On Narrative

As noted, I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at the moment. One of the things he talks about early on is the narrative fallacy, which involves our need to create narratives and see patterns to explain the world around us. This seems a good chance to talk about the meaning and purpose of narrative.

There are two fallacies to fall into here; the first is the skeptical fallacy, which overrates randomness and attempts to eschew all narrative as illusionary impositions upon a fundamentally chaotic and meaningless world. This one is rather popular these days, at least in a superficial form.  

The other is the Narrative or what Taleb calls the ‘Platonistic’ fallacy, which involves being overly certain of a particular narrative, to the point where we ignore contradictory instances and assume that the narrative is the reality it describes. In this way we make false predictions and are caught off guard by what he terms ‘Black Swan’ events; major events that that narrative considered impossible or vanishingly unlikely, but which the actual course of events brought about.

Note that these fallacies, while directly contradictory, are often practiced by the same person, depending on how well his argument is holding up.

To settle the first fallacy first, one fundamental truth we must get straight if we are to think sense about reality is this: there is no such thing as randomness.

‘Random’ refers to a lack of knowledge, not to an actual cause. When we say a given event was random, it means that we either do not know the cause that led to it or that it was of a kind that we could not control or predict. Viewed ‘internally’, however, the event is as logical and predictable as any other. When you role a set of fair dice, the outcome is ‘random’ because the cause of their landing thus or thus is the force and angle with which they are thrown. A person with perfect muscle control could, theoretically, cause the dice to land anyway he wanted by providing just the correct force at just the correct moment.

Or, in another instance, say you are walking down a path in the woods and a dead branch drops off of a tree and hits you on the head. This is ‘random’ from your point of view. But if someone were watching that particular tree and knew its whole history – that is, if he had a correct narrative of the tree – he would understand that the branch had died at such a time and of such a cause and has been weakened in such a way that it necessarily would break under those circumstances.

What this amounts to is that the world around us is fundamentally ordered and logical; events do not happen in a vacuum nor come from nothing. The appearance of chaos is a consequence of our lack of knowledge. It is random to us on account of our limitations, but not on its own account. We have no experience of a truly ‘random’ event, an event severed from logical causation. Randomness does not and cannot produce a single event (which means that ‘luck-based powers’ are pretty much sheer nonsense, but that’s another story).

Sorry, Longshot

Therefore, everything that happens is, in fact, consistent, which means that meaning is derived from the world and not simply imposed upon it, however mistaken a particular interpretation may be. Though one derived meaning – one ascribed cause of the event – is false, yet there must be some cause and therefore some meaning.  

(Note: I have heard that events at the subatomic level appear to be uncaused and random. But this seems to me far too uncertain a proposition to taken into serious account. We cannot observe these events directly much less observe any sub-subatomic events or forces that may be influencing them. As a rule, things on the extreme edge of what we know ought not to be part of a philosophical discussion, since they must be speculative and unconfirmed. Moreover, to prove randomness seems to me impossible, as it would require us to disprove any logical causes. That is, to prove a negative).

The second fallacy is the rather more interesting one. As Taleb points out, we have a strong need to discern patterns and create narratives to explain the events around us. In part this is a survival mechanism; we immediately recognize certain images and sensations as danger signals (e.g. a snake) and react instinctively. That is, we have automatic thought patterns that run unconsciously, producing immediate emotional reactions. Something similar happens in habits, morals, and similar matters, as we noted earlier. Information is costly to acquire, costly to store, and costly to manipulate. Simply put, careful, logical thinking takes too much time and too much energy to practical most of the time, so our brains create little bundles of thought: pre-built conceptions and conclusions (rather like the objects in programming, or like the prepared spells in DnD) to make the process easier and to direct us in day-to-day activities.

So, it is one thing to study a snake and discern its nature; it is quite another to recognize ‘snake=danger=do not tread.’ But the two are not unrelated as we must first have some idea of a snake and that it may be dangerous before we can form that pattern at all (whether this idea is learned or comes ‘ready-made’ as instinct). Moreover, that pattern can be adjusted or overwritten by further understanding of snakes. All this goes back to what I was saying about habits and thought processes; it all comes down to how we think, including the immediate, unconscious thoughts that drive our emotions.  

