Toward Greater Parsimony of Narratives

When we were young, we all had few strongly held beliefs about the world. Back then we were all little sponges, learning what we could without preconceived notions that guided our actions.

But as we got older, we took the new information and started to fit it within a growing framework.

Some of that framework was unquestionably helpful. If the red light is glowing on the stove, best not to put your hand on the burner. That’s a good one to keep stored in the old memory banks. Some of those berries are tasty and some are poisonous. Noted!

But one of the problematic things about this unique human ability to learn, process, and store cultural information is that we eventually develop certain narratives that create complacency and stunt further growth. Humans have a desire to forever wish to acquire more information but we also have an instinct toward using less energy.

This is where narratives develop in adolescence and adulthood. There aren’t a lot of four-year-old libertarians or democrats or fascists. Children just learn. But fully developed adults tend to try to create overarching narratives that are used to filter all new information. These belief systems aren’t genetic or inherited; they are the product of cultural inheritance.

For most of us, we construct belief systems with ample narratives that provide prefabricated intellectual structures that will accommodate any new piece of information. We know what we know and everything we learn today and today will further confirm what we already know. This is true even if what we learn today or tomorrow would on the surface seem to contradict what we knew yesterday. The human mind will go to great lengths to maintain intellectual consistency, regardless of the information that might seem to disconfirm our prior beliefs.

The argument that we should not do this is the main thrust behind books such as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which has become trendy (for good reason, as it’s a great book) in recent years.

But there is certainly a tension between the foolish notion that you should approach everything as if it were the very first time (Crap, I put my hand on the hot stove again!) and the philosophy that we should open ourselves to new possibilities every day.

Perhaps a useful distinction comes in the difference between stored information and stored narratives. Stored information gives us data points or remembered experiences that we can use as building blocks to guide future actions. This includes building blocks related to hot stoves and poisonous berries. Stored narratives are overarching belief systems that we use to process and filter new information. These can be helpful (my society has taught me that lying, stealing, and killing are best avoided), but they can also be divisive and inhibiting (cults, extreme nationalism, jihad).

By keeping the narratives to a minimum, you keep your identity small. Keeping your identity small while relying on stored information allows you think through more issues more clearly and adjust what you know to whatever new things you learn. Kind of like Bayesianism without the math.

Paul Graham says “[t]he more labels you give yourself, the dumber they make you.I agree with this. And I would add that the more narratives we settle into to explain our world, the less open we are to learning new things.

Though perhaps that’s just another way of saying the same thing.