June 01, 2007

A Government, a Commentariat, and a Blogosphere of Dunces (I): Revisiting the Power of Narrative

In Part II of my "Dominion Over the World" series, I discussed the critical role of the stories we tell, stories about ourselves and our lives, stories about humanity in general, stories about countries and their origins, including our own, and stories about the world and the universe that we inhabit. These narratives (or myths) function as central organizing principles with regard to how we process a vast amount of information. In effect, a basic narrative "grounds" countless disparate facts: it provides a framework to which we can attach individual pieces of data, pieces that would otherwise be impossible for us even to remember, much less to attempt to make sense of. As we accumulate additional information and evidence, we will very often try to fit it into a narrative that we already employ. If we are conscientious, self-aware and self-critical in our methodology, we will sometimes find that new information calls an existing narrative, or some aspect of it, into question. At that point, we have a choice: we can ignore information that we may find discomfiting and unwelcome and try to minimize its significance, or we can examine the narrative we have accepted, and see if we need to alter it in some way.

In that earlier piece, I contrasted creationism and evolution in connection with certain of these mechanisms. Creationists and their derivative and even more intellectually fraudulent relatives, the advocates of "intelligent design" (and see the perfect Monty Python takedown of them critters), intentionally and consistently place their preferred myth above and beyond all facts and evidence, even as more and more information is gathered that demonstrates creationism and I.D. to be fables that are utterly ridiculous in their refusal to acknowledge the obvious, as well as in their intellectual incoherence. Those who recognize that evolution provides a convincing explanation for the development of the natural world and living organisms face no similar dilemma: additional facts further demonstrate the fundamental correctness of evolution, while no facts contradict evolution on any point of importance. Further information may require the refinement or adjustment of aspects of evolutionary theory, but that is true of intellectual development in any field: no theory can account for everything in advance, including that which is not yet known. But evolution explains, in basic terms, everything that is known, while nothing that is known or continues to be discovered undercuts its basic framework.

The difference between the two approaches could be expressed this way: one begins with the story, while facts and evidence are relegated to a significantly inferior position, when they are not ignored entirely, while the other begins with facts and evidence, and arrives at and adjusts the story in accordance with the facts. As I described this point before:
The contrast between the evolution and creation stories illuminates a few key elements of the issues that concern me. We can arrive at a story about our world by first observing what is before us, analyzing its nature and causes to the best of our ability, and then carefully identifying those broader explanations and conclusions we consider justified and provable. Those explanations and conclusions then become the story we tell about what we've observed. Or we can begin with the story itself, a story we have chosen because it pleases us for some reason or fulfills some need, and then proceed to fit the facts we discover into the already existing story as best we can. When the facts won't fit, we may ignore or seek to dismiss them through a variety of strategems.

Contrasting creation myths underscore another crucial point: the stories we tell, and the method by which we arrived at them, affect how we think and how we act in countless ways. To put it another way: we tell stories to explain why the world and we exist as we do, a retrospective kind of telling -- and those stories then influence what we do in the future, as a prospective guide.
These opposed approaches have numerous effects and implications, many of them of immense significance. I will be discussing these issues in more detail in an upcoming series about the causes and manifestations of tribalism, especially with regard to how tribalism has debased and deformed our political discourse today. For the moment, I will only note that, when primacy is given to the story -- apart from and even in direct contradiction to the relevant facts -- a fundamental distortion is built into one's methodology at the very outset. And when an individual has invested so much in a particular story that giving up that story would be experienced as surrendering a central part of his psychological identity and his sense of self-worth, the distance between the story and the observable evidence can grow immeasurably wide. At a certain point, we sometimes conclude that we simply can't "get through" to some people. That's true -- but it is not that we or any other person can't get through to them: it's that the facts can't get through to them. The story must be preserved at all costs. Everything else is ultimately rendered dispensable.

