Let’s say you’re watching a TV show. There’s a scene where a gun-holding person—perhaps an authority of some kind or maybe a vigilante—enters a room and is shot at by another person—again, maybe an authority, a suspect in a crime, or an innocent person who saw an armed person entering their home. The person entering shoots back and hits them. That character is now injured, critically or not, or maybe dead. Let’s say it was a clean headshot; that character is now dead.
As the camera moves to the shooter, we see some reaction, maybe surprise, relief, or whatever, and the story goes on. Depending on the context, this action is tragic, just, or maybe it was an example of that good old canard of evil. The story continues and we maybe have some dialog, a phone call (perhaps to let someone know the “problem has been eliminated” or that they might need some help hiding the body). In any case, the narrative lives on and we learn more about what happened and why.
At least for us, as viewers. Also for the character who did the killing. At least until they get theirs, or whatever.
For the character who was shot, the narrative ends right there. There is no reflection on the motivation of their killer, no sense of tragedy, and not even an awareness of the next scene. For that character the story ends abruptly. Fade to eternal black.
We live in interesting times. The media is flush with tragedy, corruption, idiocy, and all seems to be falling apart. Where you place the tragedy and corruption will depend on the narrative which has installed itself in your head, of course. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Recently another person was killed in a way which has caused narratives to explode with controversy and continuing stories, except for the person who was killed. For that man, the story is over. His end was a horrendous injustice, and had we talked to him a week before his tragic death perhaps he would have understood the nature of such a narrative as it pertained to other people in similar circumstances, but this particular narrative is not his. That narrative belongs to us and to the memory of future people. It’s not his because he is dead.
But the narrative, the story of human being in this time, in these places, insofar as our stories are able to be shared, will continue to be shared by all sentient being who are lucky or unlucky enough to share in it.
As it will be for all of us, eventually. Most of the ends of our selves will not be so public, unjust, and evocative of civil action. But no matter the nature of the moment of our death, the self is gone in a moment and the story continues for others.
This comparison, or perhaps we should call it a juxtaposition, between the narrative of culture and the individual self has been on my mind more than most things in recent years. News cycles about tragedies definitely bring it into more relief, for sure, as I usually think of such relationships of narrative and selves in terms of historical people. Authors I am reading who have died, especially if they died long ago, seem to carry, as I read their words, a kind of continuance of life in their words. The old canard (that seems to be my word today) of us living on through our work, creation, and the memories of others is apt here, but it misses where the juxtaposition of the self slides right off of the historical or cultural narrative and into oblivion, making contact only briefly in the sea of stories that is human culture.
I think that most of us, perhaps all of us, believe deep down that we are somehow attached to this narrative; that we are part of history and culture. We have always had our perceptions, memories, and experiences of the world. It’s all we know. So when we watch a death occur–whether public or private, obscure or history changing–we see death as a part of this narrative and so it seems like death is part of the narrative. But our death will not be part of our narrative, but only the narratives of those who live after. And we are not a part of the narrative, as the narrative transcends individual lives.
Death is not something we experience as the self, but only as a narrative of others’ selves. Our own death is only real for the intersubjective story being told by those who will exist after we do, and is not ours. This is because our self is not attached to the narrative, but merely skims across the top like a water strider until it’s time to get eaten by inevitability.
The thing that keeps getting stuck in the corners of my mind, my own temporary narrative if you will, is what that makes the narrative?
If the narrative is nothing but the collected stories of temporary selves skimming across the surface of…of what?
And then it occurs to me that the narrative is paper thin and fragile. All the anger, sadness, happiness, hopefulness, creativity, and all the other feelings we have about the world are stories we tell each other, and yet they seem to real, solid, and important. But they, in themselves, are nothing. There is no independent reality to the media upon which we waterstriders streak our ideas and selves.
Everything is a fiction upon which which we build concepts of reality and fantasy with the same brush.
But that isn’t the part of this which is compelling to me. That’s something I’ve accepted as a reality of our world for a long time. Nor is it the idea that this fiction is all we have access to—it’s quite literally all of reality for any and all of us. No, that’s been well understood since I read Kant as a teenager (I was, indeed, a party animal). What really rubs my gib is that it really feels like that fiction is attached to the world in some way. What I mean by that is that as I navigate the world I have the perpetual sense of this story being the world, and it takes a large amount of attention to try to imagine that it is only a covering upon it, and that my being aware of it doesn’t change the perception.
And isn’t the attention and focus to peel this facade from the world its own kind of facade? It’s facades all the way down.
I cannot shake the fiction because literally everything I experience is that fiction.
And yet it’s also real.
Similar to how Kant talks about Hume as awakening him from his “dogmatic slumber,” the tension of this reality/fiction in my head is, I think, among the more confabulating and perplexing parts of the human condition. Within this tension is much of philosophy post-Kant, including the various tensions between epistemological worldviews that make up the contrasts between skepticism and faith. Behind everyone who says things like “well, that’s just, like, your opinion man” or “you don’t know the truth any more than I do” lies, I believe, this tension.
And while there are epistemological answers to such a conundrum, they are at best probabilistic. Skepticism, the philosophical underpinning for the various techniques collectively thought of as the “scientific method,” cannot give us certainty in any absolute sense. Even faith, which is often paired with the sacred wine of conviction, can only give us an illusion of certainty. That is, what many people think of as certainty is at best an inability or unwillingness to doubt or even understand the true nature of doubt. Our old friend Descartes may have known a thing or two about the subject.
Certainty is not attainable, and of this you can be certain.
Speaking of Descartes; he no longer thinks, therefore he no longer is. But is he part of the narrative still, anyway? We are still talking about him, after all. How much of him are his ideas? Is it meaningful, aside from some quite slippery metaphor, to say he is still with us?
