Friday, April 02, 2010

the grand story of humanity

RKMoore | Because of language, we are involved in two different complex worlds, the world outside our heads, and the world inside our heads. The outside world is the real world, and I call the inside world the story world. I call it that because it seems to be organized in terms of stories.

Every sentence is a story, where some subject does some action to some object, and every paragraph is a slightly longer story. With Chinese ideograms, each symbol tells a little story. When we have conversations we tell stories to one another. Our dreams come as stories. We learn through stories. When we want to know the truth of current events, we tune in to our favorite channel to get the real story. Even a mathematical proof follows the story form, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, marked by QED, just like amen, the end, or that’s all folks.

Indeed, our very concept of understanding something is being able to tell its story coherently. And our concept of what is true is closely related to the concept of coherent story. A mathematical proof is valid if it tells a coherent story. A suspect appears guilty if he cannot give a coherent story as an alibi. Witnesses are trusted if their story is coherent. Even our concept of being sane is closely linked to being able to speak coherently, which is the same as being able to tell coherent stories.

Because story-processing skills are so central to our understanding, and to our functioning in society, it is not surprising that we get pleasure out of practicing those skills by listening to stories. In general, pleasure is an adaptive mechanism that draws us to what we need. Baby lions love to wrestle, thus learning the moves they will need as adult hunters.

Language and stories are not just about words. The same cognitive machinery supports other modalities. Music is a language, and a tune is a story. Art is a language and a painting is a story. Physics is a language and a theory is a story. Food preparation is a language, and a meal is a story. Each language must be learned before its stories can be told or appreciated.

I suppose all of this can be summed up by saying that we think, understand, create, and communicate in terms of stories, in one mode of language or another. As I write, my concern always is to be telling a coherent story in a coherent sequence. Coherence in a story is like digestibility in a meal.

Because we have specialized in the story way-of-knowing, we don’t feel we understand anything until we know its story. From a very early age we begin asking questions, wanting to hear stories that explain our experience to us. As our experience of the world expands, our need for stories expands. Eventually, we all get to the big questions: What is the meaning of life? and Where did we come from?