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Why The Story Matters

Jordan Peterson claims that we need stories because otherwise we cannot find any signal in the noise of existence. That signal lays out the pathway for how we think. Yet there is no provably “correct” signal in all the noise: if anything, the stories that people use to make sense of the world are diverging, not converging.

As a WSJ article over the weekend put it:

Why do audiences continue to flock to the 10th Star Wars movie or the 20th Marvel movie? What imaginative appetite or cultural need keeps us coming back for more? …

The answer may be that while narrative universes seem like a new development, having taken over the world in the 21st century, they actually represent a much older and more primal mode of storytelling. Like ancient myths and folk tales … today’s narrative universes also resemble myths in bringing us face to face with fundamental mysteries of human life. Was I born for a purpose, and if so, how do I discover what it is? Why does evil exist? What am I willing to give my life for? Traditionally, people looked to religious and patriotic stories to answer such questions. In 21st-century America, those kinds of narratives no longer have the power to unite us; they are more likely to ignite suspicion and division. Popular culture has stepped into the gap, offering new myths that are less fraught and easier to share.

Jesus and Moses have been replaced with… a woke Norse deity? If Star Wars and Marvel can take the place of religion in the popular mind, then it is clear that people will attach to just about any story, no matter how silly, that gives them an explanation for their lives. But think about the breadth of human stories that explain their worlds: Judaism and Christianity in all their forms, Islam, Buddhism… and now secularism, atheism and a healthy dose of soft paganism in Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe… and let’s not forget the earth worship that dominates the West today. All, including the “New Stories,” seem to work well enough at providing answers that people can cling to. But are they really interchangeable?

We are in an age where the “Ten Minutes of Fame” has been shortened to flashes in the pan, matching the attention span of a modern teenager. Perhaps this is where classic Burkean conservatism has a place; the belief that the institutions that have stood the test of time deserve the benefit of the doubt, and that any rapid and radical changes in society, like the Reign of Terror, must be opposed on the basis of the defense of inertia if nothing else. Maintaining some historical perspective is how we avoid mass hysteria events of one kind or another. I claim that New Stories are deeply injurious to our consciousness and our future.

Yet, as popular culture might answer, “who can prove that Christianity is ‘right’ and Disney’s Star Wars stories are ‘wrong’?” After all, anyone who pays attention to conversations and disagreements knows that there are always multiple ways to understand any given situation. It seems to be a feature to the world we live in. Two people – even those who share the same background – never see everything exactly the same way (see: marriage). It explains how the world can have hundreds of religions and cultures and languages without any of them sweeping all others away. Does it really matter that we have wildly divergent ways of looking at the world? Doesn’t the world, with all of its myriad of differences, function pretty well even if we don’t share common stories?

Well, yes. It functions well in certain respects. Our underlying explanations for the world may differ, but there is a whole other layer of human understanding that seems to function almost entirely independently from our stories. Medicine, engineering, physics… the tools that allow us to live comfortably in an otherwise-hostile natural word may have been almost entirely developed within a Judeo-Christian environment, but they seem to work well enough (and continue to develop) the world over, from secular Europe and China to Hindu India to every kind of worldview found in America.

This layer of understanding, though, is much more limited and even illusory than we think. Take, for example, the miracle of flight. I call it a “miracle,” but it is just physics, right? We can model an airplane, tweak those models, calibrate with physical testing and – voila! – an airplane. The models are very, very good. Surely they represent some form of “truth,” right?

Well, no. It turns out that there is no conceptually complete understanding of why wings work to provide lift to airplanes, thrust to propellors and rotors, etc.

How can this be?! After all, we can design superb wings and airplanes! They WORK! Yet it remains the case that no theory fully and thoroughly explains flight. We forget that engineering is a tool, not a full explanation for how or why things work.

And I got to thinking: maybe this is true about just about everything in the world. People find things that work, and that is enough. An expert woodworker does not need to know how a tree conducts its affairs with other plants, or how the plant’s molecular structure forms new fibrous material. To create something splendid, he only needs to know how the wood behaves under his hands. Exquisite woodworking predates the microscope or even the formal study of biology. He does not need to know!

Similarly, doctors don’t need to know how aspirin works. They just need to know that aspirin does certain things, and what dosages achieve what kinds of results in what sorts of people. Human interaction with the physical world is not predicated on understanding: it is built on usefulness.

The same is true across human experience: we can model systems, we can even model the behavior of crowds. But models are not a complete understanding. Indeed, models give us a false sense of both knowledge and wisdom: anything can be used for good or evil, and the experts who build these tools eventually lose the ability to tell the difference.

