Systems and stories

Tyler claims we think of most things in terms of stories, which he says is both largely inevitable and one of our biggest biases.

He includes the abstractions of non fiction as ‘stories’, and recommends ‘messiness’ as a better organising principle for understanding our lives and other things. But the problems with stories that Tyler mentions apply mostly to narrative stories, not other abstractions such as scientific ‘stories’. It looks to me like we think about narrative stories and other abstractions quite differently, so should not lump them together. I suspect we would do better to shift more to thinking in terms of other abstractions than to focus on messiness, but I’ll get to that later. First, let me describe the differences between these styles of thought.

I will call the type of thought we use for narrative stories such as fiction and most social interactions ‘story thought’. I will call the style of thought we use for other abstractions ‘system thought’. This is what we use to think about maths for instance.  They are both used by all people, but to different degrees on different topics.

Here are the differences between story thought and system thought I think I see, plus a few from Tyler. It’s a tentative list, so please criticize generously and give me more to add.


Role of agents
Stories are made out of agents, whereas systems are made out of the math and physics which is intuitive to us. Systems occasionally model agents, but in system thought agents are a pretty complex, obscure thing for a system to have. In story thought we expect everything to be intentional.

Stories are usually from an agent’s perspective, systems are understood from an objective outside viewpoint. Even if a story doesn’t have a narrator, there is usually a protagonist or several, plus less detailed characters stretching off into the distance.

Unique identity
The agents that stories are made of always have unique identities, even if there is more than one with basically the same characteristics. In system thought units are interchangeable, except they may have varying quantities of generic parameters. ‘You’ are a set of preferences, a gender, an income level, a location, and some other things. In story thought, any ambiguity about whether someone is the same person as they used to be is a big issue, and the whole story is about working out a definitive answer. In system thought it’s a meaningless question.

Good, evil and indifference

Ought and is

Story thought is concerned largely with judging the virtue of things, whereas system thought is mostly concerned with what happens. Stories are full of good and evil characters and actions, duties, desires, and normative messages. If system thought is used for thinking about ‘ought’ questions, this is done by choosing a parameter to care about and simply maximizing it, or choosing a particular goal, such as for a car to work. In story thought goodness doesn’t relate to quantities of anything in particular and you don’t ponder it by adding up anything. People who want to think about human interactions in terms of systems sometimes get around this by calling anything humans like ‘utility’, then adding that up. This irritates people who don’t want to think of stories in system terms.


In stories, intentions tend to be strongly related to inherent goodness or evilness. If they are not intentionally directed at big good or evil goals, they are meant to be understood as strong signals about the person’s character. Systems don’t have an analog.


Overarching meaning
Stories often have an overall moral or a point. That is, a story as a whole tends to contain a normative message for the observer. Systems don’t.

Other meanings and symbolism
Further meaning can be read into both stories and systems. However in stories this is based on superficial similarity and is intended to say something important, whereas in systems it’s based on structural similarity, is not intended, and may not be important. If you see a black cat cross your path, story thought says further dark things may cross your metaphoric path, while system thought might say animals in general can probably cross many approximately flat surfaces.


No levels below social
In stories everything occurs because of social level dynamics. Lower levels of abstraction such as physics and chemistry can’t instigate events. In reality it would be absurd to think a coffee fell on your lap so that you would have an awkward encounter with your future lover ten minutes later, but in story thought it would be absurd for a coffee to fall on your lap because it caught your sleeve. Even events that weren’t supposedly intended by any characters are for a social level purpose. Curiously the phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ is used to talk about systems and stories, but the ‘reasons’ are in opposite temporal directions. In system thought it means everything is necessitated somehow by the previous state of the system, in story thought it means every occurrence will have future social significance if it does not already.

Is and ought interaction
If a system contains a parameter you care about, the fact you care about it doesn’t affect how the system works. In story thought you can expect how you treat your servant on a single occasion to influence whether you happen to run into the heroine half naked in several months.

Free will
Stories are full of people making ‘free’ choices, not determined by their characteristics yet somehow determined by them. System thought doesn’t know how to capture this incoherence to the satisfaction of story thought.

Opportunity costs and other indirect causation
In story thought the causation we notice runs in the idiosyncratic way we understand blame to do. If I cause you to do something by allowing you, and you do it badly, I did not cause it to happen badly. In an analogous system, we do say that if a rock lands on a roof, and the roof doesn’t hold the rock well, the collapse was partly caused by the rock’s landing place.

