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The Possible Human

23 Jun

Anderson: “Contemporary civilization without ball games and movies would be as incomprehensible as medieval civilization without the Church. Our social reality is shaped by those myths and structures, our personal lives informed and sometimes inspired by them.”

In the early flush of modernity, when the codes of the physical universe were being unlocked right and left at a breathtaking pace, many thought that we were finally past the age of superstition and religion. With god no longer needed to explain how things originally came about or presently hold together, our interest in all things spooky and divine could be left behind. We had grown up and were fully enlightened at last.

The sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” for the tightly bonded system of myths and symbols, rituals and authorities, traditions and morals that support a more or less coherent worldview (what he called a “sacred canopy”). Education for any society involves constructing the mental framework inside young minds that will filter information coming up from within (intuition) and in from outside (sensation) according to what the worldview allows as plausible (likely, logical, conceivable).

Our cultural deliverance from ignorance was widely celebrated as a breakthrough at last, to the direct (unfiltered) grasp of reality itself. Now we had our hands on the “facts,” without the need for childish fictions or an immature dependency on “papacy” – the authority-line connecting papa to the pope to the patron deity calling the shots. Myth gave way to history, superstition to science, a picture-book faith to mathematical reason.

Protestant Christianity came of age during this truth-rush of modernity. In order to save their religion, as the plausibility structure of Catholicism was coming down around them, Protestants turned the Bible into a history book, replaced images (think of icons) with words (think of The Word), and shifted the fulcrum of meaning from ritual ceremonies (sacraments) to orthodox precepts (doctrines).

What had been publicly managed by a complex institution of ordained authorities got pulled apart and repackaged into a variety of denominational identities, each espousing a slightly (or significantly) different set of beliefs necessary to salvation. Less about “us” and more about “me”; less about now and more about later – when my soul gets to heaven and I receive my reward for getting it right.

Back to science, which was boldly going where no one had gone before – deeper and farther out into the mysteries of matter, expanding knowledge and dispelling superstition. It took a while longer (into the twentieth century), but eventually it became apparent that the theories supporting the scientific worldview were also fictions. Even the idea that science was a worldview – a perspective, an angle on reality, a limited vantage-point with its own operating assumptions and not simply “the way things really are” – came as a shock to the system.

The steady rise of this realization is the story of constructivism – understanding and coming to emotional acceptance of the “fact” that we can’t live without “myth,” that human beings construct meaning rather than discover truth out there in reality. By replacing cathedrals with stadiums, popes with commissioners, saints with superstars, and heroes with celebrities, we are not necessarily any more enlightened or advanced.

The “truth” of any plausibility structure may have less to do with how it matches up to reality, than how effective it is in providing inspiration and guidance to the rising arc of our evolution as a species.

I realize that “rising arc” and the very idea of evolution are themselves metaphor and fiction. But that’s really the point. We need to consciously accept that the meaning we construct is what makes our lives meaningful. Our sense of security, of orientation, identity and purpose are the design objectives of the worlds we make up. The more we have of these things, the more meaningful our lives are.

But where does it all lead? I don’t mean far off in the distance, at the end of time, but later today, after we push ourselves away from the computer and step back into our life? What values will we live by? What choices will we make? What ambitions will motivate us to action? How will we behave towards those we meet? Whether we worship world saviors or sports stars, what kind of life does our devotion inspire and justify?

From an evolutionary standpoint, the behavior of an individual organism is where the fate of the species is decided. It’s not about how advanced and sophisticated our philosophy is, but the lifestyle it produces in our choices, sacrifices and commitments. In addition to the forward movement through time (survival, reproduction, prosperity), evolution also opens “upward” (so to speak) into the complexity of consciousness, the capacity for subjective feeling, rational intelligence, a wider compassion and unconditional forgiveness.

This is where the truth of our plausibility structures can be measured, it seems to me. Do they support a life of meaning? Do they inspire us to reach out and connect in ways that are peaceable and benevolent? Do they inspire us to transcend the neurotic limitations of our ego and foster genuine community with our neighbor? Do they help make us more human?

Viewed from the inside, every plausibility structure (from sprawling cultural worldviews to the comic stand-up’s one-liner) makes sense to the degree that its terms mutually reinforce each other in meaningful cross-reference. This is truth as coherence. If language didn’t hold together in this way, nothing would make sense.

Then there’s truth as correspondence – how accurately our plausibility structures match up to and correctly describe/explain external reality. This is where the constructivist suspicion comes into play: that our stories and theories may be more about us (i.e., the author) than the way things really are out there.

Yes, it feels for all the world like we are depicting things as they are, but then again, every portrait assumes a point of view and reflects the author-artist’s perspective (from here, not over there). It’s all an on-going exercise in making meaning.

Finally there’s truth as actualization. As we are able increasingly to let go of the dogmatic assumption that our stories and theories “tell it like it is,” we might become more open to what they reveal about ourselves and the “possible human.”

We tell stories to put our children to sleep at night. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us wake up to a New Day.

 

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