This week – Narrative, What Narrative? The story of a personal philosophical quest to found a moral basis for society.
Through the eyes of Descartes and Hume, our world view is seen as failing to describe the conditions required for a moral framework. This leads to our current parallel zeitgeist of despair and denial as described by Nietzsche as the inevitable consequence of the Enlightenment project.
It is seen to prove itself nothing more than an alternative to the God we killed with Western Enlightenment, to religion, and both are likened to stories, similar to many others in the grand scheme of things. Economics, Environment, Capital.
It matters not if the stories are true, only that they provide social cohesion, through the twin evolutionary drivers of social group belonging and linguistic sophistication.
This episode introduces the idea that these stories are fundamental to the way we think, and to the way we behave, but also explains how they are at the beck and call of our use of language. And therefore each and every one of us.
There is hope in that we control the narrative.
We need only decide on what it must do for us.
So there are many philosophical paths you can follow.
Yours, will be the best one for you.
It is the only one you should follow.
But here is mine.
Its the path I took
to find out who I was.
It took its own twists and turns.
I got surprised by bits of philosophy,
that changed the way I thought.
I called the way I thought
my “cognitive landscape”.
and that stuck with me.
So I’ll use that here.
I might have said “mind” instead.
But it is different.
If you know your “cognitive landscape”
then you do
“know your own mind”,
but its like you’re looking down on it,
from a balloon.
You can watch it working.
It’s not like you’re decided, so that’s it,
like it was when I began to write
in a creative knee jerk
to what was going on in my life.
I think that was,
all that was.
I knew I had something to say…
but no idea of what that might be.
So I began exploring,
in a pretty much
headlong charge at the world,
like in a red mist,
like a bull at the gate,
in response to I don’t know what.
I knew that people got hurt, all the time.
And I knew other people knew that.
I knew it wasn’t just me, because everybody
has the same information to work on.
But I didn’t get
why people couldn’t agree on what we should do.
And I didn’t get why
I couldn’t combine my feeling
that I knew enough
about how this happens,
and why it happens,
with another feeling
at the back of my mind,
that I didn’t know everything;
that everybody has their own way
of understanding the world.
So where had even that stuff come from?
Turns out these were just the sort of questions
that people were looking at
in Neurology, Biology, Psychology, Philosophy, Physics even,
and this is the story of me finding that stuff out.
What I knew then was that
maybe, things in this world
just weren’t working out
as well as they might.
What I knew,
was for me,
just to hear a person say that
human nature is the source of all evil,
and then to say it can never change
like a punch in the gut,
like a visceral, critical, betrayal.
they would say or
“That’s Human Nature”
Well, yeah! I would say.
And I would hear fear, surrender, denial.
I’d hear a threat to hope,
and to empathy,
and to the freedom of
every being on this planet.
The idea in itself was to me
just like sentencing everything out there
to a forever of misery.
But maybe it was true?
Could it be?
I had a starting point.
with my meditation,
and this nagging concern
for all this pain and cruelty…
I think I was looking to find hope,
defined, do something positive,
kind of hope…
because I needed to know it was out there.
And I wanted to help others
get to the bottom of all this…
strip it all back,
to the source…
where the answers would be.
If I needed answers to questions like this
then surely others would too…
I started to become aware
of questions forming,
out of the mist,
a story of the creative process.
Is reality material,
Is it all we have?
Is what we see, all there is?
Are we just robots –
and distracted by pretty baubles?
Or could we be
conscious agents –
In charge of our own fate?
Could we maybe make a bloody difference?
I came to writing, at the time
living a world,
that is obviously
but at the same time
that my own,
were based on some sort of
absolute or real truth.
Because I knew it.
Because it all felt so real.
I knew it all…
with an instinctive,
kind of knowing.
My answer was just
just to try and make sense of it all…
like there was an instinct to express myself,
that would somehow lead to a solution.
It was like by thinking aloud –
I could stumble on some answers…
and at least, I’d get to feel better.
I could come to terms,
with this permanent feeling of unease,
that had been hanging around.
And so I focused on suffering.
I had to start somewhere.
Suffering was wrong.
and should be ended.
And on freedom.
Because I felt the trap.
And on a connection with Nature,
because I knew that,
And it seemed obvious
that escaping suffering was good.
It seemed an
obvious truth that
If people could be free they would connect with nature.
If people connected with nature they could escape their suffering,
and the planet would be saved…
But I began to understand that this wasn’t so.
I hadn’t stumbled on any kind of obvious truth.
Not necessarily so…
So someone had to be getting something wrong…
and I’d better find out who
I made a promise with myself
that if I found out it was me,
I would say so…
this was an easy promise to make
but only because
I didn’t believe it would be me,
not for any single moment.
