Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Living in the Epilogue: Social Policy as Palliative Care

"A self is a machine for making you concerned about your organism."
— Antonio Damasio



The Story as a Cognitive Bias
The essence of consciousness, says Antonio Damasio, is the internal narrative - the story one tells oneself about oneself. The ability to create this narrative - to conceive of oneself, to project oneself into the past and the future, to connect events meaningfully - has proven to be a very effective evolutionary strategy to ensure that an organism acts to promote its own ends.

Our evolutionary history ensures that we think in stories. They are so central to our thinking that it is hard to think about them. An old fish said to a couple of young fish, "Morning, boys! The water's fine today!" and swam off. One young fish turned to the other young fish and asked, "what's water?" Thus it is with humans and stories.

Stories are extremely useful; as information-hungry, social creatures, we are as pleased to hear stories as dogs are to sniff the pee stains of other dogs. We love stories. We are stories. We think and remember in the form of stories. As Roger Schank puts it (in Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory), "In the end all we have, machine or human, are stories and methods of finding and using those stories."

But stories are not real. They are constructs that we apply to the universe, but there is no story out in the universe. There is no "gist" or "point" to the universe, as stories have gists and points. We construct meaning to serve our evolutionarily-determined ends, and this is, I think, the most central of all the cognitive biases.

Living in the Epilogue

A few years ago, I wanted to die all the time, every minute. I suffered intensely, and the main project of my life was to get through time. I researched suicide methods, made repeated attempts, but always failed, and was left with the conviction that suicide is extremely difficult. At some point, I changed my focus from trying to end my life to trying to make what years I am forced to endure less miserable. In the language of illness, I put myself in hospice and gave myself palliative care.

I tried many therapies, including a six-month attempt at alcoholism. Many of my experimental palliative care therapies (including this) failed, but a few were extremely successful at making me not suffer all the time (including distance running and marriage). Marriage is a kind of heaven, and I suspect that I am happier than most people in the world. Life remains an irritation, but for me, it is not the constant grind of pain and humiliation that it must be for millions of people. In many ways, my pro-death orientation makes life more pleasant for me, since I utterly lack the fear of death and all the cringing urgency that fear engenders.

But there is something missing. Here is the problem, if it is a problem: I am not in a story.

Living outside of any story - living without hope for the future, without the belief that one is part of a narrative - is confusing. It's hard to get anything done when nothing has a point. For any not-immediately-pleasurable action (or inaction) I contemplate - getting up in the morning, vacuuming, answering the phone - there is no readily-available answer to the ever-present question in my mind, "why?" At least, there is no long-term "why."

Do I wish I were in a story again? Ultimately, no. Even if it were possible to imagine myself as a character in some narrative about to unfold, I don't really want to. This would be sacrificing truth for comfort - and questionable comfort at that.

I spoke about this with my closest friend years ago, and he suggested that I have had a story, and now I'm living in the "ever after" part. I am, for all relevant purposes, living in my own epilogue. This is also, I think, the status of people with terminal illness who are about to die: their story is essentially over. This is even true if you believe in an afterlife (including the transhumanist kind).

There Are No Stories In Heaven

There are no stories in heaven; heaven is all epilogue. It functions as a bookend on our stories; we may even call it the "hereafter," as in "happily ever after." There can be no conflict in heaven, so there can be no stories, either.

Aristotle scholar Martha Nussbaum explores how crappy it is for humans to live outside of a story, even in heaven, in her essay "Transcending Humanity." Here, she considers Odysseus' choice to give up eternal youth and pleasure with Calypso in order to return to his wife and the certainty of inevitable death. She says,
What, in the face of the recognized human attachment to transcendence, could justify such a choice? Odysseus has little to say. But what he does say makes it perfectly clear that they key is not any surpassing beauty in Penelope herself. He freely grants that from this point of view Calypso will be found superior. And he points to no superiority in Penelope that could counterbalance Calypso's divine excellence. So he is not, it seems, choosing a glorious prize in spite of the fact that he has to face death to get it; that is not at all how he sees the issue. He is choosing the whole human package: mortal life, dangerous voyage, imperfect mortal aging woman. He is choosing, quite simply, what is his: his own history, the form of a human life and the possibilities of excellence, love, and achievement that inhabit that form. What, then, can he say to make that choice intelligible, once the alternative of divinity and agelessness is on the scene?

