Monday, August 14, 2017

The Art of Narrating Ourselves into Being

In the Western religious myths, God spoke the world into being. There is no god, of course, and nature is a horrifically undead phenomenon that defies complete explanation, let alone an anthropomorphic one that downplays the world’s fundamental impersonality. No, it’s not nature in general that has a literary origin, but only the human world since that world begins with us as persons. As human animals we evolved by natural selection and by other such mechanisms, but as autonomous, encultured selves, we are indeed spoken into being—not by any extraterrestrial intelligence, but by our thoughts which comprise an inner voice that weaves itself into a grand fiction featuring characters that embody our ideals, with whom we’re free to identify to begin to salvage some meaning and dignity from what would otherwise be a perfectly absurd flow of events in the wilderness.

We are just Characters in our Life’s Story

A self is not an immaterial thing, a ghost, and to think that what distinguishes people from animals or objects is that we have some such spiritual body is to reify and to fall victim to a cognitive illusion. A self is really a way of organizing thoughts. In so far as we identify with our bodies, we’re biological entities like the other animals, but in so far as our nature is defined by our thinking, we become morally-significant persons. What, though, is a thought? A thought is a generalization which simplifies for some purpose, which is to say a thought is a map or a model which manages the chaotic flux of experience by representing those parts of the world that interest us. The main purpose of our representations of the outer world is to predict what will happen so we can control the environment rather than be helpless to the indifferent forces and cycles and accidents of nature. We predict by generalizing across instances, inducing patterns by transducing and neurally binding sensory inputs, slotting experiences into conceptual boxes for memory recall so we can implement our plans for future projections of our identity. This allows us to respond with greater intelligence and autonomy than could those animal species that rely on preprogrammed, as opposed to learned, responses.

We also model the inner world, which is to say ourselves. Through introspection, however, we have no knowledge of our brain that organizes our experience. So although we now know of the brain’s importance to ourselves, we have difficulty personally identifying with that squishy mass. On the contrary, even the notion of the brain seems alien and revolting. Instead, in our daily life we who have a personal level of identity prefer to think of ourselves as the character that figures in the lifelong narrative we tell to ourselves. This narrative is the overall model that organizes our private data, the confusing signals produced by the body that we sense through introspection, interoception, memory, and other interior channels. Roughly, our reflexes, feelings, emotions, judgments, notions, ideas, guesses, and so forth are organized by a personalizing story we tell.

The story is what the philosopher Marya Schachtman calls a form of diachronic unity, meaning that like a sonata or a song, a story is a holistic structure that provides meaning to the sequential parts of which it’s made. A fragment of a song is meaningless without the temporal structure, which is the plan for the song that stretches across time, including the introduction, the verses, chorus, bridge and the end. That structure is defined partly by the genre and indeed by the lyrics which likewise tell a story, giving the song a personality. In the same way, from the raw bits of experience we assemble a narrative that connects our memories with our hopes and intentions, to form a satisfying, meaningful whole. The whole of that story amounts to our personal (as opposed to our biological) identity. A self is something like an entire movie or play with defined characters who take the stage at different times depending on which part of the story is presently being “read” or called for by the rest of the world. Thus, we may occupy different perspectives or personas, according not just to what’s happening in the outer world, but to how we make sense of the environment with our inner narrative. The narrative assigns roles to enable us to socialize, to retain our dignity under trying circumstances, or to perform other functions.

The story that defines us is still being written while we’re alive, and we identify with different characters in different contexts. The meaning of each character, though, is given by the entire script. The script is composed of the inner voice that continually speaks its interpretations and organizes experience to preserve what the existential anthropologist Ernest Becker would call our “self-esteem.” Becker showed how the self is formed psychologically and socially as a defense against the angst suffered by every child who learns that the world doesn’t serve his or her whims. We tap into cultural reservoirs of meaning, or “hero-systems,” to preserve the self-esteem that acts as a buffer against anxiety. Similarly, Yuval Harari points to the collective fictions that sustain civilization, allowing the members to avoid conflict by defining themselves nationalistically, according to myths that justify the social power distributions. Both of these aspects of our existential story are relevant, as we’ll see, but the more immediate source of selfhood is the narrative that occupies our thoughts.

