We live in a strange world that is almost entirely imaginary. In order to reassure ourselves we call it ‘real’ or ‘material’ but it is no such thing. Objects are permanent and lasting only in our minds. There is nothing apparently material that does not age or decay, and this is the cause of much unhappiness and suffering. We surround ourselves with objects, shoring ourselves up with the illusion of permanence. But everything passes, everything changes. It is all a dream.
Our invention does not stop at the world we live in. In order to make sense of this world and to make it cohere we make equally insecure material objects of ourselves. In doing so, we invent ourselves. And the vehicles we create for these material inventions are stories. We make ourselves into stories – or we make stories of ourselves – and in these stories we surround ourselves with objects. Every version of reality as we understand material reality is mediated by a story, a connection of what we perceive to be past events and present objects in a way that makes sense of those objects, where they came from and what our place is in relation to them and to other material selves.
This material world appears to be tantalisingly knowable. It is intricately signed. Through language, every object has a signifier, and every aspect of every object has a signifier. These can be arranged as we wish. Over the last century, problems have been revealed with this system of signifiers, which have been shown to be disconcertingly self referential. But the conclusions that have been reached imply simply that these signs are also material objects, not that they are as unreal as the objects and selves they signify. While this undermines meaning and truth, it does not provide an alternative, suggesting instead the nihilistic position that all factual statements are ultimately paradoxical, and that all conclusions are therefore drawn against themselves.
The imaginary material world is central to the way that the human brain perceives existence, so of course in this sense it is useful. Human beings all think the same way (I am speaking in the most general terms here of course). So the illusion of material reality is one that everyone can share. A BMW 5 series for instance is not just desirable in Germany but almost all over the world. We could say that ownership of one constitutes a common human goal. This is far more true than to say that a common human goal is to reduce poverty or global warming. This is how powerful the illusion that objects are real has become. How can ownership of a BMW be more important than saving a child from starvation? And yet, at least for many wealthy people in the West, it is an objective on which they are happy to spend a vast proportion of their income, whereas a tiny minority spend only a small portion of their income trying to eradicate poverty. The reason for this strange imbalance is that new car buyers are acquiring a gleaming object that will bring them happiness. When they buy it, it is an extraordinary fact that they expect this happiness to be permanent, and expect the object that delivers it to be permanent too, and all kinds of schemes and mechanisms and industries have been invented to mask the fact that this is not so (and of course to exploit it), and to try to ensure that everyone’s dream car is always new. Lease buy arrangements are designed to achieve exactly this, an everlasting new car that never dies.
This is so expensive and delusional you might be wondering why I have said it is useful. The reason as I have already said is simply that almost everyone thinks like this. It is a commonality even though it is very clearly not a reality. But a commonality, a shared delusion, is in a way real because we can be sure that it is something that (almost) everybody understands. It is a starting point
But equally, it is very clear that, as a means of perception, the objectification of reality is very overrated. It is mistaken for the world, for reality and for truth. But it also raises the question which has stumped the post-modernists and almost everyone else since: if the material world is not real, then what is?
And this is where we get into strange territory.
In order to suggest a way of exploring it, I am going to use a work that was published several years ago, which contains some interesting basic information about the way our intelligence works. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman famously argued that the human brain has two quite different systems for forming thoughts. System one thinking is fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypical, and subconscious. System two is the opposite. It is slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, and conscious. He observed that the conflict between these two systems produces frequently unreasoned and apparently irrational decisions. He observed that this is because our immediate actions are far more deeply influenced by system one responses than by system two responses. However, the memory is a system two function, carefully constructing and reconstructing experience. This means that our remembered or imagined responses are not always the ones that actually affect us most powerfully in the moment.
Kahneman was interested in the way responses are measured and assessed in advertising and commercial research, and realised that most methodologies were almost entirely organised around analysing memories. He proposed a different measure of pleasure or pain sampled from moment to moment, immediately, without the mediation of recollection or memory. Kahneman called this “experienced” pleasure or pain. He distinguished this emotional response to stimuli from the “remembered” sensations traditionally measured in research and compared the outcomes. He found that the two measures gave very different results. He identified in these results the existence of two ‘selves’, the remembering self and the experiencing self. One significant finding was that the ‘remembering’ self did not care about the duration of a pleasant or unpleasant experience. Rather, it rated an experience by the peak (or valley) of the experience, and by the way it ends. Memory, he found, only recorded extremes and outcomes, and this retrospectively erases the actual experience. So in this way system two memory creates an imaginary world which is at one remove from the experiencing intelligence, and which dominates the retrospective perception of the experience. The actual experience itself is forgotten, like a dream. This memory, however, is extremely inconsistent and variable because it is constructed, or imagined, by the remembering self. This is why remembered experience can differ wildly from person to person, whereas actual experience is consistent and common.
