Badtime Story

Consciousness may have a function. I find it unobjectionable that greater consciousness is a result of more powerful and complex brain activity, though I am not yet decided as to whether past a certain point consciousness is an adaptation in itself, or more of an epiphenomena – something correlated with, but not effectually linked to the underlying cognition.

Intuitively (pause for translation if you believe intuition to be a special or privileged form of reasoning, rather than the lazy, occasionally useful, preconceptions context and environment has hammered into us) we tend to accept the former. It is hard not to. We may admire an intricate bird nest, but we don’t imagine it is the lack of hands and concerns about land prices why those structures fail to scrape the sky, while ours can. And frankly, until they can argue the point, I’m not going to budge on that.

So. Consciousness is useful, or gives every appearance of being so. Civil engineering aside, most conscious activity is involved in social activity. When we move away from the Pavlovian manipulation of infancy, and the inherently psychopathic state which is childhood, we learn that other people have minds like we do. We spend our entire lives weaving our own actions and feelings into stories, just as we do for other people. I do x because I believe y and wish to achieve z. I expect you to do x, because I believe you believe y, and believe you wish to achieve z. Basic theory of mind, but easily expandable into the full tableau of experience, memory, conjecture, purpose etc. that saturate our lives.

This may be mostly fiction. Or ‘a fiction’, lest we get bogged down in narrative terminology. But that is not my main thrust here. Overall I think we enjoy this storybook existence. We are probably hardwired to do so. We disgorge literature, visual art, streams of consciousness about current events, even condensed ramblings on obscure subject matter. And we cannot but see them as part of a story. Works of literature, which are themselves stories, become assigned to periods or traditions which are also stories as they act as context and motivation or inspiration for further works and traditions. The most captive of us can almost harbour the ludicrous thought that a previous tradition existed in order that a current one can.

That sounds odd, but really there are few limits on how badly astray our endemic narrative sense, born of immersion in our conscious experience, can lead us. This, of course, has been known for a very long time. The famous ‘pathetic fallacy’ is one example. It isn’t surprising. Even if in the end I must conclude that conscious experience is an epiphenomenon thrown up by the unexperienced workings of efficacious mental functions, nothing will change in that experience. Our stories are written by, and are writing, ourselves. And as I say, we’d hardly wish it to. Who would wish to give up literature, or great art (where things look like the things they look like)?

But it is worth putting some limiters on. We’re usually dimly aware that what passes for narrative in real life isn’t really the same as in a book. Yet we mostly behave is if it is, that all moves towards some kind of ultimate conclusion, according to some degree of fore-written planning.

Once I have sufficiently prepared my axe with which to grind you all down, this key danger of allowing narrative free reign will be the next subject. And with the scepticism towards storytelling evident in this post, I deny that this is a cliff-hanger.


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