Narrative Does Not = Fiction

Here is an interesting piece and slightly postmodern—although there is much hidden here that is purely modern.  I think he is mistaken to see every narrative as always “fiction.”  He is correct in the sense though that our comprehensive metaphysical views (whether theist or atheist) are the stories we tell to try and make sense of the “facts.”  They are not factual in the same way, for example, one could say that the sun is “hot” but such means nothing as to whether or not they are “true”; in other words, so what?  Narratives are true in the ways we all know are meaningful or important.  I think he is missing that important piece of the puzzle.
But, at least he is a thoughtful atheist.
“One of the things I criticize in the book is what I call “evangelical atheism” (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, all of that). I just find it infinitely dull. And rather pointless. But it has extraordinary traction. One of the things I’ve found, working for the New York Times over the past few years, is how much traction especially Dawkins really has. And for me, his work is just another progressivist, quasi-theological narrative. It’s not the unfolding of God’s plan but the unfolding of an evolutionary form of design. So I’m not a triumphant atheist, and never have been. To disavow religion, or to think of it as nonsense is just a non-starter, from my position.”
But as to this issue of narrative and fiction, what compels a person to believe that all narratives are fiction is probably still a default to some fact/value dichotomy that is purely an imagined one and peculiar to modernity.
For example, one could note all the “facts” taking place physically and brain-wise (let’s imagine we could do this remotely from a lab somewhere—we are able to monitor all brain activity, heart rate, body temperature, and so on) with a couple who were on a date.  And we are able to watch them by hidden camera (yes, very creepy).  We could see how it progressed from dinner, to a drink afterward, going back to an apartment, a sofa, kissing, and slipping off to the bedroom.  We could graph all the “facts” and physical changes going on through that process.  But if, at the end, the question were asked: Are they in love?  What “fact” could be pointed to from our data that would answer that question?  None of course. 
For all we know it was some guy meeting a (high priced) hooker and taking her home.  Or, it was a first date that led to a long relationship and a marriage that lasted 50 years.  But what could the physiological “facts” tell us about that?  Nothing.  However, each event, whether it was a prostitute or a future spouse is a story—a narrative.  Only narratives are true or not.  The narrative of events is always truer than any “fact.”  Because we cannot point to a body of data that “proves” the two are in love hardly makes the story or narrative of their lives, “fiction” and the same is true of religion or any other narrative.
This is why the appeal to “evidence” in philosophical conversations is so misguided and silly.  In our date scenario, imagine that there had been three scientists monitoring the “date” and knew nothing beyond the “facts” of what they had gathered from their machines and sensors.  The three have a conversation afterward.  One says to the other two, “I wonder if they were in love?”  In response, one of them wanders off and begins to pour over the “data” they’ve collected.  The other two, amused, ask him what he’s doing.  He, absurdly, but seriously answers: “Trying to see if there is “evidence” here they were in love.”  The other two look at each with raised eyebrows and silently agree their co-worker needs some time off…and possibly a cat-scan.

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1 Response to Narrative Does Not = Fiction

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I read this article as well, and had a few bones to pick with it. But to your comments.

    “The narrative of events is always truer than any “fact.””

    Here you are flying your colors most clearly. Putting this in political terms, perhaps the Republican's narrative is truer than the Democratic one even if each of their economic theories are wrong in every detail and every justification for their policies is a hypocritical lie. Still, if the narrative works, that is enough and makes everything true.

    I know what you are getting at, which is that subjective experience is all and objective facts are inherently meaningless to us as subjective beings outside of narrative. That is true enough. That does not mean that narratives can't be judged on their factuality when they are dealing with purported facts.

    I am reading the King Arthurian tales right now. Great narrative. Not so great factuality. We have the critical power to make these distinctions. So to refer to your title. Some narrative is very much fiction. Some is a mixture of fact and overlaid ideology. How can we tell the difference?

    “But what could the physiological “facts” tell us about that? “

    It could tell us everything, since the intentions of each party would be among the readouts of your imaginary parameter machine. These are mental states like any other, and once we are able to read them, we will have a much clearer picture of where that relationship is going, roughly as much as the participants, at any rate.


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