And yet, to readers of the poem from ancient to modern times, Odysseus' choice does seem intelligible, and also admirable — the only choice we would have our hero make.
Odysseus' choice is perfectly understandable because the alternative is so . . . boring. Without the possibility of loss, nothing is interesting. Without limitation, there is no possibility for excellence, which is, in the Aristotelian view at least, the purpose of a human being:
We don't quite know what it would be for this hero, known for his courage, craft, resourcefulness, and loyal love to enter into a life in which courage would atrophy, in which cunning and resourcefulness would have little point, since the risks with which they grapple would be removed, and in which love, insofar as it appears at all, would be very different in shape from the love that connects man to wife and child in the human world of the poem.
And:
The Greeks, no less than contemporary Americans, praise outstanding athletic performance as a wonderful instance of human excellence. . . . But clearly, such achievement has point and value only relatively to the context of the human body, which imposes certain species-specific limits and creates certain possibilities of movement rather than others. . . . But if this means that even races or contests between different animal species will usually seem pointless and odd, it means all the more that there will be no athletic excellence at all, and no meaningful concept of athletic excellence, in the life of a being that is, by nature, capable of anything and physically unlimited. . . . What would such achievement be, in a being for whom it is all easy? What would be the rules of the game? [Bolded emphasis mine.]
But the real appeal of Penelope, and of the mortal world, compared to heaven, is the possibility of stories. We root for Odysseus to choose Penelope over immortality, says Nussbaum, because of
this more general uneasiness about the shapelessness of the life Calypso offers: pleasure and kindliness and on and on, with no risks, no possibility of sacrifice, no grief, no children. All we need to do to see this is to compare accounts of lovemaking. Odysseus and Calypso "withdrew, and in a recess of the arching cavern they took their pleasure in love, and did not leave one another's side." That's the end of that; the poet can say no more; for they have nothing to talk about, since they have done nothing and nothing has happened to them. As for the human husband and wife:
The two in their room enjoyed the delights of love, then pleased one another with recounting what had befallen each. The queen told how much she had suffered in these halls, seeing always there the pernicious multitude of suitors who in wooing her had slaughtered so many beasts, fat sheep and oxen, and drawn so much wine from the great jars. The king told of the harm he had done to others and the misery he had endured himself. Penelope listened to him enraptured, and sleep did not fall upon her eyelids till he had told his tale to the end. [Oddyssey, V.226-27, XXIII.300-09, W. Shewring transl.]
It's perfectly plain that the human pair are, at least from the viewpoint of the human reader, more interesting and more erotic. A sexuality divorced from conversation, from storytelling, from risk and adventure and the sharing of risk and adventure, seems extremely boring; and we feel that it is a great tribute to the goddess's beauty that Odysseus retains his interest in her, after so much time.
Life is quite unbearable, for a human, without the "risk and adventure" of a story-bound life. What we are looking for when we look for the "meaning of life" is the greater story. The unfortunate truth, suggested by science and vehemently denied by religion, is that there is no greater story. We may make up stories and allow them to shape our perceptions, but ultimately there is no story. We are all living in the epilogue of reality, or rather worse, because there never was a story. For many of us, our personal stories have run out - and it's extremely difficult to push oneself into a new story once you see that all stories are vanity. It is like the difficulty of staying in a dream once one realizes one is dreaming.

The Cheery and the Damned

Why are drugs, prostitution, gambling and suicide illegal, when they clearly give so much relief to suffering people? I think it is because, at a societal level, we are deluded into thinking that happiness is possible, maybe even easy or likely, without these things. I have called this cheery social policy.

The fundamental problem with this sort of cheeriness is the assumption that a good life - a pleasant life - is relatively easy to achieve. Cheery people are able to hold such a belief because they are able to ignore - and perhaps can't even conceive of - the suffering of a significant minority of the population. A good life is not easily achieved for many of us.

There is a majority belief that we need not use extraordinary means to achieve a happy and meaningful life. Behaviors that deviants engage in, perhaps in pursuit of a tolerable life - weird sex with lots of people, say, or using steroids or marijuana or LSD or benzodiazepines - strike cheery people as perplexing and frightening. For a cheery person, these behaviors are wholly unnecessary - life is perfectly tolerable without them. And they increase the risk of harm! Who wants harm?

