Guiding Fiction

Fact                             -                      Fiction
Objective                    -                      Subjective
Complete                    -                      Incomplete
Top-down                   -                      Bottom-up
Narrow                        -                      Wide
Theory                         -                      Story
State                            -                      Process

A story, or theory, cannot account for everything - but can it account for enough?

A story is a heuristic, a general guide for action based on experience. A theory is a story at high resolution, a definitive statement on what is, and a prediction of what will be: a story taken literally.

Stories are entraining; they narrow us down, focus us on a certain set of information. Like a constellation, they select points from an infinitude, defining what is salient and what is not  In believing in a story, or theory, we plant our feet in the ground and commit to a position; this, not that. When we commit too much we become ideologues.

Stories are how we ‘kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.’ Meaning is, then, created retrospectively, by reflecting on past events.

Theories are man-made, and our sight is limited. The more simple the context, the more likely a theory may be good enough; the more complex, the more likely the theory will be insufficient.

Theories work within known/complicated domains. Because stories are 'loose' and allow room for interpretation (this looseness giving us what Taleb calls 'optionality'), they are better suited to complex domains. In a complex domain we do not want to be tied to a narrow range of action because it is likely that such action could be wrong. Snowden recommends a series of 'safe to fail' experiments; in other words, send probes in multiple directions, but be prepared for most of these to fail. Do not invest heavily in any single strategy, rather spread your investments lightly across multiple lines of inquiry. The looseness of the heuristic, or guiding story, allows for such a diverse approach.

Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful.


That which enables us to know and understand aright in the things of God, must be a living principle of holiness within us.

[John Smith the Platonist]

[...] knowledge comes about in so far as the object known is within the knower.

[St Thomas Aquinas]

[...] the world partly becomes - comes to be - how it is imagined.

[Gregory Bateson]
Mind and Nature, p.220

Theories [can] matter according to their use. They are not destinations, they are our means of transport ... the question about a belief is not whether it is true but, rather, how would my life be better if I believed it?

So a belief can never be an idol or a fetish (or a resting-place), it can only be a tool or an instrument.

However subtly, however difficult to discern, what we believe issues in what we do. Our theories are compasses, if not maps.

When [we ask] of any particular truth, 'What is its cash-value in terms of particular experience?' [we] imagine what this particular truth, this particular belief, can buy us, what experiences it can provide us with.

Our truths are not out there, like new planets, waiting for us to discover them; they are made by us (and for us) like uniforms. In the service of our needs, they equip us for our particular tasks.

What we believe about God - like what we believe about the differences between the sexes, or about creativity - will above all affect our conduct.

[Adam Phillips]
Side Effects ('On Not Making It Up'), p.76, 77, 78

Any attempt to square linguistic statements with the world is to compare apples and oranges, to try to climb out of our own minds and language to see the world as it is in itself, and Rorty saw no profit in it.

Indeed, following his own pragmatist criteria, he did not suggest that he was offering an alternative view of the world; rather, he proposed that his way of talking about things was useful. 

Instead of spending valuable time asking whether various types of inquiry—science, political thought, poetry, alchemy—are better or worse at capturing the truth, we should ask whether there are new ways of describing and redescribing the world that better serve our variety of goals, with the understanding that "hope of agreement is never lost so long as the conversation lasts."

[James Ryerson]
'The Quest for Uncertainty: Richard Rorty's pragmatic pilgrimage'

In a letter to Popper [...] Einstein states quite clearly his agreement with Popper 'that theory cannot be fabricated out of the results of observation, but that it can only be invented.'

What is more, observation as such cannot be prior to theory as such, since some theory is presupposed by any observation. Failure to recognise this is, in Popper's view, the flaw in the foundations of the empirical tradition.

'[...] the belief that we can start with pure observations alone, without anything in the nature of a theory, is absurd; as may be illustrated by the story of the man who dedicated his life to natural science, wrote down everything he could observe, and bequeathed his priceless collection of observations to the Royal Society to be used as inductive evidence....

