Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: Epistemology vs. Ontology

If Walter Fisher is correct, then the rational paradigm is a matter of epistemology, of knowing the facts of a situation and the operations for manipulating both those facts and the situation. The narrative paradigm, on the other hand, is a matter of ontology, of becoming and living out a chosen story with some consistency and truth — though oddly enough, even violating one's own story can affirm the consistency and truth of that story. Rationality is something we can acquire, but narrative is something we are born with. Rationality is something we can learn to do, narrative is something we are.

For Fisher, homo narrans is the master metaphor for the essential character of humans, relegating other metaphors — homo faber, homo economous, politicus, sociologicus, sapiens, and so on — to various specialized ways of recounting and accounting for human thinking and doing. For Fisher, we become our stories through emerging and living within a particular family, clan, and community, and we retell and even reshape those stories to recount and account for who we are. We learn and preserve our shared reality through the stories we live and tell. Fisher quotes Kenneth Burke's Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent: "Not only do human beings successfully infer other beings' states of mind from symbolic clues; we know that they characteristically, in all societies, build each other's minds" (9). Our stories build our minds within an ecosystem of shared stories. Our minds seemingly come wired for story, and our engagement with our communities helps us create and live our stories.

If Fisher is correct, then we build mind through story first and through reason later; thus, narrative as a function of mind subsumes rationality (9). Our reasoning is always framed by, tempered by, informed by our narratives, which is one easy way to explain the differences in argument employed by physicists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, and theologians. Their narrative frames present them with a particular subset of facts and with an often peculiar subset of terms and operations for manipulating those facts. Agents in each of these different fields can observe facts within their fields and more or less skillfully manipulate those facts, but each agent will identify themselves as a physicist, engineer, or lawyer based on the stories about themselves and their worlds that they believe, tell, and live. Story precedes and frames reason.

Moreover, most academicians are painfully aware of the difficulties of translating the facts and reasoning methods from one field to another — say, from physics to English. The acceptable facts and the operations for manipulating those facts in one field are not intuitively obvious to people in another field, and conversation between the two fields can be awkward. Physicists can talk to deconstructionists, for instance, but it takes some special effort, and thus, most academicians are content to stay in their fields only dim aware of the conversations and arguments in other fields. But thinkers such as Michel Serres, N. Katherine Hayles, and Basarab Nicolescu believe that the crosstalk between fields, between differing stories, can be especially enriching for any fields that engage it. I believe this as well.

What are the implications of grounding story in ontology and grounding reason in epistemology, especially for understanding the tension I feel between my own perceptions of the Trump administration and the Evangelical perceptions of Trump? Several, I think.

First, story is more resistant to change than is reason. Presented with new facts and interpretations, I can change my rational mind (though even that can be difficult, given the influence of story). Reason is a more nimble and manipulable tool than is story. Indeed, reason can be described as a tool, but I'm not sure that story can. Reason, it seems to me, is designed and is used for arranging and rearranging facts into rational formations and for using those resulting understandings for manipulating and managing reality. Reason is a tool designed and used for specific purposes.

Story works deeper than that. Story provides the framework that helps us foreground facts in the first place: to be able to even see a fact and to identify it as salient. There are more facts in the world than we can recognize and comprehend, and story helps us highlight those facts that have potential for our lives — that fit the narrative of our lives — and it makes these choices before we are even conscious of making a choice and long before we apply the scopes and razors of reason to our observations. Thus, reason is a function of the clear, conscious mind; whereas, narrative is a function of the subconscious mind. Reason works like clockwork; narrative works rhizomatically, in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari suggest. Most of us are likely conscious of and in control of our reasonable minds, but I suspect most of us are not conscious of and in control of our narrative minds — unless we have turned our reasonable minds onto and examined our narrative minds.

The reasonable mind, then, is more liberal in the classical sense than is the narrative mind. When presented with new facts, the reasonable mind will readily dismiss old beliefs and systems to make room for new beliefs that better account for the new facts. Story, on the other hand, clings to the old beliefs, the old gods, and resists change. As Walker Percy has noted, changing our stories usually requires trauma of some kind (think of a near death experience or a divorce) or a close encounter with a great mind (think of a graduate seminar with Isaac Bashevis Singer). Story is more conservative; reason is more progressive.

I do not use the terms conservative or progressive in a political sense, though the implications for politics should be obvious. Rather, I use them in the sense of how we construct reality, a process that requires both conservative and progressive functions. On one hand, we must be able to conserve life constructs. We cannot afford to relearn the same things over and over; hence, both muscle and mental memory are obvious conservative system functions. A known and reliable route from home to work and back is a conservative and very useful construct. On the other hand, we must also be able to learn new things as the demands of our environment and internal systems change. We can benefit from trying new routes between home and work. Often at one and the same time, we must be able to rely on what we already know (the past) and rely on our ability to learn new things (the future). This leads me to define the conservative mode as past truth and the progressive mode as future truth. A well-functioning mind makes use of both modes, as both modes reinforce and support each other.

