think it is the reliability of research which informs our support of particular policies and not vice versa.

However, if it is our values that most – in practice – influence our understanding of a situation, rather than facts, then we have a compelling reason to rethink how we engage in public debate.

In particular, I think there is a preoccupation with ‘evidenced’ and ‘fact-based’ decision-making which is counter-productive where opinions are shaped to a large extent by pre-existing values.

When our biased way of perceiving facts is combined with an over-emphasis of ‘evidence’, we are likely to reject those who disagree on the grounds of unreliability. This causes two problems:

  • The focus of discussions is how a particular presentation of facts can be discredited, rather than collaboratively seeking to understand a situation.
  • A discussion is less likely to engage with the relevant value differences at stake; the priority given to ‘evidence’ both distracts from value differences and allows doubted evidence to be sufficient reason to doubt the importance of a particular value.

I think we are missing the importance and credibility of stories.

Each person frames their place in the world differently. We all construct narratives which, though influenced by fact, are not matters-of-fact but rather are ‘matters-of-meaning’.

These narratives are formed by our answers to questions such as: ‘To what extent is the world in a state of constant change?’, ‘Is the world getting better?‘ ‘Is your life significant?‘ and ‘Is life more painful than it is pleasurable?

I am increasingly convinced we should be examining these narratives in public debate. Think, for example, of climate breakdown and how someone who understands the world to be basically static and is generally getting better is likely to endorse different policy recommendations to someone who understands the world to be in a greater state of flux. Think, also, of how likely they are to talk past each other in a discussion on the issue!

I think the importance narrative is well illustrated in people’s approaches to faith. As I understand it, faith is about fact (e.g. most Christians will be keen to discuss the evidence of Jesus’ life and death), but it is most importantly about narrative (i.e. you can accept the facts of Jesus’ crucifixion and deny their significance).

The privileging of fact and ‘evidence’ creates huge issues in our discussions of faith. Here are two examples:

  • The Problem of Suffering. The modern debate, particularly in analytic philosophy, invites a fact-based engagement with what is essentially a narrative question about how we frame the world. This is why I think apologetic answers to the problem of suffering – which often attempt to quantify and analyse different possibilities or probabilities – usually fail to compel. I think the best responses give a narrative answer (see the emphasis of Marilyn McCord Adams on divine solidarity – the story of a God suffering with humanity)
  • Approaches to Scripture. A common discussion I have with people of no faith is about how we can interpret Genesis or how a rational belief in the Bible is possible. However, this discussion seeks a fact-based engagement with a text which is centrally concerned with narrative questions.

The emphasis we have on fact means we cannot cope with the idea of a true fictional story. ‘Fictional truth’ or ‘narrative truth’ is just an oxymoron. Hence the confusion with Genesis.

So, where to go with this?

I think a helpful starting point is considering a concept of ‘narrative truth’: truths relating to the meaning and framing of the world. Truths related to what could be called our worldview, and concerned with values and ‘matters-of-meaning’. This does not deny the importance of fact, but recognises its limitations (Jesus knew what was up when he spoke in parables).

Stories are important.