Twenty-five years ago I tried to bring home the same point to a group of physics students in Vienna by beginning a lecture with the following instructions: "Take a pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed!" They asked, of course, what I wanted them to observe. Clearly the instruction, "Observe!" is absurd....

Observation is always selective. It needs a chosen object, a definite task, an interest, a point of view, a problem [...]'

This means 'that observations, and even more so observation statements and statements of experimental results, are always interpretations of the facts observed; that they are interpretations in the light of theories'. 

At every level, then, our knowledge can consist only of our theories.

[Brian Magee]
Popper, p. 33-4

The person with whom saving is a desire springing from his personality gains also a profound psychological satisfaction in being able to act accordingly; that is, he is not only benefited practically when he saves, but he also feels satisfied psychologically.

One can easily convince oneself of this if one observes, for instance, a woman of the lower middle class shopping in the market and being as happy about two cents saved as another person of a different character may be about the enjoyment of some sensuous pleasure.

This psychological satisfaction occurs not only if a person acts in accordance with the demands springing from his character structure but also when he reads or listens to ideas that appeal to him for the same reason.

[Erich Fromm]
The Fear of Freedom, p.243

In the natural history of the living human being, ontology and epistemology cannot be separated. His (commonly unconscious) beliefs about what sort of world it is will determine how he sees it and acts within it, and his ways of perceiving and acting will determine his beliefs about its nature.

The living man is thus bound within a net of epistemological and ontological premises which - regardless of ultimate truth or falsity - become partially self-validating for him.

[...] what is important is a body of habitual assumptions or premises implicit in the relationship between man and environment, and that these premises may be true or false [...] the net of premises which govern adaptation (or maladaptation) to the human and physical environment. In George Kelly's vocabulary, these are the rules by which an individual "construes" his experience.

I am concerned especially with that group of premises upon which Occidental concepts of the "self" are built, and conversely, with premises which are corrective to some of the more gross Occidental errors associated with that concept.

[Gregory Bateson]
Steps to an Ecology of Mind ('The Cybernetics of "Self": A Theory of Alcoholism'), p.314-15

The way we imagine our lives is the way we are going to go on living our lives.

For the manner in which we tell ourselves about what is going on is the genre through which events become experiences. There are no bare events, plain facts, simple data - or rather this too is an archetypal fantasy: the simplistics of brute (or dead) nature.

... our fundamental unease with Freud's theory is not that it cannot be verified but that it does not satisfy. We fail to fall for it not because it empirically fails as a hypothesis about human nature, but because it fails poetically, as a deep enough, embracing enough, aesthetic enough plot for providing dynamic coherence and meaning to the dispersed narratives of our lives.

We see what our ideas ... allow us to see.

[James Hillman]
Healing Fiction, p.11, 23, 36

"Being born, coming into this particular body, these particular parents, and in such a place, and what we call external circumstances ... form a unity and are as it were spun together." Each of our souls is guided by a daimon to that particular body and place, these parents and circumstances, by Necessity - and none of us has an inkling of this because it was eradicated on the plains of forgetting.

Images such as these fill the mind with lovely speculations, and have for centuries.

These cosmological myths place us in the world and involve us with it. The cosmologies of today - big bangs and black holes, antimatter and curved, ever-expanding space going nowhere - leave us in dread and senseless incomprehensibility.

Random events, nothing truly necessary. Science's cosmologies say nothing about the soul, and so they say nothing to the soul, about its reason for existence, how it comes to be and where it might be going, and what its tasks could be.

Explanation by the physical sciences of the ultimate origins of and reasons for our life may not be such a good way to go. Any cosmology that begins on the wrong foot will not only produce lame accounts; it will also lame our love of existence. The creation myth of random events in unimaginable space keeps the Western soul floating in a stratosphere where it cannot breathe.

No wonder ... Plato says of his "fable": "It may preserve us, if we are persuaded by it."

