Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A story of stories

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: What a story!]

"Wait, but that doesn't make sense", said George. George is an engineer. Trained in formal logic, George considers himself rational. He would perhaps agree if you said his worldview is a rational worldview. Things have to make sense. Fortunately, he doesn't encounter too many things, ideas or thoughts in his daily life that don't make sense. There are some unsolved mysteries, true, but, by and large, the world makes sense.

"That makes sense!"

The notion that there are certain beliefs and ideas that could be called "irrational" and others that could be called "rational" is so well-entrenched in modern culture that we seldom pay attention to the foundations upon which the notion of rationality itself rests. This division between rational and irrational, which modern society takes for granted, is a "recent" invention. Recent, when we take into account the long history of humanity's presence on this planet and the kinds of worldviews human beings, individually and collectively, have subscribed to for over 2 million years. Rationality likes the company of its cousins: development, progress, science and civilization itself. Whether these developments in human history are to be viewed in a positive light is not the focus here, but it helps to keep an open mind. When I think about it,. these questions invariably come up: is it automatically rational to believe in the superiority of rationality over irrationality. And more broadly, does everything always have to make sense? How can it not?

I consider myself rational. As a rational person, if there's anything that I do question these days, it's why I insist that everything has to make sense. What does "making sense" mean, anyway? It means something we observe "fits". It makes sense when it fits. But what does it fit when it fits? It fits a pre-existing worldview, a worldview we have previously adopted, consciously or subconsciously. But is there any room in the Universe for things that just don't make any sense at all, things that don't relate to anything else, ideas that stand on their own, concepts that are islands?

A worldview is a set of stories

A worldview is a set of cultural stories, a set of beliefs. Something makes sense, it fits, if it fits our worldview. For instance, stories about the essentially wayward nature of the human condition support other stories, having to do with discipline and self-control, which in turn, inform yet more stories about the need for improving civil society, or bettering education for the underprivileged and helping them join the mainstream.

A worldview made up of stories

One of the ways we can picture a worldview is as a set of layers stacked upon one another, with the stories in the lower layers supporting and validating the stories in the higher layers. Another way to picture a worldview is as a set of concentric circles with the core foundational stories at the center and the rest radiating out to the periphery.

Stories, represented as pieces of a puzzle, build upon one another to form a cohesive worldview

A rational worldview is a set of stories that fit together tightly

While the general worldview consists of all sorts of stories not all of which are connected to the core, and include many stories that only loosely fit each other, a rational worldview is one which comprises a set of highly inter-related stories that help support one another. That's how that worldview "makes sense", with all those stories fitting together. They not only fit each other like pieces of a puzzle but they also demand that other stories fit them as well, as pieces of a larger puzzle, before being allowed to be admitted as valid pieces of the rational worldview. The stories that comprise a rational worldview help explain, in a logical fashion starting out from the core, the observations that a rational person comes upon in the course of daily living.

The rational worldview - stories need to fit together tightly

 A not-so-rational worldview includes stories that fit loosely or not at all

In practice, almost no one can survive in the real world with a strictly rational worldview, not even the avowed rational, scientific, data-hungry person who is trained in formal logic and who wastes no opportunity to apply it in daily life. The world we live in is simply not amenable to rational deductions. We all have stories that don't completely fit other stories in our worldview.

The degree to which we insist that they fit, then, determines how rational a worldview we hold. Each of our worldviews all fall somewhere on the continuum between highly rational and not-so-rational. Just as there's no such thing as a completely rational worldview, there's no such thing as a completely irrational worldview either. We all need to use our rational brains to conduct our daily lives and make logical decisions so all not-so-rational worldviews still have a set of tightly connected stories connected to a core, amidst a sea of other stories that fit loosely or not at all.

