Science and Reason: Changing Stories

Identically processed enhanced-color views of Pluto and Charon Public Domain; Created: 21 September 2015

Identically processed enhanced-color views of Pluto and Charon
Public Domain; Created: 21 September 2015

If we have within us a biological need to internalize a rather permanent story of what the world is about, then not having a story, or being confronted with the changing story of science, could trigger a personal crisis. What if, however, our story becomes the story of how stories change? – Tyler Volk, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at New York University

When the New Horizons spacecraft sent back photos of the dwarf planet Pluto in July 2015, I was thrilled, as I think many were, to see the apparent image of a heart in one of the views of this “heavenly body.”

I heart Pluto! It has been my favorite planet since I was a small child. I was secretly crushed and rebellious when it was declared not a full planet, and I’m pleased it currently holds the status of “dwarf planet.” I have no rational explanation for why Pluto is my favorite and why the status change mattered to me at all. I expect it’s because I tend to root for the underdog, and it felt like the little guy took a hit in the name of scientific truth.

The changing story of Pluto’s planetary status forced me to change a story that I thought was set in stone and unchangeable. After all, it was a scientific fact that Pluto was the 9th planet in our solar system. It can be easy to fall into the trap that our stories, be they stories based on scientific facts, stories of events in our life, or stories written down in ancient texts, are unchanging. But stories change all the time, and they change depending on who is telling them and who is receiving them. They change depending on the filters of the listener, and the context in which they are told. They change when new information is discovered, when our brain cells alter our memories each time we recall an event, and when we have personal experiences that contradict ancient texts.

I don’t know if Tyler Volk, the author and scientist quoted above, is a Unitarian Universalist, but his quote, “what if … our story becomes the story of how stories change” has a lot in common with how Unitarian Universalists approach our faith development. James Luther Adams, 20th century UU theologian, told us that one of the tenets of liberal religion is that revelation is never sealed. Whether it’s the public revelation of science that is objective and held with wide agreement, or the private revelation of personal experience that can be highly subjective, we are cautious not to rest too long in the certainty of one story in our search for truth and meaning, but to seek meaning in the deeper truths held within the metaphors and the spirit of the stories all around us.

I told some people recently that Pluto will always be a planet in my mind; yet, in truth, I know this is a changing story (and I don’t actually have any authority to say if Pluto is a planet or not). But Pluto still holds a special place in my heart … and thanks to our scientific explorations I have a new story: Pluto is the dwarf planet with a big heart.

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1 Response to Science and Reason: Changing Stories

  1. I must admit, I felt this same way when I found out that there was no such thing as a “brontosaurus”.

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