The narrative that distinguishes our inner voice, which artists excel at expressing in concrete outward forms, emerges as we choose at each moment how to interpret a particular experience. The personal pattern forms after certain types of interpretations accrue, because they support our pride or esteem. There is, though, no homunculus which reads or writes the story. The script writes itself as a result of the conflict between our clever animality and the indifference of the outer world which threatens all such creatures with anxiety that can be alleviated only by suicide or by resort to the magic of art. We create ourselves for the same reason we create the outer artificial worlds, because awakened beings require a refuge from the horrific wilderness. Where we are presently in the story, that is, the bookmarked page, as it were, is determined by the limits of the character we occupy at a particular time that has more or less understanding of the total story in which that character plays its part. Ultimately, we’re equal to the characters whose thoughts and actions are defined and contextualized by a series of meta-thoughts, by a narrative that provides our whole life with existential meaning.

Fictional Selves and Literary Morality

The philosopher Galen Strawson points out, however, that not everyone explicitly narrates their life. Strawson quotes from famous individuals who confess their memory is too poor to figure in worthy inner narratives; instead, they experience themselves as a confused series of experiences. If they take to writing their biography, as in the case of Montaigne, they do so objectively, drawing no distinction between the inner and outer worlds and thus modeling themselves, at best, for the sake of greater prediction and control, having no aesthetic end in view. Moreover, he says, in line with Becker and Harari, some such narrations may be traps that render ourselves inauthentic, as we adopt conventions that are only socially convenient. Instead of demonstrating finesse in creating our personal, existentially-noble self by gradually telling our story via introspection and meta-reflection, we may resort to clich√©s such as stock characters so that we play out only the roles that society assigns us. All of which seems correct, but contrary to Strawson, this doesn’t falsify the foregoing account of the self; instead, the account has unsettling, but non-disqualifying implications.

One of those implications is that there are degrees of personhood. Some biological humans are more personal than others. A character can be more or less distinguished, more or less the result of inward reflections and visionary projections of meaning which are the marks of superior artistry. Crucially, introverts are more personal than extroverts. This is to say that each of us attains greater personhood to the extent that we engage in introspection and meta-reflection. To the extent we’re focused only on acting, not on thinking about ourselves, we lose our self. In that case, we should be identified only with our biological humanity and with the roles we play as defined by the stories that others tell about us to organize us as objects of their models. If we haven’t thought about the meaning of our life’s stages, about what sort of story we’re living out, we have no right to speak of us as being authentic, self-made (spontaneously and privately-generated) persons. The word “person,” then, is an honourific title ascribed to someone who performs well at certain cognitive tasks.

Second, if someone engages in no inner modeling at all, she’ll have no self-understanding. She’ll have failed to know herself, that being the task sufficing to create a worthy self in the first place. Suppose, for example, you have no interest in inner narration, but you do reflect on your experience in the same way that you organize your encounters with the outer world. In that case, you do model your thoughts and feelings, but you objectify yourself; that is, you treat yourself as just another object: you generalize over your inner contents for greater predictive power and instrumental control. You take a pragmatic, impersonal attitude toward yourself rather than distinguishing your character in moral or in aesthetic terms. Still, you’ll understand yourself at some level; indeed, you may have greater self-control than the enchanted inner narrator. But if you don’t interpret your thoughts and feelings at all, not even to objectify them, your stream of inner experience must be quite animal-like. You may suffer from autism or from some other antisocial personality disorder, which renders you more like a robot than a person.

