Post-modern Narratives: A Definition for My Use

In general, I find post-modernism to be psuedo-intellectual clap-trap, but it does have one very valuable concept, the narrative.

Post-modernism is a nebulous philosophy by its very nature, and getting a concrete definition even from the experts is very difficult, partially because most or all of them will deny the very possibility of a concrete definition at all. My understanding is that the core post-modern point is that we construct our view of the world in terms of narratives, which are basically stories we use to explain the world around us. We use a broad definition of the word "story" here, so not just "boy meets girl" or "fairy tales", but including explanations like "Gravity decreases in strength as the square of the distance, which is why orbits work" or "Those neo-con nutcases are conspiring to bring down society in devious ways, which is why I don't have a job".

Post-modernism goes off the rails with the following logic:

  • There is no (known) way to be completely certain about a given story's truth. (Proof by lack of evidence: No human philosophy has ever come up with a way to prove truth, despite hundreds of years of trying. Theoretically a logical fallacy, in practice proof by lack of evidence can be used as a kind of provisional evidence that becomes less provisional as time goes by.)
  • Therefore, all stories are equally valid.
The fallacy lies in the fact that certainty is not a binary quantity, it has a range, and we can indeed bootstrap our confidence levels with a reasonable probability of accuracy on at least the basics. I can't be 100% certain that if I drop an apple it will fall to the ground, but I can reasonably be very, very, very certain, and that just has to be good enough. Post-modernism comes from a lack of mathematical understanding of how confidence belief nets like this work.

(Other people may define post-modernism differently, or object to my simplification. To be blunt, I don't care; this isn't an essay on post-modernism per se, and I've read the "real" stuff and I still reject it. Besides, how you be so sure you understand what I just wrote correctly? Post-modernism advocates do tend to have one blind spot in their radical relativism: All narratives are equal, except ones that say they are wrong. There are hypocrites who subscribe to any philosophy you can name, but post-modernism as a philosophy to be promoted as truth is the only one I can think of where it is built right into the philosophy from day one!)

Nevertheless, while I reject postmodernism as a philosophy, like I said, the concept of narrative is a very useful one. I use a definition like the following:

Narrative: A narrative is a story that a person uses to make sense of the world, and all else being equal, a person presented with a new fact will find a way to work it into their story, unless it really doesn't fit... and even then, a person will often manage.

As is the case with many interesting ideas, the definition doesn't capture how powerful the concept is. So, some examples:

  • Religions are some of the largest narratives there are, explaining life and death, and in many cases, beyond. Everybody can see how people around them fit facts into the religious narrative, even when it's perfectly obvious to us that a new "narrative" is needed. Of course, each of us is no less guilty ourselves of the same thing... except whichever of us is actually right, if any, whoever that may be.
  • Narratives can extend beyond people. Right now, the sick media tends to get stuck in very simplistic narratives on complicated topics, and stories will tend to be fit into the narratives a given company may have, rather then constructing their opinions from the news. Again, I shouldn't need to show specific instances, just compare Iraq coverage from CNN, Fox, and your choice of European news sources. The same event can be cast as a disaster for the US, a disaster for Iraq, progress for the US, progress for Iraq, proof that the US is an evil ravening beast, proof that the US is a benevolent force for world peace and a hero, and in a number of other directions. What is telling is not that there are multiple viewpoints; what is telling is that you can accurately predict which spin will be added to a story, given the past history of the writing from that source. That's the narrative at work.
  • A narrative can seriously limit the thinking of a person or larger entity. What intially prompted this writing was a comment I wanted to make about lawmaker narratives, specifically about IP laws. Right now, the dominant narrative is that "Weak IP laws cause problems, stronger IP laws will solve them." Thus, from this I conclude that software patents won't go away until some strong impetus is given to law makers such that they can no longer hold onto that narrative.

The primary distinguishing characteristic of a narrative is the way a person will hold onto it. Indeed, we have no choice; you simply can't function with no explanation of the world, and an explanantion you change at the drop of a hat is no explanation either. It is not inherently bad to hold onto a narrative and it's beyond me to tell you what your threshold for letting go of a narrative should be. All I know is that it is better to be aware of the fact they do really exist, since more information generally allows you to make better decicions for yourself.

The power of narratives, both to explain the actions of others, and to predict them, is quite real. I find it a useful concept to have in my cognitive toolchest.