Evolving humanity: an abstract and its evolution

Paul Grobstein's picture

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently about conversations associated with the Evolving System project, and their implications for individual and collective stories of selves (mine included) and of what it is to be human.  In mid-December, I started trying to crystallize that thinking in the forum of an abstract to be submitted for a possible talk at the 2010 Metanexus meeting.  The abstract in turn led to further conversations, one of which is excerpted below as an illustration of the interpersonal and social character of individual story evolution.  For a different but intersecting view of the evolution of the abstract, see Evolving Humanity: Towards a Third Way? 

Separate entries of the exchange can be linked to individually using the URL's associated with the linked numbers of each.  The current version of the abstract is here

 

Paul to Alice 17 December 2009 (1)

am thinking of submitting something along the following lines for the next metanexus meeting (http://www.metanexus.net/conference2010/) ... whaddya think?

The Brain as a Story Creator and Story Reviser:
The Loop Between Empiricism and Meaning
(version 1)

Contemporary inquiries into the brain are beginning to offer new ways to think about what it is to be human, ways that bridge rather than set in opposition matter and spirit, rationality and feeling, experience and meaning.  A central feature of such new directions is a recognition that human understandings are "stories," creations of the brain that are continuously subject to revision by it.  Story creation and revision reflects not only empirical observations and logical processes but also other kinds of experiences and creative activities, including feelings, intuitions, and actions based on faith, as well as the stories of others.  Rather than originating in any fixed meaning or following any fixed methodology, the creation and revision of stories itself continually creates and revises both meaning and methodology as central elements in the process.

In this presentation, I will provide a brief introduction to the kinds of observations that underlie the notion of the brain as a story creator and reviser, and discuss implications of this notion for thinking about human life, both individual and social.  The notion suggests that we should, both individually and in our social institutions, give up the aspirations of achieving definitive and/or universal stories, as well as the inclination to dismiss stories (our our own and those of others) on the grounds that they fail tests of certainty and/or universality.  We should instead encourage the continuing development of alternative stories, valuing them based on their potential contributions to the evolution of stories as yet unconceived.

From this perspective, to be human is to be a participant in the ongoing process of creating and revising individual and collective stories, of creating and reshaping meaning for oneself, for the human communities of which one is a part, and for the cosmos, both animate and inanimate.  There is every reason to suspect that the future will bring new and as yet unsuspected visions of what it is to be human.  For the moment, though, contemporary understandings of the brain as story teller and story reviser offer the possible of more humane and more richly integrated individual and social lives based on a recognition that the significance of all understandings, however arrived at,  is their potential contributions to the development of new understandings in the future.

 

Alice to Paul 17 December 2009 (2)

I think it's great. I'm awed, really, by the first two paragraphs, which are to my mind amazingly clear and deep.

About the last paragraph, I have a couple of questions. I'm still trying to understand what you mean by "new."  New understandings.  This connects with what we were talking about today.  Your idea that we could shift the balance of human interest in imposing stories on others and exploring stories with others (not precisely your language, but the sense?) so that there was more exploration and less fighting: I think this idea is beautiful and I agree that it is possible.  So is this an example of the kind of new understanding you want to promote?  A new way of taking in and sending out meanings?  I guess I want to know more about what you mean by discovery.  I know you would say that it's a mode of creation, of creativity, and I agree with that, too, but I want to know more about/with it. What is a touchstone example of this for you?

Another question is how this relates to the concern about methodology and disciplinarity you reference in the first paragraph, and that we have talked about somewhat recently in connection with the idea that disciplines and methods are distinctive ways to engage the unconscious, ways that less stylized, more spontaneous modes of inquiry don't allow for. 

I am also not sure I understand the title.  By empiricism do you mean contact with something outside of thought, and by meaning, interpretation of that contact?

Paul to Alice 18 December 2009 (3)

Thanks for these thoughts.  In response to which a revised third paragraph (among other changes)

From this perspective, to be human is to be a participant in the ongoing process of creating and revising individual and collective stories, of creating and reshaping meaning for oneself, for the human communities of which one is a part, and for the cosmos, both animate and inanimate.  There is every reason to suspect that the future will bring new and as yet unsuspected visions of what it is to be human.  For the moment, though, contemporary understandings of the brain as story teller and story reviser offer the possibility of more humane and more richly integrated individual and social lives based on a recognition that the significance of all understandings, however arrived at, is in their potential to contribute to understandings yet to be conceived.