Kahneman’s research gives us a number of clues about what is real and what is imagined within human intelligence. We can clearly conclude that ‘experienced’ moments are real, even though they are registered by us as emotions and not always remembered. Conversely, what is remembered is imagined, even though remembering selves believe this imagining is reality. What is really interesting, though, is that Kahneman’s experiments show memory recalling only peaks and valleys, and ignoring duration. This is why so much of our emotional response is erased by memory. It is as if the memory is a beach being washed by the sea. The waterline mark is recorded only as a single line and not as a moving variable. Another way to imagine this is that experienced events are a curve, whereas memory is a linear construction, so while the retrospective mind can touch reality it immediately diverges as a tangent to it.
These images are necessarily metaphorical and imprecise because our imaginations deal only in two or three dimensions, and cannot easily cope with the added dimensions of emotional force and time. Emotional response in particular is not something we are used to constructing within a system two rationale. Emotion however is a whole dimension of consciousness. The word itself describes a dimensional space and is derived from the Latin root ‘mot-’ . It means a movement out, or outwards, or beyond, indicating movement outside normal perception or three dimensional physical movement. Emotion as the fifth dimension (time being the fourth) is a useful idea, and it might be essential in helping us to imagine reality in a different way.
So Kahneman presents us with a picture of a remembered narrative or self, constructed by one part of the human brain, which interacts with the emotional existence of others momentarily, by means of the unstructured emotional life of another ‘experiencing’ part of our brains. Storytelling narrative and language become a surface across which the lines of remembrance encounter, experience and forget the ‘moving’ and fleeting moments of emotion which give all narrative meaning.
If our brains function in this way we have an insight into why we are so fixated with the permanence of the transient and with the reality of the imaginary. We spend much of our intelligent lives creating narratives and filling them with objects, but our brains also work in another way and understand, momentarily at least, that happiness happens elsewhere. The narratives by which we mediate the world are grand illusions and only provide us with the opportunity to experience reality in the momentarily way. We tend then to freeze that experience, to mortify it into memory, and because we cannot capture these moments our glimpses of happiness become the opposite, the source of unhappiness and discontent. This also gives us a hint as to how meditation works. By stilling narrative, meditation allows more access to this other emotional life. The more we cease to tell stories the more open we are to happiness. Put simply, narratives create unhappiness by creating illusions of permanence.
Unlike the apparently random experienced moments which occur like dreams, narratives are structured and recordable and fixed, and therefore provide us with only a fleeting opportunity to glimpse our emotional lives. Both storytelling and the reception of stories, written spoken or otherwise performed, offer these instantaneous opportunities for emotional encounter as we discover waves of emotion felt and encountered by others by means of the dual and simultaneous linear and wave functions of our minds. Narrative attempts to smooth these waves but cannot capture them, touching them only at a single instant.
If we imagine that the emotional consciousness moves, as Kahneman begins to suggest, literally in a wave form, this wave motion of the emotional part of our consciousness has another interesting application. The action of the mind Kahneman describes may either be analogous to or may indeed directly reflect the observations of the slit experiment in quantum physics*. In this experiment, particles are observed to leave a wave pattern when passed through a small gap until subjected to direct human observation, at which instant, astonishingly, the motion of the particles becomes linear. The observation of the particles may reflect both the condition of the particles themselves, and their movement, and also if Kahneman is right the way our minds perceive and connect them. Thus they have both linear and wave motion. Clearly system one and system two intelligence is each adept at observing events in these two different ways, and if we follow this reasoning through then in the literal sense of the word particles themselves might be said to be emotive [moving beyond] and describe the way our universe is felt as well as percieved. We could take this further by looking at the role of probability. Mathematics cannot give data for the wave motions of the particles and instead translates their location into probability, since that is how we approach momentariness and uncertainty using the medium of numbers. Probabilities are events that are not defined by outcome, and they are also events which encompass whole waves of possibility and are not instead defined, as it were, by a high water mark, by a line of seaweed on a beach.
