The Age of Many Narratives.

Never before have we had access to so many versions of the “truth” and this is largely due to the explosion of electronic media and communications. Spin too has added a dizziness to our lives. We live in the age of many narratives and unless we have personal experience of the thing being narrated, it is difficult to ascertain which narrative most closely matches the reality. It may be that there are, in addition to different narratives, different realities.

Our sense of reality is determined by our cognitive faculties and their assimilative capability. We make our universe out of our narrative of the world. There is a material universe which we can measure using electron based instumentation and photon-based detectors. That cosmos is out there and there is some broad agreement as to what it looks like amongst a small sub-set of our population. Some of this gets through to the wider public and there are now loads of pretty pictures of space and galaxies. Now we think space to be big and we are in a planetary orbit around a star we call the sun. This is our current narrative. It is a reality carried by many due to the telling of a story. This reality did not exist hundreds of years ago insofar as human beings were concerned. Out of all of the data we have assimilated this reality as it currently stands, and I’ll guess that many consider it a pretty good version of reality. To think this(our) reality previously could have had you fall foul of the powers that be. It is often the case that when reality clashes with temporal power things do not run smoothly.

Narratives can differ markedly amongst two beings, just go to the divorce courts or hear people talk about a relationship. The narratives will never coincide perfectly unless rehearsed to be so. And if you are so inclined you may wish to know which narrative is right. You may even insist that it is always your narrative which is right. But even the rightest narrative is a time evolving thing, a memory is subject to fading and variance in its re-telling. But these narratives are the “bricks” of our “world”. The world is what we tell ourselves and others, it is. It is by our telling we create our world(s).

To give an example; the easiest narrative for me being here today is roughly as follows. Alan has a history of mental health problems and was once treated for clinical depression with a suicidal ideation. At the age of 42 he had a mid-life crisis and packed in his job. Since that time, he has gone completely off the rails and dabbles in whacko belief systems. He has lost what few marbles he had remaining and has constructed a 250,000-word blog filled with his insane ramblings. He is doing himself no favours in doing this. Maybe he might one day come back to his senses and be of some use to the world as we know it. It is all some cleverly constructed justification which he uses to justify his delusions and failure.

This is a version of a narrative and I offer it up as an alternate explanation for you to consider.

What I am getting at is that we can construct pretty much any narrative we want, we may even believe our narrative to be the “truth” and thereby inviolate. We may fight and argue to uphold our narrative especially if other narratives are less convenient for us. We may have a hard time accepting any narrative other than our own. So, who do we trust? Is it the BBC, the internet or some bloke down the pub? It is likely that we trust those narratives which are already closest to our own and we may derive some comfort from a commonality of narrative. The narrative of the English, differs from the narrative of the Welsh and all this in one United Kingdom. Differences in narratives are to be found on all sides, which means reality and world also differs. At this time the UK narrative and the Russian narrative differ. But who is right? We can obsess about this thing “right”.

History shows us that for a while and in one country, there is a tendency for one narrative to dominate but history also looks back on these narratives and asks, “Did they really believe that? Did they really do those things?” History itself is a narrative, is says so, his-story. And we all have some stories about what has happened to us, our tale of life, our very own personal legends.

In my view no narrative is ever a reliable alternative to personal experience. Yet we so heavily rely on the narratives of others when they may be unreliable. Of course, any personal experience can itself become a narrative, but there are some elements of experience which cannot be narrated, they can only be experienced. Some things, some experiences are beyond words, they cannot be spoken of, they are unspeakable and even ineffable. It is here that the reliance on narrative fails and badly so.

We live in an age of many narratives, they can’t all be accurate, but we are inundated like never before. I wonder what this is doing to us as a humanity? Maybe we will get to a point where we trust no one, not even ourselves to perceive with any accuracy that is unless the narrative is already given some electronic thumbs up on some software platform or other. We may be losing the faculty of discerning truth for ourselves. We can metaphorically drown under the seas of all these narratives.

With narrative there is often agenda and sometimes we can forget this colouration.

Strange times we live in…


Standing for Something

What, if anything, do you stand for?

This is a question that points, it points at how we try to live our lives and maybe what we consider important. We might stand for a cause, we might stand for a religion or we might stand for freedoms. It is likely that many have not considered what it is they stand for and if they have, it probably stops at something relatively tangible. The related question, “what do I stand against?” is perhaps easier. We might be against climate change or the badger cull, we might be against sexual exploitation. Nearly all of these stands are held within the context of the common dream. They may tinker with some element of that dream, but by and large, life is eked within that wider context. There are many in my former profession who seek a wider participation in science, to bring it to the wider masses. But science is not a panacea, whilst it can bring engagement and employment, it per se, does not bring happiness and peace. Lurking aback can be found, in many cases, ambition. For some science is by way of a Sheldonian religion. And whilst it may point at material truths there are many others which it, because of methodology, cannot approach. There are things into which it does not delve.

If you do make a stand it can reduce your options in the context of the common dream, but it can also open up whole new worlds.

To whom do you hand over your mind?

This might seem a strange question but that is what we do, we hand over our minds to a whole bunch of people, their ideas and their ways. In our desire to belong, we hand over our mind almost without questioning if it is a good thing or not. We are very heavily influenced by others and there is a welcome mat outside the door of our minds, we let things in without asking them to wipe.

“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

The key to the door is called fear of missing out and it is by way of a near universal key. It works on many mind-doors. That fear of no longer belonging or being Kool and the Gang weakens our discernment and lowers our standards. In time provided “they” say it is OK, pretty much anything goes. Like sheep we follow the latest trends and gimmicks. If you look at the world today our moral climate isn’t so good, and the exemplars held up are not glowing examples of the best that humanity can offer. There is a lot of corruption and some very shallow stuff out there. Ah but if you don’t follow the trends you will be left out, way-sided. Everybody else is doing it, is a very shabby excuse akin to “I was only following orders”.

