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Stories at Work


As a student in The Story of Evolution and The Evolution of Stories, I’ve been on an adventure…to rethink and then reconcile what I thought I knew using a “novel” framework for literature and science. Starting with Darwin’s description of evolution, through Dennett’s observations in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and then moving into Powers’ and Camus’ literature and finally Spike Jonze’s Adaptation film, we’ve seen different ideas of purpose and meaning making.   In my previous paper, I examined the finale of The Plague by invoking tenets of literary theory, as opposed to my usual philosophical, ‘try to find the “truth”’ approach.   Doing so expanded my vision. For this paper, I’d like to travel through the works that we’ve read (and watched) this semester and weave it into its own story of purpose and meaning making. Has it opened new doors? If so, what is the ultimate effect?


Escape the Cave



Prior to coming into this course, I thought that life-purpose is something that needs to be thought about and planned and that there was an answer or “truth” to be found. I felt that meaning making was a place that you get to, not an ever-expanding road with many divergent branches. But as you read, you’ll see that the many explorations of this course have told a different story for me and for the class.






AnnaP:  …this week… we talked more specifically about evolution as an algorithm—which seemed to make evolutionary thinking all about limitations and rules, rather than moving beyond them. [1]


We have Charles Darwin to thank for raising some amazing new questions about life’s purpose and meaning. Prior to Darwin, the Creator gave us purpose (to serve him) and meaning (behave in such a way as to be worthy of Heaven).  But in his meticulous observations of nature, Darwin brought forth the idea that God did not create each species, natural selection did. According to Darwin’s theory, the purpose of evolution (and therefore life?) is to survive long enough to reproduce.   Further expounding upon this theory, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues that this is a “universal acid,” it applies to everything in life and ideas. So here we are now with no unifying body to give us purpose and meaning, but, instead, a mere mindless algorithm whose only purpose is to reproduce and whose meaning making is absent.   


Lethologica: After finally coming to terms with the idea that there might not be any goal that evolution is trying to reach, that there is no true purpose, and finding that I rather liked it, I slowly began to realize... that this idea is popular in general culture.... a journey with no destination... I have decided that this shall be my belief: Life, evolution, and everything is about the journey, and not the destination. Who cares where you end up, as long as life happens along the way. [2]





So in walks Powers’ Generosity, a novel of mystery and intrigue. If life is just an algorithm, can we capture and harness the desirable qualities? Can we interrupt evolution to serve our own purpose instead of its purpose?  It brings into focus the question of agency, and if we believe that we have agency, then our bipartite brains are going to question and evaluate different courses of action. What do we base our decisions on, however, if we don’t have some purpose in mind?  Wouldn’t our decisions be random if deprived of purpose and therefore just continue to be a part of the randomness in the algorithm?  In this work, we’ve moved from Darwin’s and Dennett’s random natural selection algorithm to the idea of NEEDING a purpose in order to make our decisions.  Maybe this is a more complex way to live, having to find purpose in order to act, but agency is something that I’m attached to and so is finding meaning, although this is not universal…


mgz24:  we'll never know [if we have agency]. Why not just drop the conversation all together.  For those who want to think they have control then that's what they'll believe and those who like things determined will believe that...asking the question just brings about more unrest. [3]


And with this, we walk into Camus’ small, ordinary town…






Cremisi:  The concept of time is something that, though it is all around us constantly, still continues to make me wonder.... Time is such an odd concept--it's irreversible... and never to be repeated again....[4]


More than any of the other works, Camus’ The Plague makes suggestions about time. There is death all around, making us aware of our own inevitable fate, conversations about not “wasting” time, the regular schedule that is kept by the asthma patient who tells time by counting peas that he places in a pot, and the observation of scheduled interactions involving spit, cats, gravity and an alleyway. So does this add a new dimension to our thinking about purpose and meaning? If we don’t believe in an eternal heaven, then making meaning is tied to a finite schedule… the duration of a life.  Camus takes our agency and questions what we should do with it. We can make meaning in the many different ways as the characters in the book, from doing our jobs, like Dr. Rieux, or keeping track of time, like the asthma patient, or trying to reconcile where we belong, like Rambert, the journalist stuck in the town. Agency gives us an infinite number of choices for purpose and meaning. But are these choices pre-determined (i.e. contained in the Library of Babel) or part of an ever-expanding universe?




Charlie Kaufman welcomes you to the boundaries of agency…



In Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter given the task of doing something that hasn’t been done… turn a book about flowers into a movie. We see that he struggles with how to invent something new. Is his purpose MINDLESS, an exercise in adding together the pre-set movie ingredients: guns, violence, car chases and a deus ex machina? Or can he go beyond the current Library of Babel and use his agency to access the infinitely expanding universe of ideas? The film suggests that cultural expectations limit our possibilities, so we can’t make giant leaps outside of the mindless algorithm. It offers boundaries to our meaning making and strides towards purpose. If there are things that can’t be done, then there are meanings that cannot be achieved. Perhaps the Library of Babel does have its limitations?