We consult our worldviews constantly

When George sees a news report on gut-wrenching poverty in Africa, a story from his worldview rises up in his mind to help explain and mitigate it. This story might be along the lines of "education would help alleviate poverty, so we should help them build more schools", or "the governments in developing countries could use more technology to help their citizens". These stories are built upon a general understanding of how the world works, how governments work, how politics works, how society works, and so on. Sometimes, George comes across a piece of information that is a bit disconcerting. Perhaps he reads about the collapse of fish populations in the world's oceans. If George's  worldview doesn't have a story at hand to explain this new observation, he might, curious as he is, go looking for a story that would help explain it. There's no dearth of stories to choose from in the information era we live in. Not all self-proclaimed rational people are equally curious and many find it well within reason to treat such news as temporary problems, or aberrations, or minor problems not warranting serious concern. Yet, many, however, rely on their current worldviews to supply a story that would help them keep calm and carry on. One such story might be, "those greedy businessmen, lobbying corrupt politicians, and destroying the ecosystem". This story in turn builds upon another story about the fundamental nature of humans as a flawed species. Our notions about how governments work, how countries work, how corporations work, how education works, how politics work, etc. are all nothing more than stories.

Interpersonal communication is an interplay of worldviews

You would be hard-pressed to find another person who has the same exact set of stories in his worldview as you have in yours, even if you went to the same schools, worked at the same places, and even raised in the same family! Each of us surround ourselves with the stories that make us unique. Yet, our collective immersion in the culture that surrounds us, however, makes sure that we generally believe in some of the same culturally important stories. These include stories of progress, technological advancement, and so on. We need a common set of stories at the core, or in the lower layers of the stacked set, in order to communicate with each other. Just as we agree upon the meaning attached to certain combinations of letters, in the form of words that comprise a language, we agree upon certain concepts, ideas, stories really, to acknowledge the existence of a "shared reality" with others. Society wouldn't function without such an agreement. This agreement, in turn, is fostered by society itself, from the moment a child is born, through the years of schooling, cultural induction and other societal (governmental, corporate and religious) mechanisms.

We are able to communicate when our stories "fit together" (more or less)

It's said that when you introduce a new concept to someone, you'd be more successful in getting across if about 80% of what you're saying is already familiar to the person. Any more than that, and the recipient already knows everything you're introducing and that new concept doesn't make an impression. Any less than that, and the recipient won't be able to get himself to believe you. It's too "out there". Whether that sweet spot is exactly 80% is beside the point, which is: we take in new information if it agrees with what we already know or believe in. In other words, we consult our worldview.
Does that fit? Am I making sense?

Most of us have at least a few "gaps" in our worldviews. They account for a sense of unease that something doesn't seem quite right despite our overall satisfactory understanding of how things work. It's only the very curious person who goes through the exercise of searching for new stories that help her fill gaps in her current worldview, or to help new real-world observations make sense, or to check out the veracity of a claim she comes across.

Missing pieces, or gaps in a worldview

Most are actually quite content with not needing to force everything to make sense. They have a high degree of tolerance for the unexplained. This is even necessary for some to have a certain peace of mind that lets them survive in a seemingly chaotic world. I definitely don't see everyone running about trying to make sense of the latest UFO sighting reports. Either they already have a story that explains these reports, or they will go looking for one, or they simply let it be, content in not knowing it all. Even those who call themselves rational, many of them, in fact are quite comfortable in a world that often presents them with evidence that their worldview doesn't quite hold up to the test of rationality. For instance, a majority of scientists believe in God or the existence of some higher power even though Science doesn't support such theories. These scientists subscribe to a worldview that has a place for both their belief in God as well as their trust in Science. They are able to straddle these two worlds effortlessly. For them, it's OK if the pieces of the puzzle don't fit each other exactly.

Worldviews sometimes fall apart

The curious rational person goes looking for a set of stories that help make sense of any contradictory evidence he comes upon. This process proceeds to such an extent sometimes that the worldview starts to burst at the seams with all manner of stories. When stories don't fit each other very well, they make for a shaky worldview. When enough stories are force-fit to help explain a contradictory world, the worldview becomes unstable. And at some point, perhaps with no warning, it breaks apart. Several factors can play a role in bringing about this breakup, for instance, an unforeseen tragic event that is not explained by the existing worldview no matter how hard one tries. A somewhat skeptical nature plays a role too because a certain amount of doubt pervading an existing worldview allows such a breakup to happen more naturally, and with less force. Highly disciplined and obedient people, on the other hand, endure much stress in their personal lives as they strain to hold it all together as their worldview grows unstable.