Footage of the mind at work

Now, here we have to explain something about how we perceive the world. When we perceive a given object, there are two factors involved; the object itself and our idea of it, and the latter will always be less than the former. Our idea of, say, a tree is not the tree itself, but more in the nature of a diagram or summary of the tree that we create in our minds and can never comprise the entirety of the tree.

Beyond this, there is also a third factor: the words we use to describe it, which will likewise be inadequate to the idea, because the words are a representation of a representation. The skill of a Shakespeare or a Dante is inadequate to conveying, not just the thing itself, but even their own idea of a thing.  

Toward the end of his life, the great St. Thomas Aquinas had a vision of God and never wrote another word of his masterful ‘Summa’, saying that all his brilliant philosophizing was ‘as straw’ compared with the reality he had witnessed. Reality is always more than we can perceive, which is always more than we can describe.

This is actually fairly simple when you think about it; the tree that you perceive is an external nature unto itself regardless of whether you perceive it. You perceive it by its interactions with your senses, which form a composite idea of it in your mind, but since that idea is only derived from sensory impressions of the object, it is always less than the object, because our senses do not take in the totality of what they perceive.  

However, at the same time (and this is vital), a very inadequate diagram may still be an accurate diagram, as far as it goes, and may be more accurate than another. A crude picture of a tree may nevertheless be more like the tree than another, similarly crude drawing. Likewise, whether a summary of a book is adequate is a separate question to whether it is accurate. So, Nicholas Nickelby could be accurately summarized as “a naïve young man tries to make his way in the world while opposed by his wicked uncle.” It could not be summarized as “The vengeful form of a drowned child preys upon visitors at an old summer camp.”  

Pictured: Not Nicholas Nickelby

Nor, incidentally, would it be accurate to summarize Nickelby as “a young man takes up with a provincial theater company.” Because while that does happen in the book, it is not the main thrust or point of the story, but only one incident among many. The first summary would give you a better idea of what the book is about than the latter. This even though the latter is more specific to something that happens.

An accurate summary, therefore, encompasses the object as a whole, not a specific element of it, and though it is necessarily less than the object itself, it may be a more or less true image of it.

A ‘narrative’ is our image or summary of a series of events, up to and including the history of the world. It is the pattern that we describe within those events. A scientific theory, for instance, is a narrative to describe observed natural phenomena. We look at fossils and create the narrative of evolution to explain them. We look at the motions of the planets and create the narrative of the solar system.

But, as was pointed out by Aristotle and Aquinas and dramatically demonstrated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these narratives are always contingent upon the unknown. If an observation is made that contradicts the narrative, then either the narrative is inadequate or even false or the observation itself is mistaken.

As noted above, people instinctively form narratives, and they ought to because everything does have a true narrative to it. Randomness is not a cause, which means that every event is causally linked, which is to say part of a narrative. The example of the tree branch that falls on your head was part of the narrative of that tree’s existence, which had a beginning, middle, and will have an end. If you knew that tree intimately, the branch breaking under just those circumstances would not be at all surprising to you.

Likewise, the whole world does proceed on a narrative, though it is one of immense complexity far beyond our capacity to understand in its totality (I can only wonder at people who believe they have discerned the pattern of human society to the extent that they can control or re-engineer it).

Put simply; there is an objective narrative or pattern to reality. Our conception of it will never be adequate or even anything like it, but it may be more or less accurate.

The necessary inadequacy of our perceptions and consequently of the narrative pattern we discern is the source of what Taleb calls the Black Swan event; the unexpected but impactful event that is understandable in retrospect, but not in prospect. Because what we perceive is not the totality of what is there, and the narrative we create from that perception is even further removed from what is actually present. So there are always currents of events happening of which even the most astute observer is unaware.

There are couple things to derive from this. To me, the more I read of The Black Swan the more it seems to me to be Dame Fortuna re-ascendant. This lady loomed large in the Medieval imagination, thanks in part to Boethius, and with her wheel or ball was held to be the mistress of this world; whether triumph or adversity, sickness or health, prosperity or penury came upon one was considered due less to one’s efforts and more to the whims of Fortune. But the point was that her gifts were ephemeral and worthless to begin with; don’t go chasing after the strumpet, but seek wisdom and virtue and other goods that were outside her power.