Story causation also doesn’t include opportunity costs much, unless they are intentional: I didn’t cause Africans to suffer horribly this year by buying movie tickets instead of paying to deworm them, and nor did all of the similarly neglectful story heroes ever. In an analogous system, oxygen reacting with hydrogen quite obviously causes less oxygen to remain to react later with anything else.

The main components of a story need only be plausible, they need not be likely. Story thought notices if the hero is happy when his girlfriend dies, but doesn’t mind much if he happens to find himself in a situation central to the future of his planet. System thought on the other hand is mostly disinterested with the extremes of possibility, and more concerned with normal behavior. Nobody cares much if it’s possible that your spending a dollar will somehow lead to the economy crashing.

This is probably to do with free will being a big part of stories. Things only need to be possible for someone with free will to do them. To ask why a character happens to be right and good when everyone else isn’t is a strange question to story thought. He’s good and right because he wants to be, and they all don’t want to be. Specific characters are to blame.

In stories events tend to unfold in sequence, whereas they can occur in parallel in systems, or there might not be time.

Adeptness of our minds

Story thought is automatic, easy, compelling, and fun. System thought is harder and less compelling if it contradicts story thought. It can be fun, but often isn’t.

18 responses to “Systems and stories

  1. Your system form seems to describe academic accounts, but I’m less sure how it describes ordinary folk accounts.

  2. So, systems thinking is the cultivated suppression of theories of mind when telling explanatory stories.

    But storytelling evolved as tool to refine our theories of associates’ minds, and that’s what we prefer to think about, unless the benefits are immediate and unambiguous.

    Too obvious?

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  4. I liked thinking about this as you framed it: story and system thinking are in opposition. I assume you’re talking mostly of systems used to predict and describe reality, and not institutions designed to profit/fight/decide/create/collaborate.

    Your “is and ought interaction” is very unclear to me (you’re comparing the character in a story to the creator/user of a system?)

    Systems are supposed to have parameters that correspond to real things in actual situations.

    Thinking specifically of only descriptive systems , I see two kinds:

    1) a simplification of all the relevant real-world state at some time can be run in simulation (or closed form) under some laws to yield predictions about the future (simplified) state, or for historical inference given present conditions

    2) the system predicts some output set of quantities different from the input parameters provided, possibly without any full simulation over time

    It’s hard to see what descriptive systems have to learn from stories, except that if the system’s predictions aren’t accurate enough for our taste, I’d gather realistic (not epic/romantic/tragic) stories and see how the system fails to explain them.

    Parenthetically, when it comes to bargaining/debating/attracting other people, I think people sometimes prefer to choose a *single* unambiguous story about their interlocutor’s state of mind, which hopefully leads to approximately the same decisions they should make if they held in mind the whole distribution of possibilities. I’ll bet a lot of miscalculations can be explained on this basis.

  5. The book “Comeuppance” is the best explanation I’ve found for why narrative and intentionality are so evolutionarily important to humans. You description of the subjective/narrative is pretty spot-on. Tyler recommended the book, BTW.

    Both Goethe and Barfield have written extensively on the boundary between subject and object. IMO, the clear distinction you are drawing between the two is somewhat wishful thinking, or at least a rather arbitrary distinction that tends to be incorporated into materialists’ narratives.

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  7. mitchell porter

    An individual life, the history of the human race, and even the history of the universe each consists of a unique sequence of events. Not only is some form of “story thought” inevitable; every actual event, incident, or phenomenon to which one might apply “system thought” is actually just an episode in a larger story.

    You could object that by story thought, you specifically mean thinking conducted according to the particular set of schemas and biases that you enumerate. However, what are we to then call thought which is about agents and histories but which does not have those features? No matter how repetitive or meaningless a life is, no matter how unconsciously it is conducted, it is a sequence of events and can therefore be represented as a story.

    I would even say that story thought is essential for individual freedom and the key to individual empowerment, for it provides the means to think about cause and effect at the scale of your whole life, and above. If you do not understand your life, you are necessarily at the mercy of the aspects you do not understand; and an individual’s existence can only be understood as a sequence of causally connected events, i.e., in terms of story thought.

  8. Your account seems like a relentlessly Cartesian model as in: thinking->being-> acting. All separate.

    How about Heidegger’s Hammer, where it is all “ready-to-hand” the mind, the body, the handle, the world until you start to make distinctions and reductions?

