Narrative as Reality; or, Reality as Narrative

For tonight, Paul Krugman’s NYT column from a couple days ago: Hating Good Government

Evidence doesn’t matter for the “debate” over climate policy, where I put scare quotes around “debate” because, given the obvious irrelevance of logic and evidence, it’s not really a debate in any normal sense. And this situation is by no means unique. Indeed, at this point it’s hard to think of a major policy dispute where facts actually do matter; it’s unshakable dogma, across the board. And the real question is why.

Krugman notes, crucially, that the resistance to things like climate science, vaccines, ‘supply-side’ economics, and Obamacare, are aligned among certain population groups — despite any amount of evidence. (My bold follows)

And the list goes on. On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience. And no matter the issue, it’s the same chunk. If you’ve gotten involved in any of these debates, you know that these people aren’t happy warriors; they’re red-faced angry, with special rage directed at know-it-alls who snootily point out that the facts don’t support their position.

Why is this so? Well, Krugman offers a first-level explanation:

Well, it strikes me that the immovable position in each of these cases is bound up with rejecting any role for government that serves the public interest. If you don’t want the government to impose controls or fees on polluters, you want to deny that there is any reason to limit emissions. If you don’t want the combination of regulation, mandates and subsidies that is needed to extend coverage to the uninsured, you want to deny that expanding coverage is even possible. And claims about the magical powers of tax cuts are often little more than a mask for the real agenda of crippling government by starving it of revenue.

But I think there is a second-level explanation, that Krugman only partly suggests:

…the fact is that we’re living in a political era in which facts don’t matter.

My take, and increasingly my theme here: facts don’t matter; narrative matters. This isn’t just about politics; it’s a crucial element about human nature, an aspect of human nature that must be recognized before one can break out of the limits of human perception and try to understand what might be real beyond the limitations of our species’ perception. People live their lives according narratives about their place in the world, their place in their community as opposed to the big scary wider world, that is all about their position in their community, and their resistance to any larger narrative that might threaten that position.

The biggest, most successful narratives, over the course of human history are, of course, the religions. Because they are narratives that place their adherents as primary players. Narratives about the world, the universe, in which those adherents are the stars — it’s all about them. These narratives, needless to say, have no necessary correspondence with the real world — that enormous universe in which our tiny world is but an infinitesimal fragment. Evidence about the real world is the providence of science, a kind of self-checking thinking that faith and religion resists.

The trouble with the world, of course, is that there are so many conflicting narratives, all of them without any relative basis in real world of scientific evidence, that their various adherents are driven to tribal conflict with peoples who ascribe to conflicting narratives.

How will these conflicts work themselves out? Will they? They might not; they might spark some ‘nuclear’ conflict that could end the world. (Thus one explanation for the Fermi Paradox.) Or, more optimistically, as the world becomes more interconnected, as cultural evolution has shown in the past decade or two– exposures to other ideas — this will erode religious dogmas, and relax resistance to other faiths, and then to more reality-based ideas about human-kinds existence in our vast, ancient, cosmos.

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