Narrative fragility

The human mind is a narrative machine. It takes in the raw information of reality, processes it, and spits out meanings and stories which enable us to move through and think about the world.

For evidence of this, imagine a spectrum with “100% reality” at one end and “100% narrative” at the other. We all exist somewhere in the middle, never at the poles. Pure reality is impossible; it is an overwhelming amount of unprocessed information. Consider this excerpt from J.L. Borges’ “Funes, His Memory”. In the story Ireneo Funes, a young man, suffers an accident and is changed irreversibly:

“He had lived, he said, for nineteen years as though in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without listening, forgot everything, or virtually everything. When he fell, he’d been knocked unconscious; when he came to again the present was so rich, so clear, that it was almost unbearable.
. . . With one quick look, you and I perceive three wine glasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the cloud in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro in the eve of the Battle of Quebracho.

. . . He saw—he noticed—the progress of death, of humidity. He was the solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentaneous, and almost unbearably precise world. Babylon, London, and New York dazzle mankind’s imaginations with their fierce splendor; no one in the populous towers or urgent avenues of those cities has ever felt the heat and pressure of a reality as inexhaustible as that which battered Ireneo, day and night, in his poor South American hinterland.”

Conversely, reaching the pole of pure narrative is impossible. Even the most fanciful, manic fantasies are still birthed from the seed of reality. Every narrative needs a derivative; the form of the lands and creatures we envision are amalgamations—or intense distortions—of that which have already encountered in some way.

So, we exist somewhere in between pure reality and pure narrative. Now imagine another spectrum, this one from the mind of Nassim Taleb. On one end is “The Fragile”, opposite is “The Antifragile” and in the middle is “The Robust”. The distribution of these is dependent upon their reaction to the “extended disorder family”. From Antifragile:

“The Extended Disorder Family (or Cluster): (i) uncertainty, (ii) variability, (iii) imperfect, incomplete knowledge, (iv) chance, (v) chaos, (vi) volatility, (vii) disorder, (viii) entropy, (ix) time, (x) the unknown, (xi) randomness, (xii) turmoil, (xiii) stressor, (xiv), error, (xv) dispersion of outcomes, (xvi) unknowledge.”

The fragile is hurt by exposure to these things, the antifragile benefits from it, and the robust is unaffected. My question is this: We are, by nature, narrative machines. But are some narratives more fragile than others?

The way to answer this is, first, to categorise the narratives we tend to live by. There’s three base types. Agency—we control our own existence. Higher Power—something else controls our existence. Negation—nothing except pure chance controls our existence. Mapped to a Venn diagram:

narrative venn 3

That’s seven possible narratives of existence.

1) “Narratives of complete agency” – Individual or collective determination, regardless of external circumstance.
2) “Narratives of reciprocity” – External circumstances can be altered by us; we can be altered by external circumstances.
3) “Narratives of higher power” – Some higher power or process is in control and is immune to individual or collective attempts to alter it.
4) “Narratives of minor power” – Some higher power or process is in control, but its intentions are blunted by the indifferent procession of events outside even their control.
5) “Narratives of negation” – Reality rolls on with blatant disregard for all beings, powers and processes.
6) “Narratives of partial agency” – We have some level of individual or collective control over our existence; the rest is determined by things immune to influence and without reason or rationale.
7) “Narratives of absolute choice” – Agency, higher powers, or meaninglessness and uncontrollability; we can choose which to believe in.

Second, we group the seven narratives into three categories—fragile, robust and antifragile—by asking of them: What impact does the march of time have?

“Narratives of complete agency” eventually get disproved by existence. Live long enough and you’ll see that there are things outside of our control. Verdict: fragile.

“Narratives of reciprocity” continue, regardless of the harm or benefit that comes with time. Our ability to influence events is proven, but so is our ability to stop the bad and replicate the good. Verdict: robust.

“Narratives of higher power” go on because we can attribute everything to Something Else. Lose a family member? God has taken him to Heaven. Meet someone in the street that later becomes a key part of your life? It was Fate. Verdict: robust.

“Narratives of minor power” allow us to surrender entirely to a higher power, and as a consequence to the powers it is unable to control. Everything that happens is down to something else. Verdict: robust.

“Narratives of negation” invoke a certain nihilism, stripping away meaning and attributing both help and harm to mere chance. Verdict: robust.

“Narratives of partial agency” are similar to “narratives of minor power”; they allow us to evade responsibility, but also to take it when we see fit. Verdict: robust.

Finally, “narratives of absolute choice” continue on, irrespective of circumstance. Because we are free to choose, change and allocate meaning, it is always present. Verdict: antifragile.

It seems to me that, as I think more about narrative fragility, the structure of the narrative itself matters less than the sincerity and conviction with which it is believed. For example, absolute conviction in the belief of God will allow you to persist in the face of any and all obstacles, whilst a skeptical belief in God is vulnerable to the procession of events or the uncovering of an idea, metaphor, concept or question that undermines said belief.

So when it comes to narrative fragility, there’s an important decision we all have to make: do we believe with utter conviction and so explain all with our chosen narrative? Or do we believe with no conviction and allow the human mind to engineer a narrative that incorporates every new nut and bolt of reality we stumble across? Absolute faith and narrative opportunism are not the only stories to live by, but they are the most resilient to the march of time and all that it brings.