The way that the mind tells stories might then be almost exactly analogous to scientific observation of the slit experiment in quantum theory. In each instance we see the human brain behaving in the same way. In order to remember, our memory demands that we construct a smooth narrative containing a series of events which we can imagine to be real. Within these narratives are only the briefest of touch points with our emotional perceptions, but we understand that these have a higher value in our lives (called ‘happiness’ or ‘suffering’). We therefore construct our narratives around these single felt moments of emotion, whether horror or pleasure, and attempt to preserve them by going off at a tangent from them, just as once observed we perceive particles to travel in a straight line. The reason for this sudden linearity is not a sudden change in the behaviour of the particles or the wave of felt emotion but because of the inflexibility of our observation and memory. We build narratives carefully to their touchpoint with truth in a predictable, linear fashion. There is a flash, and then the moment is gone. From the perspective of storytelling the moment vanishes, and yet we instinctively understand a moment of emotion as the meaning and value of the story. Our memories are addicted to this linear process, this flirting with truth. Certainly it can be egotistical (‘authorial’ or even ‘patriarchal’) since we build our narratives around the moment of truth as if we own and master it, almost as if we were the makers of the emotion rather than of the linear process by which we stumbled on it. But the emotional part of our brain was already there. It has dreamed this moment and outcome many times and in fact resides in it. It is how we know it for what it is. (What is more, the less authorial and authoritative we are, the more likely we are to understand, value and nurture it.) This subconscious is like the wave imprints formed by the flow of the unobserved particles. We can’t remember consciously what it is. The act of remembering makes it linear. But of itself, it is entirely experiential. We can express it only as a feeling. It is never an event, only ever a probability. It is continually moving and changing and has no outcome.
And weirdly, when we construct a story which contains one of these brief moments of illumination so that it can be repeated we call it make believe and regard it as as fictional. We feel that we have experienced the moment of emotion vicariously, and because it exists outside our ‘normal’ illusion of reality and memory, the elaborate narrative construction we call real, we call the storytelling that gives us momentary access to happiness fiction. Thus, humans have managed to confuse utterly the real and the unreal, living a delusional existence while condemning themselves to believe that the only reliable, fixable and repeatable experience of happiness is made up and fictive.
What I think fiction then does is manage this touchpoint of smooth narrative and the random emotional curve, so that we all experience that curve at the same time and in roughly the same way. I said above that at least the commonality of our illusions was useful. Well, so equally are fictions, because in experiencing a story we share this touchpoint. Fiction becomes a means of sharing experience, of sharing the emotional life of our intelligence. Because it is so human to torture ourselves with illusions of memory – because in fact a large part of our brains is constructed that way – fiction has a value as a means of experience which nothing else can offer. It gives us a glimpse of truth. In fiction, it is as if the wave curve we are riding as we write or perform touches the corresponding curve others ride as they read, watch or listen and the reward of contact is remembered and made repeatable via the fiction’s uses of the constructions of narrative. I said above that narrative is a surface, but we can readily imagine this interaction of the fourth and fifth dimensions of our existence using just the first two, so that fiction can be imaged as containing a smooth straight line of narrative between the two mirrored waves or curves of the delivery and reception of emotion, to both of which the line of narrative is tangental.
(It is undoubtedly wiser to extinguish the power of memory as far as possible through meditation but this will always – perversely – seem a removal from the roller coaster which is being human, and of course it removes us from the enjoyment of fiction which has become our normal means of accessing truth. This does not mean, I would hasten to add, that meditation is not probably a beneficial and preferable alternative. I say this as a poor and sporadic practitioner. If meditation can peel away the illusion of narrative, we are left wondering how manipulative fiction may actually be in the opportunities it offers for apparent authorship.)
Leaving aside the question of meditation for now, this analysis of narrative and fiction offers a different perspective in the understanding of storytelling and consciousness. It removes (emotes) us from the self referential analysis of language and replaces spirituality with an idea based on our emotional existence, which we have through the operation of part of our intelligence. This theory categorically refutes all kinds of materialism as a means of perceiving our existence. It refutes Darwinian determinism insofar as it is precisely that, a means of predicting and understanding future human or animal behaviour. Darwinian analysis is only another materialist narrative and like all narrative it is constructed retrospectively as memory. Of course it has some validity for the future, but this validity can be expressed only as probability. Although we might regard what did evolve as inevitable in retrospect the maths dictates that literally anything else could have happened and may yet. Contingency can only be calculated as chance and in the maths of probability there is by definition no rule that discounts the unlikely. This fact also defeats scientific determinism and dataism for the same reasons. There may well be no past event that cannot be analysed and fully understood by means of data but equally there is no future event it can reliably predict. The random action of emotion in our decision making – like the wave motion of particles in the physical universe – makes all predictive analysis worthless. In reality, anything that can happen does happen.The next position might be literally anywhere and anything.
*For more explanation of this see my essay on QUANTUM TRUTH