I would like to go into it more someday, but it seems to me that Christians found this image so appealing in part because there is an element of uncertainty and the incomplete knowledge of the world baked into the Christian claim. The very nature of Revelation grounds the most important points of reference beyond our own knowledge and asserts right at the foundation that we do not and cannot know everything about the world (this, by the way, is why “it’s not in revelation” is not a valid argument against the existence of ghosts, fairies, or aliens).

Setting those weightier matters aside for the time being; remember that patterns of thought determine emotional responses and actions. Narratives are the framework within which we create those patterns. Therefore the narrative by which someone understands the world plays a large role in how he will feel and act. Most of us have a dozen contradictory narratives exercising petty dictatorships over different aspects of our lives.

And the thing about narrative, as Taleb points out, is that it is very rarely subject to intellectual attack, even if by its own lights it should be (note how strongly scientists will cling to their pet theories in the teeth of contradictory evidence). It could be, but only if the subject himself tries to change it. Narratives and thought patterns, those ‘prepared spells’ of the mind are not subject to external control. An addict or a criminal has to want to change and has to be willing to put in the effort to change his own thinking.

But, though intellectual attacks don’t usually work, something else does. Just as only a diamond can cut a diamond, so the best weapon against a narrative is another narrative. When I look at most of the big ideas of the past few centuries (e.g. Liberalism, Marxism), I find the intellectual basis is often very weak indeed. Marxism, for instance, rests on the blatantly contradictory idea that a ‘worker’ somehow remains a worker whatever his actual role in society becomes (among other bits of self-evident nonsense). But they have extremely appealing narratives; the oppressed masses rising up and casting off their chains to take control of their own destiny or free and equal men creating a utopia of liberty, equality, and fraternity. This is why things like Marxism persist despite its horrific track record; the narrative is both powerful and deeply ingrained in the public psyche (It doesn’t help that its current main adversary – ‘classical’ liberalism or libertarianism – employs much the same narrative of oppressed masses rising against their evil overlords, though that is too large a subject to get into here).  

This is what gives these and other ideas their power and influence, not any intellectual or observational support. That, in fact, often comes later and is celebrated precisely because it supports the narrative. “Great ideas” are usually not the source but the consequence of particular narratives (e.g. the theory of evolution did not create the narrative of progress; the belief in progress elevated evolution to its current quasi-religion status. The narrative came first and embraced the science to support itself).

So, to contradict false narrative, we must provide true(er) narrative. Intellectual arguments are primarily important, as far as changing minds go, in lending support to that narrative once it already exists.  

Again, this is why storytelling is so vitally important; the pattern of a story helps to create a narrative in the mind of the audience. This is all the more effective because, the world being as complicated as it is, you can always find real-world examples to back up any narrative you want to create. So, when you have a myopic, warmongering general trying to weaponize the peaceful scientist’s research, you can always say “well, there are people like that,” sidestepping the question of whether this is an accurate narrative about how the military works as a whole and what values and perceptions are being inculcated in the process. Likewise for your standard intolerant Christian browbeating the innocently brave homosexual, or the white cop abusing the innocent Black man. If you have any familiarity with modern fiction you can probably come up with a dozen examples for each of these. As noted before, this is exactly why the Soviet government spent millions of dollars a year funding agents in Hollywood; control fiction and you control the narrative.

This is why I call something like The Last Jedi an evil film; a large part of it is dedicated to tearing down and destroying the heroic narrative of the original trilogy as embodied by Luke Skywalker, re-shaping the pattern to make him a cowardly old man who ruined everything because he had to be in charge. The narrative being “heroes of the past are worthless; you special person today are the only thing that matters and you can outshine them without even trying,” along with a bunch of others of similar vintage. I probably could do an essay about how well that film embodies the current Progressive mindset, probably better than the filmmakers intended (e.g. it shows how shallow, stupid, and myopic it really is).

But if someone embraces that narrative, if it is inculcated into their heart, then that person is made worse for the fact.

On the other hand, the original Star Wars crafts a narrative of “faith in a higher power and personal loyalties are ultimately stronger than any technological terror or tyrannical government,” among other, similar ideas. Someone who embraced that narrative would be made better for the fact.

Which is the point; it is incumbent on storytellers to try to leave their audience better people than when they found them. That is, to write so that if someone were to take their narrative to heart, it would make them a better person. Needless to say, this is a grave responsibility (and includes the necessity of knowing what constitutes ‘better’ in the first place).

Very clearly, the world around us stands in grave need of better and truer narratives. It’s long-past time to start providing them again.