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On Beyond Post-Modernism: Discriminating Stories

Paul Grobstein

Universe Bar
26 October 2005

BACKGROUND:

Science as Story Telling and Story Revision

PROBLEM:

How does one discriminate between stories in the absence of any ability to measure relative "truthfulness", "reality", or proximity to either?

Problem is emphasized by consideration of "science" but by no means unique to it. Personal preference? Cultural bias? Fundamentalism vs relativism. And is "modern" problem, THE problem of our times?

"our problem is not in rejecting sources of authority [truth, security, tradition] as it was for Descartes and as Dr. Grobstein would have it, but in finding something relevant to accept ... Skepticism is fine, skepticism is important, but not to the extent that people spend their time worrying about whether they have a reason for action ... Jed Grobstein

STEPS TOWARD A SOLUTION?

ContextIntelligent Design
in minimal form (first mover)
Evolution
in extreme form (pure emergence)
"Truth", "Reality"Could beCould be
"They have been told that God relies upon them and that the pageant of the world has been written around them that they may be tested in the important or unimportant parts handed out to them. How could they take it, were I to tell them that they are on a lump of stone ceaselessly spinning in empty space, circling around a second rate star? What then would be the use of their patience, their acceptance of misery?" ... Brecht, Galileo (Scene 7, the little monk) Better story in providing basis for "acceptance of misery"? Less useful story for that purpose?
"If I'm taught there is a God I'm responsible to, I know I have to treat people right ... But if there's no creator to answer to, it changes your whole lifestyle. Then its just survival of the fittest. That's where our society is headed. That's why we have so many of the problems we do" ... Judy Grim, Dover, Pa, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 October 2005 Better story in to assure control of others/self? Less useful story to assure control of others/self?
"In an attempt to answer the question that you posed: why should we accept our need for one another? - I have come up with yet another question. I wonder if a distinction should be made between a primal need for one another and a desire for some connectivity. Do we really "need" one another's stories or do we desire them in order to arrive at a sense of being part of the whole? Should the question be, then, why should we accept the desire to be part of this whole?" Historically: has both promoted connectedness and created separateness Might do a better job of making sense of our own behavior and in turn promoting effective connectedness?
"Some capacity to explain the world in a way that is predictively powerful, can be collectively validated or tested, and that can be reconciled with other stories possessing similar qualities of "usefulness"." Take your pick? Take your pick?
As above, together with inclination to summarize the widest array of observations in a way that in turn generates the widest array of new observations and new stories Based on both history and projectable future: VERY bad bet Based on both history and projectable future: Very good bet
Science classrooms (presuming science as story telling in action Worth a passing mention Worth substantial investment of time

Some generalizations SOME MORE STEPS (for Jed, et al) - One problem is actually two

PROBLEM SOLVED?

Of course not but .... let's try it out, see how it works?

The morning after ...

Thanks all, for rich discussion. Accept/understand the need to provide some clearer measure of "generativity". Think though that we made some progress on that problem. It relates not to "all time" but to recent time, to time during which a comparison between two stories can in fact be made (just as there is no useful way (for present purposes) to compare generativity of bacteria versus humans across all of evolution; one can only attempt to compare generativity over periods when both existed). And, equally important, the measure is always a "bet", ie it is a projection of likely productivity in time to come. A "scientist" (and others?) puts his/her money on a guess about the future generativity of a story made in the present based on the past, and may or may not be be correct about it. Only time will tell.

Betting on the generativity of stories is, I hope I made clear, NOT the only criterion might use the discriminate between stories. One might take one story as better than another for other reasons .... including a wish for security, social order, etc and/or ... the wish to preserve stories themselves. My concern was not to argue that there is a single RIGHT way to adjudicate between stories (I trust everyone recognizes that I cannot and would not make such an argument) but rather to call attention to the importance of context in adjudicating stories, and to try and make clearer what was the "scientific" way (without making any claims that that particular one is superior). Notice though that people who are interested in generativity and use that as their own context for evaluating stories may make life more difficult for those who use other contexts. Scientific stories are NOT in fact developed to deny or "explain away" particular other stories but they may well be perceived that way by people who (consciously or unconsciously) are using contexts other than projected generativity to evaluate stories.

That thought in turn connects to two other issues that arose in our conversation that seem to me worth highlighting. The first is that most of us are most of the time probably not aware of the criteria we use to adjudicate between stories. Trying to make this explicit (conscious) in my own case was a part of the exercise and, obviously, I'm arguing this would be helpful in general (many conflicts actually reflect differences in criteria rather than differences in any intrinsic value of the stories). The second is that distinguishing between stories using one set of criteria need not preclude a given person in the same case making different distinctions using different criteria in a different context. The story of the earth as flat is a very useful one in some contexts even if its generativity is low. Adjudicating between stories based on their likely generativity doesn't inevitably require that other stories disappear, though it does make it perhaps more likely that some will (the parallels to biological evolution, involving innovation, persistance, and extinction are, I suspect, very close).

Another important point that came out in our discussion was that people differ in the degree to which "generativity" seems like a good criterion on which to discriminate between stories, for a variety of reasons including life experiences, and, I suspect, genetic predispositions. And I'd be the last person in the world to argue that we want more homogeneity in this regard (see Diversity and Deviance. At the same time, part of the point of the talk was that there are a number of existing problems, both social and individual, that might be eased by developing the inclination to use generativity as a primary basis for story adjudication, at least in particular contexts.

IF/when one begins to have the feeling that there really ISN'T any such thing as "Truth" or "Reality" outside oneself, at least not a useful one that one can rely on as a fixed and stable motivator of and guide to one's own behavior, AND one has the feeling that PC/postmodernist solipsism (all stories are equally good) is not an adequate response to this feeling, THEN the notion of generativity as a primary basis for story adjudication has some appeal. It doesn't by any means relieve one of the obligations of making choices and of personal responsiblity for one's behavior (as does pure solipsism or "primary schuckiness"). It does, however, in combination with an appreciation of the "bipartite brain", give one grounds for action despite knowing that there is no single justifiable story and, perhaps even more importantly, an authorization to sometimes act simply and only because one "feels" that is what should be done ("reflective shmuckiness, which treats action not as something to be justified in the present based on the past but rather as something being done in the present to make (and be evaluated by) the future).

Along which lines .... looking forward to further thoughts from all of you about the current state of this story. Thanks again for your contributions to its evolution.


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