Monday, November 04, 2013

Tutorials on Narratives III: The Power of Narratives

The Force is my ally, and a powerful ally it is
In my first post in this series on narratives I wrote about how you can view "narratives" as genes of our intellectual and emotional life and, yes, for our behaviour. In the second I suggested considering the interaction between us humans and such "narratives" as akin to the interaction with The Force portrayed in Starwars. I want to continue that line of thought here now and ask the basic questions that the arise out of that comparisson: If we equate "The Force" with this pool of narratives that we interact with, then how can it be "powerful"? How can we manipulate the real world through out "use of the Force"? And how can things that seem impossible become possible when you do not fail to believe?

That is why you fail: is one of the things Yoda tells Luke when Luke comes to learn from and study with Yoda in "The Empire strikes Back". But Luke despairs and responds "you want the impossible" and turns his back on Yoda. But the story goes on and recounts how Yoda demonstrates it is not impossible. To which Luke responds by saying "I don't believe it!" and Yoda retorts "That ... is why you fail".

This scene is a crucial scene in the entire saga, not only is it the first real exposition of what the Force is but it also clearly establishes the Force as something that can be "used" (and thus also abused) and yet is an independent existence as well. So does my proposal of viewing "The Force" as a metaphor of "the pool of narratives that surrounds us and binds us" break down here?

There is a "use of the Force" in creating connections between objects by creating a narrative that connects them. Our narratives are patterns in our thoughts and ultimately in the signalling and dynamical processes in or brains. Connecting things that we perceive as outside of ourselves, such as the tree, the rock and even "you" as outside "me", to ourselves means matching patterns of perception of these "outside" objects to patterns of information about ourselves. Everyone who has ever witnessed the amazement with which a month old baby can stare at its own hand barely realizing this "thing" as part of herself, should be able to appreciate that the "recognition of connection" comes before the recognition of function. What helps us to recognize connection is a narrative of sorts. In some cases our brain produces these narratives almost instantaneously by anthropomorphing the subject of our perceptions. With mammals this is easy for us, probably because they share some of the very basic codes of narratives with us. Most of us can almost sense a connection with primates and dogs and there are many reasons to believe that, for example, with dogs this is a two-way process. Creating such connections with non-mammal or even non-living objects is harder and requires narratives that run even deeper and are more elaborate. Creating a felt-connection or "recognition of connection" between you, the rock, the tree and me creates a sense of the possibility of a "use" which may lead to a recognition of function.

The narrative of "recognition of connection" is a crucial element of step 2 of "using the Force". The story-arc in the above video fragment shows Yoda creating a story-line in which there is a connection between "the land and the ship". If objects can have bonds with each other, then can't the bond between the "Water and the ship" (current situation) be replaced by a bond between the "land and the ship" (desired situation)? Luke believes it can't be done, because in Luke's mind the connection between the water and the ship resides in the physical characteristics of the current situation. In Yoda's mind the connection between the water and the ship is an expression of the Force, an expression that he can influence because he can add a narrative that connects the land and the ship existing on an equal footing with the narrative of the water-ship connection. Luke does not look at things that way, in Luke's mind this added narrative does not alter anything about the physical constraints of his situation. He is unable to make the connection and feels as if he is demanded to believe in miracles. The subsequent levitation of the ship out of the water unto the land by Yoda is of course an allegorical expression of Yoda's firm belief that because the connections, water-ship and land-ship, are both "from the Force" they can thus also be interchanged through the Force. The physical characteristics do not matter for this part of Yoda's narrative, which is why he recommends Luke not to judge him by his size. They key question in this scene is not "do you believe in miracles (levitation)?" The key question is: "do you believe in the desired outcome being possible"? Yoda believes in that possibility because he is aware of the role of the narratives, of the force, in how he relates to his surroundings and in shaping what he believes about them. The scene ends by Luke, though his eyes are opened and he sees the possibility of the desired outcome in front of his own eyes, still expressing his disbelief. He had to "live through the new narrative" in order to start integrating it  into his selection from the pool of narratives. He has not yet understood that he can create narratives without the need of living though them first ... and that ... is why he fails.