There are, then, two sources of meta-reflection, the private and the public. Private reflection is the stuff of introversion, of segregating yourself from society to question conventions in deep, philosophical investigations of what’s really happening. By contrast, culture is the product of collective reflection, and we tend to defer to culture in our moments of extroversion, when we’re absorbed with some activity or when our self-esteem is sustained by diversions that require others’ participation. Thus, interpretations and character roles can be narrated privately or publicly, and the typical self (that is, the human way of organizing thoughts) is a mixture of idiosyncrasies and artistic leaps of imagination, on the one hand, and politically-useful frauds, on the other. The more introverted we are, the more liable we’re to engage in subversive meta-reflection, and so the more the meaning of our inner narrative will depend on the latter’s opposition to the prevailing culture. By contrast, the more extroverted we are, the more we immerse ourselves in the ruling myths that bind the masses, that provide excuses for the power inequalities which are almost always objectively grotesque. In the latter case, our defining story may be bereft of existential authenticity or nobility. Think of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. If the extrovert only defers to cultural codes of conduct, without pondering them, being always lost in some business or other that leaves no time for meta-reflection or for the development of an inner voice that tells her life’s story to herself, she can hardly be called a person in the morally-significant sense. Her activities will be only implicitly meaningful, because the story that defines her will be told only in cultural forums such as churches, movie theaters, clubs, or political conventions. 

A third implication is that the morality that suits the nature of a self is wholly aesthetic. A self is just a work of art, produced mainly by cognitive mechanisms. We’re not born people, but must earn that title by thinking hard about what we are and what we should be in relation to the outer world as it really is and as we transform it. A self is the narrative structure that supplies the meaning of the characters we play at different stages of our journey. This meaning is ultimately the same found in any fiction. A story either excels in creative, artistic terms or it fails to delight or to inspire. Likewise, a person’s virtues or vices make sense only as efforts to live up to a literary ideal in the broadest sense. The relevant kind of story isn’t that which is written in book form, but it is linguistic, because words are likely key to conceptual binding and thus to the mind’s modeling functions. We become people, who are subjects that have dignity according to certain stories, only when we acquire a special way of organizing our thoughts as opposed to letting them flow with no autonomous control or understanding of them. We organize our mental contents by interpreting them in light of a cognitive map or model that takes the form of a narrative. All of these life-sustaining narratives are fictions, because they’re only simplifications rather than reproductions of what is modeled. (Even scientific theories, then, are fictions in that they idealize in their inevitable simplifications. They include ceteris paribus rules that presuppose an exclusion of much of the world, for practical purposes of inquiry. These theories are nonfictional only in the institutional sense, because they're intended not to entertain but to discover some empirical truth. Institutional fictions, such as novels or movies may also represent some empirical truth, but they're produced with different intentions.) Nevertheless, they’re fictions that have real impacts on the world, preventing an epidemic of suicide and driving us to achieve our guiding ideals.

A person is morally valuable, then, just in so far as she’s a literary object, a character whose greatness depends on the quality of the tale that captures the creative meaning of her life’s work and journey. You often hear an attempt to capture this tale in the eulogy offered by the relatives of a recently-deceased individual. The essence of a great life is the originality displayed in the struggle to overcome the existential absurdity which would otherwise entail suicide. But a great individual overcomes also the banality and instrumentality of the social myths that lend meaning to a life at the cost of turning the individual into a beta, into a follower who in carrying out her functions indirectly acts as a pawn in the scheme of some greater, more distinguished individual. Most so-called people are only barely personal beings, because their existential efforts are mediocre. They don’t struggle to exist as transcendent creatures, as human animals who acquire personality by accumulating the cognitive habit of interpreting their inner data according to a dawning vision of what a self should be; they don’t wrestle with the meaning of their life or with what sort of person they’ve become.

On the contrary, moral value has generally been construed as being non-aesthetic, on the assumption that the self exists without the need for much human effort. The self is presumed to be either a spirit created by God or a sort of rational agency that has natural rights. There’s been much talk, therefore, of moral laws as befitting the objectivity of personhood. On the foregoing account, though, an individual’s moral value is fittingly subjective, because we’re speaking of subjects that transcend the objective world, that resist its absurdity with titanic acts of artistic will and vision. We think ourselves into higher being by writing the stories that animate us in our daily activities. The writing occurs in the narrations of our inner voice, which may or may not set the details of the story down as an autobiography, and in the publicly-available myths that serve political (civilizational) purposes as well as existential (artistic) ones.