What the cheery cannot imagine is the importance, the function of these behaviors, and others like them - the pursuit of the interesting, and the temporary suspension of the intolerability of existence, which intolerability (for many) the cheery do not even perceive, and therefore do not properly weight as a problem.

Jason Roy's "Explanations for drug war" makes this point with respect to the drug prohibition. He quotes John Gray's Straw Dogs:
Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfillment is found not in daily life but escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible — that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Socieities founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.
But it is not necessarily the case that prohibitionists think that life is great. It's that they think it is meaningful - that we are in a story, and it's worth participating in, win or lose.

The idea that life is inherently worthwhile, and happiness easy to achieve, underlies many social policies, including prohibitions (legal or moral) on suicide, abortion, nonmarital sex, drugs, gambling, and even eating fatty food.

On the other hand, if life were not inherently worthwhile, suicide would be understandable, and bringing a new life into the world would not be an unqualified good, but an uneasy question mark. Sex, drugs, and fun would be appropriate ways to treat oneself for the unwanted condition of life.

Palliative Care: A Double Standard for People in the Epilogue

The terminally ill are at the end of their story. If you're going to die anyway, what does it matter what you do? Take ecstasy. Go skydiving. Fuck a prostitute. Kill yourself. Who cares?

There is a sense that, once you're terminally ill and an official short-timer in life, what you do ceases to really matter. This is, I think, at the heart of the double standard our society imposes with regard to suicide and the other activities mentioned above. If you're young and healthy, you have an obligation to stay alive and be sober and responsible. But if you're toast anyway, anything goes. For the dying, we can conceive of allowing them pleasure as mercy. But we are not so eager to offer mercy to healthy people. That is because we mistakenly believe in the concept of health.

Toward Social Policy as Palliative Care

We are all terminally ill. Not one of us is going to survive. And our stories are delusions. Each one of us lives in The Matrix - a story-dream created by our minds. Happiness is not easy; meaning is elusive. Young, healthy people who find themselves miserable, or find that they no longer inhabit a story, have even more need of the kind of "palliative care" that we offer to terminally ill people, simply because young people have so much more time to get through. Eighty years! Ninety years! A hundred years of epilogue ahead of us. It's crushingly boring to ponder. As Martha Nussbaum says,
When Calypso speaks of "calm possession of this domain," our hearts sink; for there's no story in that. . . . Stories have shaped and continue to shape the readers' desires, giving them a preference for onward movement over stasis, for risk over self-sufficiency, for the human form of time over divine timelessness. They play upon and nourish the emotions — fear, anticipation, grief, hope — that presuppose the form of life of a being both needy and resourceful, both active and finite — and that seem to have their point and function only within the context of such a life.
Regarding antinatalism, someone recently asked me if it was my belief that the bad outweighed the good, or whether I thought they weren't even comparable. I believe the latter. Ray Brassier, in his introduction to Thomas Ligotti's excellent The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, puts it thus:
The optimist fixes the exchange rate between joy and woe, thereby determining the value of life. The pessimist, who refuses the principle of exchange and the injunction to keep investing in the future no matter how worthless life's currency in the present, is stigmatized as an unreliable investor.
This is the view from hell. Hell is not the state of experiencing a great deal of suffering with no pleasure to "balance it out." Hell is popping out of the notion of meaning altogether. And this Hell is the meta-condition that we are all in, whether we perceive it or not.

Memento mori






42 comments:

  1. I'll limit my comment to this: An extraordinary piece of writing. It simply doesn't get better than this. Much appreciation from this end.

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  2. Thank you so much! I really needed a compliment after that. I'm exhausted.

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  3. The overt fictions we ply ourselves with, religion, mythology, futurism et al, are bad enough. But even those who manage to break away from those particular rhythms seem left with sort of an emotional residue, usually unrecognized for what it is. Or, maybe not so much residue as the original substance of dreams, untouched. Still urging us to avert our eyes from the unacceptable conclusion.

    Anyhow, you've really done your job tonight, Sister Y. Take a toke or two, the better to limber you up for some deserved self-back patting. Man, I've really fallen into the midst of some talented people. A nice and unexpected thing to happen at this time of my life. Thanks again!

