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Everyone’s Brains are Science Fiction — an Anti-Biography
Narratives, Structure, and Sensemaking
I’m once again at a time when I’m putting ideas out into the world and where people want me to come on podcasts. I’m glad for the invitations. I’m open to more (directed to cactuschu at outlook dot com). But this means I get asked for a lot of oddly specific biographical facts.
An oddly specific biographical fact about me is that I am anti-interested in bio facts. Why do you care about me as a person? Wouldn’t you much rather know about the slippery hedge (44:18) or the firehose of bullshit or the midwit cycle? Even asking me about Russia, anti-vaxxers or wokeness is better than asking me to tell anecdotes about how I grew up! Nonetheless, I want to give the people what they want. But I won’t do it without a fight, hence this compromise.
An anti-biography is a list of what I think is deeply weird about normal people. It should also tell you a lot about me as a person and my history. For the sake of my work ethic though, it will have the types of articles that I want to write. The title of course is a reference to a phrase I use often: “When I hear about what normal people are like, it sounds not just like a mental illness but like science fiction”. I will abbreviate the title EBASF for convenient use. I also think the style of anti-biography is more natural to how both I and most people think. We rarely think “wow here’s a notable thing about me”, but rather wonder why there aren’t more people who are the same. If you are one of the people who have asked for bio information, enjoy! If you are like me and couldn't care less about my bio information, feel free to skip this series.
Anti-biographical fact 1: Narratives make no sense.
It is often said that “normal people care about people, smart people care about events, and smarter people care about ideas”. I don’t think this is true. A lot of smarter people care about people, although the people in question might be historical leaders rather than celebrities. What confuses me about this is their preference for parsing information in a narrative, which has always been more difficult for me to process than a set of data points.
Narratives confuse me. They are also incredibly easy to abuse, which I’ll get to later. When I look for information, I seek structure. I seek relationships between variables that persist across time, space and context. I seek stable clusters, groups, and hierarchies that manage to maintain themselves and interact in interesting, emergent ways. To me, narratives are a kind of anti-structure. Learning from narratives feels like figuring out a game of chess while only being able to see one or two of the pieces. A projection of reality onto a narrative destroys many of the connections that I care about, and getting those connections back takes valuable time and energy.
But Cactus, what about the thrill? What about waiting to see what happens next, and being immersed in the story?
I feel literally none of that. I don’t feel different reading a story than reading a math proof. This doesn’t mean I don’t think stories can and do express interesting ideas, but I don’t feel the immersion that people speak often of. It sounds to me like science fiction. This also doesn’t seem like an actual benefit to me. I don’t think it actually helps people learn faster. Perhaps it helps them have the will to continue reading, but I’ve never had problems continuing reading anything once I’ve convinced myself that thing is genuinely important.
On the contrary, narratives give me many examples of structures and interactions that could be interesting, but that I can’t trust at all. The epitome of this is when people make arguments based on fiction. “Yknow Cactus, if you let people get away with doublespeak we’ll be living under The Party soon”. I find this line of argument obviously completely illegitimate. Why? It’s literally a fictional situation. What happens in the book has no bearing on reality, depends solely on the author’s whims, and any parallels are completely at the author’s discretion. This doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to distrust people who try to redefine terms and have a healthy skepticism of giving them power, but you have to introduce arguments based on the real world in order to prove that! And I would have almost certainly been convinced by those real world arguments in the first place.
There’s an argument for narratives that they help apply the skills you draw from the story in real life. You just do what the characters do. That makes a lot of sense in the historical context, and I think provides a solid reasoning for why people prefer narratives as an inherited biological preference. I don’t think this is true in the current day, when narratives so easily parasitize people into taking obviously false and highly consequential actions. More caution must be taken. Ultimately, a narrative is to me at best a well ordered reading list of actual information, and at worst a highly destructive tool for manipulation.
This is true for both fictional and true narratives. I already made the case against fiction. The case against true narratives is that highly connected media environments choose narratives that are as close to fiction as possible. It’s fairly well known that more rage-inducing and more extreme content performs better. In practice, such content tends to be at the intersection of extremely rare and highly consequential, like a police killing, terrorist attack, pedophile teacher, or school shooting. As I’ve explained in a previous article, trying to apply these types of stories to your everyday life in any way just creates a significant distortion of reality, equivalent to making some random event that killed one person in your city 250 years ago the basis of your political party.
Does this mean I think narratives should be abolished? Not really. In an ideal world, maybe everyone treats any narrative they hear the same way they treat a Marvel movie. I don’t think anyone has run for president on the platform of stopping Thanos from killing half the universe yet. Like most of my politics, I believe in dealing with the world as it is, not substituting it with some fiction. So, I sometimes include anecdotes and narratives into my explanations, especially for audiences that aren’t already familiar with me. I don’t blame anyone who does the same. I don’t think it’s disingenuous to try to use narratives to convince people when they are simply so effective and so natural to most people. Narratives can be wrong, and those wrong narratives can convince a lot of people, but I don’t think there’s a feasible solution other than the truth-oriented people stepping up their narrative warfare game.