Exploration Through Story – How Stories Teach Us About Ourselves

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”

-Albert Einstein

When Albert Einstein imagined himself chasing a beam of light, he was able to conclude that the speed of time is relative to how fast one object is moving compared to another.

I’m not a physics guy, so hopefully I got that close to right.

When it comes to things like knowledge or wisdom, there are many ways to explore them.  There’s science, philosophy, and religion.  But what all of these approaches have in common is storytelling.  And, more importantly, creative storytelling.

Stories are Thought Experiments

Stories are thought experiments, whether we intend them to be or not.  They help us use our imaginations to create worlds that we can explore and use to ask questions about ourselves.

Here are a few simple examples:

  • Plato’s Cave Allegory:  In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates explores the nature of human enlightenment through the allegory of the cave.  He imagines prisoners that have been confined to a cave since birth and forced to look straight at the back of that cave.  All of their lives they see only shadows and mistake those shadows as reality.  He then imagines a prisoner being set free.  He explores how that prisoner would discover the truth and how that truth would be accepted by the prisoner’s fellow captives if he was confined to the cave again.
  • Flatland:  In Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, an 1884 satirical novella, English schoolmaster Edwin A. Abbott explores a two-dimensional world and how its inhabitants would experience three dimensional space.  This is an exploration of human perception and its possible limitations.
  • Blind Men and the Elephant Parable:  The parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant has crossed through many different faiths and tells a story of a how blind men, when grasping different parts of an elephant, describe the elephant in different ways.  For instance, those who grasped the ear, described the elephant as like a carpet.  This parable explores how humans, grasping different parts of truth, often mistake it as the whole.  Only through being open to each others’ points of view can they begin to understand the whole truth better.

The Thought Experiments are About Us

What do these stories have in common?

They use the mind’s imagination to ask questions and explore possible answers.  This, in my opinion, is one of the most important uses of storytelling.

Fantasy and Science fiction do this better than any other genre, because they allow us to break free of “real life” and the rules that accompany it.  These genres make it possible for us to change the rules in whatever way we wish.

In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin changes the “rules” of the seasons, making them unpredictable.  He adds magic, dragons, white walkers, and a giant wall.

He doesn’t change the people, though.  They are the same.  They are still us.  Why?

Because that’s what he’s exploring – Us. He’s putting us in fantastic situations and exploring how we would behave.

Frank Herbert’s Dune explores humanity in a similar way.  It places humans in a futuristic setting where large worms create a powerful spice that allows us to fold space.  By using this spice, one of the main characters is able to experience the past, present and future all at once.

In both of these examples, the authors have created complex worlds with their own fantastic elements, and then set humans loose so that we can learn about who we are as a species.

Origin Stories and Continuity

There are two phenomena in popular culture that demonstrate the importance of stories as a means of exploration.

The first is the popularity origin stories.  We are fascinated by origin stories because we seek to explore causality.  We want to understand how events transpired to create characters and situations that we are familiar with.

The second is the outrage that occurs when a franchise messes with continuity.  It disrupts our exploration, creating a sensation that is worse than nails on a chalk board.  It’s also cheating!

Your Perspective

First of all, I sincerely thank you for reading this.  I’d like to ask you one more favor, however.

If you have the time, please answer the following questions in the comments section below:

  1. What questions do your favorite stories ask, and how do they attempt to answer them (if at all)?
  2. What kinds of questions do you ask when you write stories, and how do you attempt to answer them (if at all)?