I am not suggesting a golden mean here between the left hand and the right hand, progressivism and conservatism. I am not arguing for moderation. Rather, this is placement of ourselves within the complexity zone, damn near chaos, which has proven to be the most dynamic, robust, and interesting zone in all of life. The constant interplay and tension between what I have already learned from experience and inherited wisdom — my story — and what I have yet to learn from new experiences and stories is what drives my life on its trajectory. It is what makes my life interesting. Complexity is a sweet spot between the cold, dead certainty of the past and the hot potential of the future. But as with a soccer ball, I don't always hit the sweet spot. Sometimes I cling too much to what I know (conservatism), and sometimes I revel too much in what I have yet to learn (progressivism). I suppose we all have these tendencies to one extreme or the other. We all know someone who, for instance, is trapped in a life-draining relationship with a lover or employee because they are too afraid to abandon a given, familiar, sanctioned structure and someone else who cannot maintain even a life-affirming relationship with a lover or an employer because they are too attracted by new relationships.

Well, my thoughts are meandering away from ontology and epistemology — not in a bad way, but in a way, away. My point is that I tend to favor rational arguments, and I am often confused by the arguments of my Evangelical friends. I'm also amazed at how intractable they can be. I can provide voluminous data that, to my mind, proves that Donald Trump is a narcissistic liar and cheat with no morals and they will insist that he is nonetheless God's chosen man for the hour. I walk away confused and dispirited.

But I'm coming to see that we are arguing on two different levels that do intersect and certainly do not translate without some serious effort. I'm talking about reason and they are talking about narrative. I'll give an example to end this post.

One of my favorite websites, The Conversation, recently posted an article by Baylor University professor Samuel Perry entitled "Evangelical Leaders like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell Sr. have long talked of conspiracies against God’s chosen – those ideas are finding resonance today." Perry explores one of the most long-held and common stories among Evangelicals: that they are denigrated and dismissed by mainstream society — the World. This is a subplot to a larger story about how this world is not our home; rather, Heaven is our promised home. The old red back hymnal used in the Churches of God of my youth contained countless songs that claimed alienation from and indifference to this World and allegiance to the World to come. The old hymn "I'm Getting Ready to Leave this World" says it pointedly:

To prepare a mansion, Jesus said “I’ll go.”
If it were not true I would have told you so.
Just a little while to linger here below.
I’m getting ready to leave this world.

I’m getting ready to leave this world (of sorrow).
I’m getting ready for the gates of pearl.
Keeping (my record bright).
Watching (both day and night).
I’m getting ready to leave this world.

I can recall countless sermons railing against worldly pleasures, amusements, and adornment. I grew up believing that the World is hopelessly, noxiously sinful and that the sinners of the World hate the redeemed who follow Jesus. We chosen remnant should avoid sinners whenever possible, distinguish ourselves from them in dress and manner, and wait vigilantly for the call to Heaven, our true home. No one should be confused that many Evangelicals have little regard for environmentalist concerns: why worry? This world is doomed anyway, and God's people will be on the side that destroys it and replaces it with the shining New Jerusalem.

It's easy for me to see, then, how Evangelicals who believe this story can fall for the idea that mainstream media — the voice of the World — hates them and mocks them for their religious beliefs. And who is the only one who will stand up for them and call out the mainstream media, the fake news? Well, Donald Trump, of course. He's clearly God's appointed man to defend the faithful from the attacks of Satan and the demonic Democrats (the alliteration really helps the story, don't you think?). I might counter that Donald Trump is the sort of man who can brag about grabbing women by the pussy, which seems to run counter to the stated beliefs of most Evangelicals, and my Evangelical friends will respond: "Praise be! Isn't it miraculous how God can once again use a broken man as He used King David to defend His people?" I find quickly that there's no way I can state my reasons that they cannot neatly rearrange the facts to fit their narrative. If you believe the story, the facts work.

And my Evangelical friends can find lots of facts to support their opinions. I watch Bill Maher, and though most Evangelicals don't, they are aware that he makes great sport of them. See? The World hates them.