[James Hillman]
The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling, p.46, 47

You also have to look at yourself in a temporal context - to have some sense of your life as a narrative, in order to judge whether it is going well or not.

This does not mean that everything from cutting your first teeth to losing the lot of them has to form a logically coherent whole. Not many narratives of any degree of subtlety have that kind of unity.

Narratives can be multiple, ruptured, recursive and diffuse and still be narratives.

[Terry Eagleton]
After Theory, p.127

People find no resources within themselves and nothing to inspire them outside. It's a state of affairs that would be inconceivable in Tibetan society, where the dying are sustained by the teachings they're reflected on all their lives, and thanks to which they're prepared for death.

They have all the reference points and inner strength they need. Because they've been able to give meaning to their lives, they know how to give meaning to their death, too.

[Matthieu Ricard]
The Monk and the Philosopher, p.270

Storytelling plays a noble and historic role in our lives and in society.

Stories can give us a narrative to guide and instruct us. They are crucial to our knowing who we are; they provide a sense of identity. Some stories, however, become the limitation to creating anything new ... We need to distinguish between the stories that give meaning to our lives and help us find our voice, and those that limit our possibility.

The stories we find useful and fulfilling are the ones that are metaphors, signposts, parables, and inspiration for the fullest expression of our humanity.

Limiting stories are versions of the past.

They are stories about the conclusions we drew from events that happened to us. Other limiting stories are those that are rehearsed or make the point that the future will be a slightly modified continuation of the past out of which the story arose. Stories of this nature place us as victims of events or even fate.

Theater, movies, song, literature, and art are storytelling of the highest order. These are the mediums for building an individual sense of what it means to be human.

[Peter Block]
Community, p.35

Gender egalitarian societies often have creation stories which give important roles to women. Without the active explanation in myth, there is no ideological underpinning for a high female status.

The same may be true for the berdache. In cultures where berdaches have high status, there is usually mythological justification for the practice. It is not enough that the religion be neutral or tolerant. It must actively explain the phenomenon in a positive manner.

[Walter L. Williams]
The Spirit and the Flesh, p. 188-9

"Should we be mindful of dreams?" Joseph asked. "Can we interpret them?"

The Master looked into his eyes and said tersely: "We should be mindful of everything, for we can interpret everything."

[Hermann Hesse]
The Glass Bead Game, p. 80-1

PTSD is often seen as resulting from an inability to create an organized narrative account of the trauma.

Therapeutic models of trauma in fact suggest that the generation of a comprehensible narrative account of the traumatic experience is an important part of the recovery process.

Such therapeutic processes can be understood within the EMU framework as helping to constrain the interpretation and behavioral implications of the event within a clear explanatory narrative, thereby dramatically reducing the uncertainty associated with the traumatic experience.

It has long been argued that one of the functions of religion is to reduce uncertainty about the meaning of the world. However, the EMU predicts that any strong interpretive structure (e.g., political ideology) would constrain the behavioral and perceptual affordances associated with an experience and, therefore, serve a similar uncertainty-reducing function (cf. Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007; Hogg, 2005).

[Jacob B. Hirsh, Raymond A. Mar, and Jordan B. Peterson]
Psychological Entropy: A Framework for Understanding Uncertainty-Related Anxiety'

I care about the premises more than the theories, and I want to minimise reliance on theories, stay light on my feet, and reduce my surprises.

I want to be broadly right rather than precisely wrong. Elegance in theories is often indicative of Platonicity and weakness - it invites you to seek elegance for elegance’s sake. A theory is like medicine (or government): often useless, sometimes necessary, always self-serving, and on occasion lethal.

So it needs to be used with care, moderation, and close adult supervision.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 285

In Greek legend, there were two Titan brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. Prometheus means “fore-thinker” while Epimetheus means “after-thinker,” equivalent to someone who falls for the retrospective distortion of fitting theories to past events in an ex post narrative manner.

Optionality is Promethean, narratives are Epimethean - one has reversible and benign mistakes, the other symbolises the gravity and irreversibility of the consequences of opening Pandora’s box.