It is clear that excellent results can be obtained without comprehensive knowledge. Mankind has been raising flocks and growing crops for an awfully long time without ever being able to grow a sheep or blade of grass from elemental building blocks in a lab. We make do with what we have and know. And so we can accept any number of stories as the framework within which engineers engineer and doctors doctor. And totally normal people go about their daily lives. We share an acceptance for what is useful. Yet we differ on why it matters.

Let’s step back from the physical sciences. Ask yourself about something really important — Love. We know it when we feel it. We can build it. We can break it. We can encourage and grow love, or we can make it wither and die. We can even claim to measure it, either through endorphins in the brain, or acts of bravado or heroism, or even through the stamina of a marriage undergoing adversity. Every measurement is necessarily inadequate, because we do not understand Love. And we don’t need to! Does it matter whether love is a spiritual thing, or biochemicals in the brain? The mere fact that people argue about what love is, proves that there is nothing close to a unified and complete understanding. Indeed, would anybody believe any so-called “expert” who claimed to fully understand every facet of how love works?

Does it matter whether we can fully explain things? I think it does, because being aware of the limits of human knowledge opens the door to appreciating the central importance of stories.

Those who already accept their limitations know that they need to trust in something. Those people – not the majority by any means – will follow an authoritative source. The Torah, for example, commands us to be kind to each other, to productively direct our sexual energies, and not mix linen and wool. The Orthodox will seek to follow all the commandments, including the prohibition on linen and wool, whether they understand them or not. And they might justify their performance for the same reasons that support how a craftsman learns how to carve wood without deeper knowledge, or how an engineer can build a flying craft without really knowing how a wing works: we do what works, and we respect the limits of our knowledge. We accept the authorities upon which we rely. Perhaps most of the value is found in the act, in the doing – not in the understanding.

We may not understand how forbidden sexual practices corrupt the world (an assertion found in the Torah), but any survey of the world around us suggests that this certainly seems to have validity. It has become popular to see human life as nothing more than a biological accident, and we have seen a corresponding growth in simple hedonism: the purpose of life must be to pursue pleasure. We can see how relationships have been undermined by libertinism without fully understanding why people can’t just be understanding of their spouse’s desire for an “open” marriage. Those who think they can rationalize away the consequences of infidelity invariably crash against the primal rocks that do not give way just because we wish them to. Love – and its guardrails – is better understood through the Bible than through Biology.

But in this self-proclaimed Age of Reason, most people do not follow religious commandments. Instead, they pick and choose what commandments make sense to them. They choose to be kind, and maybe practice some token Sabbath observance – but because separating linen and wool is not self-explanatory, they give it a pass. The sexual commandments are similarly broadly discarded. People are told that they should “be true to themselves,” which really means, “follow your desires.” But because they do not really understand love – or respect the Torah as a guide – their lives become train wrecks.

New Stories have largely replaced the old. And this is dangerous because it turns out that the meta-stories are not merely window dressing within which all of human skill and knowledge can comfortably reside. It is, of course, foolish to suborn our understanding of the world to a popular celebrity or athlete or politician, just as it is to replace traditional religion with the soft-porn paganism of “The Force”. It is not an irrelevance whether we are Gaia-worshippers or Christians or Jews, atheists or scientists.

And that is because these stories are not mere curiosities or quirks. They tell us of our own potential: are we powerless civilians in a world controlled by people with superpowers, or are we docile subjects of Allah, or are we partners with G-d in completing the world? The story matters.

These really are the most important questions – the question of “what should I do?” is answered through seeing ourselves through the stories we have adopted to explain our existence and potential purpose in this world.

The other key ingredient to a proper religion is that it is always discovered in relationships, in arguments, in points and counterpoints. In some sense, religion is more like understanding how a wing works: we don’t fully understand it, but the more we argue, the closer we can get. And in the meantime, we can USE it to achieve success, even if we do not understand it. This is in fact a core belief in Judaism: the action (like keeping the Sabbath or not murdering), has value even if you don’t fully grasp why. But that is no reason not to keep trying to understand, and no reason not to teach others to follow the commandments even if neither party fully understands the value that is within them.

Human knowledge is never complete. The stories in which we wrap our lives, are very important, indeed. They guide us and protect us. They give us meaning, and they ground us when the popular world is losing its mind.

P.S. The Old Stories are not as easy to grasp. The Torah does not reduce to a meme. The arguments are complex and often nuanced. This is why there is an entire text, with fractalized complexity that is revealed, layer by layer, as one closely studies the text. But this is text, not multimedia; the Torah is not a delight to the senses like Disney creations are. In order to have a chance to win, we need to find ways to show people the vacuity of the New Stories, and the richness found in the Old.

Comments are welcome!

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