An unstable worldview finally breaks up!

The sometimes-traumatic shattering of an existing worldview

A new worldview is born

Once a worldview breaks apart, one begins anew, hopefully, and starts constructing a new worldview, but this time, more consciously, unlike the first time around, when the dominant culture and its institutions were in charge of deciding which stories one ends up adopting. In a way, this is a second chance at life itself if we see life as nothing more than living through a worldview. At this point, if you're like me, you would be willing to question the notion of rationality itself. Does everything need to make sense? And so a new worldview will hopefully leave plenty of room for the unexplained, recognizing that it's OK for certain things to not make sense right away. As we saw, there's really no such thing as a completely rational worldview but sometimes we pretend we subscribe to one. Paradoxically, this time around, there's a stronger need for the stories that would comprise the new worldview to explain real-life observations more logically than they did before. This translates to starting out with a different, more solid core of new foundational stories. Is poverty really due to governmental inefficiencies and corruption? Are human beings really flawed or is it just the modern culture that makes us think so?

The modern world, with its unprecedented levels of connectivity and information offers any number of stories to the enterprising person to pick from. As one goes about constructing a new worldview, one finds it rather daunting to make sense of the various stories floating around on the Internet, school and college textbooks, journals, media, and other sources of information.

 The modern world offers thousands of stories to choose from: what's your favorite color?

Which stories will you choose?

A skeptical person asks "who's offering these stories to me?"

More often than not, people go though entire lifetimes without ever experiencing their worldview falling apart. They manage to hold it all together, sometimes at great cost to themselves and the people around them, as they labor through life with any number of stories that help them cope with the stresses of modern life. Modern culture offers us constant support and reinforcement in the form of corporate messages, rules and regulations, scientific discoveries, research studies, and on and on that keep us adding layer after layer of stories that help make sense of it all. The core is never exposed, never questioned. It stays out of sight, buried under all those layers. There's no easy way to force a breakup of a worldview either. Call it grace, call it luck, it happens when it happens. Although skepticism helps, it's not common for a believer to suddenly become skeptical.

Stress is a sign of an unstable worldview

The presence of stress in one's life can, however, act as a guide that might lead one to develop a sense of healthy skepticism. Asking questions might help zero in on those parts of our worldview that don't seem to make sense anymore:
  • Are we really supposed to be so stressed out in the modern era? What happened to the promise of technology and unlimited leisure?
  • What's going on with capitalism and why do we continue to rape the planet? What's my role in all this?
  • What am I chasing after? What do I need so badly that I give away all my waking hours to someone else? Why do I endure such long commutes?
Stress is a sign that something is amiss: one or more of the stories we tell ourselves are not working for us anymore, they are not helping to further our understanding of the world, of the news reports we come upon, of the course of climate change, of the planet, of our future. At this stage, following a few loose threads all the way to the core might help expose the underlying stories that should then be questioned. Seeking out alternative sources of information, listening to not-so-famous personalities, debating with friends, are all actions I have personally tried and benefited from!

It's all just a bunch of stories

In the end, one worldview or another, they are simply belief systems, a set of stories. This, perhaps, is one of the most important lessons to be learned from the experience of a breakup of an existing worldview. How does one know that a new worldview is not just as temporary as the one that was just discarded? How do we really know what we now know is the final resting point? How can we be ever sure? It seems, worldviews work for us until they don't!

Rationality, revisited

With this comes an opportunity to question (and discard) many stories that we have long held on to, individually and collectively. At the collective level, these holy cows include Scientism. According to Wikipedia, Scientism is a term used to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Other cultural holy cows are the notions of unidirectional progress and development, notions of mastery over nature as manifest destiny and notions of a fundamental flaw in humanity that must be overcome through science and technology.

