Wednesday, September 23, 2015

You best start believing in Grand Narratives

You're in one.

The thing with Grand Narratives is that most of them are wrong. It's not that I personally know everything and have evaluated all the universal theories out there. Rather, I know most, if not all, are wrong, because competing theories of everything are going to contradict each other in some way. If only one can be right, the rest must be wrong.*

So Brett McKay's blog, The Art of Manliness**, is doing a series on status. The first part received some reactions along the lines of "Status is dumb. You just have to stop caring about status" to which Brett replies
But here’s the thing: Even if you proclaim your indifference to status, your brain is likely telling a very different story. (Not to mention, such a declaration, as it places oneself in a superior, or at least special position to others, is actually in and of itself a play for status!)
Or maybe sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The biggest problem with this Grand Narrative, as well as many others, is that there is no allowance of a meta-overview. For example, there is no way to examine status theory objectively because an objective viewpoint implies a "special position to others" which "is actually in and of itself a play for status!"

"Everything (at least for men) is status!" is what Brett's rejoinder tells us. The theory is unquestionable because any attempt to criticize it is merely more status gamesmanship. Ultimately, as the appeal to brain chemistry hints, the status theory of human behavior has its roots in the Grand Narrative of evolutionary psychology.

For the most part, it's hard to argue against. But what are the consequences and are there any exceptions? Status theory, as well as the related signalling theory that Robin Hanson's been popularizing, suggests that the impetus for behavior is societal. It is reactive. The principle centered person who takes action apart from the calculated response from society is a fiction. You don't do charity because it is the right thing to do but rather because you believe it will make you look good.

Maybe it's true and the only kind of non-societal signalling behaviors are those that make recourse to abstract and/or supernatural directives. Yet for even these, evolutionary psychology has its explanations so that all behavior is subsumed under its deterministic tyranny.

If these deterministic theories are true, then how hopeless and meaningless is man's existence! The life of the man who internalizes these beliefs will aspire to no higher things and the society of such men in aggregate cannot but be base. So even though my questioning of status theory will be seen by their adherents as a "play for status", I think it's necessary for the progress of civilization to question and reject any interpretation of potentially useful and explanatory theories (e.g. class analysis, evolutionary psychology) that unnecessarily elevates them to the universality of a deterministic grand narrative.

* There's little room for complementariness in theories of everything.

** The campy design and general aesthetic signal a slick superficial media site, but underneath the old-timey skeuomorphs is a lot of original and well thought out content.

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