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Monday, February 4, 2013

The Never-never Land of Narrative

Before the genus Homo there were no stories. The world does not operate by narrative, but humans do [1].  Therein lies the essence of a conflict (an element of narrative!) that is poised to manifest as an event of geologic importance.

Historical geology is concerned, broadly, with the condition of the earth over the whole span of its existence; not only its rocks and landforms, but also the larger conditions of climate and the chemical and biochemical processes of the surface and atmosphere (including the living things).  Humans have made these changes into a story.

But there is no story, no narrative operating the earth.  There is no place in the design of the earth, solar system, galaxy or universe to store the story, and a story must be stored in some tangible form from which it can be reconstructed and told anew.  In fact, it is the very repetition of a narrative that insures its disassociation from reality.

Narrative begins, before human consciousness, in a molecule, or better, a molecular system, the nexus of DNA and protein: because an organism is nothing more that a story ‘told,’ as a biological construction, over and over again, from the stored form in the DNA.  The beauty of this form of limited narrative is its intimate and system based association with the non-narrative events of the universe (especially as manifest on the surface of this little planet).  The “fit” of the ‘story’ to the events and conditions of the planet is mediated by the processes of evolution, which have become timed to the typical rates of change associated with this tiny piece of the universe.

The biophysical stories that are living things are directly limited by the laws of physics and chemistry, limited by having to fit the narrative into the designs of a single molecular system that has the singular process of biological growth to implement its design.  But even then the range of possibilities is staggering: viruses to blue whales, slime molds to peacocks, honey bees to humans; with vast numbers of archaebacteria and the dinosaurs thrown in for good measure.  But this is really all the same story, told over and over again, with many slightly varied alternative endings.

One of those slightly varied endings as been an organism with a new design for creating, storing and implementing pure narrative; the creation of true narrative out of the quasi-narrative of life; just as life formed as a quasi-narrative from the fixed relations of physics and chemistry [2].

This is not an elective understanding, not just one of the many options for how one might view the human condition. This is like relativistic formulas for gravity and space travel: it is like knowing basic blood chemistry when deciding tissue donors.

More generally, a narrative is a map, a pattern that allows the actual randomness and arbitrariness of the world to be organized into a form to which we can respond with some degree of prescience. Many animals have the capacity to map various degrees of detail and amounts of physical space in such a way that they can move “purposely” in that space; human narratives serve to allow such “purposeful” movements in time also, a capacity that, for other animals, has been under genetic (instinctual) control for the whole of life’s existence on the earth.

Returning to the first sentence of the above paragraph: the stories that we tell, giving order to the processes and events of the biophysical world, vary on two dimensions: (1) the degree to which they predict correctly and (2) the degree to which the details of the stories correspond to the detailed functioning of the world.  These are correlated dimensions, but by no means are they in lockstep.  It has been most common in human history for stories to be created that guide with reasonable precision, stories that are utterly without veridical correspondence to underlying processes.  It is also possible, and has happened many times, that elements of a story can match closely biophysical reality, but be put together in ways that fail to comport with that reality.  However, in general, the greater the degree to which the details of our stories have basis in details of environmental reality, the more likely the conclusions, as represented in our actions, will be successful.

This last generality has one major, almost overwhelming, exception.   When a society has composed an integrated complex story that functions in an social/ecological bubble, then it is possible and even likely that more veridical story details will be rejected.  That is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

The present story that we tell of ourselves, and that is the map to our future, is patently foolish, but foolishness does not naturally disqualify a social narrative.  No sane thoughtful person can believe that economic expansion can continue on forever – or in any recognizable form, beyond the end of population growth and the peaking of mineral and energy resources; all only one generation away – and yet belief in such growth is a major element of our story.

No sane thoughtful person can believe that a non-material being holds all the universe in some consciousness-like form manipulating it for some purpose – and yet such a belief (or public statement of such a belief) is an absolute requirement to be in government and other occupations in much of the world and certainly in the USA [3], And there are some places in the world where public agreement with this element of story is required so as not to be injured or killed. 

No sane thoughtful person can believe that humans are supposed to dominate, or even can dominate, the world’s ecology without the catastrophic failure of local ecologies and the collapse of the biophysical systems that support complex life on the earth – and yet the belief in human exceptionalism underlies almost everything we have done and continue to do.

No sane thoughtful person can fail to recognize that humans have incredible power to change the environment in which they live, that that power for change is proportional to our technological development – and yet our story tells us that the earth is infinite either in fact or in light of economic concepts (a detail of story) of substitution.

No sane thoughtful person can believe that they and their “tribe” are a chosen people – and yet, American Exceptionalism is a national religion not to challenged, many Jews hold Palestine as their natural right and many, if not most, human societies have, at least, a secret belief in their subtle superiority.

The fit of our present story to the real world processes and events surrounding us has become unsurpassed in its incapacity.  And in a natural paradox, among a legion of paradoxes, the degree of unfitness makes it even harder to move on to a better story; so many people have come to depend, both materially and emotionally, on the present story – and the distance has become so great to any other story that even begins to make sense – that there is no clear way forward.  In other words, the improbability of the stories we might construct for how to move to more satisfactory national narratives seems crushing. 

But such a problem only exists when your personal story requires that you take some responsibility for the national narrative.  It may well be that the most and best you can do it is to try and free yourself from the dominate narrative when it is recognized as destructive.  And then make that courage a part of your story, sufficient to tell the story of your discovery.

[1] I suppose that we could, if we wished, call the physical laws a narrative (that is, claim that making them part of our story makes them a story in the first place), they are utterly unlike human narratives or what humans are doing when they tell stories.  It is possible, though unlikely, that real stories have only ever existed here on the earth, and only for a few hundred thousand years on this tiny planet located on an out-of-the-way arm of this galaxy; less than a blink in 13.7 billion years and in such a vanishingly small part of ‘it all’ as to not even be here.

[2] The narrative capacity, once formed, could escape into other designs.  The Consciousness System of Order (CSO) capacity is not dependent on the human brain; it is only there that it began.  The primary functional aspects of CSO can eventually be made to work in what we call machines, but these workings would be without the foundational structure of a biological instinctual platform – I can imagine almost nothing more dangerous.

[3] Of course, it is much worse than that! In the USA it required that a politician publicly believe (regardless of personal behavior) that a semi-non-material being came to earth to mitigate the wrath of a vengeful father who was actually him, in the first place, and some other thing called a Holy Ghost.  The details of belief that expand out from this delicate beginning are nothing short of mind boggling.


  1. Congratulations on showing that it's possible to analyze narrative and consciousness and ideology without resort to the post-modern mumbo-jumbo under which this crucial topic has been buried for so long among those who purport to care about clarifying it. Bravo.

    BTW, Chomsky has some interesting things to say about this issue in his new book of talks with Barsamian. It's called _Power Systems_.

  2. Yet again I thank you, Michael, for your encouraging words. So much essential for our understanding has been buried in the structure of our language and processes of thought that I despair. It is nice to have my grave robbing approved of. I'm sure Chomsky is well ahead of me and will look at your suggestion.