Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Giant Malaysian Killer Chicken - story and the limits of skepticism

Readers may not be aware but Bolton Abbey – more specifically Strid Wood - is the last known habitat of the Giant Malaysian Killer Chicken (you may glimpse it in the picture above if you look carefully). It has been a few years since the last sighting of this elusive avian; indeed some suggest that the Killer Chicken is an invention, an artifice created merely to annoy a small child.

What is important though isn’t the provenance of the bird in question – after all you have to do something to occupy the minds of seven-year-olds who reject the concept of walking, even walking through a glorious English wood. Rather, it is the importance of stories – even stories that the intended target (the seven-year-old) wishes you’d shut up about.

I remember once being told – by a scientist no less – that fiction was a waste of time. Even more that it led to people getting the wrong idea. And, as is so often the case with such sceptical folk, this scientist cited creation stories – or “creationism” as he preferred to call it. Apparently, by teaching these stories to children, we are corrupting them and turning them into anti-science religious maniacs (I exaggerate but only slightly).

Such people struggle – for reasons that escape me – with the ideas that there is more to truth than scientific fact and that stories, even weird creation stories, have a valid truth in them. This one – from Assyrian mythology – is among my favourites since it involves the slaying of a dragon:

So were the enemies of the high gods overthrown by the Avenger. Ansar's commands were fulfilled and the desires of Ea fully accomplished. Merodach strengthened the bonds which he had laid upon the evil gods and then returned to Tiamat. He leapt upon the dragon's body; he clove her skull with his great club; he opened the channels of her blood which streamed forth, and caused the north to carry her blood to hidden places. The high gods, his fathers, clustered around; they raised shouts of triumph and made merry. Then they brought gifts and offerings to the great Avenger.

Merodach rested a while, gazing upon the dead body of the dragon. He divided the flesh of Ku-pu, and devised a cunning plan.

Then the lord of the high gods split the body of the dragon like that of a mashde fish into two halves. With one half he enveloped the firmament; he fixed it there and set a watchman to prevent the waters falling down.  With the other half he made the earth. Then he made the abode of Ea in the deep, and the abode of Anu in high heaven. The abode of Enlil was in the air.

The point of these stories is not merely to explain how the world came to be or even to describe mankind’s role in that world. Rather the story more often seeks to explain how “good” and “evil” interact and how we, as men, are corrupted. So the core of creation stories define a morality – whether this one in which Tiamet, the dragon slain to make the word, has aspects of good (the world’s creatrix) and evil (the serpent) or those we are more familiar with such as the Adam and Eve story.

Fiction - the making up of stories – is important if we are to allow our morals, what we see as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, to be understood. We know that the setting down of rules – the lawyers’ obsessiveness that gave us Leviticus and the accountants’ passion that brought Numbers – do not define our moral purpose or even, in that phrase of Mums everywhere, the difference between right and wrong.

The skeptic rejects story – This goes in part to explain the dry dullness of his chosen belief system – preferring instead the idea (a delightfully fictional idea) that truth and understanding derive from a thing called “empirical enquiry” and from that enquiry alone.

Skepticism ... is an approach to claims akin to the scientific method. It is a powerful and positive methodology (a collection of methods of inquiry) that is used to evaluate claims and make decisions. It is used to search for the (provisional) truth in matters and to make decisions that are based on sound reasoning, logic, and evidence. Skepticism is based on a simple method: doubt and inquiry. The idea is to neither initially accept claims nor dismiss them; it’s about questioning them and testing them for validity. Only after inquiry does a skeptic take a stance on an issue.

I see no place in this for story, for wonderment or for the learning that comes from telling an intelligent seven-year-old that Strid Wood is the habitat of a giant killer chicken. Some will observe the contradiction between arriving at a ‘stance on an issue’ through reasoning and through ‘doubt and inquiry’, via scientific method. But that would be to play games of logic with the core belief of a faith – in this case ‘skepticism’.

Story-making and story-telling must be central to our culture, to deny fiction is to deny an essential element of humanity. To characterise stories as ‘childish’ or ‘misleading’ is to misunderstand the power of those stories, the manner in which speculation, creation and change is driven by dreams and hopes rather than by the dry exploration of something “akin to the scientific method”.


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