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  4. I've been reading your blog for years and you never cease to amaze me. I second Jim's compliments. I wish I could derive some consolation from seeing the truth, but I really don't give a shit about the truth because it's fucking horrible. I would agree to be plugged back into the Matrix in a heartbeat if being a fundie didn't hurt other people (like suicides, LGBTQ individuals, women who need abortions and the children who are born when they don't get them). And who am I kidding, maybe I would even return to the Matrix if it turned me into another Phyllis Schlafly; it's just that I am incapable of re-brainwashing myself. This train of thought really scares me sometimes.

    Anyway, Tauriq Moosa mentioned that one of his professors, Anton van Niekerk, responded to BNtHB. I find it fascinating that he talks about it basically in the same terms you just did, using end-of-life care metaphors and discussing meaning. Of course, unsurprisingly, he reaches a totally different conclusion and decides that as long as pretty story can be constructed out of someone's suffering, it's all been worth it.

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  5. nice blog... have a view of my blog when free.. http://www.lonelyreload.blogspot.com .. do leave me some comment / guide if can.. if interested can follow my blog...

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  6. Wonderful essay. Sums up the core issue as far as I'm concerned. Not only can people not live without a story, they also can't live without dragging other people into them: hence murder, war, ideology and so on.

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  7. Sister Y made reference to the great John Gray in her essay. Here's a link to a review of a recent book on terrorism by Gray, which touches on some of the issues regarding a need for narrative discussed in the essay:

    http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/gray_12_10.html

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  8. I was filled with restless energy after reading this. Had to walk it off.

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  9. Despite great admiration for, and kinship with, this tour de force, I still wonder if Sister Y's self-accounting doesn't qualify as a story, albeit one with impressively little claim to comfort. The absence of the imagination has itself to be imagined.

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  10. I freely admit that - not just one story but fifty little ones. Stories are not only the only way to communicate a complex thought, they are also the only way to HAVE a complex thought. We can never get away from it. We can't REALLY pop out of it.

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  11. The thought of living in ones own epilogue sounds very lyrical to me.
    It also implies that there was story before that. And if I look back at my relatively carefree childhood those memories do indeed feel like a story. I can look upon them from my temporal vantagepoint and my current self sees a very different person, someone who is not me, being the center of this story. Somewhere on the way from happy boy to sad adult my identity got disconnected.
    At least those are my current assessments of how the life of the carefree youth compares to my current self, but who knows if this hindsight is really 20/20, probably I did not then realize the true bliss that a childs ignorance is - but I cannot even tell how happy I really was, only that I imagine that I should have been happy, not knowing what I know now.
    Anyway, this matrix is of course lost, and has been replaced by the big "why?" that has no answer. There are no reasons and no meanings - for oneself that is. But despite not being able to balance the good and the bad there _are_ comforting thoughts and for me one of them has become this: the very realization of the worthlessness of existence itself opens up a new way of helping others that would not be possible otherwise, and that is the prevention of their coming into existence. Many people try to help others and reduce their suffering (although of course not nearly enough). But how feeble are these attempts compared with the favor that is done to those who are completely spared their existence? To be more concise: if the proliferation of antinatalistic insights can lead to just one fewer life, than would otherwise have been started, then this could be a worthy goal.
    At the moment I feel that this would make my life somewhat more meaningful, at least for others, and thereby more bearable for myself.

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  12. I agree with CM. I kinda missed those days when I could deal with the world's suffering because I believed that it was all temporary and in the end God would make everything okay (I was a Christian who didn't believe in hell; and not just because I didn't want to, I had pretty good evidence from studying the bible in its original languages). Unfortunately, like CM, I can't make myself believe it anymore. Once I saw that the fundamental flaw in Christianity was the same for all religions, it was all over.

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  13. This is a superb and moving piece of writing, Sis. So let me ruin the mood by picking a nit. You say:

    "[S]tories are not real. They are constructs that we apply to the universe, but there is no story out in the universe.... We construct meaning to serve our evolutionarily-determined ends...."

    Well, but: buildings (for example) are constructed. But no one would say that because buildings are constructed, they aren't real. Whether their reality is significant in some way is another question; but they are certainly real (to the extent that the word "real" has any use at all).