I want people to think for themselves and to cultivate some wisdom. This sounds benign but the implications, if you think about it, are wide ranging. Many imagine that they do indeed think for themselves but that is done under the weight of extensive social conditioning and in the context of the common dream. Until such time as you have unpicked that social conditioning you will have no concept of how very debilitating that conditioning is. That fear of missing out and of exclusion is strong, very strong. If you like experiments, the next time you are faced with the fear of missing out on some thing or other. Miss out. In all likelihood the galaxy will still be there the following day, the universe will not undergo the “big crunch” because you missed out. I know, it is very hard to believe.

Unless we stand for something we can be led in to anything.

If you have no values, nor core principles, then all you have left is convenience and expediency. Now if that is a considered choice then that is “better” than if it is a mere default. Without some moral, some ethos to live by, life has less meaning. I am not advocating evangelism of any kind. I am suggesting discernment, a quality that needs honed.

I have renounced a large part of what society offers. In this respect I am missing out. I am missing out on money, kudos, the chance to piss about with expensive lasers and optics, the competitive highly politicized ambition ridden world. I am missing out on stress, on game-playing and on some vague sense of social cohesion and belonging. It was a choice I made and to an extent one that was made for me. Unless I am mistaken the sun has just risen, the cows in the field are eating grass, the entire universe hasn’t imploded.

Having cued this up:

What, if anything, do you stand for?

To whom, to what, do you hand over your mind?

To what extent does the fear of missing out rule your life?

Until You Have Tried It

To some extent or other, people are susceptible to the opinions of others, they are relied on. But much of that opinion is not based upon personal experience, it is just what “they” say. They say a lot of things and often with a level of assertion that one might expect from an expert. Again, that expertise is not based on deep personal experience, rather a pressing need to opine. The truth is that until you have tried it yourself, you simply don’t know and the reliance upon hearsay is prejudicial. One judges a situation based upon the hearsay of what “they” say. Conclusion comes before experience. This is scientifically suspect and yet not uncommon. Even scientists do this especially when it comes to defining what is and is not whacko. We are social animals and what our peers or “they” say, can outweigh experimentally and experientially determined fact. People are a bit lazy. Anecdotal evidence garnered at the font of “they” influences a whole bunch of stuff. Weight is given to opinion and that opinion is sourced in those keen to opine without any actual evidence. The urge to opine is strong in some.

Until you have tried something and given it a good go, immersed yourself in it, you simply don’t know what it is all about. If you take up a martial art, you probably won’t understand it all that much, until you have been doing it for about three years. Then you will have given it a fair go and have started to understand something about it. Until such time as this, you are scratching the surface. There are many people who are instant experts about a whole bunch of stuff. It is a bit like a sachet of instant soup, you open up the soup, pour it in a cup, and add boiling water. It looks like soup, but it is not real home-made soup. Drinking a few cups of this does not confer an in-depth knowledge of all soups.

Some things we kind of know we don’t want to try. However, we might be prejudiced from the get-go. We may not want to go somewhere because of what we have read or heard about it. We may want to go somewhere because of reviews. People rely on opinions. And we can make ours up without any basis, especially after a glass or two. There is a real danger that when someone is bullshitting it becomes a part of the set of what “they” say. The set of what “they” say has amongst its members bullshit. Many do not use discernment all that much.

If you want to know something you must try it yourself. That is, you need to apply it not simply talk about it. If you want to know what someone is thinking, then asking them is the only way to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Even this is not sure-fire, because communication between beings is an inexact science. Hearsay is an unreliable evidence base. At one level everybody knows this, yet we forget as and when it suits.

Having cued this up:

How much do I rely on the opinions of others?

Have these ever strengthened my prejudices?

Have I ever stopped myself from doing things because I already “know” about it without trying it for myself?

Who is Your Witness?

Quite a while back I had a stunning revelation, well it was for me. I found out that some people lie and that they do so in a bare faced and regular manner. I was more than a little astounded by this. It had never occurred to me, a few white lies maybe but bare faced lying, no. Since then I have become a little wiser, though I tend to still think the best of people as a first port of call. If one doesn’t do this, one can get overly paranoid. In life we often take the word of others. We anticipate that there is some truth to it and an authority ought to be true. But the press is full of people caught out telling porky-pies and spinning stuff. Which kind of suggests that we might use more discernment in our choice and reliance upon of witness. We may not know our witness all that well, though we might assume that we do.

Each day we take in the words of others and assimilate them, some we believe wholeheartedly others we take with a pinch of salt.  We can rely on the words of others, their anecdotes, to be more reliable than they actually are. Our minds and our world-assimilation are full of the stuff we have “learned” from others. Being busy and a bit lazy, it is not uncommon to not check for ourselves. We have referees, who speak to employers about us. Some of us have protégées whose career we help to further. It can get a bit incestuous. In some cases, gossip is our witness and trial by media can occur. This can often be premature and very damaging.

As a trained researcher, I try to go to the source, whenever I can. I am not so keen on second hand re-telling because I know of the phenomenon of Chinese whispers. If I hear something about someone, I tend to reach for the salt and if it is important, I will check it and ask them in person. Not everyone has this approach.  Many prefer to listen to tittle tattle and consider it gospel.

There are some things we do which nobody else sees.

So, when assimilating something from others or for myself I have this question; who is my witness? The witness that I rely on. It seems simple enough, but it is more than a little profound.

As an exercise and a seed thought meditate on this simple question and see where it leads you:

Who is my witness?