But how do we discard Scientism? After all, Science has helped us understand so many things about the Universe! It might help to understand the distinction between Science and Scientism. We don't need to discard Science, which has indeed helped us understand the physical Universe we find ourselves part of. Scientism, however, is an overreaching of Science into all aspects of life, physical and non-physical. Modern culture takes the universal applicability of Science for granted. Hence we hear such inane terms as political science, social science and economic science!

In a strange way, a rational person reaches these conclusions only by going all the way to the limits of rationality. It's only by being rational do I ask a question like, "must everything be rational"? An irrational person could be least bothered by such a question because "who cares!": not everything has to make sense to him. It's my need for things to make sense at a fundamental level that makes me ask, "but why?" This is not a defense of rationality though, but instead the recognition that rationality might deliver us to the same place where an irrational person has been all along. It appears we are reaching the end of the age of rationality. It says something about our times when Nobel prizes are given away to the likes of Daniel Kahneman, who simply show the world that human beings are not rational by nature.

With the discarding of Scientism and rationality, how does one make sense of the unexplained? After all, Science offered us some hope, albeit long unfulfilled. Perhaps it might help to remind ourselves again and again that such hope is just a story. It's best to discard something that is simply not applicable. And we thus return to a world that is not completely explainable, just as it has never been. And yet it's a familiar world. Politics never became a science. Economics has failed to live up to its aspirations and Social Sciences should have been called Social Studies all along. We recognize that our worldviews have never been fully rational to begin with and we realize we're asking too much of Science when we ask it to explain everything under the sun. With the discarding of Scientism and rationality, we are simply admitting what we've long suspected to be true. Humans are not rational beings. There's a place for logic and rationality but it's a small place in the vast realm of the human experience. The retreat of Science from the human experience might seem to leave big holes in certain areas but we would do well to remind ourselves that Science was never applicable to those areas and as such, there are no holes to worry about.

I can imagine a worldview where it's normal to think, :"it is what it is and it's not for me to assume that I could force everything to make sense to me." In other words, the notion that everything has to make sense all the time doesn't make sense to me anymore. The unexplained is often a cause for wonder, a sense of awe that's something humanity has been long exposed to. We will simply return to what we have long been familiar with. It's as if we will be moving away from a strictly rational worldview and beginning to allow for the inclusion of the unexplained. But actually, we will simply acknowledge that our worldviews have not been so rational all along after all. Because they couldn't be. A rational person doesn't know how "everything" works. We're already quite comfortable with our not-so-rational worldviews. It's just that we're finally admitting it now!

Out with the old, in with the new: discarding an old worldview and stepping on to a new one

It's just a story

I don't know if I have hit that sweet spot of 80% as I tried to tell you this story but hopefully, there's something of value in it all. Something that impels you to tread a bit more lightly, because, in the end, it's all just a story!


  1. Interesting post - I especially like the "Stress is a sign of an unstable worldview" section!

  2. Thanks, Sonya. Our sense of intuition could be another guide that points to an unstable worldview but it's not always helpful because our sense of intuition is heavily affected by the culture that surrounds us.

  3. Ha, you definitely hit the sweet spot with this one, Kuku Mon. Probably close to 100% for me, though I'm wondering if that means the two of us are stuck in the same story. ;-)

    I'm often perplexed at how nonchalantly we've reduced the grand mystery of the universe in this age of "reason" into a very limited binary experience. Part of it is, as you say, survival. For example, while a simple reflection on our place in the universe eliminates the possibility of there being an "up" or "down" (why I love the upside down world map), our very existence depends on a pilot operating on that false assumption before we get on a plane.

    As you say, it's ultimately about finding balance between our localized earthly needs and our place in the bigger picture. Scientism has done a bang up job of keeping most of our thoughts within these safety zones, and I think one of the biggest reasons it has been so successful at doing this (or conversely, why we've been so drawn in by the hyper-rationality of scientism) comes back to our fear of death. I don't think this gets talked about enough, as death itself is such a taboo topic in our rationalized, life-obsessed era, but there's some good stuff out there, like Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death) that also talks about the rational life as an expression of terror management (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terror_management_theory).

