Narrative and Meaning in Science and Religion

John A. Teske, Elizabethtown College


Differences of understanding in science and in religion can be explored via the distinction between paradigmatic and narrative modes of explanation. Although science is inclusive of the paradigmatic, I propose that in explaining the behavior of complex adaptive systems, and in the human sciences in particular, narratives may well constitute the best scientific explanations. Causal relationships may be embedded within, and expressions of higher-order constraints provided by, complex system dynamics, best understood via the temporal organization of intentionalities that constitute narrative. Complex adaptive systems, out of which intentions emerge, have behavioral trajectories that are in principle unique, contingent, and nondeterministic even in stable states and unpredictable across phase transitions. Given such unpredictability, the only explanation can be an interpretive story that retrospectively retraces the actual changes in dynamics. Without narrative, personality traits and human actions are incomprehensible. Such phenomena do not permit a reduction of purposive acts to nonpurposive elements or of reasons to the causes they constrain. Causality does not exhaust meaning. Given the role of narratives in human lives, religion and mythology provide larger stories within which individual stories make sense. Differences between narrative and historical truth suggest how we can be constituted by what we imagine ourselves to be. © 2010 by John A. Teske and the Joint Publication Board of Zygon.