The morality that survives the death of God, then, has more to do with beauty and ugliness than with any absolute commandment to love others or to obey some creed. Right and wrong are fittingly aesthetic, because these values apply to beings that are just works of art and that warrant, therefore, only literary assessments as far as morality is concerned. There are also pragmatic evaluations that should be made for social purposes, as in considerations of justice or medical health. But if we ask what we should be like, irrespective of mere utility or the social imperative to fit in for the sake of happiness, the answer is entirely up to our muse. The morally best self is just the one whose life makes for the greatest story. Period. All other moral questions likely reduce to pragmatic issues of self-objectification or to pseudoproblems stemming from obsolete religious narratives.


  1. Very beautiful essay, I've always enjoyed your take on the moral life as being primarily aesthetic and this was a pleasing restatement. I especially like the analogy of the book.

    2 essays in a week, to what do we owe the bounty?

    1. Hi, Guthrie. The Millennials article is pretty short, and I wrote it a few weeks ago, submitting it to Salon, but never heard back from them so I posted it here. It's tough finding an online magazine that's interested in my kind of writing.

      It's interesting that there is this view in cognitive science, which identifies the self as literally a sort of narrative. This view fits nicely with the Nietzschean aesthetic take on morality. So I put them together in this article. I think the narrative view fits also with the higher-order-thought theory of consciousness, which I've also presented on this blog.

      Next up is likely a dialogue on social justice warriors.

  2. Your interpretation of the self as narration is very much in line with recent neurological findings and Buddhisms concept of non/not-self, that there is no core part of us but rather the self is an emergent phenomena arising from the interdependent impermenant interactions between internal components with the external, like memory, constantly being reassembled and reconstructed.

    The issue I see though is how is existential aesthetic rebellion and dignity possible when not only our self is ephereal and transient, removing the will part pf free will, but bound and written by our biology. As various studies into genetics have shown, such as with separated twins, our personalities appear heavily based in our biologu and formed very early in our lives, social conditioning snd instincts locking in whatever mold is allowed by our genes in early childhood. So, even in introspection, we're not really writing any unoaue story, as our self is already formed beyond our perception, and any change that occurs in it seems to stem from external social influence and circumstance.

    Furthermore, are not our standards for what is aesthetically heroic or dignified also alrgely defined by or against the greater social narratoves and archtypes?

    1. I can see how the above non-essentialist account of the self might be consistent with the Buddhist view that the folk, egoistic presumptions about the self are based on illusions. I have some differences with Buddhism and Daoism, as I've explained in other articles (links below).

      The relevant question here is whether the self is so inessential and unreal that there's nothing there worth holding onto, so that our goal should be to learn to accept that the self is as good as nothing. Moksha would then be liberation from the illusion that the self exists as any sort of independent entity, and from the craving for everlasting life, which causes suffering. I'd disagree with Buddhists there. The "fiction" of the self is an emergent property, a character whose meaning is dependent on a story we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience, and that character has real causal impact on the inner and outer worlds.

      Which brings us to the issue of freewill. You raise some good questions. Have you had a look at the dialogue I wrote on freewill? (See the link below.) Roughly, the point I'd make is that if our genes and the environment (our upbringing, etc) can have impacts on our character, choices, and actions, then so can our higher self, so the question is only about the _degree_ of our self-control (autonomy, freewill). That higher self consists of the cerebral cortex and the higher-order (or meta) thoughts, which come to the fore in moments of introspection and introversion, which can alter our self-model, as opposed to being epiphenomenal. That inner growth or self-directed transformation can happen in therapy or after taking psychedelic, life-altering substances, for example. We can modify our character and our behaviour if we reflect hard enough and come to terms with whether we've done enough to live up to our ideals.

      I agree, though, that we shouldn't be so proud of ourselves, no matter what we do, because if we do have freewill, it is indeed narrow. We don't want to be like Donald Trump, who thinks he's the greatest businessman in the world, who thus has to lie to himself and to others about all the advantages he had in life for which he can take no credit. The proper attitude for an authentic, truly self-made person is based on humility and on an insistence on honour (coming to terms with harsh reality, including the extent to which we are indeed often puppets). We shouldn't boast, as if we have an immaterial core (a so-called soul or spirit) which has absolute control over our biological side, as if a homosexual person, for example, could will himself to overcome his hormones.