[#35] Playing as if Dropping Stories

By Piet Hut

The most important lesson that I learned from scientific research has little to do with any of the fascinating results that I witnessed and contributed to in astrophysics and other fields.  Nor is it related to the amazing tools and techniques that have been developed in the last few hundred years. Rather, it has been the training in not getting stuck in any particular set of stories.  In other words, scientists are trained to be agile, in dropping stories when they become too much of a straitjacket.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we, the weaver of our stories, are in turn woven by our stories, in the way we identify ourselves and our worlds.  A week later that led me to wonder whether we can transcend the stories we live in (and as) altogether.  This week I want to pick up that thread.  What would it entail, to try to drop the identities that we acquire through our stories?


It is here that I have found the approach of science to be very helpful.  Ideally, scientists work with hypotheses, which they neither believe nor disbelieve, in order to test them as objectively neutral as possible.  In practice it is hard, if not impossible, to be completely free from bias.  Most scientists have a strong preference toward their own theory to be correct, and they are skeptical about competing theories by others.  But with enough scientists in a group of peers, the different beliefs can balance each other to a large extent.  This is the role of peer review, to keep each other honest, in a wide plurality of views.  As a result, science as an enterprise is much better in suspending judgment than individual scientists are.

And while it is true that in peer review conservative referees can impede or slow down progress for a while, there are many examples where they had a positive role in maintaining quality control.  Even someone like Einstein could benefit from peer review, when he and a collaborator erroneously concluded in 1936 that gravitational waves do not exist.  Interestingly, Einstein, like many of us, was initially very annoyed with the negative referee report.  Not only that, he dismissed it completely, and in a huff got his paper published elsewhere; only at the last moment was he able to correct his mistake, when he realized that the referee had been correct after all.

Speaking from my own experiences with peer review, over time I have come to appreciate the process more and more.  And even when I totally disagreed with a referee, I have learned to see it as a game, a challenge to come up with ways to show the errors that the referee made, while continuing to scrutinize my own results for possible errors.  Sometimes I would win the game, and convince the referee.  Sometimes I would lose, either because the referee was right, and I had to rewrite my paper, or because I failed to convince the referee.  Whatever the outcome, "playing as if I was unconcerned" turned out to be a good strategy, in two ways: it was definitely better for my blood pressure, and in addition it helped me focus on the logic of the scrutiny of my paper, without being distracted by the emotional side of things.

Man Ray

Man Ray

This attitude of viewing a struggle as a form of play has often helped me in many ways.  The expression I used above itself is a play on the words of the artist Man Ray, whose tombstone bears the inscription "unconcerned, but not indifferent", which is a very pithy pointer to what it feels like to accomplish suspension of judgment.

In this spirit, I like to see the struggle to let go of limiting identifications as a game.  If we try very hard to drop stories, we will mislead ourselves.  The heroic attempt to rise beyond stories, alas, is itself another story.  In Zen literature we can find many accounts that illustrate this. Typically an eager young student tries to demonstrate deeper insight to a teacher, only to be rebuffed by the teacher who points out the remaining elements of conceptual story weaving that still trap the student in a world of stories.  And of course these Zen accounts are themselves . . . only stories, even though they aim to point at nonconceptual truths that go beyond stories.

Perhaps an alternative to beating our head against a wall, figuratively speaking, in trying to overcome our conceptual limitations, is to see those limitations themselves as stories that we can play with.  When we try to overcome them, we tend to take them too absolute, making victory in fact harder.  But by approaching them more playfully, we can take the wind out of their sails, so to speak.

So instead of fortifying the story that stories should be dropped, by trying to drop stories, we can play as if we are dropping stories, without taking the play too literally.  And that does not mean that we can't be serious in our play: we all know how serious children as well as adults can take the plays they are engrossed in, from playing with marbles to watching the Rose Bowl.

Like an actor on a stage, we can play as if we have dropped all stories already.  And whether or not we succeed, we can then pick them up again, and wear them lightly -- like garments that we can change, rather than a skin that we are stuck with.  In this way we can taste more and more what it means to live unconcerned, in a freedom from identification, not taking ourselves and our stories as the ultimate reality.  And in that way we can leave room open for respectful dialogue.

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.