The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.
~ Albert Bartlett
Nassim Taleb has identified a similar but more general shortcoming in the human race:
We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract. Everything good (aesthetics, ethics) and wrong (Fooled by Randomness) with us seems to flow from it.
Historically, we have tried to use things such as narratives to explain abstract ideas. Arguments have been made that religious stories should be understood metaphorically and not literally, for example. Such arguments have not always been convincing to the larger audience.
I’ve had many students that were not turned on by math. It can be a real struggle to get them interested. Some of the first advice I ever got as a teacher was something like, “Keep it visual, keep it hands-on, and try to connect it to something in your student’s world.” In other words, serve the shortcoming.
At this time in our growth, however, I think there is something emerging that seems to directly fight the shortcomings that Bartlett and Taleb identify. There is a group of people that favor the abstract and scorn the narrated. I don’t know what this group thinks of the myth of growth, but they might have new and interesting solutions to the problems growth can bring, and the problems of religion too.
Lawrence Krauss, in a discussion panel on a radio show, said that some research suggests, “the only way to really change people’s minds is to confront them directly with their wrong misconceptions, and lead them to an internal contradiction so that they discover that for themselves.” (I don’t remember whose link I followed, but thank you!)
This is a tough choice, to perpetually face up to what’s wrong, internally and socially, but people are making this choice. People are trying to lead their lives by willingly facing up to contradiction, inconsistency and personal inability. I think people are consciously choosing to fight the narrative fallacy, and deliberately choosing the hard, slow road of rational thought as an “aesthetic” (guiding principles for the appreciation of things like beauty and ethics).
In an earlier post, I tried to make a fun, rough, short list of possible tenets for this supposed “new worldview”. This time I think I want to put them in the form of questions. Do you try to live by any of these “new aesthetics”? *
Do you like to measure things? Do you trust numerical data over anecdotal data, and even try to consciously maintain skepticism over anecdotal evidence for things?
Do you think having multiple sources of information is better than having one source of information? Are you skeptical of authoritative sources unless they have been rigorously tested?
Do you scorn supernatural explanations and even have an emotional reaction against them (They’re not even wrong)? Do you favor rational processes and have an emotional appreciation for them? (I think Taleb once said of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene that it read like mathematics. He was complimenting Dawkins on the elegance of the writing.)
Have you ever changed your mind on something because of logical conclusions? Do you value rationalism, even at the high cost of letting go of some personal motivations?
Do you believe competence should be the measure of vocational positions and social positions?
Not everyone does hold to these kinds of views, or at least cannot consistently. Some are trying to, though.
What do you think?
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* I don’t really think this is ‘new’ but I think it can be thought of as an aesthetic. I’m trying to suggest a significant number of people do share these values now, making them a shared, collective commitment to act in a certain way.
Jordan Peterson, in one lecture, referred to his work as circling around something too big to grasp from just one examination. There is a story about a group of blind people trying to describe an elephant that makes a similar point. The first blind person might touch the elephant’s foot and give one account. Another might touch an ivory tusk and say something different. A third might grab the elephant by the hairy end of the tail and have a very different story to tell.
By circling around it, and getting all the different stories straight, we might not ever get things all figured out, but we might be able to get a collective picture.
I’ve deliberately tried to adopt a similar approach in this series, examining the elephant in the religious room in the way a group of blind people might grope at the beast. The posts have wandered from the original goal and have become somewhat disconnected. And there are things left unexamined that do deserve more attention. Would it have been better if I had done things in a more disciplined, consistent, coherent way?
Maybe that’s the next adventure.
I hope this list of points helps in some way. (This is the timid list. I have another list more aggressive and much more easy to tear apart. I do not trust bullet lists, but I will leave that grudge for another time.)
Reality is much more complex than we have been able to fully grasp. It’s fundamental nature is unknown.
In order to manage this complexity we have organized ourselves into societies and cultures that attempt to create predictability and order. This predictability allows individuals to act and helps make conscious our motivations for behaviour.
Those maps of culture cannot ever be truly “complete” due to the nature of complexity, the inability to know everything, and the very nature of change. New information is always lurking.
Stories are like maps. They frame reality as places of subjective actions rather than places of objective materials.
