Sunday, August 03, 2014

Stories, Rhetorical Devices and Making Sense of the World

Reading up on some of my earlier thoughts – especially the one concerning non-linearity, nihilism and the will to act – I realized that I have also been teleologically motivated in the search for stories. In that article I had questioned if non-linearity of human life should prompt us into inaction or lack of interest in any proactive action. I replied with the argument that there are means to some ends and these ends are themselves means to some other ends. Eventually ending up at happiness. Overall, the article sounded positive and life-affirming – almost a pre-emptive strike on nihilistic implications of the non-linearity of life.

This is common of human beings. The search for stories. We look for the narrative, the story, the purposiveness and meaning in actions, projects, desires and wishes. The conceptual glue that binds our observations of self and the rest of the world. Something that tells us that things are happening with some logic – good or bad – and some ‘sense’. The brute meaninglessness of non-purposive quasi-random happenings is deeply disturbing for us. I don’t know why.

This is common also to our more sophisticated theorizing about the world. 'The Selfish Gene' is a remarkable book. So is 'The Universe Next Door'. The Myth of Sisyphus, too, is. But all of them have in common an implicit belief in the existence of order, structure and a hidden presence of purpose. Selfish gene does the best job of baring it but falls short in the follow through. The need for the teleological comfort is too high to do so.

I do not claim to know the real nature of things any more than others that have given the matter some thought. I can present some speculations though. They are as below.
The happenings in the universe – including the subset of human life in it – are quasi-random. There are levels of randomness of course. What drives the relative extent of matter and antimatter at the time of big-bang (or at least the relative extent of what we model to be matter and anti-matter)? What drives the specific values of various constants of nature (as we model them, again!) This is the highest level of randomness known to us. We come to eventually call it the laws of nature. They are so in the context of the lower level observations of the working of the universe. But at their own level, they are just as random.

The next level of matter and energy interacting is moving randomly in most senses but is bound by the regularities imposed by the higher order randomness. So a star on exhausting its fuel will tend to follow one of the three fates (as per our modeling currently) depending on its mass. This classification is no doubt governed by the specific value of constant of gravity. The size of a given star though has nothing to do with this. Stars of various sizes exist within the regime of the same law. The law binds how they evolve post fuel emptying. It also governs how the nuclear reactions and gravity interact to define the size of the star when it is burning. This is just an example. The limited point is – at this level, though some regularities can be found, a lot is still randomly occurring.

At the level of carbon-based life forms, the randomness comes of age. Their very beginning is probably result of a chance occurrence (as we have modeled for now.) Their subsequent evolution is a combination of chance events and their internal building. Stripped of the special status to life vs non-life, the living things can be seen as special agglomeration of matter that process energy in an efficient manner to accumulate more matter and to generate other similar agglomerations. Why they do so is an inaccurate question. There is no why. The living things started to be ‘living’ by chance and evolved further by chance as well.

Things become lot more complicated as humans show up on the scene. They become complicated not inherently but because the author of this article is a human being, a descendant of these early risers. He is too close to the matter to disentangle himself from the ‘subjective’ view. He will give it a try anyway.
Human beings are a fairly complex biological machine that came out as one of the outcomes of evolution along with the rest of the flora and fauna. Is there a grand purpose to such brainy organism to develop? Probably not. Why are there so many species? Because there can be. And because there are. Why do humans have large brains and an ability to think? Because they could and they did. There was no purpose to humans getting big brains. Not anymore than there was to the first living organism getting a gene to replicate its design. Also biological evolution is not a special process going on as the queen of all evolutions – to bring out the grand prize i.e. humans at the end. It is simply a process that is feasible amongst billions of other processes in the known universe. That process led to some sufficiently complex agglomerations of matter to replicate and eventually to grow ‘brains’. There was no purpose to that.

