Stories, Learning & Place

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reality is a story 9/24
   The way of the teacher

Emergent characteristics come into existence at some level of a developing hierarchy–they are attributes that weren’t present at lower levels. A common example is that of water, which is liquid and flows–characteristics that weren’t present in the hydrogen or the oxygen that formed it. The hydrogen and oxygen retain their identity–they don’t vanish–but something new has emerged.

The violence of angry mobs, doing things that the individual members would not have done alone, is an emergent characteristic. A thousand angry people is not necessarily a mob. It becomes a mob when it takes on a life of its own, acting as though with a single will, intelligence, and desire, and responsibility for what happened gets exported to the new entity.

Some emergences are real game changers, as when life emerged from matter.

Biotic systems don’t escape the material universe, by which I mean they remain fully subject to the laws of physics–an egg thrown from a window falls according to the same law of gravity as a stone. But the egg nonetheless has become something more than a stone, its full nature invisible to the concerns of classical physics.

A similar threshold was crossed when human consciousness emerged from life. Though people are closely related to monkeys, one of the five species of great apes, they are also significantly different. People live and die amid realities that are invisible to monkeys. For example, a chimpanzee cannot watch a baseball game. It can see the runners, the scoreboard, and the green infield, of course, but what it can’t do is comprehend facing a pitch when the count is two and three with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth. It can’t get the story. It doesn’t know there is a story.

Even among groups of humans, all are not in the same stories, and some cannot comprehend what others are doing. Adults frequently take advantage of this, holding conversations that the children cannot comprehend although they hear all the words. All of us find that we sometimes understand stories that are occurring that others we meet cannot, and we have to assume that some of those around us are engaged in stories to which we ourselves are oblivious.

We typically make meaning by finding stories in what happens. We find our way in the world by learning and making stories from and with those around us. We live by finding patterns, a rightness and a fit in things–the rightness and fit of a good story that makes sense of the onslaught of events. If physics is our way of negotiating the realm of matter, and biology is our way of negotiating the realm of life, then narrative is our primary way of negotiating the realm of meaning.

A human culture can be thought of as a collection of ways to live together encoded in a set of shared narratives. A hunting culture may pass on stories about a wounded buck and an arduous pursuit through winter cold, encoding understandings of proper technique as well as proper conduct. A bureaucratic culture may pass on stories of grievances that succeeded or grant proposals that failed, by way of grasping and sharing the way reality works. Through stories we weave together motive and character and the laws of life in complex forms that come to us so easily we may not notice their strange power. A character immersed in time moves or is moved upon and at some key moment something clicks home like the punchline of a joke: sense is made. We may do without philosophy but we cannot be human without story.

Morality is a crucial part of meaning. In some ways, moral rules form a shorthand version of lessons learned. As Wendell Berry pointed out, morality is long-term practicality. We may win a minor prize by deceiving a friend, but if we persist in treachery we learn to our chagrin that repeated deceptions isolate us and leave us weakened. When noone believes us our words have little power.

But morality doesn’t simply come from experience. Much of it is innate–hardwired in, so to speak. This innate sense of right and wrong–sometimes called the “moral sense"– that even very young children display and which has remarkable consistency across cultures–all cultures admire reciprocity, for example–creates a philosophical problem for people who want natural selection to explain everything.

Philosophers of evolution have struggled mightily to find something plausible to say about how the moral sense could have developed out of the processes Charles Darwin described. Most difficult is explaining the observed data that humans rarely engage in the bloody all-out struggle for individual survival that the theory suggests. Instead, people are more likely to be found attending quilting bees, bringing gifts to weddings, or composing tweets to let the world know they are here. People gather for social reasons at every opportunity–they are everywhere organized into families, clubs, parties, committees, and churches. They cooperate and collaborate incessantly.

The Darwinists have sensed that to figure out what’s really going on, they need to gaze up the hierarchy. They must consider people not simply as competing individuals but as parts of gene pools or as members of kin groups. This is the right direction, trying to discern realities larger and slower-moving than persons, seeing individuals as levels in a more expansive hierarchy.

Their desire to find an amoral explanation for morality is of a piece with their antipathy toward seeing any purpose, or telos, in the teeming exuberance of life. Telos suggests moral law, which many Darwinists would like to do without. But others have noted that from the beginning, life seems to have included some idea of where it had to go, its future encoded in the language of DNA just as an individual human brain is encoded there.

Biologists Jack Lester King and Thomas Jukes in their famous article told us that “natural selection is the editor, rather than the composer, of the genetic message.” Arthur Koestler has pointed to the strangeness that two evolutionary strands isolated from one another, that of marsupials in Australia and of placentals on the continent, should arrive at creatures that are nearly the same. Australia has pouched versions of “moles, ant-eaters, flying squirrels, cats and wolves.”

Naturalist Joseph Krutch thought that if nature really were a meaningless chronology of survival, development could have stopped at insects, which are tremendously successful when survival is the only criterion. As survivors, bugs are unsurpassed. But life didn’t stop with them. At minimum, we can believe that life favors complexity over simplicity, higher states of order over lower, although such ideas are anathema to many contemporary biologists, who dislike teleological thinking about such matters–beyond their chosen telos of self-preservation.

Krutch points out that though mother chimpanzees may be less efficient than insects, their complex and vulnerable affection seems more a fulfillment of what earth wants than does the cold, instinctual effectiveness of mother wasps. In my experience, few people sincerely doubt that.

The simpler creatures are the more they become what they are by fulfilling their biological potential. Their destiny is driven from below in the hierarchy of being. But people, life at its highest development, become what they are by striving toward ideals that come into view at the edge of how far they can see. Leon Koss in his 2009 Jefferson Lecture noted that “our eyes, no longer looking down a snout to find what is edible, are lifted instead to the horizon, enabling us to take in an entire vista and to conceive an enduring world beyond the ephemeral here and now.”

What we imagine is out there we get mostly from the stories of our tribe. Unlike simpler creatures, we are not biologically determined. Humans grow by looking up, moving outward into a narrative environment and acting within the stories that constitute their reality. To truly understand people or to teach children effectively or to consciously influence society, we need to understand stories. We need to pay conscious attention to a narrative environment that we cannot help but create. We need to face the implications of seeing that for humans reality is a story.

Winston Churchill famously observed that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” An even more important observation is that we create our stories, and afterwards our stories create us.

Maybe the most important educational question is of all this: which stories?


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/24 at 05:29 AM
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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