How Things Are and Which Things Matter

Excerpt from Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution by Loyal Rue:

The most fundamental sources of self-understanding are found at the level of story. To put the thesis even more directly: if we are to respond effectively to the global problematique then we must attend to our stories, for in the story of a culture we find its most profound expression of wisdom.

Perhaps this thesis exaggerates the case. Is it possible that stories can make a decisive difference in the viability of our species? Is story that fundamental to human existence? It is difficult to believe otherwise once we stop to consider the many ways in which our lives are shaped by stories.

We legitimate institutions and values in their name, we wage wars in their defense, we judge ourselves and others by their standards, we take pains that our children will learn them well, we draw inspiration from their examples, we construct our hopes and fears under their influence, and so on. It would not be extreme to say that we negotiate our way through life by the guidance of our stories.

We humans are the only species to tell stories, and so far as anyone knows every recognizable human community has fostered storytelling traditions. Thus we appear to be in the presence of a trait that is both universally and exclusively human, suggesting that what humans are has something to do with their stories.

If these ideas hold up – that is, if storytelling is an essential human activity bestowing substance and form on the lives we have – then it follow that changes at this level of human thought will be among the most profound and far-reaching we can imagine. Thus we have good reason to believe that appropriate changes at the level of story might hold the power of reorientation needed for enhancing human solidarity and cooperation…

…I want to suggest that the profound sense of story bears a deep relation to the basic functions of the central nervous system. I am saying that if we can picture what the brain does for an individual organism then we shall have a way to think about what story does for a cultural tradition.

All brains (human or otherwise) do essentially the same thing, that is, they take some measure of how things are in the external environment and then use this information to devise behaviors that will be more or less conducive to the interests of the organism. Brains that have become specialized for symbolic interaction do not suddenly depart from this basic function, they just continue it in a new domain, the domain of culture.

Indeed, human culture just is the result of assessing and addressing the environment with the aid of symbols. In every particular human culture, therefore, we may expect to find (and do find) two basic types of ideas: ideas about how things are in the world, and ideas about which things matter for human existence.

This principle may be extended by the assertion that a culture exists as a coherent entity to the extent that its members share common ideas about how things are and which things matter. A further implication is that the important difference between cultures may be measured in terms of incompatible ideas about reality and value.