    So if only we could remind ourselves more of this: "There's a place for logic and rationality but it's a small place in the vast realm of the human experience. The retreat of Science from the human experience might seem to leave big holes in certain areas but we would do well to remind ourselves that Science was never applicable to those areas and as such, there are no holes to worry about."

    What if the pilot said upon take-off: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to lift that plane upwards upon take-off as agreed upon on your ticket purchase, but once we're airborne I would like to ask you to consider there really are no such boundaries in this cosmic space we occupy."

    Kind of like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, I guess. ;-)

  4. We might very well have many of the same stories in our worldviews, Sven! How about this one for a story... I'm reading "The Ohlone Way" which you recommended to me a while ago. Now, how many people do you know who would read a book like that with interest! I certainly don't know very many!

    Wikipedia says this about Becker's "The Denial of Death": "The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning." This is interesting. Modern civilization does make it seem so. We separated ourselves from nature in a way that allowed us to treat our environment as composed of inanimate "objects" such as rocks, rivers, mountains, etc. Certain other non-civilization tribal cultures saw these "objects" as imbued with spirit, and very much animate in nature. I'm not sure if civilization is a defense mechanism against the knowledge of our own mortality. The average human being on the planet is not really as scared of their immortality as some of the civilization thinkers make it seem. If anything, we often act as if we are immortal. The man who goes door-to-door and sells life insurance policies will attest to this fact :) Also, if people really worried about death so much, there wouldn't be any laws and fines for riding without helmets or skipping the seat belt. The state has to go to much length to make people worry about their immortality. Any fear, including the fear of death is a tool in the state's well-equipped toolbox that helps govern over citizens. It's true that many who represent the state and carry out its marching orders do indeed fear death but that's like saying most hi-tech workers use smart phones.

    More below... (thanks to the character limit imposed by blogger!)

  5. (Continued from above...)

    Perhaps it's the prerogative of the thinkers themselves to worry about death, because it's their self-assigned avocation: to think about all sorts of things, including death :) It's also of concern to the elites who, having surpassed many of nature's limitations on the human condition, look for ways to delay the final day of reckoning. Given their busy lives, it would seem the only thing the elites are running short of is time itself. Google's recent establishment of Calico (short for California Life Company) is but just one example of such efforts on the part of those that have everything but time. See https://plus.google.com/+LarryPage/posts/Lh8SKC6sED1

    So I agree with what Becker seems to say in general but with the comment that coming up with a defense mechanism against death is generally a preoccupation of the well-to-do rather than the so-called common man. Neither was it ever a need expressed by human beings prior to modern civilization, or by people from native cultures alive today who have their own separate cosmologies to help deal with the question of death, however superstitious they might appear to the modern rational mind.

    Terror management theory is fascinating. It makes a lot of sense. We've always had one story or another to answer life's deep existential questions. Whether it was the Coyote that created a tribe's people or whether it's the mountain that takes care of them, stories have existed up until recently, when Scientism took hold of the human sphere (as opposed to just the physical inanimate sphere, going by such a split as set forth by modern man himself) With the gap left behind by the disappearance of older cosmologies (along with the people who believed in them), modern man had to confront death squarely and it left a big void in the otherwise stellar record of victory over nature. Or again, to be more accurate, a certain fraction of us became preoccupied with the question of death while modern religions offered many others one story or another. Science has never been able to offer a story. If anything, it challenged other stories that seem to work just fine, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris being just a couple of torch bearers in this field. Not that I think the stories offered by organized religion were especially good stories. A "God in the sky" story is better than the "Coyote is our creator" story only to the modern man trained to look down upon other stories. Tribes of yore throughout the world never seem to have had any problems with the stories of other tribes. This "letter to a tribe" makes for fascinating reading in this regard - http://www.eco-action.org/ssp/just.pdf

    But we know they are all just stories :) Just like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull :)

  6. Thanks for mentioning the distinction between the terms "social studies," and "social science." This is one of those linguistic tweaks that I never took notice of, that are indicative of a larger psychosocial phenomenon -- the attempt to apply quantitative, empirical, testable methodologies of learning everywhere, even in the re-telling of our histories. I don't remember any of my teachers talking about this name change. And why would they even bother to, or take notice, considering that they, too, were fish swimming in the sea of scientism?!