Those maps of culture that have proven to be successful over time seem to have, at their heart, a story of an exploratory hero. That individual becomes aware of the incompleteness of their personal or cultural maps. This hero courageously faces that incompleteness or threat and goes through a process of change, usually involving education, discipline, teamwork, achievement of ability and creative application of what’s new.
This very process is in some measure always a threat to those maps because any new information could bring into question the foundations upon which the cultural maps rest.
This very process, if stopped, leaves a culture ill-equipped to manage any new information that arises from exposure to the world beyond the cultural predictability.
We have reached a point where these foundations are constantly bombarded with new information. Practically every individual on the planet must come to terms with the conscious knowledge of the incompleteness in their culture, the vastness of the world and the inability to know everything with certainty.
We are faced with a challenge
- uphold our incomplete cultures that provide predictability, thereby ignoring new information, and becoming tyrannical and servile to the past
- modify those cultures and therefore expose their flawed natures, jeopardizing our impressions of value, predictability and motivation
- tear down those incomplete cultures, dramatically threatening the predictability of individual behaviour and the ability to trust one another’s motivations.
The way forward is not adoption of one specific story. This would stop the process. The way forward is not absolute certainty in one’s adopted story. Again, this could stop the process and place the importance of our manufactured cultures over the importance of the individual, exploring hero. Instead, we are now sharing and investigating all our stories collectively and all at once. Culture must reflect this or else fall apart under the pressures of outside forces and new information.
Literacy, technology and innovation have made this sharing of stories faster and easier, but it has also made our cultures more complex, vulnerable and brittle. Each individual has the power, potentially, to bring down and build up the networks and foundations of culture we have produced, and our stories now seem to reflect that too.
The exploratory hero faces up to what they don’t know or can’t predict, and seeks to learn from it in order to bring back some benefit for the group (which is now extended beyond family, tribe, and ingroup to include, literally, billions). The exploratory hero creates a culture of responsibility. Each individual, though constantly facing new information that could undermine all their predictable motivations for behaviour, would still be equipped with the attitude and abilities needed to manage whatever new information does arise. In short, the individual hero can still act in a beneficial way despite facing uncertainty. Culture must foster this attitude and be at the service of individuals over establishing static truths or maintainingarbitrary rituals and norms that prevent the hero’s process.
There is a lot in this subject I haven’t fully covered or uncovered.
I didn’t really know how I wanted to finish this series. I’ve become uncomfortable about it, and I think it’s because there is so much I haven’t included, so many threads still left untied. At this point though, I’d rather go on to something else than clean this up. One thing that gives me hope at this point is Nassim Taleb’s work. (Aside: I adore the simplicity of presentation on his site.)
da da da
Shantih, shantih, shantih.
(I’m trying to find a way to play with this question still: Then how do we measure our stories?
Do we evaluate stories just on how real or true they are?
A trip to Hollywood would suggest otherwise. Since there is a TV in almost every living room and bedroom in the Western world, I would think otherwise. We seem obsessed with what people do, be it ‘staged’ or ‘authentic’.
I think we measure stories by how much reaction they get out of us.
I think stories can be measured in some way by what they make you do.
What does the story make you do?
Does your story produce the desire the act?
Does your story make you face what is, or does it make you shy away or ignore what is?
Does the story make you want to change something? Commit to something? Take up a journey?
Does your favourite story make you want to be in the story?
The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.
—Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
Whenever you want to be sure of something, it’s good to look at the evidence. Whenever you think you have something figured out, it’s good to think about what you don’t know.
In this series, I’ve been trying to look at reality as a place that resembles story rather than a place of objects. I do believe we put together the moments of our lives as though they are stories. However, it is important to think about the consequences of this attitude that can’t be seen immediately.
With hindsight, many things that happen to us look like stories. One event may follow after another and progress to what seems like a decision point, a resolution, or maybe even a punchline. We make a pattern out of what we have available. We find a lesson to live by. And then we get on with the next moment of living.
I think the world is crying for a new story. Our “impressions of understanding” don’t seem to be answering the problems of the world right now. We can’t seem to get our stories straight, but we still feel a need to do something, to act.
Nassim Taleb is an investor and a writer. He is not an economist. According to his site, he likes to think of books as “friends”. Apparently he is an avid re-reader of the stories that have marked him in some way. His influences seem to be mostly European and contemporary (well, last 100 years or so). I wonder what he thinks of mythology. I’d like to know what he thinks of the Hero’s Journey and the changes it has gone through over the eras. The exploratory hero is always facing the incompleteness of the “impressions of understanding” that surround him or her.