If I'm to engage my Evangelical friends, I must start at the level of story, of a generalized frame — I can't start at the level of rational argument as it is too restricted, too specific. Moreover, the story that frames my rational argument is inconsistent with their story. Pussy-grabbing Donald Trump is a hero in their story and a villain in mine. The details or facts don't change, the story does. The meaning and value of the facts depend on the story. The facts are what I know, the story is who I am.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: The World as a Set of Puzzles

In my last post, I talked about how the rational paradigm undermines public discourse by excluding most people and all values. In this post, I want to talk about the fifth feature of Fisher's rational world paradigm:

The world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved through appropriate analysis and application of reason conceived as an argumentative construct. (4)

Well, this brings me directly to conflicting stories that help us see different worlds. To illustrate how this is so, I contrast this feature of the rational world paradigm with the fifth feature of Fisher's narrative world paradigm:

The world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation. (8)

This is particularly rich for me in trying to understand my evangelical friends. Note that the rational worldview sees the world as a series of puzzles to be worked out in pursuit of a meaningful, good life. The puzzle metaphor for life implies certain things about the world. First, it means that the world is approachable through the tenacious application of human knowledge and reason. Any person confronted with issues in life can surmount or circumvent those issues if they bring enough knowledge and reason to bear. Puzzles may be simple — like a flat tire — or complicated — like Covid-19 or your love life — but with enough information, clear reasoning, and tenacity, you can solve most any problem in your life. This is certainly my approach to my profession. If I encounter a poem or story that I don't understand, I can bring information, reason, and persistence to bear on the work, and eventually I will understand it — at least well enough to teach it. Plenty of scientists still believe that with enough work they will eventually achieve a theory of everything that will explain the Universe. The Universe is a puzzle, and we humans have the expertise to figure it out.

Second, the puzzle worldview requires expertise, but it doesn't have to be our own. We can use the expertise of others, and we puzzle-types tend to value expertise both in ourselves and in others. If presented with a puzzle outside our area of expertise, then we are quite willing to defer to the expertise of others. Think of heart surgery. We want knowledgeable, skilfull surgeons, and we usually don't care about their political or religious views which we see as irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. 

Third, the puzzle approach means that there is a best solution to most puzzles, and only expertise can determine what that best solution is. A simple puzzle such as a rubik's cube has one correct answer. A complicated puzzle may have multiple answers, and the best answer is often reached by consensus among the experts in the field, but followers of the puzzle metaphor believe that each puzzle has a best answer and that that best answer can be found.

Finally, then, for puzzle-people, the world is not mysterious. The World may be currently unclear or even confusing, but it is always knowable. We may not know the answer to a puzzle just now due to lack of information or enough reasoning, but we know that a clear answer exists and that we can find it given enough and time and effort.

Of course, most of us recognize that the Universe is not a simple puzzle — not even a complicated puzzle — but we still often act as if it is. At least, we of the puzzle worldview act this way. Others, including my evangelical friends, do not see the world this way.

For my evangelical friends, the world is not a puzzle at all. Rather, it is a story of God's relationship with His bride, His Church, His people — with them. And this story is wondrous, and clear. It has a simple beginning in Creation, a plot in their favor, and a definite ending in eternal bliss for them and eternal damnation for everyone else. The Gospel is a simple story that anyone can understand; therefore, no one has an excuse for not believing it.

They do not approach the world primarily through knowledge and reason but through their personal relationship with the Almighty. Now, I do not mean to suggest that they have no knowledge and reason — they do. They can change a tire as well as anyone, but puzzles are specialized cases for them. The world is based on their relationship with God, and the unfolding story of that relationship. All information and reason must fit within that story, and when it doesn't, then that information and reason is dismissed or denied.

This relationship with God does not depend on expertise, though knowledge of Scripture can be beneficial; rather, it depends on faith in and fidelity to God and to His Word. Again, I am not suggesting that my evangelical friends do not have expertise, they do. They are craftsmen, artists, musicians, scientists, business people, and politicians — they are some of the smartest and most gifted people I know — but this expertise is subordinate to and subservient to their faith in God. They do all for the glory of God, and whatever does not bring glory to God, they avoid, regardless of how reasonable it may be to believe or to do.

There is, then, only one solution to life's issues: God. Remember that heart surgeon we mentioned above? Well, if your heart surgery worked, that was God preserving you because He has more for you to do here on Earth. If you surgery didn't work, that was God calling you home. Either way, it's God. The surgeon is just a bit player, a prop, an instrument of God's Will. You can thank the surgeon after successful surgery, but it was really God's call.

The World, then, is largely mysterious as God is mysterious. God has revealed all we need to know in His Word, and the rest is a mystery best left alone. Eventually we will come to know the world, but only in the presence of God and only when He reveals it. As the old hymn promises:

Farther along we’ll know more about it.
Farther along we’ll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine.
We'll understand it all by and by. ("Farther Along" by W. B. Stevens)

This helps me understand better, then, why my evangelical friends have such a visceral mistrust of experts and education. The experts believe that knowledge and reason answers everything eventually, while evangelicals believe that knowledge and reason answer only some mundane details. All truth is ultimately held by God and revealed to us only in His time.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: Fisher's Divide

As I read more carefully into Walter Fisher's article "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm", I'm impressed by his sketch of the divide between the rational and the narrative paradigms of public conversation. This divide clarifies for me the break between myself and those close to me over the issue of Trump politics, so I want to explore here what I think Fisher means.