I think not.
(do I disappear into a puff of my own logic?)
I mean to say that the narrative definitely is not part of him anymore. He cogito no mo’. But the narrative carries his memory. But it did so when he was alive, as well. I mean to say that these words, as you read them, are part of an obscure part of our culture, and they carry meaning (I hope) for you and express a thought I am having as I write them. It lets you see into my mind. But you could read Descartes just as easily, and would his words be any more or less dead than mine? Do words convey life?
If you were to meet me, have a conversation with me, and get to know me then I am a living thing to you? But what if I have died since I wrote this? From your point of view, as the alive reader, would it make any difference? Does my being alive elsewhere as you read this make the words any more (or perhaps less) import to you? Any more or less real?
These words live within the narrative of human culture, and are no longer only mine now that I have typed them. They live in posterity, whether I am a live or dead, so long as they are accessible. Once I write them, they are as a live or as dead as the words of Descartes, Kant, or some other obscure blog author who I have never heard of. From the point of view of some cultural narrative there is no difference between a dead or alive person.
From the point of view of the narrative, aren’t we all Schrodinger’s cat? Are we dead? Are we alive? Does it matter to the narrative? No. To the narrative our individual life is irrelevant. And when I die, the narrative becomes less than irrelevant to me; it becomes oblivious, very much in the true meaning of oblivion.
The information we put into the world creates the narrative. As history unfolds, that narrative gets added to, changed, and perhaps improved (maybe not so much….) but from the point of view of the narrative (a fictional perspective, to be sure, as there is no objective points of view by definition) we could be dead or alive, and it wouldn’t know the difference.
Everything is that record, aside, perhaps, from the very moment of now. As in now now. (Yes, that’s a Spaceballs reference.) But we’ll get to that more below.
It’s similar to how if every other person was a P-Zombie (That is, a philosophical zombie or a person who acted and appeared to have inner experiences but in fact doesn’t have any ‘qualia’ or a sense of what it’s like to be themselves), it would be indistinguishable, to ourselves, from a world of people with inner experiences like ours. If every other person in the world were a complicated automaton with no inner self of what it’s like to be them, would that make your experience different than it is now? Is that how everything is and you didn’t know it? How would you know? Are you the only being in the universe?
Yeah, I just invoked solipsism. Typical philosophy nonsense, I know.
The imaginary narrative-perspective doesn’t care if the source of its change is a living and thinking being, a P-Zombie, a dead person, or a computer generated meme. From the point of narrative, information is information. And this, perhaps, might be an explanation for why fake news (as in actual fake news, not that fake fake news that Trumps talks about, which is nothing more than a narrative he doesn’t like) is so compelling. It might explain why it’s so easy for us to believe in nonsense of all kinds.
Perhaps it is too obvious to point out that all that we have is our temporary now. I don’t mean that all there is in the whole universe is now (especially if String theory is true), but because we are being who exist in this way where our consciousness is the creature of, or perhaps the creator of, the present moment all we have is now. From our individual points of view (at least those of us who aren’t P-Zombies), the now is all there is.
Anything that is not your very moment of consciousness, even if it is a memory (because a memory is but a kind of now which simulates a thing which happened before, even if corrupted by our lens), is that narrative. At least, that’s how it seems to me.
And yet we make decisions, define ourselves in relationship to, and live every temporary moment in context to this fiction. It is simultaneously all we know (And perhaps all we can know) and all a phantasm. And yet it’s real.
So, what is reality then?
Well, as Kant pointed out, the noumena is unattainable to us. And while what we’re left with is phenomenal, we have to be aware that we are all, collectively AND individually, constructing it. Our concept of time, color, etc are all (I think, anyway) based upon a real universe, but the construction is a skin we attach to this reality. Some of this is automatic, in that our brain perceives the world the way we do without choice, which is why is is so hard, if not impossible, to pry our thoughts away from it. Like I said, facades all the way down.
But some of it is, insofar as free will is a thing (it might just be another of the facades), created in a way which can be perceived differently. We can have different perspectives on things and perhaps those realities can also change. Beliefs, worldviews, and behaviors are examples of these. One of the reasons that so many people get “stuck in their ways,” try to conserve traditions, or become dogmatic is that they seem to get attached to a narrative. Perhaps they start to identify with it as if it were a part of them, rather than an external construction which has copied a part of itself into our brains much like a malicious piece of malware.
I think if we realize that we were never attached to the narratives to begin with then we might more easily skate across the world at will rather than get carried away by the tides of culture and history.
If you want to have any kind of freedom, I think it’s best to not identify with the narratives which are only facades indifferent to whether we are dead or alive. This means you need to stop taking your worldview, you sacred beliefs, and even things like your tribal/cultural families seriously.
Would we create the world we live in, as bad as it can be, intentionally? No? Then why do you grip so hard to it? If you want it to change, you need to change your perspective first.
We cannot literally, as some new age woo woo charlatans claim, change the world with your thoughts. But what you can do is realize that how you perceive the world is a construction fabricated from a combination of physiological perception and stories given to us by narratives unconcerned with you in particular (just like the TV show moved on after the character was killed, the narrative in the world is indifferent to you in particular). Whether you detach your identity from constructed narratives is up to you. I think it’s a worthy exercise to learn how to do. You can always go back later, if you find nothing of value elsewhere.
You will be doing you either way, but this way at least you can be more sure that the narrative home you choose was earned, and not merely inherited by historical accident and cultural circumstance.
Be willing to let go of everything, yourself included, if freedom and truth are important to you.
Happy Friday, everyone.