You make forays into the future by opportunism and optionality […] It is a way - the only way - to domesticate uncertainty, to work rationally without understanding the future, while reliance on narratives is the exact opposite: one is domesticated by uncertainty, and ironically set back. You cannot look at the future by naive projection of the past.

All this does not mean that tinkering and trial and error are devoid of narrative: they are just not overly dependent on the narrative being true - the narrative is not epistemological but instrumental. For instance, religious stories might have no value as narratives, but they may get you to do something convex and antifragile you otherwise would not do, like mitigate risks.

English parents controlled children with the false narrative that if they didn’t behave or eat their dinner, Boney (Napoleon Bonaparte)  or some wild animal might come and take them away. Religions often use the equivalent method to help adults get out of trouble, or avoid debt. But intellectuals tend to believe their own b***t and take their ideas too literally, and that is vastly dangerous.

Consider the role of the heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations - what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology.

Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
Antifragile, p. 211-13, 215

Definitions are neither true nor false; they're useful or useless.

We can only find out if a definition is useful by trying to apply it to organisms, conceptual issues, and experimental issues. Hopefully, it turns out to be interesting.

[Stuart Kauffman]
'The Adjacent Possible'

Science's answers derive from the same source as its questions. On the one hand, the scientist requires experiments to ascertain that his hypotheses are valid and thus true laws of nature; only by tests can he be sure there are no exceptions and that his concepts are genuine concepts of the understanding and not only imaginary. 

On the other hand, the scientist also requires a priori hypotheses even to approach the world, to observe and test it fruitfully. And the situation of science in turn reflects the nature of all human experience. 

Man can elicit from nature universal laws not by waiting on nature like a pupil for answers, but only, like an appointed judge, by putting shrewd questions to nature that will be deliberately and precisely revealing. 

[Richard Tarnas]
The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 346

The illumination and the color of all things have changed. 

We no longer understand altogether how the ancients experienced what was most familiar and frequent - for example, the day and waking. Since the ancients believed in dreams, waking appeared in a different light. 

The same goes for the whole of life, which was illumined by death and its significance; for us "death” means something quite different. All experiences shone differently because a god shone through them. All decisions and perspectives on the remote future, too; for they had oracles and secret portents and believed in prophecy. 

We have given things a new color; we go on painting them continually. But what do all our efforts to date avail when we hold them against the colored splendor of that old master - ancient humanity?

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science,152

One must have before one's eyes an imaginary goal that gives one an incentive. 

[...] One would lose courage if one were not sustained by false ideas [...] If by some misfortune the truth were to show itself as it is, all would be lost; but it seems to grasp very well the importance of always remaining well concealed.

[Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle]
Dialogues of the Dead, Part V, Dialogue 2

It is important, nevertheless, to emphasize that interpretation can discover only whether a particular instance of behavior was "in character." That sometimes—perhaps often—it is possible to judge someone's behavior accurately as being "in character," however, should not lull us into believing that we have achieved certainty in judging a particular instance of behavior. 

That is, when we are dealing with complex adaptive systems, surprises are unavoidable. Because of their sensitivity to initial conditions - due, in turn, to their contextual and temporal embeddedness - complex adaptive systems are characterized by unusual twists and novel turns. 

Given this limitation, we must always keep in mind that reconstructing specific instances of behavior will always be, at best, an interpretation and not a deduction - a much more fallible type of explanation than we had previously hoped was available. Interpretations of human action are always tentative.

Absolute certainty about either what the agent just did, or what he or she will do—specifically—a year from now, is therefore impossible. As the title of Prigogine's latest book (1996) announces, the dynamics of complex systems signal the end of certainty. 

[Alicia Juarrero]
Dynamics in Action, p.225 

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The Creation of Meaning
Memory Lane 
Case History
Ideas with weight 
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Twisted out of Shape
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Where language ends (and art begins) 
Which difference makes a difference?
Top-down / Bottom-up