In my own naive,
I knew wrong from right,
and “Good” from “Bad”.
They were real things.
They were concrete things.
They existed in the real world.
If I needed one
all I need do was dial in my moral compass
and point at it.
Surely that’s what everyone does
so if anyone was getting this wrong
it had to be because they weren’t getting the right information
in the first place.
So this was me
taking a punt,
but I had to start somewhere
like a kind of ethical
I think therefore I am –
I was feeling this.
I could recognise it in others
and I knew the fix.
I could have a go.
If I wanted to do so
I need only make an appeal to
innate human morality.
That real and concrete thing
would ensure people’s will to change
and to listen,
and to act…
We need only agree on the facts,
we would get the right answers,
and with that in place,
we could find a way forward.
All I needed to do was find the proof…
And it would be no good to look at New Age stuff…
I was a science kid,
I knew that…
I needed irrefutable fact…
so I was going to get to the bottom of the latest stuff in Physics
and bring that to the table.
I was about to form a map,
of where I was now,
where we all stood,
before setting off anywhere else.
And physics had been working on this for ever.
So I went down the rabbit hole,
getting into cutting edge discussions
about the nature of reality,
the nature of the observer,
and the nature of physics itself.
And what I found down that rabbit hole
is that even today,
in this day and age,
we are still discussing an argument
that has been going for 2500 years…
Starting namely, with Plato and Socrates.
must either emerge,
out of something,
or out of nothing.
And it turns out,
that at the end of the day,
we can’t know which that is.
How do I know that what I experience is real,
or whether reality comes out of my imagination?
The world might feel real,
but it might just be a figment of my imagination.
And even if we are to rely on our own senses,
for the sake of clarity,
What is there
to say that we can ever experience all that exists?
What is to say that we can’t be compared
to the bacteria
that live in the warm chemical soups,
on the edge of a volcanic lake.
Their survival seems to us miraculous,
but they can’t survive out of that soup!
Maybe that’s the same for humanity.
We don’t see magnetism.
We don’t talk Whale song.
We are not naturally able to survive even the extreme conditions of our own planet,
let alone those of deep space.
What is to say that our senses are equipped to understand the universe?
What about Dark Matter?
Yes, we can know dark matter is there
but what is to say we have the ability,
or the senses needed
to ever interact with it..?
there is no proof
There is no certainty…
So I’d turned to science,
it had let me down…
I had expected Science would show me
the fundamentals of stuff,
the building blocks,
and provide me with at least a starting point.
Instead I turned up toys and baubles,
and linguistic games
all based ultimately on uncertainty,
And this mattered,
so it seemed at the time,
because I wanted ethical answers,
and here were ethical consequences…
Because if our minds are complex machines
that have emerged out of a real universe,
They have to obey the laws of physics.
And that means free will is dead…
blame is senseless.
We are powerless.
That means that the next thought
that enters your head
was destined to be there
since before the stars were born…
That’s the one…
It isn’t you in charge;
It isn’t God.
And it doesn’t take a great leap
to conclude that
this is shit creek territory,
this is shit creek and no paddle.
This is darkness,
and inescapable natural law…
On the one hand I was quite happy with this.
Happy to nod wisely
now there was certainty.
Science had proved God dead, hooray!
But on the other?
Hadn’t I just found out that certainty was a problem for Science too?
The story seemed to be that we were stuck with this, irrefutable evidence.
But my instinct told me there was something else going on.
Why should that be?
And David Hume
an 18th Century philosopher,
put the final piece in the jigsaw.
He came up with the idea
that you can not go from
what “is” to what “ought”.
from a non moral fact to
a moral conclusion.
That is if you want to stick to the rules of logic.
You can say
“Eating fruit is healthy. So you ought to eat fruit.”
but there is a gap there,
called the Is Ought Gap.
And Yes, he says
we can accept
“Fruit is healthy” – as a fact,
and maybe too,
we can agree that we “Must eat fruit”
by basing our agreement on a new idea –
that “it is good to be healthy”.
And that obvious truth might work for you and me
but what says it will work for us all.
Or in all cases?
We need to know what this new idea is before we can accept it.
“Greed is good”.
To some fruit is inedible.
If we can just pluck these ideas out of the air
then what makes my choice
any better than yours?
So where does any of this amount to a hill of beans?
Hume was pointing out we have
no real foundation
to our belief systems.
Like Descartes had done with his certainty,
And I could feel the sand being pulled from under my feet.
There I was,
a child of the Twentieth Century,
brought up to believe in Science,
looking for ethical answers,
Physics refuses to help…
was not only disinterested in that question
but also, it was impotent.
