Monday, September 1, 2014

4 The Limited Scope of Storytelling And The Dangers of Depending On It

Unfortunately, for my purposes, E. O. Wilson's article which I am looking at is not available to read online except by subscription.  While the article is so full of claims, assertions and assumptions that are ripe for questioning and criticism that I'd have to violate copy-rite laws to fully look at it, his premise can be effectively refuted by going over several of those.   I will jump ahead in Wilson's order to deal with his definition of the mind, which contains one of the more bizarre reductionist passages I think I've ever read on this topic.

The final reason for optimism is the human necessity for confabulation which offers more evidence of a material basis to consciousness.   Our minds consist of storytelling.  In each instant, a flood of information of information flows into our senses, more than the brain can process.  To augment the fraction of this information, we summon the stories of past events for context and meaning.  We compare the past and the present and apply the decisions that were made previously,  variously right or wrong.  Then we look forward, creating - not just recalling this time - multiple competing scenarios.  These are weighted against one another by the suppressing or intensifying effect imposed by aroused emotional centers.  A choice is made in the unconscious centers of the brain, recent studies tell us, several seconds before the decision arrives in the conscious part. 

I am rather astonished that any scientist could make the claim that "Our minds consist of storytelling" considering that the very basis of science and scientific method quite often consist of very detailed and exacting mental activity that is not narrative.   While biology, the description of the process of life does contain narrative description of events and, especially in evolutionary science since Darwin, of invented narratives in the lost past, science must include much more. For example, consider the importance to science of non-narrative description of structures and spaces.  Geometry is certainly not "storytelling".Mathematics can be considered "storytelling" only by imposing a self-interested conceit onto it.

Much of the description in science is decidedly not narrative in any sense and much more of it is not narrative in any honest way.  'And science doesn't comprehend all of human thought.   As a musician who has mostly played instrumental music without words, I would point out that your mind can go on for hour after hour of quite rigorous use, including memory and perception and observation, creating orders of sounds, "shaping" them without narrative content either being evoked from memory or read from a page or generated spontaneously.

Perhaps, given his profession in the purported study of behavior, Wilson's cutting out all but narrative content in our minds is understandable* to an extent.  But his claim that this "necessity for confabulation" "offers more evidence of a material basis to consciousness" makes his diminution of our minds look more like him being up to of his old habit of self-serving reductionist claims and scenarios.  It is a habit that permeates his article whose real motive is not to determine what the real nature of consciousness and free will are but to convince readers that those are material phenomena so to negate the problem those two ideas pose to his materialism.

It is one of the most remarkable things I've learned in reading the literature of atheism in the past twelve or so years how central the quest to support their ideology is and the position that ideological war has in the sciences,  leading to some of the worst science of the past hundred-fifty years. Science which has a remarkably short shelf life, considering the reason for science to exist is to produce ideas of enhanced reliability.  That is especially  true of the science that purported to deal with thought and behavior.

One of the biggest problems for Wilson's claims is of his own making. Storytelling, in any meaningful sense of the term, requires language.  If you are going to pin consciousness to storytelling, you have to conclude that only humans and a few of the higher apes who have been taught to use language are conscious. The effort to shoehorn consciousness into an evolutionary narrative becomes far more problematic in the course of Wilson's article due to his insistence on that self-serving definition.  I could bring up what Wilson would propose the precursors of consciousness could be in the period before language capable of sustaining narrative existed in the animal kingdom and how those figured into scenarios of natural selection.   In order to make claims about consciousness being a product of the evolution of the human brain, he removes it from virtually all of evolved beings and he ignores that gorillas trained in speech have been shown to be capable of narration, not to mention conscious thought.  How the clear consciousness and thought of the famous African parrot Alex would fit into his storytelling of consciousness is not apparent.

Wilson seems to forget that his script for how thought happens is only one of many possible ones and that it is based on little to no actual science but is a cut and paste job, putting snippets of (quite often dodgy) experimental reports together with speculations, wild and tame and quite often entirely ideological, not to arrive wherever those will go but aimed at producing a particular result.  As with Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, the goal is predetermined and that goal shapes the narrative instead of the events of the narrative happening in a real sequence.

And, for Wilson, that creation of a scenario is science, it is what science is for him.  But, as he is the one who early on said that the human brain was the most complex structure in the known universe, that it would be largely unknown, today,  his description is so inadequate as to likely lead away from clarity instead of to it.  That it is self serving for his materialism is obvious, that it is inadequate to describe something of that complexity and ineffability is also obvious.  That it is an ideologically imposed story is practically announced in his program of action for his fellow neuroscientists "set on discovering the physical basis of consciousness".   There is every reason to reject it as vastly inadequate due to  what can safety be presumed to be unknown about our complex brains and the very real possibility that consciousness is not merely the product of brains or even an emergent phenomenon of them.   The insistence that that is true is not based in science but in materialist ideology and atheist faith.

