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Reynard Tells a Story of Hidden Treasure, probably c. 1645/1656, Allart van Everdingen

“You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” Anthony De Mello

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Studio album by Oasis

“What’s the story Balamory”  Balamory

Stories are more important than most people think.

I type these words on the 80th anniversary of D-Day. The landings along the Normandy coast which ultimately led to the liberation of Europe have been commemorated in many moving ceremonies over these past few days.  I have particularly been struck by the common thread running through many of the commemorations, namely the focus on retelling, or ‘bringing to life’, the stories of those who were part of the largest amphibious invasion the world has ever witnessed.

I want today to write about the importance of stories.

As I may have mentioned before, in many ways we live in a world dominated by the Enlightenment’s overriding spirit of rationalism. A world which champions rationality, empirical science and a sceptical secularism. It is the Enlightenment view of the world which has guided our technological, scientific, conceptual, and philosophical endeavour for the last few hundred years. And a jolly good job it has made of it.  Up to a point.

But as we know, because we stubbornly remain human beings despite all efforts to turn us into machines, there is something deeply wrong with this way of understanding who we are and our place in the world.  There’s so much more to the picture than mere facts about the picture that can be put in a spreadsheet, stuck under a microscope or turned into a bar chart.

Now here, I feel I owe it to you, gentle reader to mention that one of my favourite philosophers, Wittgenstein, did, in the opening to his Tractaus Logico Philosophicus, make the following remarks:

1 The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

“So, hang on there Director”, I hear those of you still here interject,  “isn’t it tricky for you that one of your favourite philosophers argues that the world is made of nothing more than facts?”

Not really, my loyal chum; for two reasons.  Firstly, Wittgenstein changed his mind.  And secondly, whilst we don’t have time to go into it here, what he’s alluding to is more something like how the world is made from the things (propositions) that we can say about the world.  My suggestion is that ‘what we can say about the world’ is a pretty good definition of a story.

So the idea that the world is to be seen as a place of facts or indeed that we can even see the world that way, is wrong.

Let’s explore that for a bit. Take these newest artificial intelligence systems we’ve designed that have burst onto the scene recently: the large language models like chat GPT and its pals, Gemini and Grok etc. These systems are trained in the same way human beings are trained: with an aim and a purpose. You could even suggest that they were trained with a sense of reward and punishment by being judged according to approximations to a target.

So the machine is being taught to actually see the world through a structure of value that they have absorbed from us. To make these smart linguistic machines we had to first inculcate in them a structure of value. And so here we have machines now that can engage in discourse, using language in a way that’s virtually indistinguishable from the way we do.  And, so I’m told, which is only going to become more and more indistinguishable as time passes.

These AI systems are not programmed with lists of rules, they’re programmed the same way that human beings learn. They’re programmed with aim, with an ethos and an ethic.  And here’s why: we could never successfully orient ourselves in the world with the facts alone.

During the recent unpleasantness of the Pandemic the phrase “we’re following the science” became an almost sacred utterance. Now this always amused me at the time, because of course, as you know, nobody can follow the science.  With the best will in the world, you can’t follow science because science is not a leader (notwithstanding how it is actually possible to ‘lead from the middle’ in the education world).  Science does not, because it cannot, establish our aims.

Our aims are established using mechanisms of perception, emotion and thought that aren’t in themselves scientific in that sense.

But why can’t we just use facts to orient ourselves in the world?  Wouldn’t that be easier?

Well,  the simplest explanation for that is that there are too many facts to deal with.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments of confusion or anxiety when things are chaotic because a plethora of possibilities is making itself manifest and we don’t know which way to turn. In these situations there’s no clear aim and there’s no way of simplifying the world.  So it turns out that by having an aim we can literally ignore the ‘facts’ that would otherwise get in the way.  Under normal circumstances, we ignore practically everything.  We have to.  If everything became consciously meaningful to us, we’d experience a kind of constant paralysis.  Having an aim allows us to navigate the world because it literally shapes the world around us in a way which is now navigable.  The states of affairs which are irrelevant to my purpose either cease to exist or change nature to facilitate my purpose.

What does that mean?  Well, as I may have mentioned, what it means is, the world you see is

made manifest in accordance with your aim.  The idea that you somehow take facts, sift them, sort them and rationally calculate your way in the world is not what anybody does at all.

What’s that got to do with stories?  Well, the structure through which you see the world is a

story.

All round Smart guy, Steven Pinker in books such as The Stuff of Thought : Language as a Window Into Human Nature and The Language Instinct suggests that our proclivity to enjoy and tell stories is a side effect of something more fundamental cognitively. The ‘story as entertainment’  theory if you like. So you go to a film because it’s fun, you read a book because it’s fun etc.  It’s definitely not a core element of the way that you exist in the world.  Well apart from the question as to why such things are actually entertaining (perhaps more on that another time), I would invite you to live in a world which you haven’t created by having a story about it.

As children, I wonder how many of us realised that what we were doing when we were playing was practising modeling the world, in other words, making a story.

And as for relationships; some of us may be fortunate to have one or two, well are they based on facts and propositions?  No, they are based on understanding what is important to the other person.  That is, understanding their aim.  In other words, understanding their story.  And once you know their aim,  you are able to see the world through their eyes, see the same objects they see and have those objects potentially take on the same emotional significance for you.

When you say, as I hope you do on a regular basis, that you understand someone, what you

really mean is that you understand their aim; that you can read their story.

So the world lays itself out in accordance with our aim.  We live in a story.

Now, at this point I can hear, the rationalists or the empiricists or even the biologists amongst us saying, ok, you can have your seeing the world through a story business but the story is biologically determined or socioculturally determined.  It’s a story of sex for example, as our friends, Freud, Darwin or Richard Dawkins might have us believe. The aim is reproduction and the story is predicated on that aim. Or our Marxist chums might have us believe that the central story is one of power.  Why such claims are wrong, we must leave for another time.

We live in a story.  It is the story we have written to navigate the world.  Our job is to make the story ever better.

Some stories are powerfully wrong.  Such a thought brings us back to today’s D-Day commemorations.

Until next time, Happy reading/making your story as good as it can be!

Director’s Tip #5 

Summer salads

Try adding ½ cup of cranberry sauce with other fruits when making a congealed salad.