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.

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