Thursday, January 12, 2012

Theater of the Comforting Narrative

I have done my best, in these pages, to try to lay out why I believe there are substantial reasons to doubt the claims of anyone or anything that claims to have discovered Truth. The last few posts have discussed how several thinkers over the last century or so have pointed out fundamental paradoxes in any attempt to develop a complete and consistent set of ideals, because once something is complex enough to be self-referential, it inevitably contains a self-nullifying paradox.

In simpler terms, as mere mortals, we don't have much to go on. There are people all over this world who would lead you to believe that they have the Perfect way to organize human society, or that they have the Perfect way to live your life, or that they Know Exactly what God wants. They are all full of shit.

However, most of us are more realistic. Most of us, on some level, recognize how much we know, but more importantly, how much we don't know. For most people, they are content to go about their daily lives viewing knowledge as a utility; when a certain set of ideals works, great, when it doesn't, fine, they'll just try something else. This isn't surprising, for this is precisely how evolution designed us to be. If everyone in your tribe believes that the shaman's Rain Dance brings the rain, it is generally much more practical to accept it, even "believe" it, than it is to be the one who points out that yes, it did rain a few hours after this dance, but the last sixteen times he did it, nothing happened. In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, social ostracism meant death, either directly or indirectly through banishment. We evolved a tendency towards looking at those around us and getting in line.

But like many other deviant traits, there is room for a certain percentage to sneak through the filter of natural selection, because there is often some advantage to be found in playing a different game than everyone else. For example, it is estimated that around 1% of human beings fit somewhere on the spectrum of "psychopath." (Among CEOs it's four times that. I'm not kidding.) In other words, you probably know at least one person who has some psychopathic tendencies. In evolutionary terms, this fits in almost exactly with how many "cheaters" game theory predicts a society as large as ours can sustain. (In game theory, a "cheater" is an individual who does not play by the same rules of tit-for-tat, or some version thereof.) If too many more individuals were cheaters, we would all be forced to be less trusting and altruistic than the average person generally is.

In the same way, there are some people whose natural curiosity is too strong to be subsumed by the commonly accepted beliefs of the culture around them. This curiosity, this desire to pursue truth, often at the expense of social acceptance, led to many of the most important ideas in history. Sadly, it also often led those individuals, if they pushed a bit too far, to a cup of hemlock or into the grasp of the Inquisition, or some equally unfitting end. 

So there remain those among us who are not content to accept what everyone else believes simply because it is easier. And we are all better off because of it. But there is another sort. There are those who are born with the same deep curiosity, who pursue Truth with fervor, only to discover, inevitably, that it is not to be had. And that doesn't sit well with them. 

For someone in this position, there aren't many choices left. It is impossible to go forward. It is impossible to go back. (Imagine, now, as an adult, deciding to believe in Santa Claus again. Impossible.) What alternatives remain?

One option is to put on a play.

When confronted with the fact that everything that used to give your life meaning, everything you used to believe which gave value and purpose to the world, is not made of sturdy stuff, it can be difficult to find a way to go on. The idea that our existence is a lucky accident, that there is no greater purpose or meaning for us, in this world or an imagined next, and that our Gods and Truths, Myths and Stories are just our own dull fictions, is simply too much to bear.

So some choose to put these cadavers back on stage, in costume and makeup, prance around them and call them by name, holding their nose against the rotten stench exuding from their decay. These would-be thespians can even manage to put on quite a show, from time to time, getting so into character that they seem to almost forget that they are, in the end, just on stage, paying homage to a corpse in lipstick and a wig.

Sadly though, this isn't even noble enough to qualify as a tragedy. It rather more neatly fits the bill as a farce. I am reminded of the second theater scene in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the actors running around desperately trying to keep the cardboard props upright, as the set crashes down around them.

I have to admit, I don't understand it. As often as I have heard, "Well, yes, but I choose to believe this because it makes me happy," or "... it helps me make sense of the world," or "...I prefer my Myths," is as many times as I have bewilderedly shaken my head. It seems like an incredible amount of wasted effort, that could be much more enjoyably spent appreciating what we do have.

Nature is not a stage. It needs no props, no Director, no costumes, no Narrative. It simply is. And we are simply fortunate to be a part of it. Isn't that enough? Why would you place a cardboard cutout of a tree in front of the real thing?

It is human nature to Name things, to try to fit them into a Narrative that makes sense to us. First we observe, then we name, then we understand, then we control. This trait is what took us from the savannas of Africa to every inch of this planet and to begin to reach its satellite and its neighbors. But the universe is not a species of domesticatable flora or fauna, or an arable track of land. We can pointlessly struggle to bring it under our heel like we do with so much else, or we can simply let it be, appreciate our place it in, and enjoy the time we have in it.

And it is sooo much less work. 