"Use of The Force" thus translates into the creation of connection-type narratives that allow the recognition of function and allow one to see the possibilities hat are actually there. There is no miracle here, no claim to levitation as a "real-world event". Yoda's levitation act only describes that the desired outcome is truly a possible state of nature and can thus be achieved by identifying the appropriate function of the things surrounding us. Many a theoretical physicist might claim that the real "meat" of a physics problem is recognizing the proper physical narrative, once that is done then all else is a matter of recognizing the appropriate tools from mathematics by their functionality and then to use them mechanically to find the solution sought. Many undergraduates initially fail in such problem-solving, when new to the field, because they fail to recognize the connections between the physical concepts and their mathematical expressions and fail to recognize the functionality of physical law. Many initial students of a musical instrument fail to see the connections between the notes of a piece and the motor-functions of their hands. Those connections are however all narratives! The pool of narratives one possess can be used to identify responses to challenges from the environment, to recognize with which parts of the environment one is connected and what functionalities those parts have. A trained survivalist is an expert at identifying such connections. The Force, when viewed as such a pool of narratives, empowers us by allowing us the use of these narratives. So if narratives allow us to use them in problem-solving in a very general sense, then in which way do the narrative use us? How can they wield power over us? What is the power of the Force?

A pool of narratives creates a sense of purpose, and in my previous post I drew the analogy with the "selfishness of the Genes" metaphor used by Richard Dawkins. The evolution of the fittest is beyond all a "contest" between different genes, and their mutations, to determine which of them, through embryology, supplies the particular fenotype, of the species they generate,with survival advantages.This contest between genes is "battled out" in the contest between species and their environment (including individuals of the same and other species). If this environment was constant then what we would see is two-fold: on the one hand an ever increasing specialization of species to optimize their fit with the environment. While at the same time in increasing diversity of solutions that "look" very different but give the same weighted advantage. Typically any single problem can have multiple solutions. This contest of DNA-based genes gives a "sense of purpose" of the struggle of different phenotypes for survival. We can take the pool of narratives into this equation and assert that because of the existence of fast processes of rewiring of brain cells, cell death and specialization of dormant stem cells the neural network of our brain can adapt to narratives that optimize survival probabilities  Our thoughts and actions being the intellectual and emotional "phenotypes" of a deeper layer "genotype" narratives that interact with each other. Here too, if we wish to be radical, we could view the "phenotype" struggles within us and among us as ways in which the different "genotype" narratives enter a contest of sorts. Again this would give us a "sense of purpose" which is not unlike the manner in which some of these narratives indeed describe the human condition. The degree to which the narratives "use us" in their struggle for survival through us is what you an refer to as the "power of the Force" or the "Will of the Force". So having elucidated how the notion of "using the Force" fits within this framework of thought as does the notion of a "Will" or "Power" of the Force, then why must the Force be sensed and felt? When it is all just a bunch of stories, then why can't Yoda just read them to Luke and get it done and over with?

The Force is the pool of "genotype" narratives, not the plethora of chatty and confused "fenotype" narratives. Luke is training to become a "Force-user", a Jedi, this means that he needs to become aware of the power of the "genotype narratives", the fact that they are not just products of his own mind and subject to his will. To know them, he must quiet his mind and sense them! For they are not "mere stories" that Yoda can read out to him. They are delicate patterns in Yoda's mind and in his, Luke's, mind. Patterns that also involve the activities of the mitochondria of the nerve cells. I severely doubt whether such narratives have an expression in words at all, some may possibly only be expressed in the form of images and metaphors. But a Force-user it not just restricted to "listening" but is encouraged to become a narrator herself. Becoming a narrator by changing, mutating and adding to or subtracting from existing narratives in interaction with the surroundings as well as with other humans and other "Force-users".

Before Luke came to Dagobah to study with Yoda he had taken his "first steps into a larger world" guided by Obi Wan. Obi Wan taught him that sometimes his senses can deceive him and now Yoda has taught him that sometimes the narratives he tells himself about the world can deceive him. Lue is on a journey during which he must learn to become a narrator of stories that can empower him and others, narratives that can redeem a fallen hero and change the course of history. But also that he must become a listener, a listener to the deep wordless stories pulsating through the brains of all living organisms. Stories that contain the echos of events long past, occurrences that happened far, far away and that might resonate with the roots of stories whose events are yet to come.

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