Would it be fair to make a comparison between “Black Swans” and “dragons“? There are some significant similarities, besides the long necks. Both seem unforeseeable. Both upset our understandings of realities. Neither were thought to exist at all, until they were discovered. When found, there is a scramble to study them or make them fit into our understanding.
Nassim suggests we need to be able to live with Black Swans, find systems that can hold up when these unforeseen creatures appear. I would love to hear his thoughts on How to Train your Dragon. That is, if he has time for something as common as an animated kids film by Dreamworks. If recent movies can teach us anything, it seems like we are trying to find ways to live with our dragons, too. Or at least prepare kids these days to do so.
I think there is an important lesson in the narrative fallacy. Having our story straight doesn’t mean we have it right. That’s not the purpose of story. Having our story straight means we can act. However, we must still take responsibility for our actions. And we must always keep in mind the dark things in flight around us. They can descend upon us at any time and change everything we think we know.
A friend of mine, when in college, was the white guy in an Asian crowd for a little while. My friend is tall and smiley, and quite social. He caught the eye of a beautiful, petite Asian girl and started to hang out with her friends. He went with them to see a Japanese movie, a feudal-period piece.
If such stories are known for anything, it’s their tragic endings. If anyone falls in love in the story, there’s a good chance the whole world falls apart and everyone sheds tears by the end.
This movie turned out to be true to form. The Asian girl and her friends were broken up by the sadness of it all. But my friend, not completely initiated to the culture, burst into laughter because of the schmaltzy melodrama. The girl and her Asian friends, in respectful courtesy, became self-conscious and were able to laugh at themselves.
The relationship between the two continued for a while but never blossomed. The Asian girl discovered my friend was younger than she was. She was a very smart girl, but traditional about some things. A cute white boy can learn and share cultures. A cute younger boy will always be younger.
Zhang Ziyi was the object of many North American crushes after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A young girl has the ability and intelligence to learn the techniques of the most revered ancient martial arts masters. She also has the power to undermine the social order of the world around her. She dreams about escaping the restrictive, noble caste. She dreams about the romantic and independent life of a warrior. At the end she finds she has to face up to the sacrifices others made for her. She faces a leap of faith, in a sense
The final scene in the move is vague and tragic enough for many interpretations, but it’s basically a moment of change for the young girl, where she deals with heroic consciousness – is she willing to sacrifice herself for what others want, or for a kind of noble love? Or does she merely act for her own wishes?
Although originally filmed with Mandarin dialogue, the movie seemed to be made with the Western audience in mind. Some Westerners were confused and put off by the artistic, tragic ending, but it didn’t seem to hurt the film’s popularity. One of my favorite reviews called the movie “magnificently nonchalant about its magic.” (*)
The movie spoke to people the way myths speak to people. The events, the seriousness, the overt drama, the heavily layered romanticism, the fight scenes – they are obviously too far-fetched to be real. But, it’s not trying to capture accuracy or plausibility. It takes the audience from what is to what might be.
Over the summer, Toronto hosted the International Indian Film Academy Awards and the event got a lot of media attention. It was a strange feeling, flipping through my TV channels and seeing snippets of the coverage as though it were in my backyard. Beautiful faces, dazzling celebrities, idolizing fans, and I didn’t have the faintest clue who they might have been or what stories they had to share. I was the stranger, not them. You could tell by their confident smiles, designer clothes and their love for the fans. They possessed a glimpse of the future. And I didn’t know any of their stories at all.
India is a land of rich heritage, compelling stories and about a billion people.
Canada’s population has poked over 30 million. Our population growth comes from immigrants mostly. Occasionally I still come across the odd person that might gripe about “them foreigners,” but I think its part of our cultural destiny. You can’t have the best country in the world and then not share it. Canada has been made to reflect the best of the world, and so that means bringing in the world and making it our own. And it also means giving back to the world. Our future isn’t going to be our past.
And besides, Indian women are beautiful!
America’s population is about 300 million. Some pilgrim stories, pioneer stories, and state-creation stories fill in the gaps of the cultural foundation, but somewhere down there, you’ll find some religious stories too.
