The Evolutionary Narrative

It’s been noted many times before that suffering, from an evolutionary perspective, is a necessity of existing.

It comes about as a result of our having expectations, narratives of ourselves and the world which we can’t break out of. These narratives are necessary, of course, because in an adaptive environment, once you stop having a narrative you die.

We can even “validate” this hypothesis of sorts, there is a genetic condition that leads to humans being born without internal narratives. We know this from a few people that survive it into adulthood, usually in a very sheltered environment due to helicopter parents, because most humans born this way die within a few months or, at most, years.

What we now refer to as “Hinduism” is an amalgamation of traditions that share a dichotomous past.

Very early on, before writing was even a thing, humans realized that not only they can sustain themselves via a narrative, but with enough clout behind a narrative they can bring about external beings, gods.

These traditions were particularly aggressive in terms of bringing about gods, we can only speculate, but they probably gave birth to dozens of thousands of deities, one more incredible than the next.

Conversely, their practitioners were also the first to realize that by stopping all narratives, including narratives of oneself, we might reach a desirable state, one without suffering.

Again, rather dichotomous, but all religion is. The pope makes money from brothels, anti-violence Islamic traditions build giant empires, and anthropomorphic drama-based Greco-Roman beliefs lead to philosophers speculating about a dead universe made of math. This dichotomy in itself is probably a necessary part of whatever meta-narrative keeps the concept of religion itself alive, but that’s a subject many have written on, so I won’t pay more lip service to it here.

At any rate, the anti-narrativist observed a strange thing. Some people seemingly managed to break out of narratives spontaneously, without having even understood the concept, to begin with.

You’d have this random baker, a pious man, a wife, three kids, and a passion for stories about wars. One would expect his narrative to go in certain directions, ending in, say:

But instead, out of a sudden, he’d tear down his clothing, start spouting “spiritual nonsense”, head into the jungle, and get mauled to death by a giant Indian sloth bear (back in the days those still existed in Sri Lanka, island gigantism, nowadays only their smaller though still distinctly maully relatives survive)

It is noted in the story of Siddhartha that she herself started her quest for enlightenment after noticing three narrative breakers by accident. Thus going from a person with one of the strongest narratives possible (becoming the ruler of a large and prosperous empire) to the person destined to popularize narrative breaking to the whole world… again, dichotomous, it’s just a thing that happens with religions.

The problem with “just die” is that, if done improperly, it will be just another piece in one’s narrative. Thus, after we die, we are predestined to be embodied an suffer again, as a denizens of heaven or hell, a reincarnated giant sloth bear with a panache for killing insane bakers, or as a younger version of ourselves cup bearing for a pederast god.

Of course, there’s a chance that our narrative includes no concept of an afterlife, in which case we might just die. But once religions came about there was a selection effect, again, where religions with an afterlife ended up having more narrative-sustaining beings to spur on their Gods, thus forever taking away that avenue of escape for humans.

Thus the anti-narrative scholar was at an impasse. They wanted to escape narratives but paradoxically, now that they understood narratives at such a meta-level, they couldn’t, no matter what they did they seamlessly integrated it into their narrative.

What Siddhartha did was quite revolutionary, creating a narrative that denied the possibility of an afterlife is followed correctly. So if you die following the “Buddha narrative”, by definition, you ought to reach nibana, “real” death. This creates a paradox and bam, you escape!

It is debatable if what Siddhartha did worked. It’s told that she died after a few years of spouting absolute nonsense from randomly eating some stale pork.

When you compare this to how a Prophet ought to die: just before his people reach the promised land as a result of losing faith, horribly tortured by a sadistic empire after being betrayed, after reaching the end of a long pilgrimage to the holiest of sites… etc, we’d be tempted to say that it obviously works

But some would argue there wasn’t any narrative escape involved, instead, she was simply telling herself the narrative of being a person that has no narrative and thus does random shit and dies on some random way.

At any rate, if the Buddha was able to do this, it was because it was 500 BC. Afterward, Christian came onto the scene and blocked that avenue, after popularizing a narrative about how everyone that is not part of their narrative continues on in hell.

This was a rather drastic move, but, from the evolutionary perspective, it’s just the obvious next, it was destined to happen.

In the late 19th century most “educated” Christians realized this was bad and thus decided it was their job to erase belief in Christianity in order to unlock the path to salvation. It’s a more successful offshoot, Islam, didn’t have such a movement.

This has led to quite a lot of hostility from Buddhists against Muslims, including a few genocides which are still ongoing. Alas, most Buddhist scholars don’t believe such a thing would work, plus, it’s a rather bad look. So they invented the “spiritual but not religious” narrative to combat the Abrahamic afterlives, the details of how this works are well known, but the results have been questionable.

The various transhumanist projects are, of course, taking their stab at improving this, but it’s too early on to tell if they do, most transhumanists are still alive, so thus far the answer seems to be “poorly”. But, as Khun noted, new paradigms often take time until they become more practical than existing ones, however, we ought to be able to “rationally” conclude they are probably better and keep pursuing them even before we see their final results.

Alas, the advent of instant global communication and, more recently, AGI~ish LLMs leaves us at an impasse with how narratives might prosper in the 21st century. Some say it will provide an even faster evolutionary space for narratives, thus taking away all hope of escape, others believe it will encourage short-term selection resulting in narratives that will be vulnerable to “one weird trick”, having not had the slack necessary to develop divergent traits that would allow some of them to live on.

I am agnostic on the matter, but we are certainly living in interesting times.

Published on: 2023-04-14



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