Friday, December 14, 2012

Stories that tell the truth

“Once upon a time...”  I loved stories when I was a kid! (and still do).    When I heard those words it meant  that “this didn't really happen’ – but I was going to be transported into another time and place where wonderful  and unusual things could happen”.  Some of the stories for children contained a moral or advice.  “Don't go into the forest alone – it can be dangerous.”  “Plan ahead to be prepared for adversity."  Some of the advice seems a little strange in our time –“Its OK to steal from and even kill an evil giant... but you have to outsmart the guy first...”

Once upon a time in a dark forest...
I grew up in among people who were tellers of stories – Some about past adventures, tales about the struggles that came from immigrating to America, enduring through the depression, dealing with severe winter weather, temperamental machinery, indians, the strange and funny things they had experienced in life. There were even stories about the deep mud of springtime.   Stories were common.   Chatting with friends in the barber shop,  family gatherings, by the minister in his sermons.  These stories told me who I was and the way that I should live my life...a kind of imprinting...  I treasure some of these stories to this day.  TV is an incomplete replacement for story telling in the lives of children.

The generation before mine
The formal stories that adults write down into books often contain a truth, a moral, a vision of what could be...  The story of Hamlet gives an accurate picture of greed and remorse... What happens if you leave yourself open to enemies? Did the story happen?  Of course not... Does the story tell a great truth that we can relate to today...?  Most certainly! Consider Moby Dick, the Grapes of Wrath, the Brothers Karamazov... also modern works like 'Lacunae', 'The Hunger games', 'Harry Potter.'..  How do the stories and morals of today's literary works differ from those of earlier times?  The answer tells us how we have changed (or not) as a people.

The great whale is really a metaphor with different meanings for each member of the crew - to  Captain Ahab it represents evil itself!
Humans use myth and parable to tell great truth – never mind that the Tortoise never did outrun the Hare...perseverance still pays off.  Brer Rabbit's encounter with the Tar Baby makes us laugh at our own ego involvement.  Myths and parables are useful vehicles for truth telling ... or sometimes  to tell the version of cherished ideas  that we want others to accept.  The people of North Korea are being told that no one on earth has a higher quality of life than the North Korean people.  The suicide bombers of Afghanistan believe that by carrying out the bombing they will ensure for themselves an immediate place in Heaven.  The stories we tell ourselves and the stories our culture tells us do have significance – they shape our lives.
Mayan deities were thought to have specialized areas of influence:
Primitive people used story to explain why things are as they are. They were stories loosely connected to reality.  Why is the crow black?  It stole fire from the gods to carry to man ... the smoke forever darkened its feathers.  The Sun is mounted on the wheel of a chariot drawn across the sky each day.  Such beliefs are often closely related to belief in magic. This Chinese wind god is unpredictable in his actions.  Did "the people" think these explanations  were "true"?  The answer to this question might give is a hint to how different humans regard "truth" and what is important - we tend to see "truth" in a post enlightened sort of way.

Deity of the wind - capricious! (SF Asian Art Museum)
Many scholars conclude that early Greek civilizations sought to understand  subjective “truth”. The method that they developed involved the process of using open-ended observations leading to conclusions.  For the Greeks there was a strong relationship between the philosophy of knowing and the observations of nature that led to new understandings of the natural world.

Pacific Banana Slug
The questions that a scientist asks of nature are “what and how” questions.  A scientist describes.  He or she doesn't have the tools to answer “why” questions – those are matters for religion.  The story that a scientist has to tell is always open to the results of new evidence.  Scientists don't get to pick and choose which facts to include - all valid observations must be included- all reasonable questions must be considered.
The the time of Galileo all heavenly bodies were thought to be 'perfect' - the flaws on the surface of the moon were troubling to the Church - but with the telescope the existence of craters was discovered and certain...
Sometimes the story that emerges from observations and conclusions makes us uncomfortable – For example some people are uncomfortable with the evidence and conclusions supporting Global climate change, others just dont want to accept the gradual emergence of new species through natural selection... even though evidence continually mounts. A scientist doesnt have the choice of adjusting facts to make someone happy.  Hitler encouraged his scientists to come up with evidence that the German people were a ‘super race’. Honest examination of the evidence makes it clear that this is simply not true. 

Science still has many unanswered questions. it is part of good science to recognize that some work is work in progress.   By sharing results someone else may develop an experiment that goes beyond what we can imagine.
Some people face a crisis when scientific evidence indicates a conclusion that disagrees with what they were taught to be true. For some the conflict is dealing with bias, for some it is religion, for others there are  political or social beliefs that get in the way. It is inconvenient when evidence points in another direction than we want it to. It is the old conflict between faith and evidence... between “how” and ”why”.

In the late 1700s in response to a smallpox epidemic, it was discovered that 'CowPox' vaccinations would prevent SmallPox.  The public was filled with fear and outrage - fearing what the vaccination might do to them...
Does the fossil record indicate  that life on Earth has undergone slow gradual change? Definitely!  Have scientists observed bacteria capable of adapting so that they can live in the presence of an antibiotic? Certainly... Change happens... New evidence of evolution continues to develop.   Evolution is not a question of ‘believing in’something.... It happens... The matter of “why” it happens is a matter for religious belief.  The how and the why are different stories.
Each of the structures and features that you see has given this insect a better chance for its species to survive
What is the role of story in your life?  Where did you acquire the stories that give structure and meaning to you?  How do you deal with the “how” and ”why” issues that you encounter?  Please be open to looking at this issues and see what you learn.

The call of the unknown... the unknowable