India’s middle class alone has a population of 300 million. That’s just the middle class. There are some really different stories, and a really different history, underneath that emerging middle class.
I haven’t watched many Bollywood movies. I did see Water a while ago. It was about a group of women negotiating between the social classes of 1950s India. A very young girl, betrothed to a young boy through arrangements between the families, is sent to a home for women after the young boy dies. Custom, and finances, say she cannot stay with her family. She becomes cast-off. There is a recurring motif of bathing in the sacred Ganges, an important ritual in the culture. Some tourists even do it now.
Underneath the movie there is a universal story about oppressive social systems. The heroic act in the story comes when a women decides to find an escape for the little girl. The young girl won’t have to grow up defined by the loss of a young boy, even if the woman’s life, up to that point, had been. A cycle of cultural abuse is broken by a conscious act to change things, even if it’s only for the life of one little girl.
I think I would have gained a deeper appreciation if I knew the Hindu culture better. Instead, it was new and intriguing and complex for me. But I’m sure I didn’t see all that was there.
If you want your kids to make sense of the stories they will hear and see and read in the future, teach them some Hindu or Asian mythology. People are going to be living more and more internationally, and that means a lot of stories will be making up their consciousness.
According to some very general stats I picked off the internet, Christianity has 2.1 billion adherents. Islam has 1.6 billion adherents. Hindus, Buddhists and followers of traditional Chinese religions, if all collected, came to about 1.5 billion. Secular Humanists were collected with Atheists and Agnostics, and their total came to 1.1 billion.
I was a little surprised the “nonreligious” were so well represented. A group of people that don’t share a specific set of stories makes up almost 20% of the world’s population. And they’re growing. What binds them together might be an attitude that says story can be something we learn from but doesn’t have to be an authority in our lives.
Christianity is losing the percentage game. The faith has been growing at a rate of roughly 1.2%, but the world population is growing at 1.4% to 1.5%. That’s not keeping up, even if they do have a strong lead. Islam is growing stronger at a pace of 2%. Buddhism has practically stalled, with growth only around 1%. Smaller faiths with smaller populations are winning the percentage game, but whether they are producing small flares or long lasting coals for their hearths is still to be determined.
Islam’s growth seems to be from a number of factors. Lengthy times of war in some countries have created young populations, for example. Interestingly enough, Muslims seem to be the most willing to pick up and move, and maybe even the most willing to stand up for social change. When looking at populations, movement is always an important dynamic. Technology and access to information has changed even the most traditional of religions.
This might be a remarkable moment in history. Maybe people are finding they don’t have to commit to a story in the ways that are expected of them. Maybe we can even improve on our old stories.
My hope is that a story doesn’t have to be true to get a lesson out of it. Stories are complicated and important enough without having the burden of “Truth” put on them. And besides, the point behind a story isn’t to show “what is” but “what could be”.
Christopher Hedges has an important story to tell of one Muslim farmer in the former Yugoslavia that helped save the life of a non-Muslim baby girl. I wish he had started his talk with this story. It might have made a more dramatic effect on his audience.
Please move the video to about 50:00, where he starts the story.
Finding Joe is a short film on Joseph Campbell’s contribution to the world and an exploration of how his ideas still apply today.
(Unfortunately, some critics suggest this 80-minute documentary is made more to justify today’s self-help experts rather than examine Joseph Campbell’s work. This sounds like a common problem with dissemination of a message to the mass audience. But, maybe it will inspire a few people out there to take up the journey…)
One summer when I was in school, my girlfriend at the time had a placement in Ottawa. If I visited her during the week, I would have to entertain myself during the day while she was at work. One of my favourite things to do was explore the downtown Byward Market.
Imagine a few city blocks in a North American capital outfitted like a modest international bazaar. Established franchise restaurants competing with street-meat vendors and old family-owned diners. Posh stores selling flower-pots from Provence beside clothing shops hawking t-shirts with all their collar tags cut out. Pedestrians crowding out the vehicles while still sharing some gracious-but-busy right of way on the paved lanes.
But the best spot for me was The Book Market. The basement was filled with music – sheet music, old records and retired instruments. It was still quiet like a bookstore, but there was a song in each shopper’s head as they went from one old cardboard box to another in search of something rare and precious. One time I found a book of piano music with the themes from the Rocky movies underneath George Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm. ( I ended up buying both…)
The main level was more routine — cook books and war books and the recently released novels from Stephen King or Michael Crichton or Margaret Atwood or whatever.
