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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

When Our Stories Get Ruined, We Get Upset

When Our Stories Get Ruined, We Get Upset

Author: Reilly Capps/Friday, March 14, 2014/Categories: Archive Pick of the Week

By Reilly Capps 

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. She is a princess, reaching out to the plebs. There are monsters under the bed. The body is temporary but the soul is eternal. 

When we feel those stories are being threatened, we react. 

It has been nearly 20 years since Tom Wolfe wrote an amazing and influential essay called "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died." Wolfe wrote that our increasing ability to look into the human brain through fMRI's allows us to see all of the physical ways in which thinking and feeling occurs, and suggests that all thinking and feeling is merely chemical and electrical. No ghost in the machine. No spirit. 

Wolfe was on to something. It's hard to find a soul in bits and bytes of fMRI data. But thought he saw the implications of this, and he decided he didn't like it. He thought the death of the soul would mean chaos for mankind, that wars and death would reign without the moral center that was the soul. (This seems like a flimsy proposition, in 2014, since nowadays the folks doing the most brutal killing believe most feverishly in their own immortal souls.) Wolfe was clearly a man grappling with the death of one of his favorite stories.

We see this over and over again in the history of ideas. Some new piece of information threatens our stories, and we react. Badly. 

Wolfe noted that it had been 100 years since Nietzsche declared the Christian God dead; but, really, the stories about God started to fall apart around the time of Galileo, once the scientist pointed his telescopes at the heavens and could prove that Genesis 1:6 was wrong, that there is no vault in the sky called the "firmament" to hold back the rain. Galileo was arrested and nearly killed. 

Wolfe, like the Catholic church in Galileo's time, reacted in his essay by attacking  modern theories. Evolution, quantum mechanics and the Big Bang theory were, respectively, "sheer mush," "fairies sprinkling goofball equations in your eyes" and "creationism for nerds." The criticisms he reported came from fringe scientists or unnamed sources. But Wolfe predicted that these theories would crumble, and man would search out again for God. 

It hasn't worked out that way. Those theories are as solid as ever. Belief in God is on the decline

And what Wolfe showed, with that essay, is that even the smartest people hate to see their stories torn down. 

This is relevant today, more than ever. 

Today we are being told that one of our greatest accomplishments -- the industrial revolution, the internal combustion engine -- is heating up the planet. Masses of very smart people refuse to believe it. Their stories are being interrupted. They aren't just businessmen building societies -- they are tearing it down. They aren't just happy mom driving SUVs to school -- they are contributing to catastrophe. 

Rejecting unpleasant stories is easy. Just don't look. That way, there can still be a happily ever after. 

The great classicist E.R. Dodds, in his magnificent book "The Greeks and the Irrational," wondered why the great civilization of the Greeks, which was so ripe with learning and scholarship and ideas, collapsed so completely, to be replaced by a simpler story, the Christian one. He argues that Christianity prevailed not in spite of its lack of logic, but because of it. It was the lure of that simpler, less logical story that appealed to the Greeks, instead of Socrates's complicated view, one with no clear answers. 

Dodds thought, back in 1951, that he was seeing the same thing, that "Western Civilization has begun to doubt it own credentials." He worried about a return to the irrational. It's not clear that that is happening. The world seems to be progressing technologically in most areas. But Wolfe, in his essay in 1996, seemed to be the embodiment of that doubt that Dodds predicted. And we see this all the time in those who question the science behind the theory of climate change. Dodd's most terrifying statement comes near the end of his book. 

"What is the meaning of this recoil, this doubt? Is it the hesitation before the jump?" Dodds wrote. "Was it the horse that refused, or the rider? That is really the crucial question. Personally, I believe that it was the horse—in other words, those irrational elements in human nature which govern without our knowledge so much of our behaviour and so much of what we think is our thinking." 
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