Yep, "more exploration and less fighting."  But there is something beyond that, something for which "more etc" is a consequence rather than a motivation, something that I'm still struggling to get into words.  The idea is to shift attention from conflict to potential, from constraint to possibility, from present to future.  Yes, in Bharath's terms  and yours, we all live in/with pain and vulnerability.  And with, in my words, uncertainty.  That pain/vulnerability/uncertainty is what gives us the wherewithal to conceive/implement alternative futures, and it is that ability that in turn provides a way to make sense of/live with pain/vulnerability/uncertainty.  Or something like that.

 

Alice to Paul 19 December 2009 (4)

I like the revision to the third paragraph ... 

I also like being party to the process of getting the something into words. It's interesting to put the formulation you offer next to what I've learned from you about living in the present.  Something here about how engaging more roundly with the present (freer of strictures of the past, individual and collective) enables the tending towards the future, towards possibilities, that you are articulating?

I've also been considering the word "wherewithal."  Does it translate both to motive/reason/purpose/need and to strength/agency/choice/grit/grist?  And do you mean, in addition to make sense of/live with something about transforming pain/vulnerability/uncertainty -- not into their opposites, but into something yet conceived, something creative?

 

Paul to Alice 20 December 2009 (5)

"wherewithal" is the state of being uncertain/uncomfortable/vulnerable and so inclined to seek new directions/undestandings?

 

The current version of the abstract 13 January 2009 (6)

Evolving Humanity:  The Brain as a Story Creator and Story Reviser
Abstract of a paper for Metanexus Conference 2010

Contemporary inquiries into the brain are beginning to offer new ways to think about what it is to be human, ways that bridge rather than set in opposition matter and spirit, rationality and feeling, experience and meaning.  A central feature of such new directions is a recognition that human understandings are "stories," creations of the brain that are and will always be continuously subject to revision by it.  Story creation and revision reflects not only empirical observations and logical processes but also other kinds of experiences, aspirations, and creative activities, including feelings, intuitions, and actions based on faith, as well as the stories of others.  Rather than originating in any fixed meaning, following any fixed methodology, or being directed toward any fixed objective, the creation and revision of stories itself continually creates and revises meaning, methodology, and objectives as central elements in an ongoing evolutionary process.

In this presentation, I will provide a brief introduction to the kinds of observations that underlie the notion of the brain as a story creator and reviser, and discuss implications of this notion for thinking about human life, both individual and social.  The notion suggests that we should, both individually and in our social institutions, give up the aspirations of achieving definitive and/or universal stories, as well as the inclination to dismiss stories (both our own and those of others) on the grounds that they fail tests of certainty and/or universality.  We should instead encourage the continuing development of multiple alternative stories, valuing existing and future ones alike based not only on their past and present usefulness but also on their potential contributions to the evolution of stories as yet unconceived.

From this perspective, to be human is to be a participant in the ongoing evolutionary process of creating and revising individual and collective stories, of creating and reshaping meaning, methodology, and objectives for oneself, for the human communities of which one is a part, and for the cosmos, both animate and inanimate.  There is every reason to suspect that the future will bring new and as yet unsuspected visions of what it is to be human.  For the moment, though, contemporary understandings of the brain as story teller and story reviser offer the possibility of more humane and more richly integrated individual and social lives based on a recognition that the significance of all understandings, however arrived at, is in their potential to contribute to understandings yet to be conceived.  

Some guidelines along the path of  humanness as ongoing story creation and story revision: 

  • Aspire not, either individually or collectively, to completing the evolutionary process but rather to contributing to it, both individually and collectively. 

  • Argue not, either individually or collectively, about the relative merits of existing understandings but value them all in terms of their contributions, existing and/or potential, to new understandings, to new stories, both individual and collective.

  • Have confidence in the value of their being, at any given time, multiple competing stories (individual and collective), and in the potential of human brains to create from them, both individually and collectively, new and more satisfying stories.

  • Enjoy and encourage others to enjoy participation in the ongoing individual and collective processes of story creation and story revision.

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