    And indeed the nihilist predicament is itself a construction, a story, a diagnosis. It's rooted in the idea that our meanings (such as they are) should matter on a scale grander than the one in which we actually commit ourselves to life; that life ought to be fair; that our every performance should enjoy an audience. This framework too is constructed. And if the condition it conjures up can nonetheless be real, so too can be the meanings we've constructed right along with it.

    For my part, I think the world if filled with stories - true stories, wonderful stories, horrible stories, tragic stories, banal stories, humiliating stories. It's also filled with run-on sentences, fragments, pointless exposition, blank pages, and far too many typos. All told, it doesn't add up to a very good book. But you don't have to read the whole thing. And you couldn't even if you wanted to.

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  14. If you ever wrote a book, this would be a fantastic intro. Of course it's good all on its own. Did you see the Tyler Cowen talk on stories?

    Off-topic, but the movie Taste of Cherry can be viewed online with English subtitles. It's about a man who has decided to kill himself and tries to hire various people to bury him when they find his body in the hole he has already dug. They are all hostile to the idea, with one man discussing how everyone in the world has problems and if that was sufficient to kill yourself no one would be left and how he chose not to follow through with his own plan to hang himself. An interesting bit is that the protagonist argues that it is a sin to be unhappy and thereby cause suffering to one's friends & family, which are the usual hostages in the way of a suicide. No explanation is given as for why the man is so unhappy, the idea may be that many people are afflicted but only a few actually go through with it.

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  15. Excellent essay... makes me wonder. Instead of harming children by having them, I've chosen to burn off my procreative desires by writing stories, since they seem harmless (or even beneficial, in the form of palliative care). But palliation may give people the feeling that life is OK, and encourage them to breed... but since so few people read the stories I write, of course my life is far more meaningless than it is harmful, malingering Catholic guilt aside. I think I need to polish off that Doctor Who DVD now. That's good palliative care. Though you can't help thinking, if he really did have such great compassion for the people of Earth, the Doctor might consider just letting the Daleks put us all out of our misery. Their intent may seem evil, but hey, no more human suffering. Just one big space ray and fzzzz.

    Although, hang on: maybe we do have a metastory! It's called (often by another name, yet it still stinks as sour) slavery! Slavery to the gods we invent because we're that shit-scared of mortality; slavery to our DNA, to our need for meaning and narrative; slavery to the economic needs forced on us by our bodies, and the way the yokes are placed on our necks accordingly... we are the Oud.

    Does Nussbaum have anything to say about Hesiod's discussion of the necessity of work? To the Greeks, work is the equivalent of the Christian revelation of our shameful nakedness: it's a fall from innocence. That story again.

    Anyway, brilliant. Thanks, Sister. But how hateful, that awful truth. I'm amazed that people can suspend their disbelief in a benevolent deity for the entire length of their life's tale when, if you really must believe in a deity, there's so much more evidence for a malevolent one. Can you think of a better heavenly explanation for boredom, work, our painful reactions to weather conditions, bloodlust, and the fact that the only things besides dying that can make life better (alcohol, drugs, sex) have such miserable consequences (hangovers, addictions, DTs, drug counselors, STDs, procreation)? Only a malevolent god would make beer deadly. Occam's Razor ought to apply to thelogy as well: "He's teaching you a lesson" sounds like a pretty damned convoluted way to explain grief to me.

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  16. It disturbs me that people believe in deities, but it disturbs me even more that people believe that there are powerful, benevolent deities.

    People talk about how we can't understand God's plan. But by our own human morality, the actions of God are incredibly evil. Another way of saying that a being has a plan we can't understand that seems evil to us is that this creature is an evil alien.

    My favorite translator of the Gospels has a poem on this topic "If God had an apartment" - he says of God, "He's been a fist of shame, an SS type. If God were smart, he'd take that knife - penitent - to his wrist."

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  17. TGGP,

    An official announcement will follow elsewhere and soon, but Sister Y has given me the OK to mention that her book,"Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide," will be published by Nine-Banded Books. It is tentatively scheduled for release in late 2011.

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  18. TGGP, you might also enjoy Carlos Reygadas' visionary debut Japón and, to a lesser extent commensurate with his stylistic modesty, Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo, both of which are indebted to Kiarostami's film. (Bahrani's best work to date, in my opinion is the apocalyptic short Plastic Bag, featuring a poignant and characteristically mesmerizing voice over by Herzog: "I wish that you had created me so I could die.")

