Storytime

Previously, in regards to the talk by Sean Carroll, I mentioned revisiting the comment about the universe being made of stories, and so I return. This is little more than stream of consciousness, I admit, so don’t expect anything major.

First off, what does “the universe is made of stories” even mean? Is this metaphorical, poetic, or what? Well, as Carroll says, it means that we interpret our world not as individual facts, but as a large collection of associations, inferences, deductions, and predictions. The story is the explanation, past, and future of any particular subject, mostly things that we cannot experience directly – if it helps, replace the word with concept, idea, property, description, or theory. If we strike a match and see it burst into flame, we do not simply observe this, but see this as representing a particular property of matches, and we’re not at all surprised to see it happen again with another match, even one that does not directly resemble the first. Nor do we simply file this as just a property of matches, but are able to give this a particular future association: something we might use when we needed to light a campfire, candle, or Molotov cocktail. When we speak of understanding something, we’re actually referring to extrapolating properties from observations, and often even predicting future events or reactions. We have the tendency to make connections between observations, infer constants, and assume that these will remain dependable enough to base future actions upon – with an extremely high degree of accuracy, too. An enormous part of the functionality of our brains is the ability to create these stories, and this even extends to your ability to comprehend what I am typing here, not just in understanding what I say, but it taking the varying emission of photons from your monitor in specific locations and interpreting that as letters, comprising words and sentences, in a language that shapes and clarifies our thoughts. And so, it is not so much that the universe if composed of stories, but that we as a species can only interpret it in this way – if indeed, we can even use the singular “it” in good conscience.

It is worth noting that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ story. We have no way of determining any such absolute, and the best that we can do is to develop stories that are as accurate as possible. Pause here and realize that the very word ‘true’ is actually a failed story, a definition of something that we have no ability to establish, so the word is an oxymoron all by itself. But, it still has some value provisionally, being applied in areas of broad parameters to indicate a high degree of accuracy – or, sometimes, in areas where we want to imply such accuracy exists, in the effort to fool others. For instance, there are many stories about how our government operates, and some exist solely to generate certain attitudes from the listener, and not because they provide any degree of prediction or explanation.

That’s the thing about stories – they can mean anything to us, depending on what we expect to get from them. There are always things that we want to hear, and any story that provides this to us gains greater weight to us, generates more belief, than others. We can like a story because it seems to explain (and even predict) what’s happening around us, or what produced some particular effect. An example would be the flammable property of gasoline which expands to push the cylinders within engines. We never see this happening, but we can piece together all of the observations before and after to infer the process, creating a story that most of us consider explanatory with a very high degree of accuracy. Yet we can have other stories about the nature of ourselves, consciousness and mind and soul and such, that we accept not on their explanatory nature, but on the gut feelings that they fit. Instead of describing or predicting, they only validate desires, but this is often strong enough to override the search for descriptions or predictions. The strength of any story relies on what we consider important.

It is easy to think that the word “consider” above must denote conscious, intended thought, but this isn’t an accurate story. So much of our lives is governed by the subconscious prods of survival mechanisms, urging us towards certain feelings and actions without any distinct ‘selective’ input – what we might call, “making a decision.” Very often, we can accept this emotional input unquestioningly and immediately build a story about how it really was a conscious decision, as we might do with impulse buys, bad eating habits, or cheating on a spouse; we don’t want to admit that we acted without thinking, appeasing some inner demon. Yet the story that explains how and why we do this, the concept of our evolutionary past and selected instincts, both fits the facts and predicts much of our behavior, and does so better than anything else that has been told. It’s remarkably useful, but it does take a desire to see usefulness as a better trait than indulgence. Not everyone wants this from their stories.

Much of what I do here on this blog is to rewrite stories. We have many concepts that foster certain attitudes or perspectives, at times to our detriment, and what I attempt to do is to introduce the story from another viewpoint. The goal is to produce the same insight that struck me about some subject, the sudden moment when the only thing that changed was what I believed, but it suddenly made more sense, fit the facts better, or generated a more useful outcome. And to some extent, I also hope to introduce a new story that generates a more positive outlook, from social interactions to the pursuit of knowledge – most especially, the idea that stories should have greater impact on us than mere vanity. There might be a basic value to things that we want to hear, but it probably pales against the value of stories that explain, enlighten, and most of all, provoke further investigation and better interactions. We have a long history of these (much of it now called “science”) and to all appearances, they’ve been quite beneficial to us. Holding out for these higher standards looks a hell of a lot more useful.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

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