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Sunday, April 26, 2015

In the Beginning is the Story

In the Beginning Was the Story

Do you dream in stories? I do. They often seem so real until on awakening I try to recount them. Then they seem implausible and even silly. I suppose that while sleeping my brain is freeing neurons by discharging memories and rearranging them into narratives. A departed friend or a past acquaintance appears in situations in which sometimes I am the main character and other times just an observer.

In those situations feelings spring forth, regrets at having not finished something, fears of being unprepared, exhilaration in flying above the world, excitement while acting on a stage, accomplishment in teaching a way to do something, wonderment in facing great opportunities. No wonder that Freud and his followers claimed insight into their patients' psyches through their dreams and that shamans and priests discerned higher powers speaking in dreams.

In Hallucinations, neurologist author Oliver Sacks shows that most internally brain generated visions whether stimulated by sensory deprivation, drugs, strokes, parkinson's disease, or epilepsy are contained in stories and can be narrated by the experiencing person though often in concepts that were previously learned and culturally connected. Though interestingly he shows that in the aura of a migraine the brain often produces patterns enough for him to speculate that the brain, like nature and life, has a self-organzing function, makes patterns in chaos including stories from disparate events. Just as a perception can be a hallucination for an individual, might a story be a hallucination for a group?

The brain, thanks to the development of the frontal cortex, weaves sense perceptions and their accompanying feelings into stories and thus makes mind. Mind is forever trying to make sense of things through stories. We have learned that thinking is using categories and making analogies, fashioning symbols and constructing models. But they are brought together to appear in stories. All our modes of knowing involve narratives--the forms of art, the formulas of science, the words of ordinary language, the myths and rites of religion.

I even hypothesize that the story is the unity of all human knowledge.

The story not only makes a mind; it makes a people. Consider the Iliad and Odyssey of ancient Greece with its heroes, gods, city-states, alliances extending to Alexander and the Ptolemaic empire. Consider the twelve tribes that shared their stories and became the Hebrew nation from which came the Jewish Rabbinic, the Christian Roman, and the Arabic Islamic stories and civilizations. Consider the indigenous peoples of the Americas who told origin stories to protect their peoples and their lands. Stories teach what is true and false, right and wrong, real and ideal, godly and demonic.

In French "story" and 'history" are the same word histoire. The wars between Protestants and Catholics, between Asians and Europeans, Soviets and Americans, and other civilizations even today are conflicts in stories. To resolve these conflicts we need to know the stories of peoples and nations, appreciate and share them sympathetically, and be willing to create an new more inclusive story.

When we really want to know a person and what makes him or her tick, we need to know that person's story. When we build a relationship with that person, we share stories and find what is common in our very diverse stories--a point of convergence that we know is always there.

I am my story. My story is mystery until I tell it to myself and to others so I understand its power over me and transcend it. You are your story. When I listen to, really entering into your story, I know and become you. When I share my story so that you can understand it, we make a connection. We are a series of events--in process. Not immutable essences. We are stories that have no ending, still being written, in process. To know each other we must enjoy each others process of becoming--who we are  and will be. Through our accounts, our sting of words, gestures, and designs, we recall our past memories; we intend you future ideals; we integrate our present existence, our presence. Only when we learn to do this as persons and as communities will we have a chance of uniting stories and building a history that celebrates our individual uniqueness and our communal mission.

Story is the unity of our divergent ways of knowing. Religion is a story and tells stories to give meaning to humans in the world and to teach them to achieve their purpose.  Common sense uses stories to teach us how to live in the day-to-day ordinary world. Science critiques and refines the stories of religion, art, and common sense to tell the story that explains the universe, nature and its elements, and life and humanity. Art creates and embellishes the stories that religion, common sense, science, and all our modes of being in the world uses.

Which story do we tell? When is a story true or false?

Indigenous fables, origin stories, religious myths, heroic tales, prophetic parables, news accounts, historic fiction, science fiction, memoirs, biographies, histories of nations, histories of civilizations, natural philosophy, sacred scriptures, diaries, blogs, books of revelations, case studies, poetic anthologies, anthropological observations, recorded memories, adventure tales, movies and documentaries, fairy tales, romances and novels, crime stories--all are works of art, human creations. Are some true and some false? Some to be taken "literally" and some not? Some good and some bad?

The better question might be: how does the story lead us to truth or what is the truth that the story is revealing and/or concealing?

Truth and falsity, good and evil, right and wrong are matters of "judgment"and "decision"--the Greek word for which is crisis from which we get the word "criticism," "critique," and "critic." Richard Rorty in demystifying philosophy said that a philosopher is but a literary critic. The way to truth is  through criticism, i.e. making a judgment based on evidence that others (e.g. peers) can review.

In critiquing our stories, we need to be attentive to the genre, to the intention of the story-teller, to the context and culture in which it was written, to the values of the story-teller, the critic, and others to whom the critic speaks. In addition, the sharpness of style, the vividness of images, the clarity of meaning, the fun of expression, all make for the interest, affection, and education of the reader or listener. Since the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we use the methods and canons of science to discover and explain the truth in our stories.

Joseph Campbell and Mercia Eliade discovered and expressed the truth in myth and in the tales of gods and heroes. Theologians using historical criticism unveil the truth in the gospels and other sacred scriptures. Anthropologists uncovered the truth of indigenous fables and origin stories and the revelations of spirit driven prophets and priests. Art critics enter the images of novelists, film-makers, painters, and fiction writers to reveal the beauty, the beliefs, the existence and future of humanity. Trained historians and biographers search the records to marshall the evidence for the conclusions they reach.

The Iliad was a great story expressing truths about human existence and the culture of Greece even before Schliemann discovered Troy. It is not necessary to prove that Noah's Ark and the Great Flood existed to affirm the moral of the story. The story of the Big Bang and Evolution is the latest and best origin story that we have because it is based on evidence that others can review. However, it is not the final story--because our story is still being written.

We divide our libraries and book stores into fiction and non-fiction and yet the line between is so fluid and fuzzy. There are political, economic, and historical works in non-fiction which are almost totally made up, self-promoting without peer reviewed solid evidence, and based only on the self-interested opinion of the writer and his tribe. And in the fiction section there are poems and visions written by great thinkers that plumb to the deepest truths of human existence.

It is a matter of interpretation and that is what experienced critics, those familiar with the genre, the scope, the history, and the context of the story do. They interpret and pass judgment on the value and truth of the story. And often they disagree. But usually there is a convergence as they learn from one another.

The science of interpretation is called "hermeneutics." But hermeneutics is another word for criticism. Since all thinking involves "figures of speech," i.e. analogy including metaphors and similes and since most analogies are contained and take meaning in stories, interpretation is our way to critical thinking. And critical thinking is our way to truth.

Next: What is critical thinking? Why is critical thinking important? How is it taught?