It just sticks with its job description…
and deals with the material stuff.
This was me
to feel my cognitive landscape shifting,
I was feeling a little bit wiser maybe but
also a little foolish,
as to why I might expect to find
answers there in the first place?
Eventually I would come to understand
how narrative might power our behaviour.
And on from there,
the part that language plays in moulding in that narrative.
I would understand the role of Biology,
and metaphorical truth
and how myth and language have evolved together
over the last 70,000 years,
How we have gained the tools we need to move on,
if only we can decide to listen to them.
I was only aware that I should start asking different questions.
For my next trick,
I decided to read a bit of Nietzsche.
Nietzsche’s philosophy so it was said had inspired Nazism,
which was a bit of a problem.
On the other hand though, he was a man
said that truth depends on context
And that this moral relativism,
would only lead to despair and misery.
That rang a bell.
The least I could do was take a risk
and check out where he was coming from.
I was questioning everything,
Why not start in the badlands?
It turns out that the Nazism thing wasn’t so.
True, he was no liberal,
but he valued europeanism over nationalism,
and unlike his sister, he hated anti-Semites.
Whatever he had really meant to say,
when he wrote it back then,
there was so much to it
that it could be claimed by anyone.
And it was…
Feminists, socialists, communists, anarchists, libertarians…
all claimed Nietzsche at various times.
So my turn I thought…
The story starts with The Enlightenment.
A time, in the late 17th century
that set the intellectual seed for our world
as we now know it.
It was a cognitive revolution
sweeping all that went before it, away.
The Age Of Reason,
and of the individual,
and of the theory that certain knowledge is impossible..
Nietzsche understood that this
Age of Reason would have consequences.
He announced by the end of the 1880s,
“God was Dead”.
And he knew that this death was leading,
“not only to the rejection of a belief in cosmic or physical order
but also to a rejection of absolute values themselves —
and to the rejection of belief in an objective and universal moral law,
binding upon all individuals.”
I recognised now in that description.
others around me.
Seemed to me an increasingly obvious fact.
And he knew that the deepest-seated human fears
would keep a majority of the people
in a state of denial.
But that when the death did become common knowledge,
Again this seemed to be resonant with today’s zeitgeist.
So this was nothing new then…
What I was feeling, when I’d started on this journey.
Seems Nietzsche had all seen this
psychological crisis coming,
he knew exactly where we’d be right now,
But he’d centred his fears on
And I’d felt pretty much felt the same
thing over Science.
Seemed no problem to understand that we’d swapped our faith
for the one
to the other.
And each time it was
lack of certainty,
lack of faith that lead to
Nihilism, despair and denial.
welcomed the darkness,
as an opportunity
for man to flourish.
Just like there can be no courage without fear
Man for him could not flourish without crisis,
there would be no growth, no evolution,
no opportunity for man to step beyond the hardship .
“become what you are”,
To rely essentially
on your own truth,
and become the observer,
or his Übermensch.
It was incidentally
that provided the inspiration for DC Comics Superman.
I hadn’t felt good
with this new found uncertainty,
but here’s the crazy thing…
there is something strangely liberating
about understanding that its all
been done before.
In knowing that the path is not so new.
And I found a familiarity in Nietzsche’s philosophy,
with the feeling I get from meditation.
That there’s connection,
that is beyond thought,
beyond the narrative.
Its like there is a form of belonging,
and an affirmation of existence
that exists beyond words and language.
It’s like there are different modes of thought,
and this is one of them.
Like vision is another,
and language the third…
And the story moves on.
What I had stumbled upon was the idea that
bringing all of these threads together
what connected science and religion, for example,
or Nietzsche’s philosophy,
was that they were all,
just a different ways of thinking about the world.
Not the different modes, I just mentioned,
these were different ways of describing the same thing in the same mode, language.
Religion and Science are essentially both
stories, or a narrative,
different ways of defining a cognitive landscape,
they are a layer of translation
on top of the real world, not the world itself.
They are just
a bunch of stories.
And they are stories that stick so well we hardly see it.
I’m going to try and show you one right now,
A real one.
Imagine a world with no good and evil.
Its the same world as today.
Everything that goes on now here
goes on in that world,
You have murder, love, children, destruction of the environment.
To us, the world makes no sense.
if someone gets murdered in that world
it would be bad, or evil,
its as simple as that.
But now imagine that “good” and “evil” were
invented by a man named Zarathustra,
some 5000 years ago,
because that is what some scholars think happened,
not all that long ago…
Imagine that before Zarathustra there was no good and evil,
and understand that its not impossible for this to be a thing.