(But maybe I am just lazy. Who knows?)


  1. I’d happily play an ancient valse, perhaps the totentanz, upon my pipes for such cadaverous mummers.

    I'm wondering if you'd consent to the possibility that someone might be fully cognizant of all the varied proofs for or against something and yet still continue to be suspicious that the vast chorus of learned men might also be wrong? Perhaps such a person could remain even more a skeptic than the self-proclaimed skeptics, by saying "yes, I agree, but I still suspect we may be wrong."

    I think the keys to understanding such a position would be noting that I don’t believe in progress. I don’t see history as one long march towards a glorious present of accumulated knowledge in which all the past errors and flaws in our thinking come undone, that we now understand things better than we did before and will only continue to get better and better. Certain ideas dominate while others fall out of favor, and then sometimes those disfavored ideas resurge after being declared dead.

    One could stand in awe of the efficiency of the model we have developed for “knowing” how a star is composed, and how most further work based off those models continues to confirm those models and build up to an exacting and precise science of star-composition; one can do this, yes, and yet smile, sadly, acknowledging that no-one's actually been able to reach one yet and confirm whether we're really right.

    That is, we may all have to change our minds, revert to an older model or develop a new one. Finding the higgs-boson may help confirm the dominant theory and get us closer to “the truth,” or it may merely further entrench what it is we already thought, in the same way (excuse me for saying so) a true believer in any system of knowledge consistently finds proof for earlier postulates.

    Another aspect--There was a book review in Harper’s about a year or two ago which asserted something which I think helps describe another aspect of such a position. The rising moon is experienced by all as profoundly large. Some are aware that it does not actually change size, some are not. Knowing and not knowing in essence change little of this experience—I’m quite aware that the moon isn’t bigger, and yet it I experience it as bigger, and that paradox, that simultaneity, is a surprisingly joyful thing, and so is playing pipes to the rising moon in awe and wonder.

    It could be lunacy, or it could just be beauty.

  2. Well, I think one can be skeptical of everything, yes, even what seems to be empirically true, but then at that point, why would you be able to trust in your own experiences? You would have very little ability, as I have pointed out before, to have any kind of conversation with anyone about anything.

    I don't think many view history in the way you describe. That view would require precisely what I am arguing against here, a narrative. In fact I think your description of history is much closer to the one you disagree with than mine is. The "narrative" is different, but 2 pieces of fiction are still the same genre.

    But what I do see in history is the march towards a world where you can be as much of a "freak" as you describe in your other post, and we put that in quotes, because it isn't really freaky at all. We live in a world were people like you, gay, pagan, anarchist, are perhaps slightly outside the center, but really pretty damn normal. And not being burnt on a stake. And I think that world is preferable to ones that existed previously, where most of who you are, or I am, would have been intolerable, if not unthinkable. (Paganism has come and gone, of course, but the others never really had their heyday.)

    But, fundamentally, if you want to go through the farce of pretending that you don't know that the moon is the same size because you are incapable of experiencing its beauty without that, I, without condescension, just feel sorry for you. I am regularly struck by the beauty of the rising moon, and I have no need to do a mental chicken dance to appreciate it. It leaves me a lot more energy to appreciate the moon herself.

  3. Ran out of time earlier:

    I would hope we could have avoided the "science as doctrine" argument. I hear that from less thoughtful individuals than yourself all the time, and feel like I have addressed it umpteen million times.

    No, scientists aren't telling you that the know exactly what stars are comprised of, precisely because they have never been there. All they are EVER saying is, "Based on what we can see, this is the most likely explanation. If you have a different theory, by all means, offer it. It just needs to explain what we observe better than the current one."

    If we did ever manage to send a probe into the heart of a star, and discovered that instead of a enormous ball of plasma, it was the realm of a fire demon, or some such, science would adapt. It would have to make some pretty massive adjustments, but it would manage.

    And this is why it is not a doctrine, despite the ease with with people who can only seem to think in those terms try to label it as such. Doctrines aren't willing to adapt, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Science is precisely the search FOR contradictory evidence, which is why it explains the world better than anything else that has come before it. But the key world is simply BETTER- it doesn't ever claim to explain it perfectly, like most myths do.

    And honestly, despite my flair, I don't begrudge you, or any of the dozens of people I know who think in a similar way, your world-view. I am just struggling to understand it, like everything else. And by offering what I see as criticism, I hope to spark explanation. So I very much appreciate the continued back and forth. :) Thanks.

  4. Oh, you're welcome!
    Much of why I enjoy reading your stuff, and have done so pretty much religiously (ha!), is still that different quality which men like Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have(had) not got--an authentic interest in why someone might disagree. Possessing that makes it increasingly impossible to dismiss your ideas, and folk like me much more circumspect.
    So, thank you, too. : )