It should never be forgotten that it is an essential part of the process of storytelling that you must pick and choose what you include, even when you are trying to give an accurate idea of real and rigorously observed events in real life.  You cannot reproduce all of a reality in a story.  It is edited of necessity and the temptation to edit for purposes other than to arrive at what actually happened is always a component of storytelling.


His last sentence in that passage would, I expect, evoke the materialist-atheist use of the late Benjamin Libet's work to attack the idea of free will, which I would guess is the interpretation of that experiment you will find at the top of a google search due to its popularity among atheists.  However, it is certainly not the only interpretation of that work and it makes claims about it, often through an incomplete description of the experiment and inserting claims about it that Libet not only never made but rejected.  Since the materialist use of it to deny free will hinges on the timing and sequence of "events" in the experiment and the matter of when the articulation of intent happens, it looks to me rather odd that so little is discussed about the time it takes to articulate perception and experiences** or even to arrive at an understanding of them.    We articulate those retrospectively, describing acts which have already happened and that doesn't happen automatically.  Considering that we come to an articulable understanding of things only after they have been perceived through sight, hearing and other senses, it is clear that the articulated speech is derived from mental activity that is not yet expressible in words.  I would suggest that is also an impediment to Wilson's claims about the position of storytelling in our consciousness.  As the text at the link points out, John Locke said that "free" was a description of the human mind, which consists of far more than just the will.

The idea that we can understand the entirety of something but breaking it into component parts which might be studied in isolation can yield some parts of understanding the whole, especially when the whole is not terribly complex.  When it is as complex as the body of an organism, that approach has far more limited success (look at the notably spotty success of nutrition science).  When it is an entire, living, being, including a mind, the success has proven to be minimal, the proposed successes often actual and cataclysmic failures.  I think that the fecund production of bad science demonstrated by all of the sciences that propose to deal with minds is a direct result of that failure of reductionism as a program to learn about the mind.

But I also think it is due, in large part, to the goal of so many of those engaged in it, to support their ideological materialism.   As the march of folly in the behavioral sciences has progressed, the predominance of that ideological promotion has been more durable than the science that progresses into the bone yard of discontinued science at a steadily increasing pace.  Eventually, one would hope, the wider culture in which magazines for the general public are edited and published would begin to notice that history which continually repeats itself.  But that hasn't happened, either.

Liberals have ample reason to look critically at the history of materialism in politics and societies, especially such things as its inevitable damage to the concept of freedom of thought, which has had a demonstrable tendency to lead to damage of freedom in real life.   While atheists can point to the harmlessness of atheist professors who would hardly be roused to violence or even roused from their professorial otiosity to get into a real argument, that has not been the result of the materialist attack on the freedom and dignity of human beings, on our rights, equally held.  The ideologically motivated attack on the belief in freedom is a serious matter, the attack on the belief in the metaphysical aspects on which democracy and even a decent society are absolutely dependent is a serious matter, the discussion of which will upset materialists, atheists, and the professorial comity that is as corrupt as that on display in the United States Senate during some of their more emetic hearings.

If materialists are right then liberalism is wrong.  It can't be right.  And that makes all the difference in reality.

*  But still a  bizarre thing for a scientist to say.   I remember an argument over Wilson's Sociobiology I had with a member of my family, majoring in biological topics in the late 1970s. He believed he had clinched the argument in favor of biological determinism a la Wilson by saying,  "But he has the equations to back him up".   I don't remember if I used the mathematical content of past, overturned science in responding to him or if I used the fact that Wilson's narratives were, frequently, self-serving acts of reification or that his claims that the "behaviors" he identified in the most distantly related of animals were, in fact the same "behaviors" with no evidence, whatsoever.  Reification and conflation are the original sins of the sciences derived from psychology and which deal with behavior and thought.  There has been no salvation for the field by those sciences and there is no reason to believe that the neuroscience or cognitive sciences in which those vices flourish, rampantly, will produce that redemption.


  1. "We compare the past and the present and apply the decisions that were made previously, variously right or wrong. Then we look forward, creating - not just recalling this time - multiple competing scenarios. These are weighted against one another by the suppressing or intensifying effect imposed by aroused emotional centers. A choice is made in the unconscious centers of the brain, recent studies tell us, several seconds before the decision arrives in the conscious part."

    Who is this "we"? Some homunculus in our brains? And what makes this "unconscious" (Freudian alert!) choice? Our genes?

    I still say it's turtles all the way down.

  2. The "turtles" anecdote, BTW, i got from Sagan's "Cosmos." Still remember it. He used it (he thought) to devastating effect in proving science trumps superstition and all other "non-scientific" thought.

    Of course, sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.....

  3. Narrative, by the way, is quite complex. I spend a semester teaching the basic elements of it, of which there are many.

    To say our "minds" like to tell "stories" is to say a great deal (unexamined) and nothing at all (because the details are not examined).

  4. "The final reason for optimism...."

    As interesting as the scientific critique is the set of values assumed. "Optimism" is the attitude that we will eventually prove freedom an illusion. That sounds to me a whole lot more like pessimism.