The human society that came thereafter is the most confounding of the lot. By virtue of its complexity. Also by virtue of its closeness to the author’s mental make-up. It is one thing to marvel at the evolution of the cold, non-living universe and even accept the lack of purpose in its evolution. It is entirely another thing to see the culture, language and the whole structure of thought that one inherited as an incomplete and potentially over-teleological construct of a desperate human civilization. The former is of ‘academic’ interest. The latter has far more significance in my limited existence. The former has at best indirect and very abstruse implications for my worldview. The latter has immediate implications for how I live. Hence the difficulty.

Nevertheless, here is my attempt to see that human society and its evolution for what it has been. The social evolution is well documented in terms of its facts and events. However, through the entire narrative there is a remarkable thrust on continuity and purpose. All the actors of history act with some intent and they succeed or fail. Then others take it up from there and continue the intentional actions with success or failure. And so on.

The real history is probably lot more prosaic. What goes on in human society at individual and collective level is too confusing for a single being to fathom and model. Hence we build stories that are consumable at an individual level and revel in them. Over a period of time we come to see these stories as the true representations of reality. Even that is generous. We come to see the stories as truths – the reality itself.
Let us start with the individual. What the individual does is only apparently purposive. When I introspect about a specific decision I made, I am only half-sure of where it came from. Many decisions are follow-up decisions to earlier ones. Some are part of a project, in a manner of interacting with the surrounding once the basic project is defined. But this merely pushes the question to the definition of the project itself. Most projects come about in response to quasi-random stimuli. Granted that most have a specified objective. But the ultimate objective in most cases is down to either an unspecified non-individual institutional set-up (which is then result of quasi-random evolution itself) or furthering happiness of some human(s) or reducing pain of some human(s) or creating cognitive ease for some human(s) (the cognitive ease is similar to but yet different from happiness or pain in that it is not felt with that intensity, although it is quite powerful in its own way.)

Many other actions are reactions to stimuli – bodily stimuli (to eat, excrete or seek shelter etc) or social stimuli (answering phone, responding to a fact based query and such) and so on. Proactive actions are part of a project (explained above) or pursuits of happiness/pain-reduction. As I have noted in an article elsewhere, happiness and pain are now quasi-random in human set-ups. They were useful in evolution for the sustenance and procreation of the organism. In absence of daily threats to life and missing need to procreate in large numbers, the pleasures and pains are now vestiges of evolutional legacy. They are not ‘useful’ in the conventional sense of furthering the organism anymore. But they exist and they are there. In a way, in absence of anything else to drive actions now, they have become yet another driver of proactive action. They share the berth with many other quasi-random drivers though, as noted earlier in this article.

The sum total of the above then is the life of an individual that is prone to quasi-random internal stimuli and drivers and quasi-random social stimuli that come from equally arbitrary set-ups. The individual’s reaction to this is quite curious though. For some reason, maybe evolution linked, the individual seeks to bind the experience together in the form of a story. Each experience needs an explanation. This explanation is of an arbitrarily chosen standard. It probably boils down to cognitive ease. Individuals use a combined approach of themselves working towards such an explanation and ‘buying’ some readymade ones. They do not necessarily stop living in absence of the explanation. But they strive for it. And that shapes their reactions. This striving leads to some major drivers at a collective level for sure. But it would be ambitious to give this striving too much influence over individual or collective matters.

What I wish to draw attention to is somewhat simpler. There is no comprehensive story to our actions – individually or collectively. Lot of random things happen that drive our make-up, our interpretations and our drives. Lot of random things happen that lead to specifics of the various situations we face. There is no doubt some degree of predictability to things and there is no doubt some semblance of limited purposiveness to our actions. However, in its entirety, the grand schemes have no value. Even limited purposiveness is quite prone to specific instances of large random inputs.

We can make stories to make life bearable. Life as we have it is anyway a product of chance events in its origin and subsequent evolution – biological and social. Stripped of the vagaries of life that keep one occupied, the individual like me eventually finds out that the precious life is simply a series of happenings over a few years.