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Revising Stories on Ultimately, What We Are

Allison Fink's picture

Allison Fink

Storytelling As Inquiry

December 21, 2007

Revising Stories of Ultimately, What We Are           

          From time to time there come things, experiences, theories, that forever change the way we look at ourselves and our place in the greater world. At the time of Galileo we found out that we are not the center of the universe. In Flatland, a square lived in a two dimensional world all his life and found that there were more dimensions beyond what he could inherently see. Nowadays Darwin’s theory of evolution compels us to rethink our most cherished beliefs about the essence of our selves.           

          According to Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin proposes that life forms arose by mindless forces in evolution, not the design of a supreme being. He says that the lack of a supreme being would lead to despair, and that “nothing could be sacred. To put it bluntly, nothing could have any point.” (Dennett 18) He refers to this concept as reductionism. Everything can be reduced to random cause and effect. Whatever happened was an accident, and there could be no designing principle behind it. I argue that even without a designing principle, reductionism is really what enables us to both look for and find meaning, because it determines the minds we are born with. Without a designing principle, there are no definite answers set in stone for anyone. It is up to our minds to decide due to the mindless forces that determine them and not due to an outside, absolute intelligence. We create the way we experience reality as we evolve. And our minds are capable of being revised all the time. Since we have minds, ultimate reality is unknowable, because we must experience it within some given mind. It can be interpreted in different ways, and the mind can only understand something according to its structure. But as the structure changes with evolution, what we partake to be truth also changes all the time. We can still learn more and perceive more, drawing on greater connections, than before, as we revise the mind and evolve it. Herein lies the meaning.

        Intelligence emerges from the structure of the mind, which by nature detects and absorbs certain kinds of patterns. How the patterns are made we don’t know; it could be a matter of mindless and arbitrary forces at work, as our brain weaves everything together from our set of experiences into a single story and we can’t see anything else. The problem is when an idea we have allows us to settle ourselves into a point of view from which we assume we know everything. It can close us to new discoveries that lead to deeper understanding. It can even be an excuse to be lazy and depend on that view and no longer need to think for oneself. The universe would be boring as a result if all the questions were answered and the point of life clearly defined. In accepting the idea of self evolution, one gets away from that, because it allows a capacity to find the point of life through evolving oneself.            

           Life can go on even if we find that the stories we live by no longer make sense; we are merely forced to live by different assumptions. In Galileo’s day, the idea of the earth revolving around the sun was hard for people to accept. But life went on. People came to see that they were not as important in God’s eyes as they had thought themselves to be, and were not the center of creation. Therefore, not everything depended on them pleasing God. Therefore they had the opportunity to revise their stories to one in which they were smaller and less important. Not everything depended on their obedience to God in the way that they envisioned him. Their world view became more expansive as they realized how small their limited worldview, in assuming that they were really important and knew the truth about reality, had really made them. Their world view became more expansive and they were able to explore new independent endeavors such as science. In just the same way, when we take a good look at ourselves for what we are, and accept ourselves for what we are, we see how small we are and that gives us the ability to see that our story is not all that there is, which allows greater freedom.           

          Now, the idea of reductionism to ourselves as the product can lead us to discover such fundamental truths about ourselves in accepting our own smallness. We do not determine the way we view the world. Our minds are products of physical forces that are not ours but that determine us. The intelligence that we are now evolved through the strivings for existence of many organisms over billions of years. The best adapted organisms survived, and we are accumulations of all the developments of those organisms. Our selves are not permanent, fixed entities. They are subject to revision, and as such we can see our minds, our viewpoint, as part of the process of evolution. Just as a single celled organism evolved into a many-celled organism, we still don’t know to what state of awareness or complexity humans will eventually evolve.  Dennett suggests that we mirror the process in the same way, when we build on the foundations of ideas or world views contributed by philosophers of the past because we were standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. Maybe some of their ideas will be rejected and “die off”, but it is in seeing all original thoughts that our minds are stretched to greater dimensions and get new perspectives. These perspectives are strengthened when we see that we cannot come back to old arguments that have been proven obsolete. (Dennett 83)

          It is in accepting the framework that holds us in place- the set of our inherited predispositions as a product of evolution, and our cultural and intellectual heritage- that we are able to fully work within it and make positive changes. We know that we are a product of the times we live in and the brain we were born with. But knowing that we are predisposed to be a certain way, we can best live a life that suits our nature and tries to compensate for our weaknesses. Evolution also provides a meaning in another sense in that it allows us to also, in a sense, further our own evolution. Evolution is not just something that inevitably happens. The species play an active role in furthering their kind along, as evidenced by the Baldwin Effect, in order to influence the outcome of the species and create evolution. We can find what works in our lives given the inherent structures in our brains that we have, but developing it further through our own efforts, just as species that develop the skills that they have are better able to reproduce and further the evolution of the species. We can do this with ourselves and become able to survive and thrive to a greater advantage so that we can pass on our contributions to the world- our accounts of stories, those that have proven to work for us- as our legacy.

         With the idea of self determination that comes with evolution, we face the responsibility to accept that nothing can come from nothing. All ideas build on the accumulation of other ideas. On our own we can do little, but we do have some control in the activities and choices that we adopt. Once we accept that nothing can come from nothing, we are in a better position to work hard to get to where we want to go, and to be less lazy in looking for the answers to questions by trying to explain them in oversimplified terms. 

          Science and the life of any question-asking person is ultimately concerned with taking what is external and making it internal, so that our lives really and truly belong to us. It takes us from a position of dependency to one of independence and responsibility. When we look at logic and evidence rather than looking to outside explanations, we eventually free ourselves of wishful thinking and become more empowered in our lives through facing the facts. But at the same time we can still think of a higher power, or if you will, a principle that drives life to evolve, or a certain level of intelligence that we do not understand and wish to attain. One principle that seems to be shown here is our ability to discover new things about ourselves that we did not know. That is encouraging. As new discoveries trample our egos, we get a sense of how great the higher power is in our pursuit of it and how little we know.        





 Sources: Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.