Critical Insights

   "Imagine you are trying to explain to someone why you are so enamoured of your new girlfriend or boyfriend, and someone quite sensibly asks you to describe them. Why do our efforts on such occasions seem so inadequate? Your intuition tells you that there is something essential about this person, but it is very hard to put into words. You describe what they do for a living, what they like to do for fun, what they look like, how they act, but somehow this does not seem to convey what they are really like.
   "Or imagine that you have fallen into one of those interminable discussions about culture and national characteristics. It seems so obvious that the English are different from the Greeks, who are nothing at all like the Italians, except that they are both different from the English in the same way. And how is it that the Chinese seem in certain ways a bit American in their spirit, when their cultural history is so different and so much older? Again it seems that there is something real here, but most of our attempts to capture it in words seem to fall short of what we are trying to express.
   "There is a simple solution to these quandaries: tell a story. If we narrate the story of our new friend's life, where and how they grew up, who their parents are and how they raised them, where they studied, what happened in their past relationships, we communicate more of what is important about them than if we attempt to describe how they are now. The same goes for cultures. It is only when we know something about their histories, both recent and ancient, that we begin to gain any insight into why being human is expressed a bit differently in different parts of the world. This may be obvious, but why should it be so? What is it about a person or a culture that makes it so hard to describe without telling a story? The answer is that we are not dealing with a thing, like a rock or a can opener. These are objects which remain more or less the same from decade to decade. They can be described, for most purposes, as static objects, each with some collection of unchanging properties. But when we are dealing with a person or a culture we are dealing with a process that cannot be comprehended as a static object, independently of its history. How it is now is incomprehensible without knowing how it came to be.
   "Just what is it about a story that tells us so much? What extra information are we conveying when we tell a story? When we tell a story about someone we narrate a series of episodes in their life. These tell us something about that person because we believe, from having heard and understood many such stories, that what happens to a person as they grow up has an effect on who they are. We also believe that people's characters are best revealed in how they react to situations, both propitious and adverse, and in what they have sought to do or become.
   "However, it is not the events themselves that carry the information in the narration. A mere list of events is very boring and is not a story. This is perhaps what Andy Warhol was trying to convey in his movies of haircuts or in the day in the life of the Empire State Building. What makes a story a story is the connections between the events. These may be made explicit, but they often do not need to be, because we fill them in almost unconsciously. We can do that because we all believe that events in the past are to some extent the causes of events in the future. We can debate to what extent a person is shaped by what happens to them, but we do not need to be devout determinists to have a practical and almost instinctive understanding of the importance of casuality. It is this understanding of casuality that makes stories so useful. Who did what to whom, and when, and why, is interesting because of what we know about the consequences of actions and events."

[Based on: Three Roads To Quantum Gravity, Chapter 4, (The Universe is Made Of Processes, Not Things), pages 49-51]

    The above paragraphs were quoted from a book by Lee Smolin, a Professor of Physics at Waterloo University. His book was first published in Great Britian in the year 2000. I include a portion of his book here because it very well describes a theme I want to share with my critics.
    The common picture of world history resembles a puzzle with many pieces. The complete version of which remains to be seen. So many puzzle pieces in the form of recorded events appearing to portray at least an outline of a bigger picture. Most important are those connections that truly fit. Connections that unveil a bigger picture when allowed to reveal unaltered and unhidden their true relationships with the whole. - E.M.


Page last updated 09/10/11