Thought — 3 Min Read

Homo Narrans

by Case Greenfield, May 14th, 2021

Thought – 3 Min Read

Homo Narrans

by Case Greenfield

May 14th, 2021

Mind models. That’s what my art is about. Despite knowing better (Homo Sapiens) we really are Homo Narrans, the Storytelling Human.

I just read this blog post by American novelist Ashley Shelby: The Great Cosmic Narrative. It resonated with me, it made me think. I found it well-written, in an inspiring way. To me, it’s a great example of my own struggle with who we are and the things that we do. And more, the things that we make believe ourselves, our mind models.

Now, I am not a novelist. So. let me quote some of what she wrote. Ms Shelby expresses it much better than I could:

As someone who has spent ample time with physicists and other scientists, and who, while lacking any ability to aid in the work itself, takes endless pleasure in the results, I’m aware that this attempt to make sense of our home is not universally approved. It oversimplifies the complexity that is an inherent part of the Cosmos’ elegance. It indulges our fear of our insignificance by overemphasizing our part in a shared heritage. It imposes a framework on what math tells us was essentially a chaotic event. That may all be true.

I tend to fantasize, that Ms Shelby is married or related to a physicist, and, in the course of time, with a non-scientific education, overheard many discussions among his colleagues. Or so. With a physics background myself, I’m not exactly sure I understand everything she says, especially from “It oversimplifies …” up to “… chaotic event.”  It sounds a bit contradictory to me. But okay. The “That may all be true.” is interesting. Sound like: “I know it’s right, but it sure feels wrong.”

Note. Please understand, that I’m absolutely not criticising Ms Shelby personally or her writings. I simply use her text, as a much appreciated and well-written example, to try to understand how mind models work.

Then, the story continues:

However, I can’t help noticing that the very definition of chaos—the phenomenon by which small events lead to larger events, including very large changes in the time evolution of a system, like the expansion of the universe—reads like the definition of narrative; that feeling we are part of a shared history is what propels us to continue searching for answers; and that simplifying the story, while simultaneously supporting and elevating those who are fluent in the language of the Cosmos and translate this saga for us, allows more of us to participate in the great investigation. If you let me understand the brief existence of a damselfly and my own brief tenure on earth as being part of the same source material that led to the birth and death of stars, the formation and evolution of galaxies, and the brilliant cataclysm that started it all, I will understand that when I look through the telescope, I am contemplating my home.

To me, this is a great example of the tension in our heads between what I like to call scientific reality and humanistic (or group) reality. The difference between ratio and (collective) emotion. “I can’t help noticing” sound like “There is this uncontrollable force inside me”. And “the very definition of chaos reads like the definition of narrative” sounds like “I know it’s wrong, but it sure feels right!

The role of chaos in our thinking is interesting, anyway. It is a great excuse, an escape from determinism in science and philosophy; the innate need of human beings to be free (but not too free, because that leads to loneliness). You saw the same discussion about probability as a fundamental basis of physics in the discussions between Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and other quantum physicists. (“God does not play dice!“) Even the most famous scientist of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein, found it difficult to step over his emotions and accept an – emotionally uncomfortable – emerging scientific reality.

The big challenge, that we all stand for, is how we are going to deal collectively with the schism, the growing-apart of the (scientific) world of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and so on, and the (humanistic) world of our collective self-image and identity.

I’m not sure, of course, but I do believe, that one day we will have solved most of the big challenges that we face today (global warming, have’s vs. have-not’s, etc). Some of us, evolved or transformed into a new (sub)species, with or without artificial implants or other support, will then go and try to explore space and all other (scientific) boundaries. But most of us–not evolved, simply Homo Sapiens (or Homo Narrans) as we are today–will find a satisfying existence by digging into a proverbial ‘rabbit hole’ with glorious stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and our role in the cosmos. Living long and happy, ever after–in our own mind model. A rosy variant of the movie “Elysium“.


I’m not the first person to come with this idea of ‘us in our cosy rabbit hole’. [The more you google, the more you discover that any thought you have and that you thought was original, someone in the world already had and expressed, often more eloquently than you could yourself … haha. See my art project “Blank Canvas.] One example is Dutch artist Jalila Essaidi, who – like myself – explores the boundaries, or rather, the cross-fertilization of art and science.

Or as professor Robbert Dijkgraaf of Princeton IAS states in the foreword of her book “Bulletproof Skin”: “A project that embraces both art and science and balances on the border of imagination and reality. Which is perhaps the most exciting place to be – as a scientist and as an artist!

Anyway, her point is, that we should forget about artificial intelligence and other new technology, and adopt – what she calls – “natural intelligence: merge our society and technology with the nature around us (much in the tradition of Glenn Albrecht’s symbiocene; yes, that’s how I came to the blogpost of Ms Shelby). Albrecht’s symbiocene is a nice example of what I call “our cosy rabbit hole” on planet earth.