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  19. this was indeed a good read, as pointed out from Jim´s blog.

    If anyone wants have a read at what I wrote in mine latest post.. it would be cool to know what you think about it.

    and thanks

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  20. Nietzsche argues that without a story we tell of ourselves, we have no self. Further, he argues that we have a choice -- we can edit the story. If you live outside story, that's your choice. You have chosen to do so. You can choose otherwise.

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  21. I am sorry to hear that you have been feeling suicidal since childhood. My honest advice to you would be to believe wholeheartedly in God, who is kind and merciful and will help you both materially and spiritually. The pleasures of the flesh are but transient and fade quickly, whereas a life of loving service to those less fortunate, coupled with steadfast faith and devotion to the Lord, will lead to a truly fulfilled existence and ultimately, salvation.
    May God help you.

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  22. It is a little late to be commenting but I just found your blog. I want to say how much I needed to read this post. I have realized that my narrative has always been that I can figure out and solve my problems and that my life will continue to improve.

    In many ways it has but in the last year, I have realized that no matter what I do I will always be alone and have bouts of sadness. So much advice is out there on how to improve your life but not as much on how to live when you realistically think that this is as good as it will get.

    Living in the epilogue puts into words the way I have felt lately. This change from making plans and having hopes to a feeling of drifting existence is not good. I am happier than I was when I was younger but I have never felt this lack of a forward arc of my life.

    It felt strangely comforting to read your similar thoughts instead of the usual "it gets better" bromide.

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  23. Could you elaborate on what you think a 'story' is? Could the universe be different such that it did have one? Why can't we make adequate ones in this reality? Why should the lack of a story be *so* unpleasant? Without a better idea of what you mean by 'story' it is hard to see either how having one is meant to help survival, or how lacking one should be so unpleasant.

    As far as I can tell I often don't think everything is embedded in some 'story', yet this is not especially unpleasant. Surprising perhaps.

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  24. I think your model of "story thinking" is close to what I mean by a "story."

    Could the universe be different such that it did have one?

    I'm not sure. I don't think so. I think this has to do with the necessity of agents for stories, and the impossibility of a fully-formed agent being formed without some kind of a story behind that, back to stochastic processes again.

    I think we can make locally relevant stories in "this reality." The problem is that a story is like a euphemism: it is a way of editing out uncomfortable or survival-relevant information, and having a conversation on a purely local level (even if only with oneself). I think that, as Robert Hanson uses the term "local," stories are inherently local. There are many stories about popping out a level, but that's embedded within a greater story, a higher level. Still local.

    The more abstract you get, the more you stories lose their meaning.

    As far as I can tell I often don't think everything is embedded in some 'story', yet this is not especially unpleasant. Surprising perhaps.

    In many ways I think this is the proper, rational, consistent response - as Thomas Nagel says, the proper response to absurdity is not despair, but irony. However, as an embodied being that feels pain and empathy, to me despair seems like the only response to this sort of universe. Suffering without reason seems to me to cry out for its end.

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  25. The writer of erosblog.com (a porn website that is both thoughtful and hot) discusses this post in the article Porn and Not Being Cheery. NSFW!

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  26. You are so, so, so ready for LiberationUnleashed. Yes, you CAN pop out of the story and be happy. It just takes honest curiosity and skepticism. Good luck.

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  27. You are so, so, so ready for LiberationUnleashed.

    Please tell me that's a new suicide method.

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  28. http://desade-justine.com/deadalive39820.htm

    Found this while wandering the internet. Thought you might be interested.

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    1. Update: A quick bit of internet detectivery on this Sam Zanahar reveals him to be both be a bit of an idiot, and a selfish prick(He believes it's better not to be born, but claims to have 10 kids. Come on dude.)

      Ah well.

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  29. Hello, How do I get in touch with you? There is no email or contact info listed .. please advise .. thanks .. Mary. Please contact me maryregency at gmail dot com

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    1. My email is at the bottom of every page - sister.eee@gmail.com.

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  30. The unfortunate truth, suggested by science and vehemently denied by religion, is that there is no greater story. We may make up stories and allow them to shape our perceptions, but ultimately there is no story. We are all living in the epilogue of reality, or rather worse, because there never was a story. For many of us, our personal stories have run out - and it's extremely difficult to push oneself into a new story once you see that all stories are vanity.

