“Nested Stories” and the importance of interdisciplinary explanations: musings from Chapter 4 of “Until the End of Time” by Brian Greene

Chapter 4 of Brian Greene’s new book Until the End of Time tells the story of the origin of the elements, the Solar System, the Earth, water and oxygen in the environment of the young Earth, the origin of DNA and the essentials for life as we understand it. As with other chapters of this book, the story is told in a way that an educated “layperson” could read and understand.

Greene prefaces this chapter, though, with a reflection on what he calls “nested stories.” There are a variety of perspectives and paradigms through which any one thing can be analyzed and explained. For example, to understand the nature of a baseball a physicist often looks at its core molecular structure. To predict its trajectory, though, the physicist can treat the baseball as a single unit (without needing to necessarily understand its molecular structure) and apply the equations of speed, gravity, momentum, etc. to come to a correct answer even without accounting for the ball’s molecular make-up. A comprehensive story of reality, then, requires the use of multiple “nested stories” (in this case, chemistry and physics) that can account for the different aspects of reality as they’re encountered and experienced.

There are many ways of understanding the world. In the traditional organization of the sciences, physics deals with elementary particles and their various unions, chemistry with atoms and molecules, and biology with life. … In more recent times, however, the deeper researchers have probed, the more they’ve realized that grasping the crossovers between disciplines is essential. The sciences are not separate. And when focus shifts from life to intelligent life, yet other overlapping disciplines–language, literature, philosophy, history, art, myth, religion, psychology, and so on–become central to the chronicle. … There’s little to be gained by physicists clamoring that theirs is the most fundamental explanatory framework or from humanists scoffing at the hubris of unbridled reductionism. A refined understanding is gleaned by integrating each discipline’s story into a finely textured narrative. (pgs 71-72).

One of the recurring themes throughout Until the End of Time is that each discipline and analytic perspective has its strengths and limitations and that some are better suited to address certain questions than are others. At the same time, he argues that more “refined understandings” of things can only be had if analyzed through the lens of multiple analytic paradigms.

Scientist Stephen Jay Gould once argued that the domains of science and religion are best conceptualized as “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning that science is best positioned to answer questions of the nature of factual reality while religion is best positioned to answer questions of meaning and values, and that these domains (magisteria) do not overlap.

I tend to find the argument for “nested stories” more compelling.

One quick example: I was raised in a religious tradition that put a strong emphasis on internal spiritual experiences, similar to many charismatic religious movements. For most of my life I understood these experiences to be outside the realm of scientific inquiry. In the last several years, though, the quickly-growing field of “neurotheology” has shown that spiritual experiences can be detected and measured with brain scanners. A comprehensive accounting of the nature of human spiritual experience, then, must include the stories being told by neuroscientists as well as by theologians and religious practitioners. They both have something true to say on the subject.

I’m grateful for specialists who dig deep into their fields of research and art. They provide the essential materials needed for the generalists to connect together, which can then be corrected and refined by the specialists in an ongoing process that approaches Truth, one small step at a time.

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