Its a perfectly acceptable narrative that exists in certain world religions today.
Now do you feel the sands shifting?
Do you see how things stick?
And we don’t have to restrict ourselves to this single example.
If good and evil are just part of our narrative,
our cognitive landscape
then what else might be?
How about money?
How about Nationhood?
Some of our Great Narratives.
I began to ask what it would mean if we actually thought in narrative?
What if stories might be fundamental
to our understanding of the world,
Might we define ourselves through narrative,
And if we do how would that have happened?
It seemed a big step to take,
from the reality of the sun-drenched clifftop,
overlooking a blue sea bay,
to a story,
a made up pattern,
of words and sounds,
being the building block of reality.
What would drive us to understand reality like that?
And it turns out that there might be a biological answer to this
And I came across Bret Weinstein.
talking about metaphorical truth.
This was a biologist,
talking about religion,
saying things didn’t have to be true
to be advantageous.
To be metaphorically true,
something, ha ha! must be literally false,
but confer advantage on those that behave as if it is true.
This was evolutionary advantage he was talking about.
This is the kind of advantage that might play out over millions of years,
that slowly and surely gets selected for
He was talking about getting
advantage from a story.
And this idea of story,
whilst it is easy to dismiss as a fictional, made up thing,
and is much harder to explain as a real,
mechanism for survival,
is real enough,
when we understand that language and culture
have grown not in isolation,
So why it shouldn’t be this way?
Evolution selects for the fittest
as we all know.
But its not just selecting
the size of your nose or your height
Its also about selecting for behaviours.
Its good to seek protection,
when you see a tiger.
When it comes to survival
it is far more useful to know
if something looks like a tiger
in the blink of an eye,
than it is to be able to
exactly define a tiger,
before you do what you have to.
And this means there is no argument
for evolution to select for the truth.
And they’ve done the experiments to prove it.
And our bodies aren’t the only things that evolve.
businesses do, relationships, environments, and cultures do too.
Just like you can’t separate a beaver from a dam.
We have society.
And our behaviour evolves with it.
If it works to join a gang,
we join a gang.
If it works to step way, we do that too.
We’ve selected for altruism.
You name it.
If we do it,
it is because somewhere that gives us an advantage.
Even in our darkest moments
we are doing something that will likely further the survival of our genes.
All behaviours essentially have a role.
And in this we can include, most powerfully of all
our ability with language.
This was a revelation to me,
Understanding just how important language is
in the creation of these cognitive landscapes.
Creating these myths like religion or science, economics or democracy
in order to promote groups, or tribes,
sharing and copying small nuggets of metaphorical “truth”
amongst a population,
so that we can act as one.
This isn’t just a question of agreeing nouns.
The influence of language on our cognitive landscape is more fundamental than that.
It has a direct effect on what we see, for example
and on how we behave.
Whether a man will go to jail or will go free,
can depend more on our use of grammar than on fact.
it is virtually impossible to break your leg.
The language just doesn’t allow it…
This doesn’t mean you can’t have a broken leg,
just that it would be hard to say you’d done it to yourself.
And let’s be honest why would anyone even consider that?
And it’s not that you can’t say that,
just that to do so isn’t easy.
The language isn’t laid out that way.
When an accident happens,
Let’s say a car crashes,
in Spain, we say the car crashed.
In England, we say, someone crashed it…
And so what?
you might think.
Still the thing happened,
Why is there a problem?
The problem comes in that the cultures are thinking about the event in different ways.
The English remember who did it.
The Spanish don’t.
The Spanish remember what got broken,
the English don’t.
And when it comes to the court system
the judgemental language is reflected.
This is obviously a powerful bias
that we live with,
A single but powerful example of how our use of language
creates the society we live in.
And whilst we might look out
at society and despair at what we have created,
and at the fact that it is too big to do anything about,
we can still find hope in this.
change the world
just with the use of language, from within.
Perhaps after living with our prefrontal cortex for this last 70,000 years,
letting language and society go their own merry way.
it is time we took charge.
I don’t think it’d be wise
to leave this kind of thing
in the hands of government, or commerce but
we might take responsibility
for our own use of language
and for the way we react to that of others.
This might benefit our relationships, and our working lives, our politics and social lives.
And that’s an idea I’m beginning to explore.
For now, It turns out
thanks I think to Wikipedia
that for a Zoroastrian,
purpose in life is to
“be among those who renew the world… to make the world progress towards perfection”.
Some basic Zoroastrian maxims include:
- Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta, which mean: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.
- There is only one path and that is the path of Truth.
- Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, and then all beneficial rewards will come to you also.
Not all of the narrative is broken yet.