    Many of your points about narratives are right, but you're wrong that religion denies the "vanity" of our lives:

    Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

    -Ecclesiastes 1:2, The Bible (King James Version)

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    1. I love Ecclesiastes, but even the wise, cosmopolitan speaker, in the canonical version of the text, sets up God as creating a base value/background metanarrative for everything.

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    2. I think there's a big irony to be said about this: religion evolved in a world where life was much more fragile and people's outlooks felt fundamentally frail; in medieval times there was the belief of fortune being a wheel that one could fall to the bottom of at any time. It was rationalism, starting with the enlightenment, that begot the illusion that we can predict, and by extension, control, our place in the universe.

      Oftentimes, what we call "religion" seems to be a perverse outgrowth that tries to reconcile tacit belief in the sacred with literal "belief" in the form of hypotheses about material phenomena. In this sense, Ray Kurzweil and Jerry Falwell are two sides of the same coin.

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    3. I'm not a bible expert but it seems to me that the story comes from the juxtaposition of images of nature rather than any explicit teleological statement.

      However, I can't help but feel that you're getting very vague by saying he's creating a "background". For one thing every parable has a narrative "background"--otherwise it couldn't be a story in any way/shape/form. In addition, I could use the vagueness of your term and argue that we too most definitely have a "background".

      But since I think I see what you're saying, I'll respond by saying that however much one can despair about the lack of an anthropomorphic teleology, there is still arguably a narrative "structure" to the universe to be found in (1) the relentless path of entropy (so technically it seems we're not existing in the midst of an eternal epilogue--you're actually the first person to make me feel like the relentlessness of entropy isn't metaphysically unsettling), and (2) our embodied nature; we're circumscribed (for lack of a better term) by our emotions.

      I would question your choice of narratives--since it seems to me that you *are* living in one (simply because without a narrative we would not even be so much as a coherent organism [we think in narratives and cognition is embodied])--but I know that that would be crossing the line; you are who you are and I respect that.

      There's a book I eventually intend on reading: "Reinventing the Sacred" by Stuart Kauffman--same author as "at home in the universe". Great author on chemistry, biology, and chaos theory. Seems relevant to the kind of discussion going on here about teleology, narratives, and existing.

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  31. Hi, Sister Y.

    I just found your blog, and have been reading a lot of your essays. They're all brilliant and full of things to think about/read more about, but this one really struck me with its beauty.

    Also, I'm surprised at the extent to which we seem to be the same and different at once. I've also been possessed by an obsession with killing myself, but it didn't last my whole life --- I perceived it as a strange and disturbing aberration rather than as my normal. (I like that you have those jars of poison, and I understand the comfort they give you. I imagine they would give me the same feeling.)

    I also don't think I live in a story. Objectively, my life is "going nowhere" --- I live at home, have done so since graduating college, and have never held a job. I also think very differently from most people, as I have autism. My memory is not an ongoing Story of Me so much as a huge compendium of visual impressions. While I have some non-sensory memories --- memories of things I felt, thought or of relationships I had --- most of what I have from any given epoch in my life is going to be, not who I was at that time, or what I felt, or what I was trying to do, but what I saw. It's actually a lot like TV depictions of, say, Sherlock Holmes's eidetic memory --- montage of things he's seen, with the camera zooming in on the particular object he's trying to recall --- but with a lot of gaps, and less-than-perfect fine detail. But anyway, it's fragmented and it's mostly objects.

    Like the above commenter, I have never felt any distress at not being in a story. I only recently noticed that I'm not in a story; I don't seem to "do" introspection the way other people do. And I suspect that the way my mind works, which I have tried to describe above, might give me a greater tolerance for mere existence. I seem to possess naturally the state of mind people try to acquire through mindfulness techniques, a sort of hyper-observant present-mindedness that doesn't leave a whole lot of room for self-consciousness. (Obviously I have a self, otherwise I could not have written this comment. But if you could look in my head at any given moment in time, and you did so often enough, you'd be astounded at how much of my mental capacity I use just to perceive what's around me.)

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  32. You lost me at the assertion that science makes religion laughable.

    That's a laughable assertion.

    I did read the piece all the way through. Do you have children?

    My life has been extremely pleasant, minus the bumps and bruises that are to be expected in an active life. Why would achieving this be a problem?

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