I had already written the above introductory paragraphs when I was startled to read Sam Brownback's op-ed piece in the New York Times. Let us note and then set aside its profoundly misleading and false title: "What I Think About Evolution." To be sure, a process worthy of note is at work in this article, but "thinking" is not it, if by "thinking" we signify, among other things, an approach which seeks to determine the relationship (or lack thereof) between certain notions we have accepted and the significance of demonstrable facts and evidence. We can also set aside a glaring contradiction at the heart of Brownback's presentation. He tells us that he believes "the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him." We quickly find out why Brownback (or a very unsubtle public relations flack/writer) felt it necessary to include that qualifier, "known fully only to him" -- because Brownback goes on to tell us:
The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man's essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.
I will be blunt, because my patience with this kind of argument was thoroughly worn out some years ago. This is astonishingly stupid. Evolution doesn't "undermine man's essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos," because it has never sought to make value judgments of that kind, just as it does not put forth arbitrary beliefs about man's "intended place in the cosmos" or whether "each human person...was willed into being and made for a purpose," just as evolution does not try to explain how the Easter Bunny manages to color all those eggs so decoratively, or how Saint Nick travels the entire globe in a single night with the aid of those rocket-propelled reindeer. Evolution seeks only to understand the vast record of evidence spread out before us and to explain as fully as possible, on the basis of that evidence, what man is and how he and other forms of life developed, as well as innumerable related issues. That's all.

But I find it intriguing that Brownback doesn't know God well enough to be in on how He performed all these wonders fully. I suppose it's good to know that God observes the magician's honor code, and keeps the secrets of His best tricks to Himself. Yet Brownback has enjoyed sufficient intimate moments with the Ultimate Big Trickster to declare, with an illusory certainty that a moment's serious thought would obliterate, that man has an "intended place in the cosmos," and that man was "willed into being and made for a purpose." Keen.

Let's proceed to the bottom line and the conclusion of Brownback's paean to eternal ignorance, where Brownback sets out his basic approach in terms almost identical to those I identified above:
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man's origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.
This is primacy of the story, offered in very clear fashion and without apology. Note carefully the methodology that Brownback endorses. He tells us "that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome" -- that is, the story Brownback chose long ago, completely apart from whatever the relevant evidence might show, has told us the most critical conclusions in advance: that man "was not an accident" and is "unique" in the entire universe. But it's the additional part of the methodology that is the intellectual censor, and the psychological killer: only "[t]hose aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth" are to be permitted, while anything and everything that "undermine[s] this truth" must be "rejected."

The reference to "atheistic theology" is pure, empty propaganda, unworthy of refutation, and we also see that Brownback's statement that "no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man's origins" is a blatant lie. We know it's a lie because Brownback also tells us that what is under any number of stones is deemed unacceptable before we even know what might be turned up. "This truth" -- that is, the arbitrary, groundless and intentionally unprovable narrative that Brownback prefers -- is to be maintained no matter what.

Let me just indicate an important related point, one I will return to in further detail in the series on tribalism in politics. Brownback's article, and all those who offer similar kinds of "arguments," illustrate this point with considerable force. Whenever a preexisting and preselected narrative assumes primary importance in this way, the longer one clings to the preferred story, the stupider one becomes. This is why the truth or falsity of the stories we tell is so critical, and why our methodology matters so much. If a story that is central to our view of ourselves fails to comport with the facts, and if we refuse to give up or even question the story, this necessitates that we block ourselves off from more and more information that might "undermine" that story, to use Brownback's terminology. Rather than eagerly seeking out further facts and trying to find out if a given story remains accurate or needs to be significantly revised (and sometimes even jettisoned altogether), we will lower our heads, narrow the scope of our inquiry, and progressively restrict the kind of data we permit ourselves to examine and even acknowledge. As time goes on, our intellectual curiosity steadily decreases. We won't want certain facts and information, because we might have to wonder whether particular cherished beliefs are correct.

Unfortunately, and very tragically given the nature of world and national events at present and in the foreseeable future, all of these mechanisms are on full display in what laughably announces itself as our political discourse. I shall examine a few key manifestations of failures identical in principle to those revealed by Brownback in the second and concluding part of this essay.