Dfishervan: This… made me return to the Library of Babel and realize how damaging it’s existence can be to our motivation and work ethic. If all of the possible stories (such as ones about endlessness) already exist, does it matter if one gives up writing a story? [5]




We’ve followed a storyline this semester from mindless algorithm, to an exploration of whether we have agency to what to do with that purposed agency to where the limits are (if there are limits). And despite the fact that these works all suggest different ideas about meaning making and purpose, I think they can also be seen as working together. When we look at Darwin and Dennett, we see “mindless,” unconscious and even unknown influences come into play. This is contrasted with the exploration of conscious meaning making in Generosity, The Plague and Adaptation which all question our thoughtful decisions about purpose and meaning. But maybe we don’t have to choose, what if the unconscious and the conscious work together? Do we really know what influences us to pursue a meaning or create a purpose? Once, when we were creatures without the ability to consciously reason in our heads and try things out before we did them, we had immediate purposes… to find food and shelter, to get sleep etc… Did this influence become muted as our brains evolved or did we just add to it as we physically added to our brains? As we pursue our ideas about purpose and meaning and what to make of it, maybe we need to expand our search into how the unconscious drives affect the conscious purpose and meaning making.  In The Unconscious Will: How the Pursuit of Goals Operates Outside of Conscious Awareness, Custers documents research that supports an unconscious priming for our conscious decisions.


… findings indicate that conscious and unconscious reward cues have similar effects on effort and flexible cognitive processing, which suggests that conscious awareness of rewards is not needed for goal pursuit to occur…when a desired outcome or goal is primed, activation of the mental representation of this outcome is immediately followed by the activation of an associated positive affective tag, which acts as a reward signal for pursuing the primed goal. The positive reward signal attached to a goal thus unconsciously facilitates the actual selection of the goal and the subsequent mobilization of effort and resources to maintain the goal…[6]


So maybe mgz24 was onto something. If our unconscious is priming our conscious to act, then perhaps the conscious is just a servant of the unconscious and all of our attempts at making meaning and pursuing a certain purpose is just a trick of the mind. Even if this were true, however, I would want to work with Kurton from Generosity to try to harness it. I would attempt to use the conscious to prime the unconscious (which then acts on the conscious). Are we back where we started?





This semester, we’ve come to visit the Library of Babel. We’ve wondered cautiously through its doors and taken a wide-eyed gaze at its architecture.  We wiped the dust from a sampling of the books and stared at the ceiling… did we see the roof get taller and the walls move out? Was this an optical illusion or the real thing? Looking at possibilities expands our possibilities. And whether it is a “mindless” process that makes our decisions (Darwin & Dennett) or conscious thought and effort (Powers & Camus) or both (Custers), it affects the books available to us. Where you stand in the Library determines where you stand in life, how you choose or if you choose to make decisions, how or if you derive your purpose and meaning. It is the “how” and the “why” of our autobiographies. 


"The truth about stories is that that's all we are ... The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that ... 'if we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.'...[7]



The Oxford Dictionary defines the word, “purpose” without invoking “meaning,” but “meaning” is defined with “purpose.” So you can have purpose without meaning (unconscious), but you can’t have meaning without purpose (conscious). But it never states how we affect our decisions.  Where is that line, the line where the unconscious meets the conscious and can we move it?


[1] http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/9341

[2] http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/evolit/s11/day11a

[3] http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/evolit/s11/day13a

[4] http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/evolit/s11/day21a

[5] http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/10165

[6] Custers, Ruud et al. The Unconscious Will: How the Pursuit of Goals Operates Outside of Conscious Awareness. Science 329, 47 (2010)

[7] Thomas King, The Truth About Stories, University of Minnesota Press, 2003 [http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/9110]

[8] Darwin, Charles, On the Origin of Species Ed. Joseph Carroll. Canada: Broadview Texts, (2003).

[9] Camus, Albert, The Plague. First Vintage International Edition (March, 1991)

[10] Dennett, Daniel G., Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Simon & Shuster Paperbacks, (1995).

[11] Kaufman, Charlie Adaptation (film). Columbia Pictures (2003).

[12] Oxford Dictionary [http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_us1281936#m_en_us1281936]

[13] Powers, Richard Generosity: An Enhancement. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (September 29, 2009)


Visual Credits

(In Order of Appearance)

[1] exedes.com

[2] letusescapethecave.org

[3] tranceaddict.com

[4] genetologisch-onderzoek.nl

[5] realmac.macdock.com

[6] hdw.eweb4.com

[7] experiencefestival.com

[8] havofywi.blogspot.com






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