First, Fisher posits two distinct paradigms for human communication: the rational and the narrative. These two paradigms need not be antagonistic — they can be complementary — but conflict is certainly possible, and I think that in the case of my evangelical family and friends, they are antagonistic. Let's see how and why, at least according to Fisher, who begins his analysis by describing what he means by the rational paradigm for public discourse.

The rational paradigm entered Western thought with Aristotle's Organon, and Fisher claims that regardless of its local variations over the centuries since, the rational paradigm has several consistent core features:

  1. Humans are essentially rational beings.
  2. Argument composed of clear inferential structures is the primary mode of human decision-making and public discourse.
  3. This argument is ruled by the dictates of the situation, the field, within which it occurs — legal, scientific, legislative, and so on.
  4. The rationality of one's argument is determined by subject matter knowledge, argumentative ability, and skill in employing the rules within a field.
  5. The world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved through appropriate analysis and application of reason conceived as an argumentative construct. (4)
These features of the rational paradigm lead to several problems that can undermine public discourse as I think it has today. First, to my mind, is the claim that humans are essentially rational in a formal manner. They aren't. Rationality, especially the scholastic kind, must be learned and cultivated. Stories are innate, syllogisms ain't. We must learn and practice this kind of rationality, and many of us — perhaps most of us — don't.

Then, in the rational paradigm, public discourse requires a certain amount of specialized knowledge of the field within which a rational discussion occurs: legal, economic, scientific, and so on. This has been particularly debilitating for public discourse as the various fields of human knowledge have become increasingly specialized and compartmentalized. In his famous 1959 essay "The Two Cultures", C. P. Snow identified the growing rift between the sciences and the humanities, which was rendering impossible communication between the two. Since then, we've come to see that the situation is worse than Snow thought: physicists can't talk to biologists who can't talk to sociologists, and no one can talk to mathematicians or deconstructionists. Being conversant in any of these fields requires more qualifications than most of us can manage.

Unfortunately, as Fisher notes, "The actualization of the rational world paradigm … depends on a form of society that permits, if not requires, participation of qualified persons [italics mine] in public decision-making" (4). The rational paradigm has come to require those experts — those qualified persons — who my evangelical friends resent as elites who think they are the only ones smart enough to make decisions about public policy. I, of course, think it perfectly reasonable to leave important decisions about Covid-19 to epidemiological experts, but my evangelical friends do not. Rather, they feel excluded from public discourse and decision-making — disenfranchised and denigrated — and they don't like it. They admire Donald Trump for standing up to these elites and telling it like it is, reclaiming the public discourse for those who have felt excluded for so long. The rational paradigm, then, says if you don't know most of the salient facts and the rules of engagement for a given discussion, then you should be quiet and let the experts talk. Donald Trump says fuck that and talks anyway. My evangelical friends love him for that. They think he is telling it like it is, even though all his facts are wrong. Keeping your facts straight belongs to the rational paradigm, and they aren't doing that.

The fragmentation of knowledge by what Fisher calls naturalism has also removed values from public discourse. Hard naturalism — physics, chemistry, and mathematics — ignores the question of values altogether, either turning it over to the poets and mystics or dismissing it as meaningless, "an expression of mere personal feeling" according to John Herman Randall, Jr. (5). Soft naturalism — biology, psychology, and the social sciences — seems intent on building "a science of values comparable to the science that was the glory of Greek thought" (5). Consequently, hard naturalism denies both public knowledge and public discourse as too permeated with value issues, and soft naturalism is trying without much success to create a scientific basis for the values that permeate public knowledge and discourse. Most of my evangelical friends find little sense of those values that they hold so dear in the language of either hard or soft naturalists. As they note, quite accurately, God is left out of most scientific discussions, and for them, God is the ultimate value. They find any conversation that ignores God confusing and repugnant.

Fisher says that "the effects of naturalism have been to restrict the rational world paradigm to specialized studies and to relegate everyday argument to an irrational exercise" (5). He may be overstating his case, but he does shine light on the issue for me. The strict requirements of specialized knowledge of the relevant field and the field's increasingly peculiar protocols for discussion and the exclusion of values as either irrelevant or impossible on a scientific basis excludes my evangelical friends from the very conversations that I find valuable. They find no values, and thus no value, in those conversations, and they are suspicious of the people who do. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, they resent the disdain they feel from people like me who look down on them because they cannot or do not join in these rational conversations.

I confess that I have been disdainful of those who ignore the facts and are irrational. If I'm to finish my novel, then I have to replace disdain with understanding. I don't have to change my preferred responses to Covid-19, but I do have understand why my friends and I are talking past each other. One of us needs to learn to speak the other one's language. I'm writing the novel, so I should do it.