    Or maybe Dogen:
    I asked, “What are words?” The tenzo said, “One, two, three, four, five.” I asked again, “What is practice?” “Nothing in the entire universe is hidden.”

    Or S Suzuki: In expert’s mind few possibilities, in beginners mind many.

    Can you distinguish thinking, no thinking, non-thinking in stories and systems [thinking]? Why not?

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  10. This kind of systems thinking is very advanced, complex thinking, which most people don’t engage in. Also, I think by focusing on fictional narrative, you miss the fact that narrative thinking is much broader in nature. I in fact discussed this at length in my dissertaton from 6 years ago, which can be found here:
    The entire thing is about narrative and systems.

  11. I think that the difference between your definitions of “story” and “system” is not exactly perspective, but rather WHERE YOU PLACE the agent who is making a choice. The types of thought are not in opposition: “system thought” is used inside of stories. Math and physics are wielded by agents as two of the many subsets of their general cognitive process of making choices. The process of solving an equation is formally similar to the process of pursuing a villain or brewing a cup of coffee, insofar as these are all contexts which set into motion various processes of making distinctions, then choosing and acting upon them.

    There are different rule-sets and different foci of attention, of course — but math and science, “instrumental rationality” (i.e, the splitting, weighing, and joining function), are strategies in stories.

    I also think “system thought” is not a good phrase to use for instrumental rationality because “system” was first used for reticulated, multi-compartment models having sequential and temporal chains of causation that are often circular and even more complex — such as wildlife food webs, which are in fact composed of living agents.

    And a whole system (or parts of it) can have a story, in fact there are often many stories, e.g. “what happens” in a wetlands ecosystem.

    I think you may really be touching upon the difference between “creatura” and “pleroma” as defined by Jung (Seven Sermons to the Dead) and brought into the life and social sciences by Gregory Bateson. See especially the introductory chapter 1 of the book, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity. Bateson writes:

    “…a dividing line between the world of the living (where distinctions are drawn and difference can be invoked) and the world of nonliving billiard balls and galaxies (where forces and impacts are the “causes” of events.) These are the two worlds that Jung (following the Gnostics) calls “creatura” (the living) and “pleroma” (the nonliving). I was asking: What is the difference between the physical world of pleroma, where forces and impacts provide sufficient basis of explanation, and the creatura, where nothing can be understood until differences and distinctions are invoked?

    “In my life, I have put the descriptions of sticks and stones and billiard balls and galaxies in one box, the pleroma, and have left them alone. In the other box, I put living things: crabs, people, problems of beauty, and problems of difference. The contents of the second box are the subject of this book…

    “There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked it (no doubt in his best Fortran), “do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words: THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY…

    “…I want to show that whatever the word “story” means in the story which I told you, the fact of thinking in terms of stories does not isolate humans as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemones, the coconut palms and the primroses. Rather, if the world be connected, if I am at all fundamentally right in what I am saying, then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all mind or minds, whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones.

    “Context and relevance not only must be characteristic not only of all so-called behavior (those stories which are projected out into “action”), but also of all those internal stories, the sequences of the building up of the sea anemone. Its embryology must be somehow made of the stuff of stories. And behind that, again, the evolutionary process through millions of generations whereby the sea anemone, like you and like me, came to be — that process, too, must be of the stuff of stories. There must be relevance in every step of phylogeny, and among the steps.”

    –Bateson, Mind and Nature, pp. 7-12.

    P.S. The best stories, even in movies, frequently include the protagonist’s choices: “opportunity costs.” Internal turmoil over hard choices is what makes drama really compelling, by revealing a facet of character.

    I am also not sure that you can say that the agents always have unique identities, since stories partly depend upon metaphor. It is true, though, that the elements of thought in any subdivision of instrumental rationality are in some sense always interchangeable: for example, economics starts by considering people in transactions to be interchangeable — and quickly runs into problems thereby!

    I drew a picture of instrumental rationality after time 6:40, here:

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  14. I would guess that story thought, though it obsesses us, actually consumes less energy (much like a reflex “consumes” less than a considered action). Stories are a fallback position. If we do not have the energy (or frankly, the ability) to devote to developing systematic thought, the fallback position is story. I call this “narrative determinism.” It is why people do the same things over and over without learning.

    Daniel Dennett often points out that hyperactive agency is a default position because thinking the wind is a tiger has relatively little cost, the reverse, thinking a tiger is the wind can have the highest cost. So, attributing agency to anything that exceeds the background noise of perception and assuming evil intent is the oldest “story” of all.

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