The top floor was my paradise. Sci-fi and Fantasy-Lit paperbacks stuffed together and arranged alphabetically by author. In the pulpy recesses of that upper-room I found a book that changed my life. In fact, it changes my life each and every time I pick it up.
It was used when I got it, and I’ve beaten it up a little myself. I tried to give it some protective edging (masking tape) to slow down the process of deterioration. I found it in the 90s, but it was published in 1978 as a kind of textbook. Each chapter opens up with an introduction explaining a mythic pattern in science fiction, written cooperatively by a sci-fi writer and a sci-fi critic. Good ol’ teamwork.
I want to use this book and my experience as an introduction to the next part of this series – “The Contemporary Myth”. Three science fiction stories stand out, for me, as examples of this modern story. And curiously enough, all three stories are told through a screen:
1. The Star Wars story
2. The Star Trek story
3. The Matrix story
These three stories reflect a contemporary “ethos”, a way of being, that is now embedded into how the contemporary generations structure their relationships to the world, to other people, and to their selves. These three stories have tapped into the identities of their audiences so deeply that new religions have been born out of each of them (one example here).
Why? They are not real, obviously.
What do these new stories offer that old myths and present sciences do not?
I’d love to hear your ideas on this. I think it has to do with the direction in which science fiction looks. It’s not literally about the past, or the present, and maybe not even about eternity. It tends to be about what might benext.
I’ve added a quote below from Patricia Warrick’s introduction to Chapter 1 (note: gender-exclusive language left unedited. Please remember this was written more than 30 years ago):
Science fiction describes a future time that will be different from the present in at least one significant way. In contrast, traditional myths typically are unchanging in the universe; they propose that the order of the world and man’s destiny are immutable. Contemporary man is sharply aware that time’s arrow moves irreversibly into the future – a future that promises him only one certainty: it will be different from the present and past. Time is no longer cyclic and repetitive.
The unknown tends always to be threatening to man. He needs to find a way to cope with the novel. The science fiction imagination comes to terms with the uncertainty of the future by making up stories about what it might be like when it arrives. In the same vein, the imagination comes to terms with the vast cosmic spaces that dwarf man to a particle by making up stores about man successfully adventuring through those endless spaces sprinkled with stars and galaxies.
It seems safe to assume that in previous myths both the teller and the listener believed the story was true. In contrast, the participants in a science fiction myth are very conscious that the story is not true; however, they do believe that in the future it just might be true – for the good science fiction story always has an aura of plausibility about it. It does not violate known scientific concepts. The working of the science fiction imagination is not dissimilar to that of the modern scientist, who knows he can never transcend the human reference point in studying the universe, and so he will never really know truth, whatever that may be. He can only say that our experience up to the present is best represented by a particular model. Tomorrow’s experience may require a new model. Scientists deal with models describing reality and not with ultimate truths. The scientist is willing to discard one model for another if he finds the new model works better. The science fiction imagination designs all the possible models it can conceive that describe how the future might be. And because this imagination has always been very inventive and fertile, a rich abundance of futures has been created.
Earlier myths tend to be very clear in their meanings and their concepts of good and evil. The devil my try to disguise himself, but down underneath, his qualities are known to all. The myth defines with authority what is good and evil in the universe. But science fiction myths have a quality of ambiguity about them. They are much less certain of what man’s relationship to the natural world around him and to the cosmos is. Good and evil can no longer be easily labeled. This uncertainty may be a reflection of the fact that contemporary man is in transition from one cultural mode to another – from a pastoral society to an industrial and then postindustrial or information society. With this shift in cultural patterns, his values are also being transformed. But the quality of ambiguity may also reflect the awareness of science that certainty is not possible in describing the matter that comprises the material world.
We are coming to understand that nature is not a machine at which we peek, but a network of interconnected happenings that extend through the whole universe. Man is enmeshed in that network, and his act of observation is an event that effects a change. It alters the matter he observes from the way it would have behaved without his act or observation. Further, we begin to realize that because we are among the parts of the universal network, we cannot with certainty understand the whole. Uncertainty and a resultant ambiguity in any statement reflect the reality of man’s position in a mysterious universe forever in process. The rich array of shifting science fiction images of the future catch and model that uncertainty.