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In Hindsight: Supervenience, Complexity, and Narrative Mapping

In Hindsight: Supervenience, Complexity, and Narrative Mapping

lumberjacks An abstract or prospective summary of my contribution to a book on narrative and complexity:

Evolutionary theorists are constantly having to come to terms with the implications of new developments in the sciences and in the philosophy of science, and also with the implications of evolutionary thought on every field of knowledge. The complexity of reality is constantly in the process of being reinterpreted in the light of new data or new frames of thought. The same goes for the history of the universe (at a cosmical, local, biogical, or cognitive-cultural level) which has given rise to the different dimensions of the complexity we face in every phenomenon and event—that is, the history of everything is constantly being rewritten, at a number of historical levels (the aforementioned levels pertaining to cosmic evolution and the evolution of the earth, and at higher levls of complexity, the level of biological evolution and cultural evolution, culminating in human history and the history of institutions and individuals).

Although our cognitive ability rests on abstraction and on the identification of classes and kinds of phenomena, every phenomenon in the universe appears at the same time to be highly individual; that complex individuality has to be accounted for as the result of a complex interaction of simpler phenomena or more general laws. Reality as we face it is a vast web of related phenomena, each of whom appears to be supervenient, or "just-so", the result of a facticity inherent to the very complex structure of the universe. The notion of a global explanation for complex phenomena is a regulative ideal for human understanding, one best exemplified perhaps at present by the current interest for "Big History". Part of the aim of this paper is to explore the narrative dimensions of Big History, and the inherent narrativity of evolutionary theories and explanations, especially as regards their retrospective nature. An account of complex and supervenient phenomena requires the insights provided by hindsight, by retrospection, but it also requires a critical perspective on the potential fallacies which accompany narrative explanations, notably hindsight bias.

A narratological toolkit of concepts must be developed or adapted in order to deal with the narrativity of complex events at this scale. Working on such concepts is an instance of cognitive mapping—the building of mental maps which relate areas and disciplines of knowledge to one another. (The very notion of a ’Third Culture’ bridging the gap between the disciplines of the sciences and the humanities, exemplified for instance by sociobiologically-inspired criticism or by ecocriticism, might be such an instance of cognitive map-building). One of the concepts we will be using is narrative anchoring—the mapping of small or individual narratives onto narratives of larger processes or events—e.g. biographies onto social histories.  Thus, creation myths may be mapped, analogically, as cosmological narratives akin to current evolutionary explanations and anchored to them in our current mental maps. To be sure, such "narrative anchoring" needs to take into account another dimension of narrative conceptualization—the fact that these narratives are different "language games" or genres. Our conceptual toolkit will also require, therefore, a cognitive mapping of the generic differences among narrative games and representations. (To give a simple example, the generic difference between a historical novel and a historical testimonial account). Such a cognitive mapping of modes of representation will be named narrative mapping insofar as it applies to narratives and to the narrativity of other representations. 

The paper will examine, the implications of the concepts of evolutionary supervenience, retrospection, and hindsight, for a theory of narrative mapping—and point out that such a theory is a necessary concept underpinning an evolutionary historicist hermeneutics.

Local, individual or specific narratives are mentally located (anchored) in a mental map of larger narratives; their structural or cognitive modes are also susceptible of mapping onto a mental map of narrative modes—a map which is itself historical, since narrative genres, strategies or media have a historical situatedness of their own. All of these are dimensions of complexity which have to be taken into stride by the aforementioned evolutionary historicist hermeneutics.

Narrative representations or interpretations are inherently contingent as a result of the aritst or the interpreter’s intellectual history, and of the historicity of the media, genres or intellectual traditions.Global scientific accounts may have a distinct intellectual cultural privilege as cognitive frameworks onto which smaller histories are mapped—witness for instance the standard cosmological account—but these accounts are themselves subject to evolution and change (sometimes in spectacular directions and at great speed). Moreover, their cognitive use is always local and situated; so their role as well as that of any other global cognitive framework must be conceived of dialectically, and subject to negotiation and interaction in these situated contexts. The interpretive insights derived from symbolic interactionism have to be taken into account in any hermeneutic proposal, even in an evolutionary one, if we are to come to terms with the full complexity of the phenomena of representation and cognition.

The object of study is historical and subject to narrative anchoring; but the conceptual toolkit brought to bear on the object, and the interpretive situation or perspective, are themselves historical and ultimately referrable to a global cognitive mapping which accounts for the historicity (or the evolutionary origin) of conceptual tools, objects, perspectives, situations, and personal histories.  Every object or event has an inherent history, a narrativity which can be teased out of it, and every theory brought to bear on the object or event has a historical situatedness, an intellectual history, and an institutional context.

There is therefore an inherent dialectic between the contingent / supervenient aspects and the coherent situatedness of the interpretive act understood from an evolutionary perspective; and this is one of the dimensions of the complexity of an object, as seen from a given perspective.

In order to organize and map this complex dialectic, a number of levels of contingency and emergence bearing on interpretation are distinguished; not indeed for the first time, but rather because of their recurrent usefulness as mapping tools, in such evolutionary philosophies as that of Spencer, or in current accounts of Big History. These are the levels of interpretation relative to cosmic evolution, biological evolution, neural-cognitive evolution, cultural evolution, and personal life history. The paper will explore the role of hindsight in narrative hermeneutics, bearing in mind the aforementioned levels of complexity. There is a narratological dimension in such cosmological approaches to complexity which has been insufficiently theorised, and some way may be made towards that aim by emphasizing the narrativity of these accounts, and the role that narratology can play in making these conceptual models more self-conscious and aware of their own historical situatedness and of their formal and generic constraints.

To come full circle to the issue of contingency, the recent cosmological proposal of Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin in The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (2015) forcefully asserts the nature of reality as a unified web of relationships within a single temporal narrative, as it restores the singularity of time as an irreducible cosmological primitive. The universe progressively unfolds in time and generates unprecedented levels of complexity, in a way which is creative and not as a replay of pre-established models, not as the projection onto time of a timeless set of Platonic models and mathematical ideas. If Time is to be asserted as the irreducible fundamental backdrop of cosmic evolution, as the foundation on which complex emergents are built through unprecedented interactions, narrative too is a fundamental phenomenon and a fundamental tool in understanding the complexity of all phenomena, since narrative is our way of coming to terms with objects as the product of time and of complex and  unprecedented interactions.

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