[#30] Beyond Stories - Can We Go There, and is There a There There?
By Piet Hut
Thinking places a central role in our lives, and we think in terms of stories, whether as fiction or nonfiction. Can we go beyond stories, or is our sense of self part of the stories we are living out? Is there even a there there beyond our stories?
Our own sense of identity is certainly caught up in many stories. Therefore, it is an interesting question what it would mean for us to go beyond stories. Can we extract ourselves from the stories that we weave? And who is doing the weaving, is that really us? After all, the story of there being a weaver is yet another story. Can we walk out of our dense forest of stories?
Imagine that we are reading a comic strip, encountering various comic figures that occur within the story. What would it mean to liberate one of the comic strip figures? We could take scissors and cut the figure out of one of the frames on a page. But we could not let that figure loose in the real world, we could not let it walk on the street in front of our house.
Similarly, it is pretty obvious that our self image cannot be liberated from the stories we tell ourselves and others. So if the self we think we are cannot escape, what can? And where could it escape to? Is there a bridge that leads beyond?
We can speculate, of course, but it is more interesting to experiment. Natural science, in the study of objects, has developed a robust methodology of investigation, in which theory and experiment go hand in hand. Without experimental verification the most beautiful theory would be just a flight of fancy. And without a specific theoretical framework we would not know what kind of experiment to perform, or what would even count as a valid experiment. Without either one we would be fully at sea.
Given the mutual dependence of theory and experiment, we might well wonder how modern science ever got started. Reading the stories of how physics got bootstrapped in the 17th century, from Galileo and Kepler via Descartes and Huygens to Newton and Leibniz, is more fascinating than reading about the adventures of explorers of new continents. Discovering another continent is exciting, for sure, but discovering a whole new layer of mathematical reality underlying the world that is accessible to our senses, is even more awesome. And it is close to magic, for all intents and purposes, in that it has enabled technological progress that was undreamed of only a few centuries ago.
Science in its current form got started by people like Galileo doing the most simple types of experiments: rolling balls down inclined planes, or just dropping them, and measuring how long it took for them to reach their destination, what could be simpler? And who would have thought that a systematic follow-up of that kind of experimentation would lead to humans walking on the Moon, or talking to other humans on the other side of the Earth using mobile phones?
And now that we have explored the structure of the natural world in objective ways, from subatomic levels to the size of the whole visible Universe, the natural next step is to explore the nature of subjects, with a new methodology appropriate for subjects. And to develop such a methodology, the 21th century is likely to see a bootstrapping similar to that of the 17th century in the budding systematic study of objects.
The main problem holding us back is that sheer force of habit has caused psychology and neuroscience, the studies of mind and brain, to be almost purely object oriented. There is the lingering feeling that there is no other way to make real progress. But why not try, and see how far we get?
What we know about the self, the subject of any experience we may have, is what we tell ourselves in terms of stories. And each story is an attempt to objectify some aspect of our lives, projecting it like shadows onto a wall of words and concepts, as in Plato's metaphor of a cave. A promising way to look for a new bootstrapping of a science of the subject is to try to go beyond stories.
Here is a simple suggestion, similar in spirit to Galileo's playing with balls. It will take only seconds, not even minutes, again similar to Galileo's experiments. The total duration will be only three breaths. I suggest you actually try to do it; there is really no excuse not to spend a few seconds trying to do something totally new.
During the first quiet breath, notice how the air goes in through your mouth and nose and fills your lungs, how the air then stops flowing, and how the same air subsequently is released again through your mouth and/or nose. During the second breath, notice the story that we tend to weave around this process of breathing, based on words and concepts (including words like 'word' and 'concept' and 'process'). And finally, during the third breath, try to see to what extent you can shift to a more direct awareness of what is happening while you are breathing, in a way that is less tied to the stories that we tell about what is happening. Can you sense the difference, and does that sense get a bit more clear when you repeat this experiment?
And here is another suggestion. While taking a few breaths, first become aware of the environment you are in, a room perhaps, or a street or part of a landscape. Then tell yourself what kind of room, street, or landscape you are in, and also what lies beyond, tasting how words woven into stories structure our natural habitat. And third, try to shift to just feeling the presence of the room, the walls, the rooms next door in the same building, the space of the street and town you may be in, etc. In short, try to shift from our habitual inner dialogue and story telling to a more vivid sensing of space and structures in space, beyond stories.
These are two easy ways of "playing Galileo", with the main difference that we are playing with a subject rather than an object, our own sense of self rather than a ball.
It may be fun to do this for a while, without trying to predict what may happen, and without prematurely analyzing what it all might mean. This is important, in order to avoid our centuries long academic tendency of objectifying everything in sight, which can't be easily overcome in the time span of a few repetitions of breathing three breaths.
After experimenting with these and similar free-form experiments, it would be interesting to playfully construct some rudimentary forms of theory, simple working hypotheses, that may help bootstrap new forms of experiment. Let's explore further along these lines in the coming few weeks.
Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.