Saturday, August 11, 2012

Pondering Life in the Real World

Last week, I listened to a thought-provoking talk on the myths that we create to explain the world to ourselves and our communities. By "myths", I mean stories that, although fictional, contain some element of truth, morality, or human nature. During the audience comment period that followed, several people responded that they had no use for tall tales and fiction, preferring instead to deal with the world as it is.

It's a noble thought, avoiding fantasy and make-believe in order to spend more time solving problems in the here and now. The problem I have with this mindset is that it misunderstands the role of story-telling. Far from being a way to avoid reality, myth-making is a device for setting up simplified model systems in order to better grasp some concept that is too complex or emotionally charged to deal with head-on.

Scientists use model systems all the time. When they first delve into a new concept or discovery, they often set up a simplified version in the lab or in a computer program. They control all but a few variables so that they can observe each variable separately to see how it affects the system as a whole. The real world seldom lets us tease out individual variables in this manner, so the model system is a necessary first step toward an accurate understanding of a real-world system.

After the foundations are laid, the model must be validated against a more realistic system. Often, a series of increasingly complex models are necessary before the whole thing is ready for validation in the outside world.

Likewise, our myths allow us to isolate and explore just a few aspects of our complicated existence using idealized worlds and simplified characters. The simplicity allows a clarity that is seldom available in the daily onrush of events and interpersonal interactions. Myths and stories make no attempt to explain all of reality -- how could they ever succeed?

Fantasy stories are a proven tool for talking about topics that are too emotionally charged to address head-on. The television show Star Trek talked about real-world racism using space aliens as stand-ins for present-day humans. JRR Tolkien explored the concept of evil via the malevolent Sauron, the amoral Saruman, and the obsessive Gollum. These stories stood a better chance of getting a point across to audiences who had their guard up against full frontal attacks on their cherished beliefs. Subversive, but effective.

Myths, allegories, fantasy literature -- I suppose some people just aren't into this form of truth-seeking. If they have methods that work better for them, I respect that, and I hope that they respect my love of metaphorical worlds. The real world needs both Muggles and Wizards, after all.

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