There is Only Narrative

This piece by Paul Wallace is spot on. He points out, as anyone who knows me well, something I have been saying for some time now. And of course it is nothing original with me—it is the cumulative work of many others—but it remains the current starting place for talking about what it means to do philosophy.

What anyone is doing when they are philosophizing is telling stories. This is true of the atheist as well as the theist. But, we should never think such means that one is not telling the truth or giving an accurate account of the world. More importantly, the fact we tell stories in inescapable. If one were to tell us why this whole idea was nonsense, he would have to tell a story to do so! It just is.

What many who are shaken by such a prospect do is default to a sophomoric position that goes something like this: “Well, the fact the earth is a certain distance from the sun is not a story such as the Prodigal Son.” Of course, what could this ever confirm except the person was missing the point? This would mean the person was thinking a measurement was the entire story or sum of a question or of what every interlocking facet of reality were to mean. It would be like asking someone what their economic philosophy was and for them to take the change out of their pocket, count it up, and say: “There you have it.” It works it you are ten years old, but not otherwise. Every fact and piece of evidence is an INTERPRETED fact or piece of evidence. Even calling something a “fact” or piece of “evidence” requires interpretation.

And if you think this is the case (and here I’m addressing myself to my confirmed atheist readers)—that the only true truth is energy and matter in motion—how did you come to believe that? I’m betting that you came to believe it because you believed in the truth of another story.

Now, this is a story just as surely as any other. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t for a moment doubt the basics of evolution and thermodynamics. But Myers was not forced by the facts of nature into these beliefs he so forcefully espouses. Instead, he has done exactly what storytellers do: He has told us a story. That is to say, he has added his own stuff.

The problem is that not that Myers is telling us all a story, but that he insists he is not. “Reality,” he writes, “is harsh.” His story is the story you absolutely must believe if you absolutely insist on not believing in stories.

Most stories are spiced with irony, but not this one. Here, irony is all you get.

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3 Responses to There is Only Narrative

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Thanks for an excellent link. I am a big believer in Johnny Cash, if that is any consolation.

    “I propose that good stories are stories that tell the truth, and bad ones are ones that do not.”

    I am also a big fan of stories. Just finished with Hawthorn's House of the seven gables, indeed.

    The problem is when we confuse stories with reality. Then the lessons get lost, the magic reifies into fundamentalism, and people sort of go off their rockers.

    It sounds as though for this writer, he is a believer in Christianity as much as I am a believer in Hawthornism.. it is a story to tell truths about human nature. On that level, the atheist has no problem with it.

    Yet I think that you take Christianity as quite a bit more- (“taking stories seriously”)- as a sign of an actual god, as a historical event of magical content, as a resurrection with global portent, and a prophesy of a second coming, among much else. This goes rather beyond the remit of the story, or of philosophical prudence.

    “Is it possible to live happily on a diet of solid irony?”

    Yes, though as mentioned, I do take stories to be highly meaningful. One has to make distinctions, however, between meaning, psychological truth, and other more concrete truths. You speak of interpretation.. can't you see how extravagantly the Christian story is interpreted, far and away beyond the realm of plausibility or evidence? Therin lies a very significant story!

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    I can only surmise you didn’t really understand his point. Your response would indicate you read another essay by someone other than Wallace. Or, it could by you are just being ironic. By the way, if this helps, your response is a story you are telling.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    Also:

    “The problem is when we confuse stories with reality. Then the lessons get lost, the magic reifies into fundamentalism, and people sort of go off their rockers.”

    This is exactly his point. You have confused a story about God not existing with realty. The consequent magic has reified into secular fundamentalism and, indeed, people do go off their rockers. I give you the 20th Century.

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