  7. "a worldview is as a set of layers stacked upon one another, with the stories in the lower layers supporting and validating the stories in the higher layers."

    Your approach of worldviews is enlightening. It is founded nearly exclusively on logic (the working of your rational mind here and now). I must say that I gained some interesting inside from reading your post. If you tried to apply your thoughts to the unfolding of human history you would be gain the recognition that stories are not made equal. What do I mean by that?

    Writing about the break-down of one's worldview and the need to rebuild a new one you mention "starting out with a different, more solid core of new foundational stories". Where are such 'foundational stories' coming from? Do you think one can invent such foundations from scratch? I posit that this is impossible. In other words we inherit foundations that are buried in our subconscious and we follow the paths those foundations are tracing without any questioning. When you talk about the breakdown of one's worldview it would be more appropriate to talk about the breakdown of one's 'culture' (the total sum of our ways of thinking and doing in the present).

    History shows us that our thoughts are the result of the interactions of our 'personal culture' with our 'societal worldviews' which are largely buried in our individual subconscious. Our 'societal worldviews', as their name suggests, are a build-up by our societies of ideas and ways of thinking and doing on top of our 'civilizational foundations' which I call our 'axioms of civilization'.

    The interaction between our 'culture' and our 'societal worldview' is a dynamic one which means that cultural memes that succeed to reproduce over generations will be integrated in our 'societal worldviews' and this explains how our 'societal worldviews' evolve slowly...

    1. Hi Lao,

      Thank you for your comment. If I understand you correctly, you make a distinction between three sources of stories:
      1. Axioms of Civilization
      2. Societal Worldviews
      3. Personal Culture

      Each builds on the previous one, so societal worldviews build upon the axioms of Civilization and personal culture comes out of societal worldviews. Makes sense. It also makes sense that the interaction between culture and societal worldview is dynamic because we're not exactly individuals with free will. What we call free will is rather limited by our culture and societal worldviews. We act within a given context even if we are unaware of such context that sets bounds on our will.

      Now, when our current worldview breaks down, the breakdown can be somewhat superficial at the level of personal culture and perhaps penetrating the societal worldview to some extent, or it could be quite deep reaching all the way into the axioms of Civilization. A number of factors determine how deep the breakdown penetrates.

      For instance, one might decide that, after enduring years of stress, one would rather work at a lower paying job with lower stress levels than one's current high-paying, high-stress job. This is a shift in personal culture. But it also penetrates a bit into the dominant societal worldview which makes one question the sagacity of the decision to quit a higher paying job when one's skills and experience allow one to work at it, no matter the stress levels.

      But sometimes, the breakdown reaches deeper, for instance, when one begins to feel depressed living and working in the heart of a big city and questions more fundamental assumptions as to how our modern work culture arose, what people used to do before high-rises got built, etc. These questions dig deeper into the axioms of Civilization.

      So when a breakdown happens, where do the new foundational stories that would make up the new worldview come from? It depends on how far deep the breakdown reaches. Sometimes, no new stories become available. The breakdown can burn through all assumptions leaving no ground for new stories to spring forth. All foundations are destroyed. It's possible for one to live for considerable amounts of time without a worldview full of stories. Clinical depression is an example of such a state. Sometimes, if it's gone on for too long, or if it's too overwhelming, suicide becomes a more acceptable option than living without a coherent worldview full of stories.

  8. instead the recognition that rationality might deliver us to the same place where an irrational person has been all along. It appears we are reaching the end of the age of rationality. Oh this really has me laughing. I've even lost my name. Good night ******