A Narrative Against Narratives

EDIT: Teleology is not the right word here, and sometimes I incorrectly use it interchangeably with Etiology. I actually mean the common thing that acts like both: that primitive mental object that captures the feeling of “becauseness”, so bear with the error until I can unpack and update.


It’s often suggested that the best way to present information is to form a narrative around it. It dresses up boring facts into an engaging package, directs the audience’s attention to the key conclusions, and makes an argument more persuasive – what’s not to love? Well… the last bit. Narratives are a Dark Art: they are more convincing than their argument supports. This poses a serious problem, not only of the unscrupulous brainwashing the masses, but also for over-convincing yourself.

We use narratives to collapse the multitudes of reality into a single legible teleology, and teleology are certainly very useful. But teleology is not narrative. Narratives are a particular encoding of teleology into language. Language is useful because it encodes exactly those thoughts that can be serialized and transmitted to other people. In a Lispy sort of way, it’s convenient to use the same representation for speech as for thoughts. i.e. Our internal monologue is homoiconic. This way, we can compose an argument in our heads and transmit it directly without translation/parsing for either the speaker or recipient. That is, it allows direct intensional communication.

The trouble with narratives though, is that collapsing into a narrative creates “sunk cost” inertia, making it harder to change your mind later. Even worse, all new incoming information is subconsciously filtered and absorbed into the inertia of the interpretation. It takes effort to even see the unnarrated world. If the narrative is correct, this is no trouble. In fact, it is beneficial to compress the world into symbolic representations strung together by narrative, providing an economy of thought… once you are certain you’re doing it right. But the issue with using narratives for exploratory reasoning should now be apparent. They’re too convincing for their own good

There are many possible narratives, to the point that it is possible form one around any collection of data, and support any position. You might think that by normalizing against competing narratives (the premise behind debates, courts, etc.), the more convincing one should be correct. Locally, that’s probably true, but the inability to find a better narrative is only weak evidence of its correctness, and this small gain is not worth the burden of cognitive inertia.


What is the alternative? The gold standard of reasoning is constructive logic, but most systems are too complex for it – that’s exactly the role of teleology. Rather than collapse to a narrative, we can try to hold the entire nonverbal, nonsymbolic Amalgam at once. The notion of Amalgam is a technical Neuromancy term, and so requires some unpacking. An Amalgam is like a collection of competing teleology (the nonverbal precursor to a narrative), but it also contains information about how those teleology are related, and their relative weights. At first pass, one may consider an amalgam as a dagger category whose objects are teleology, and arrows are oriented relationships (hence the dagger involution swaps orientation) between them. The nature of these relationships is nebulous, and can really only be understood (with extant technology) by experience. However, they can be understood as a sort of “sharing” of underlying evidence, like a groupoid but oriented, such that an Amalgam is smaller than the sum of its teleology. The degree to which they share is proportional to their subjective conditional probabilities, with the total weights estimated by “running” it as an MCMC i.e. considering each argument in relation to others, switching positions, etc. If that makes no sense, it will do little harm now to just think of them as collections of competing hypothesis narratives – but it’s important to remember that the internally they have a more efficient, nonverbal representation, allowing continuous shades of narratives that shares some of the neural structure.

These Amalgams are the way that knowledge with uncertainty is represented at the deeper conscious level, when not overwhelmed by seductive narratives. By avoiding narrative, we avoid collapsing into one incomplete meaning, instead preferring a network of interrelated meanings, which together constrain an accurate representation of our belief.

Unfortunately, this method has two major restrictions. By its nonsymbolic nature, the entirety of its structure cannot be delineated and serialized for communication, it can only be conveyed extensionally, by showing directed examples until the idea converges. It can even be difficult to introspect for the thinker inexperienced in nonsymbolic manipulation. Far worse though, the Amalgam is non-denotational – it’s interaction is rather operational, bouncing between related but logically distinct meanings. This lack of logical closure poses the same problem as narratives: the possibility to arbitrarily deviate from reality by accidentally or intentionally employing motte-bailey style conflations.

The benefit gained then, in addition to more efficiently holding uncertainty, is that nonverbal Amalgams do not carry so much weight: they are easier to discard in the face of new information, and do have the infectious power of narratives. Since they can’t be serialized, they can only be communicated by example, which essentially requires “recompiling” the idea, allowing the recipient to form their own interpretation, with bare reality as the ultimate steward of information.

Narratives are certainly useful. There are better ways to structure information clearly to give the right conclusions, but by unfortunate quirk of the mind, they mostly look boring and encyclopeadic or downright robotic. So the main use of narratives should be for engaging emotional content where appropriate. Particularly, they should be avoided in favor of Amalgams when problem solving in an uncertain environment.






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